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The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God (Englisch) Gebundene Ausgabe – 18. Februar 2014


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"Peter Watson’s hindsight, foresight and insight into the role atheists play in creating our cultures makes The Age of Atheists a must read. Readers will gain a deeper appreciation of the rich world in which we live." (Charles de Groot, co-chair of The de Groot Foundation)

"Peter Watson's book has made the extraordinary leap of assessing each of the 20th century's important secular philosophic traditions. Along the way, as an ultimate reference, he has also given us the intuitive methods and insights of that century's leading poets, painters, musicians and choreographers. Perhaps no one else at this moment has the background for such an adventure. Whether as a guide to the last century's thinkers or as a reference to the insights of its artists, The Age of Atheists is an indispensable map to locate our present." (William Kistler, poet and essayist)

"Watson’s encompassing treatment of a difficult subject, in a world growing no less uncertain, is impressive and, ultimately, reassuring." (Booklist (starred))

“The beauty of this book is Watson's ability to impose order on a riot of ideas…even the casual reader will find much to delight and enlighten as Watson elegantly connects the dots from Nietzsche and William James to Bob Dylan and jazz.” (Publishers Weekly)

"H]ighly readable and immensely wide-ranging….Peter Watson has produced what is, in every way, a big book, one that bears reading thoughtfully, with a pencil in hand. For anybody who has wondered about the meaning of life, and that pretty much covers everyone past the age of 12, discovering “The Age of Atheists” will be an enthralling and mind­expanding experience." (Michael Dirda The Washington Post)

"A vividly engaging conspectus of the formative ideas of the past century, The Age of Atheists shows how Nietzche's diagnosis evoked responses in many areas of cultural life, including some surprising parts of the political spectrum." (The New Statesman)

"[A]n exhilarating ride through the cerebra of disparate men…who have tried to fashion a Godless yet nonetheless ordered and sustaining worldview. It is a topical book, to be sure, but also one that will stand the test of time as a masterful account of its subject." (The Boston Globe)

Über den Autor und weitere Mitwirkende

Peter Watson is an intellectual historian, journalist, and the author of thirteen books, including The German Genius, The Medici Conspiracy, and The Great Divide. He has written for The Sunday Times, The New York Times, the Observer, and the Spectator. He lives in London.


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In-depth review: if neither science nor religion can suffice, what's next for us? 19. Februar 2014
Von John L Murphy - Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
Seven years to the day, I finished this after the same author's "Ideas: A History of Thought from Fire to Freud" (reviewed by me Feb. 2007). Both hefty works share this veteran journalist and now intellectual historian at Cambridge's dogged devotion to rational thinking over supposition, and the view, as his 2006 book concluded, that our human perspective is better suited to watching our world pass by and act out as if in a zoo rather than a monastery. He acknowledges the scientific mission to dissect and pin down all that we observe, yet he nods to the atavistic tendency embedded within many of us to yearn for transcendence. That impulse, his new book agrees, will not fade soon, but the twentieth century charted here (although starting with Nietzsche towards the end of the nineteenth) celebrates the triumph of evolution, the breakthroughs in physics, the insights of psychology, and the wisdom of philosophy, art, literature, and communal engagement which enrich our current times and allow us so much liberty.

"Ideas" took me a month of evenings to study, given its 740 pages and 36 topical chapters, book-ended by a substantial introduction and conclusion, to chart the multi-millennial span of civilized endeavor. By contrast, I fairly raced through about 540 pages of the present book, which I highlighted (on a Kindle advanced copy, which was wildly and incompletely formatted; this presumably is cleaned up in the copy you may download) in eighty-five instances that show my engagement with its provocative exchanges, cover roughly 125 years; Watson has also written (unread by me) "The Modern Mind" (2001) about the twentieth century, so I wondered how much of that third big book overlapped with "The Age of Atheists." "Ideas" anticipates many of the newest book's themes. Progress continues despite those who fear it. The brain battles those who fear it. Meaning beckons but floats out of our grasp. Science discovers more only to ponder ultimate questions to pursue. Unsurprisingly, William James' pragmatism and Max Weber's sociology return, prominently among the hundreds of thinkers summarized and paraphrased here. That is both Watson's skill and this book's necessary limitation: he quotes and cites nimbly, making recondite concepts accessible. Yet, this popular touch and the breadth required to survey so much as an historian with his own biases and predilections may leave the specialized reader frustrated that his or her pet theory or favorite thinker suffered by its few pages meted out per topic.

That caveat addressed, an inevitable result of a one-volume book able to be held in two hands, this presentation conveys a firmly Western-centered, by-now familiar point-of-view. Nietzsche remains its driving force, and his fervent denial of a divine presence outside of the alienated, defiant human imagination reverberates through mavericks as diverse as Lenin and Joyce. Watson recognizes that German iconoclast's insanity, even as he roots for this raw challenge to Christian hegemony which encouraged his subjects, American and European rebels who rejected God and welcomed inquiry.

Watson's investigation roams as widely as one expects for an historian tracking modernity's slow march away from credulity and comfort found in the ethereal or emotional, to where more and more of us wind up today, in the post-modern predicament of a worldview where neither cold science nor warm faith eases the loss of grand meaning or ultimate purpose which many contemporaries lament.

He addresses, as an early example of his wide-ranging bent, Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart's assertion that charts richer nations' secularization offset by declining birthrates, whereas poorer nations' perpetuation of belief-based systems as a solace for suffering and privation leads to a more populated humanity with "existential insecurity" which overall is becoming more, not less, religious.

Secular proponents, therefore, must contend with sociological explanations for belief, as well as psychological ones. Atheism, Watson finds, may be in the ascendent among the cohort he supports, but a growing sense among developed nations and educated societies of pervasive personal and social disenchantment reveals that consumerism cannot assuage the longing for meaning deep within us. William James agreed that religion emanated from what Watson phrases as "born of a core uneasiness within us" and that for many, faith was seen as the solution. Replacing that with the inspiration of music, the escapism of art, the thrill of scientific discovery, the plunge into sex or drugs, drove many in these chapters to attempt to fill up their empty souls with a spirit energized by bold possibilities.

The usefulness of religion, for James, might be succeeded by the vocabulary of reason; others who followed his suggestions looked to fields as different as dance or fashion to apply more daring experiments. Stories we tell ourselves, as Watson portrays Richard Rorty's model, move beyond the transcendental to the empirical and experiential narratives and scenarios which ground themselves in the body. Watson presents the Swiss art colony at Anscona, the critical faculties generating doubt as explored by Stefan George, and the Symbolist poetry of the early century as settings within which ecstasy might sustain itself, as generated within a movement breaking down distinctions between individuals and between concepts so as to release a mystical jolt, or a disorienting confrontation. These encounters, which would engender the cult of the body and the New Age or therapeutic trends which would return with the "religion of no religion" at Big Sur's Esalen in the 1960s, carry a charge that Watson credits by way of many current approaches in which we treat and regard each other.

George Santayana mused: "There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval by discerning and manifesting the good without attempting to retain it." A common sentiment among those Watson favors, as resignation to mortality and the impossibility of knowing the secrets behind all of creation appears to gain pace as the century's wars and brutalities weaken rational explanations. Impotence to change human nature contends against discontents driven to improve the human condition. Freud represents the latter contingent: Watson credits him for the dominant shift in modern times, "which has seen a theological understanding of humankind replaced by a psychological one".

Watson observes intriguing indicators of this shift, across the creative spectrum. The cover illustration of Georges Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon at the Island of La Grande Jatte" (1884-1886) depicts people not worshiping, but picnicking and promenading. One couple, dressed in black, appear to be looking on, "from the (moral?) higher ground" at the crowds "enjoying themselves in very secular ways, most with their backs turned". Additionally, this French painting continues a tradition of "public contemplation" as its many figures reveal serious play. This happens despite a breakdown on the canvas of perceived or imposed order into a teasing shimmer of reality manifesting itself more subtly. The satisfaction for the viewer emanates in impressions "as a web of tiny, distinct stillnesses".

Revolutions and conflicts darken chapters; from the Soviet triumph, "one propaganda poster posited 'prayers to the tractor' as alternative ways to produce change and improvement in the community". Watson emphasizes the substitution of idolatry and worship within totalitarian societies and parties. He also notes that religion was not eradicated in many regions of the U.S.S.R. except by elimination of believers during Stalin's purges. An underlying message persists: belief will be a fallback for humans caught in difficulties, and faith may be wired into human nature despite rational powers.

Rilke sought in the foreknowledge of death that which appears to distinguish humans from other mammals: a direction to guide searchers towards a sense that mortality "drives the plot of life". He recognized that consciousness itself, as Watson puts it, may be "a crime against nature". Why evolution may have embedded within humans the powers of song, the aleatory, musical ability, or a sense of beauty, as well as a tendency in many to interpret phenomenon as supernatural, sparks some of the liveliest later chapters. Suffice to say that many arguments arise, and as many suggestions.

Virginia Woolf's often-quoted observation that around "December 1910" a change happened, so that "reality was no longer public", accompanies modernist plunge into the interior response rather than the recording of the focused, outward observation. The loss of confidence in a shared vision and the gain in conviction that a personal reaction conveyed the spiritual experience that whirled within the intimate sphere and not in the emptying cathedral propels the writers and creators Watson introduces. Oscar Wilde sums up the leap forward: "It is enough that our fathers believed. They have exhausted the faith faculty of the species. Their legacy to us is the skepticism of which they were afraid." Kafka throws up "the sediment left by the great monotheisms: that the mind of God can never be known, we shall never solve the mystery of God because God is the name we give to the mystery itself". (Watson astutely footnotes, if half the book away, an apposite aside that St. Augustine had a similar opinion.)

Through Chabad and Beckett, Salman Rushdie and The Doors, Philip Roth and Theodore Roszak, Boris Yeltsin and Timothy Leary, as the second half of the century progresses, Watson explores the impacts after the purported death of God within academia, theological disputes, and popular culture. He delves into less-familiar texts such as the forgotten bestseller Joshua Liebman's "Peace of Mind" (1946) to prove how the post-WWII merger of religion with psychology enticed clergy into roles as counselors, and how this promoted the therapeutic rather than theological cure across America. Such a range of references and examples accounts for much of the bulk of this book, but its contribution towards an accessible account from which a patient, intelligent, and reflective reader will benefit greatly cannot be diminished. Predictably, those immersed in a particular school of thought may cavil at the generalizations and judgments Wilson must convey by such compression given three-dozen chapters. However, the documentation he provides and the stimulation he generates merit respect.

Countercultural chronicler Roszak, to whom Watson gives welcome and lengthy attention, repeated José Ortega y Gasset's reminder: "Life cannot wait until the sciences have explained the universe scientifically. We cannot put off living until we are ready." An urgency boosts these late-century sections. Their pace quickens as Watson weighs dozens of competing or compatible attempts to forge a third way, apart from the calculated certainties of a stolid scientific method or the fervent claims of a fundamentalist religious precept. Roszak, following Roth and Beckett for Watson in mapping a humanist response looking hard at death if perhaps a bit more softly at mortality, laments the "boundless proliferation of knowledge for its own sake" and the exclusion of many seekers who cannot enter this closed system, and who find themselves alienated as democratic culture weakens.

Watson encourages in his closing chapters those who strive to build meaningful structures by which ecological imperatives and economic equality might co-exist. He rejects those who by faith in a better life to come justify the rape of the earth and the pain of its inhabitants. He accepts that science may not provide comfort for those who, however irrationally, search for truth and beauty beyond what can be calculated or purchased. Mark Kingswell's philosophical rejoinder to a capitalist culture "based on envy, and advertising, the main capitalist means of 'selling' consumerism, works by 'creating unhappiness'". Happiness, if God is removed from the window through which we view Watson's earlier model of the zoo vs. the monastery, may emanate from a rejection of what for many people in Western society supplants or supplements fading religious belief: the "pathography" (he credits Joyce Carol Oates for this coinage) of the dysfunctional, confessional, survivor-strutting meta-narrative that has drowned out the traditional monotheistic, and arguably I may add, modernist world-views today.

Ronald Dworkin may speak for many of his colleagues in the seminar or clinic: "Philosophers used to speculate about what they called the meaning of life. (That is now the job of mystics and comedians)." Thomas Mann cautioned that the concept of "one overbearing truth" has been exhausted. Jürgen Habermas directs us to look not above for answers but to listen to each other, for communication may produce critical meaning, and within an informed public sphere, guidance can be generated. Watson finds truth in pragmatism. "We make our lives tiny diamonds in the cosmic sands."

Few will choose this enriching and rewarding removal from reality TV and manufactured distraction, along the course mapped in these heady pages, to a sobering path of self-awareness of our fragile presence surrounded by darkness and mystery. Fewer choose Kafka over Chopra, and fewer may finish this book than the latest novel by even Oates herself. But those who persevere will glimpse in Watson's closing chapters spirited and moving testimony by wise professors and writers exchanging their versions of what Sartre phrased as "lyrical phenomenology": what Watson calls "the sheer multiplicity of experience as the joy of being alive". This quest for meaning may endure, parallel to or divergent from science. This search embraces a persistent appreciation that beyond facts hovers that which may forever suspend itself apart from our perception, no longer named God, still ineffable.
18 von 21 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
A lot of breadth but not much depth and without a narrative tying story together 5. April 2014
Von Gary - Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition Verifizierter Kauf
The book was slightly different then what I expected. It's a survey book that broadly covers poetry, prose, painting, philosophy, dance and science after the time of Nietzsche and his pronouncement that "God is dead". It looks at each topic separately and he'll spend a couple or so pages on a person within each topic and than quickly moves on to another person within that topic.

I know so little about most of the people (writers, poets, painters and philosophers) he covers in the book. I enjoyed learning about all those people whose thoughts and works I know so little about (William James, James Joyce, other writers, all the poets he mentions, and almost all the artist are people I've ignored through out my life). I don't have the ability to understand what they were saying or trying to say with their works, but now I got a feel by having read this book.

The book doesn't really have an overriding narrative that ties everything together. The author tries to show how each person mentioned (and there's probably over 200 who are mentioned and their works are discussed) handles the big questions in life. Most of them don't even seem to be atheist in the strict sense of the word. They all were worth learning about.

This book is a delight to read on the kindle. When he mentions a painting or a poem, for example, I could easily do a Google search on it and read the whole poem or look at the painting. I downloaded 20 or so of the books he mentions (which were free) and put them on my kindle.

The book is a great survey of recent thought, but it's not what I fully expected because of it's lack of an overriding narrative tying the pieces together because he constantly jumps around from person to person.
7 von 8 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
Seeking alternative sources of meaning after Nietzche. 11. Mai 2014
Von Montana Skyline - Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
Format: Gebundene Ausgabe
It is perhaps worth saying first that this book is NOT about the debate between traditional religion and atheists. While acknowledging the continued formal attachment of the majority to supernatural-based religion, Watson treats traditional religion, both institutionally and intellectually, as dead in fact --- and he picks up the discussion from there. One might say that the subtitle of "How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God" better describes the book than "The Age of Atheists."

In roughly chronological progression from Neitzche to the present, Watson provides an extensive survey of recent, mostly Western ideas for addressing the "meaning" of life or what makes living worthwhile. In short: Having rejected the idea of a supernatural being, how have very diverse modern people (again, primarily in the West) struggled philosophically, psychologically or practically to supply an alternative source for values and purpose?

Like most "surveys," this book covers a lot of ground. It is one of Watson's strengths that he is able to explain succinctly fairly complicated ideas in many areas, and his grasp of fundamental arguments and concepts in such diverse areas as contemporary art, poetry, psychology and physics is impressive. Also like most surveys, the book is not able to devote detailed attention to many of his topics, and the analysis and comparison of arguments sometimes suffers. Nevertheless, it not only covers a lot, but generally covers it very well.

My principle criticism or caveat is that Watson does not do justice to the devotion to (and devotees of) scientific methodology and its exploration as an alternative source of values for much of the secularized west over the last century. It certainly is not that Watson is unaware: Indeed, he not only makes recurring reference to non-social science throughout, but devotes the better part of two of his later chapters to some current thinking about biology and physics. But it is evident that his own heart lies with efforts in literature and the arts. In most respects, he ultimately treats science as he treats traditional religion: As an evidently failed alternative, i.e., something to be acknowledged, but not requiring much detailed exploration in the present volume. I am not unsympathetic to his inclination, and I found his discussion of poetry and other arts quite compelling. However, I think that the failure to deal more serioulsy with the appeal and (at least in terms of social impact) the success of science-based thinking is a weakness. Watson fails to recognize adequately that adherents of science make many of the same claims for ehanced or clarified meaning that he attributes to proponents of the humane arts.

I suspect that some will consider a second major deficiency to be a failure to emphasize the importance of polticial ideology as an alternative to traditional religion in much of the 20th century. As a matter of practical importance, this criticism is fair; moreover, Watson arguably underestimates the continuing degree of influence of ideologies, particularly including ethnocentric nationalism, in the 21st century. That being said, his book evidently is not intended to supply an analysis of the politics or sociology of the period, but rather to explore the struggle for individual meaning in the absence of a compelling traditional reglious/ethical system. He makes no claim about broader historical or political analysis.

Despite the caveats above, I rate this book highly because it generally does very well what it sets out to do: That is to survey critically many recent, contending ideas for alternative sources of values and purpose. Although generally limited to western societies, Watson's narrative is informative and stimulating, and should make the book a worthwhile read for those interested in wrestling with the dilemma.
3 von 3 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
Very Engrosing Overview of Unbelief 10. Mai 2014
Von Danilo - Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
Format: Gebundene Ausgabe Verifizierter Kauf
Peter Watson has writen a comprahensive overview of the history of unbelief since Nietzche declared the death of God. Mostly literary and philosophical in scope, a few errors unfortunately sneaked through. For example, Watson mentions the KGB as if it always existed as a represive entity since the Bolshevik revolution, when in reality it was the latest manifestation of other security organizations, such as the Cheka and the NKVD. Also the glib statement that Bertrand Russell was an admirer of the Soviet Union.is made out of context. Russell was originally sympathetic to the Bolshevik revolution , but after a visit to the Soviet Union in 1920, he wrote the critical The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism and stated that he was "infinitely unhappy in this atmosphere stiffled by its utilitarianism, its indifference to love and beauty and the life of impulse.' Russell further characterized Lenin to being like a religious zealot, cold, and possessing no love of liberty. Does this sound like an 'admirer' of the Soviet Union?
These errors could be considered minor in the overall picture Watson paints, but the do detract from what could have been an excellent overview of unbelief in the twentieth century. The problem is that there is much material to cover and it is easy to overlook a detail or two.
2 von 2 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
An outstanding contribution! 24. Mai 2014
Von Dr Helga A.H. Rowe - Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
Format: Gebundene Ausgabe Verifizierter Kauf
This is one of the best books I have come across in years in this field, but also generally.

After reading a little more that half of the book, I decided to order two more copy. I could think of a number of people who would really profit, and also very much appreciate Peter Watson's most recent contribution to our understanding. Having completed my first reading of this book in total, I remain equally impressed.
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