The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God
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A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2014
From one of England’s most distinguished intellectual historians comes “an exhilarating ride…that will stand the test of time as a masterful account of” (The Boston Globe) one of the West’s most important intellectual movements: Atheism.
In 1882, Friedrich Nietzche declared that “God is dead” and ever since tens of thousands of brilliant, courageous, thoughtful individuals have devoted their creative energies to devising ways to live without God with self-reliance, invention, hope, wit, and enthusiasm. Now, for the first time, their story is revealed.
A captivating story of contest, failure, and success, The Age of Atheists sweeps up William James and the pragmatists; Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis; Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, and Albert Camus; the poets of World War One and the novelists of World War Two; scientists, from Albert Einstein to Stephen Hawking; and the rise of the new Atheists—Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. This is a story of courage, of the thousands of individuals who, sometimes at great risk, devoted tremendous creative energies to devising ways to fill a godless world with self-reliance, invention, hope, wit, and enthusiasm. Watson explains how atheism has evolved and reveals that the greatest works of art and literature, of science and philosophy of the last century can be traced to the rise of secularism.
From Nietzsche to Daniel Dennett, Watson’s stirring intellectual history manages to take the revolutionary ideas and big questions of these great minds and movements and explain them, making the connections and concepts simple without being simplistic. The Age of Atheists is “highly readable and immensely wide-ranging…For anybody who has wondered about the meaning of life…an enthralling and mind-expanding experience” (The Washington Post).
might commit suicide. From the late 1920s, Freud was in almost constant pain. In The Future of an Illusion, he began by considering the cultural and psychological significance of religion. He said that the principal task of culture, “its real raison d’être,” was to defend mankind against nature. God, or the gods of the ancients, had the same threefold task: “they must exorcise the terrors of nature, they must reconcile one to the cruelty of fate, particularly as shown in death, and they must
appreciated—the need for conflict and its associated sense of heroism “with which we can enjoy life’s battle, where we win and lose, have joy and suffering, pain and delight, the will to live and preparedness to die.” By means of a religion of the blood and soil (a wearily familiar German concept), a Volk could not renew itself through a Christian idea of salvation. Rather, it must realize its renewal as coming from its own psychological center.26 Apart from the notion that only a
eighteenth century, Sartre goes on, the notion of God is suppressed, but not that of “human nature”—human nature as something fixed, universal, found in every man. It was this conception of a fixed human nature, he says, agreeing here with the proto-existentialists, that led to fascism. Like Gide, like Malraux, like Saint-Exupéry, he rejected this idea. If God does not exist, “it is necessary to draw the consequences of his absence right to the end.” And there is one place, at least, where it
of agape, or the law of love. In the 1950s, religious leaders began promoting “situation ethics,” and in 1966, Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics: The New Morality was published, selling 150,000 copies in the first two years. Fletcher became an intellectual celebrity. Vatican II (1962–65) went so far as to consider what is changeable and what is universal in a moral context.17 THE APOTHEOSIS OF OPTIMISM Arguably, the people who benefited most from these changes, albeit not for a decade
observations, Rorty sums up pithily that we now have to “give up” on the idea that there are unconditional moral obligations, obligations which apply everywhere and at all times because they are rooted in an unchanging ahistorical human nature. Instead, pragmatism replaces the reality-appearance duality with a much less dramatic distinction—that between the more useful and the less useful. This reflects the fact that while the vocabulary of Greek metaphysics and Christian theology was useful for