Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins (Credit: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton/ABC News/Reuters/Chris Keane)
In 1882, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously declared that “God is Dead.” (And that we killed him.) “The Age of Atheists,” by intellectual historian Peter Watson, begins at this moment — and then traces 130 years’ worth of Atheist philosophy that has aimed “to give meaning to a life lived without God.” The book ends in the present day, with some one-fifth of the American public identifying as religiously unaffiliated, or “none.”
The books’ early chapters are devoted to the history of secularism. Watson argues that religion should be understood in terms of sociology, rather than theology. After all:
“…multivariate analysis [has] demonstrated that a few basic developmental indicators, such as per capita GDP, rates of HIV/AIDS, access to improved water sources and the number of doctors per hundred thousand people, predict ‘with remarkable precision’ how frequently the people of a given society worship or pray.”
Religion exists not where people feel “the absence of transcendence,” he writes, but rather where they feel “the absence of bread, water, decent medication and jobs.”
But most of this book is a survey of “those talented people — artists, novelists, dramatists, poets, scientists, psychologists, philosophers — who have embraced atheism, the death of God, and have sought other ways to live… to overcome the great ‘subtraction.’” We meet with the usual suspects — like Nietzsche and Dawkins — but also romp around with Plato, Wittgenstein, Yeats, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf.
“The Age of Atheists” feels rather timely. Just a few decades ago, Watson acknowledges, “such phrase as ‘the meaning of life’ could have been used only in an ironical or jokey way.” (The 1983 Monty Python film “The Meaning of Life” suggests that life’s meaning is found in principles like “wear more hats” and “avoid eating fat.”) But in the 21st century, Watson proposes, “The Meaning of Life” is “no longer an embarrassing subject.”
We spoke with Peter Watson about living in a post-God world.
In 1882, Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God. What was happening around that time?
I put Nietzsche at the start of the book because it’s only since the mid-19th century that you can really talk about an age of Atheists.
The idea that people are a natural phenomenon, rather than God-given, had been growing since the Scientific Revolution the 17th century. And there had been disbelievers or unbelievers all through history, but they were relatively thin on the ground. Secular thinking really blossomed in the last half of the 19th century when, I think it’s fair to say, most scientists stopped believing in God. They led the way. Obviously, Darwin was the most important — and his book was published in 1859.
A major premise of the book is that religion can’t really be replaced with nothing. Over the years we have used different fillers — from communism to trench warfare to psychology to occultism — but the constant is that we will inevitably seek out something to fill religion’s place.
Yes. I am a great fan of Wallace Stevens, the American poet. And I quote him as saying, we will probably never sort everything out intellectually, but we can sort things out emotionally.
It seems that people need two grounds of meaning, an intellectual meaning and an emotional meaning. That’s one reason why the arts have proved so important. You might expect science to replace religion, and for many people it does. But for others, whilst science in an intellectual answer, it is not an emotional answer. And people need emotional satisfaction. Clifford Geertz, the famous American anthropologist, says the search for significance and meaning is as real as the biological needs of food and sex and warmth and so forth.
That seems to reveal a tension between our desire for meaning and the question of whether we deserve a meaning.
That’s a good question. Do we deserve a meaning? I’m not sure anybody has asked that question in that way. I suppose Beckett did, in “Waiting for Godot”…
What I mean is this: At the start of your book, you talk about “the braver souls who, instead of waiting and wallowing in the cold, dark wastelands of a Godless world, have devoted their creative energies to devising ways to live on with self-reliance, invention, hope, wit and enthusiasm.” Couldn’t we turn this around and say: These are the most cowardly souls — for they try to create meaning out of accident and nothingness?
I don’t think it could be said to be cowardly. People use phrases like… Fall back on belief, Fall back on God. And people say there are no atheists in the foxhole. Well, that’s not true. Not all people fall back on God when their lives are threatened. What I wanted to show is that there are a vast number of people who have tried to answer the question of How can we live without God?
We’ve been misled by years of monotheism to think that there is one answer to everything. I don’t think there is. And to call it a distraction puts it down. The search for intensity — knowing that moments can only come fleetingly — is the only answer that people have. And living with that is the human condition.
You write that for many decades, Marxism was an primary substitute for religion. Today, can we say that this role is filled by evolutionary anthropology?
Marxism served as a substitute for perhaps 100 years, but it doesn’t anymore… other than in a general sense. Sociologists and purists will say that we are all still Marxists in the sense that now, human beings are looked upon primarily as economic entities, where the most important thing about them is their earning power and job.
I think that psychology came to replace religion by the ’60s. Today, evolutionary anthropology is at the least seeking to explain the moral basis of life — though that might not explain everything about the purpose of life and the meaning of life.
A part of this quest for the “meaning of life” is linked to the pursuit of happiness. In the beginning of the book, you take issue with the notion that religious people are happier. One of the problems is that journalists tend to cite American statistics when talking about the religion/happiness correlation — whereas, in terms of global trends, America is somewhat anomalous.
I write: “In America it is the churchgoers who are happiest, but worldwide it is those who are existentially insecure (and therefore extremely unlikely to be happy) who most attend church; religion is associated in America with less criminality, but worldwide with more; in America attendance at church boosts income, but worldwide a rise in income fails to increase happiness and it is the poorest who most attend church.” Happiness statistics can be manipulated according to your started point.
I think the feeling of an afterlife does make some people happy. But really, my point is that if God exists, why is anybody unhappy? If religion and God made people happy, why doesn’t he make everybody happy? Why are there so many unhappy people in the world? Do you have to worship God in order to be happy? Is he proposing a deal?
Going back to those statistics, you suggest that secularization theory — the idea that the modernization and economic development will inexorably give rise to secularism — has largely proven true.
Real modernization has brought about secularism, yes. You have these dreadful statistics about African countries that are poorer now than in 1992, when they started keeping figures. There, religion has really taken off — and in particular, primitive forms of religion, like evangelism and speaking in tongues. I think that, for supporters of God, it’s all rather embarrassing.
I’ve attended numerous so-called “Atheist Church” services over the last year, and I notice words like “awe,” “mystery,” and “transcendence” floating around a lot. They make me cringe. Does it seem to you that a new wave of “Atheists” is trying to reclaim an awe or mystery that is actually rooted in early monotheism?
I’m very much against the concept of transcendence. One problem we have is that many religious words, like “salvation” and”transcendence,” are firmly embedded in our vocabulary. Some people try to make secular equivalents, which I think is a mistake. Rather than going back to the old religious vocabulary, we should go to a new one.
But yes, I think there is a sort of midway stage with some people; they’re not religious, but they are probably mystical. That said, I do think that a lot of the New Age people are basically religious. They don’t buy the great monotheisms, but they seek some sort of otherworldly feeling, which I don’t think is available.
We see that in my book section on [philosopher Ludwig] Wittgenstein — in his idea that there is a limit to language. Wittgenstein believed that there are some things that we can’t describe, but that we can show or that we can experience.
For instance, when Wittgenstein talks about painters, he says: We can all recognize the difference between a Degas and a Renoir and a Van Gogh, but if you ask the painter to paint his way of painting, it can’t be done. It’s a limit to the language! A painter can make a painting of what he sees in the world, but he can’t actually paint his way of painting. Wittgenstein would describe that as mystical, though not in any sense religious.
A lot of the spiritual New Age-ism that we see today is based on a preoccupation with health and the body. I see it as a kind of religious exaltation via kale salads.
Yes! I mean, I think that people are joiners; they like groups. But broadly, this obsession with health and a longer life seems to be based on distrust in the idea of an afterlife. If you are convinced of an afterlife, then what is the point of extending this one? The next one is supposed to be most blissful.
There is a famous interchange from some time ago, between one of the Archbishops of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York. The Archbishop of Canterbury had a fatal disease. And the Archbishop of York said: Well good for you, I wish I was going with you! That is not the kind of response that most people would give, but it is a properly religious response.
We’re all just grasping… What do you want your book to accomplish?
One of the interesting things about the book, it seems to me, is that it is like a reverse scripture. Even atheists or secular people can admit that the King James Version of the Bible is a beautifully written book and a nice piece of literature. Likewise, a lot of my book is in the quotes and the form of words. They might feel particularly appropriate, or beautiful, or apropos, or germane… They can give us momentary pieces of comfort. When you read my book, you will come across, I hope, from time to time, [such] phrases. Did that happen to you?
It did. I have one of your quotes written down right here. It’s [poet] W. H. Auden: “We are here on earth to do good to others. What the others are here for, I don’t know.” I thought that was wonderful. Do you have a favorite quote from the book?
My favorite is another Auden: “If equal affection cannot be, Let the more loving one be me.” When I say it in a talk, a lot of people go Ahhh. They realize that it has enlarged their lives.