Peter Watson’s The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God is a book that I had long wanted to read and one that took me about as long to actually read it, after finally getting my hands on it! The time was well-spent, however, because this is one of the best books on religion or non-religion that I have read. Since the book is so long and complex, though, I would like to point out just a few of the things I appreciated about it, and then end with one minor note about something that may be challenging for others who are considering reading it.
The first thing I like about the book is that it proceeds somewhat chronologically and that its chapters are thematic. This makes reading a long, complicated work a little bit easier, as if there’s a road-map to be followed and convenient rest stops along the journey. I never read more than one chapter at a time, for example, because each one is packed with information that requires time, attention, and reflection. To further clarify, there are three major “parts” to the book and each “part” has about 8 chapters in it. Each chapter is a closer look at something related to the larger part’s purpose. The book begins with Nietzsche (rightly so, since its purpose is to explore humanity’s relationship with religion since Nietzsche’s world-shaking statement that, “god is dead”) proceeds through the world wars, modernism, and postmodernism, and pretty much everything in between, up to about the present day. The book is certainly focused heavily on western civilization, but it is not without some insight into perspectives from around the world, including other religions and political systems.
The second component that I enjoyed and that kept me invested is that this book covers a range of issues; its focus is of course on those influential historical figures who either openly or privately lived and produced (created?) without a belief in god; however, this generalization doesn’t do justice to the incredible depth of knowledge in here. Watson explores science and religion, politics and history, art and literature. There are some particularly wonderful chapter sections on relationships between all of these, such as his synthesis of the 1950s “culture of spontaneity,” where he investigates the inter-connectedness of music, poetry, literature, dance, and even the physical arts, like pottery. This is an element of the Beat Generation that I hadn’t had much insight into before now, despite having read so many of the Beat writers & poets. And I think this is one of the things that Watson does best, illuminating the many ways that people were responding to different events and during various moments in time.
The third item I want to point out specifically as an achievement in this text is its tone, set by Watson from the start and which persists throughout, right up to the end. Many texts written by atheists and which are designed to propel a pro-atheist perspective are, let’s admit it, rather combative in tone. (Not all of them, of course, but atheist philosophy has gotten a reputation for being harsh and arrogant for a reason). This book is not that, thankfully. Instead of going on the attack, Watson creates a rather inviting environment, one of open-mindedness and curious exploration. Yes, I think there are moments where his argument becomes more pronounced, but there is very little if any whiff of superiority. Instead, I think people of any religion (or none) could feel, if not comfortable, at least secure in reading this text as a fascinating, in-depth, and illuminating perspective on history and philosophy that does not get nearly as much attention as some of the more mainstream, Christian/Western texts have for the last many hundreds of years. Indeed, there is even a section where Watson explains how and why religious belief developed logically. In any case, Watson seems to be posing, quite genuinely, some open-ended questions about humanity’s nature with religion(s) and faith, none of which he answers definitely, but all of which are supported by the intensive study he has performed and the synthesis of thematic ideas he presents for the reader’s own edification and consideration.
Lastly, a cautionary note of sorts. There are a lot of Goodreads reviews suggesting that this is a difficult read, and I don’t deny that. Readers have found it to be either too complicated/dry for the average reader and/or too much of a survey, meaning it lacks much depth and context for the many people, places, movements, and thoughts it covers. I can’t disagree with that, but I will say, I think Watson had every intention of this being a survey text. It reminds me of something one might read in an introductory college course on any subject, in that it exposes the reader to a great number of important figures and concepts, supports these with an excellent bibliography, and provides important connections between these figures, their times and places. It is certainly a challenging read and it is not meant to answer all questions or to be an endpoint for study. Personally, I’ve added about 45 texts to my reading list because they were mentioned or referenced in this one. I don’t find that to be a failing on the book’s part, as many have, but I’ll concede it’s something a reader should probably know before beginning it. (The book is 556-pages long and, according to Goodreads, it took me almost 5 months to read. I’m a very fast reader, usually, so this is saying something; namely, be prepared to take your time.)
Strikingly, for me, Watson ends his tome with a discussion of narrative and of our (human beings’) purpose in life. What does make a good life? What constitutes a good person? Ultimately, he ends where I’ve been sitting for some time, which is with the idea of our responsibility to one another; he suggests that the only way forward is through action–meaning living for now rather than some hoped-for future–and, specifically, action that, through language, creates communities and societies that are more inclusive and have greater equality, liberty, and fairness. After a long trudge through history, philosophy, politics, science, mathematics, and art, Watson ends on a message of hope and togetherness. I understand that’s antithetical to the perception many have about atheism or atheists, but it’s exactly the kind of temperament I’ve seen in people who choose to live for people. What is it that Dumbledore says? “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”