Monthly Archives: March 2014

Reflections on Peter Watson’s, “The Age of Atheists”

In a previous post (“Atheism as Intellectual Snobbery?” Emma Green’s review of Peter Watson’s: The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God. Since then I have finished reading this magesterial work.


It is hard to do justice to this extraordinary piece of scholarship—there are over 500 footnotes—and the depth and breadth of Watson’s knowledge amazes. Yet there is no snobbishness in it. I’d guess that Green can’t relate to atheism or the death of god. Like some of my undergraduates who took my course in existentialism years ago, she doesn’t get what all the fuss is about. Why does Kierkegaard think Christianity is irrational, that it takes a leap of faith to be a Christian? Why does Nietzsche think god is dead, that the idea no longer informs culture? Why are questions about meaning, death and freedom such big deals? After all god made the world and if we love and praise him we’ll go to heaven.

Does the previous sentence betray my snobbishness? Maybe. Yet I am just making this observation. If one knows little about the last four centuries of Western culture, then it may seem that not much has changed. But things have changed. The seventeenth century scientific revolution altered the way scientists, philosophers, and theologians see the world. Thus there is a reason that belief in freedom, souls, and gods was once ubiquitous but is now minimal among the intelligentsia—the reason is modern science.

It’s not as if philosophers suddenly decided to ruminate on materialistic theories of mind, the problem of free will, or atheism as idle pursuits. No. These problems arose because of science. It is now a challenge to show how freedom, souls or gods can coexist with science; rather than seeing them as pre-scientific ideas. This is Watson’s cultural milieu, as it is for many in the intelligentsia. The consequences can be seen in the statistics—only 7% of the members of the National Academy of Science,1 and less than 15% of professional philosophers are theists.2 Again, the reason for this is modern science.


The range of the book is vast covering poets, philosophers, artists, social and natural scientists,  and more. The penultimate chapter surveys those, mostly scientists, who find meaning in the evolutionary or cosmological epics including : Dawkins, Dennett, Pinker, and E.O. Wilson. The final chapter surveys today’s great thinkers, mostly philosophers, on the question of meaning including: MacIntyre, Gadamer, Grayling, Rorty, Nozick, Dworkin, and Habermas. Both chapters are masterfully researched, impartial and thorough.

The conclusion suggests—remember the book is not a polemic—that the crux of the answer to the question, how to live without gods, demands that we bring forth something from within ourselves; essentially an appreciation of the joy available in this life and an intense observation of life’s experiences. He quotes from Darwin’s notebooks, “the sublime is reached through the commonplace … the slow accretion of facts.” Such thoughts bring Watson back to the happy moments of life, to the butterflies and flowers of this world, not of an imagined afterlife. What we are called upon to do is to keep experiencing, observing, and naming our world. To continue the long and laborious process of understanding with hope for the future. In the end he echoes Wordsworth,

We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;



Reflections on Alain de Botton’s, “Religion for Atheists”

Alain de Botton’s book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion argues that religion is untrue, yet useful. Religious belief may be nonsense, but it’s useful nonsense. 

He begins by claiming that religion was not handed down from on high, miracles are myth, and the gods are illusory. He doesn’t believe that his educated readers could possibly believe in ghosts in the sky. Yet if you expect de Botton to mimic traditional critics of religion—Nietzsche, Freud, Feuerbach—or modern ones—Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens— you will be disappointed. Instead he finds some value in religious rituals, pedagogy, and traditions, which help people build community, be moral, and endure pain. Secularists would be wise to use these elements of religious traditions to build a secular religion.

We continue to need exhortations to be sympathetic and just, even if we do not believe that there is a God who has a hand in wishing to make us so. We no longer have to be brought into line by the threat of hell or the promise of paradise; we merely have to be reminded that it is we ourselves … who want to lead the sort of life which we once imagined supernatural beings demanded of us.

Specific proposals range from restaurants where strangers would share feelings, to museums organized by themes to aid us in contemplating the profound, to university lecturers adopting the style of Pentecostal preachers. Universities, like so many secular institutions, disseminate information but don’t impart wisdom. (In response, De Botton founded the “School of Life.”)

De Botton is right when he says that religion is false. His claim that it is useful is somewhat true, but it is unclear that this is a good thing. Sure, many people get their morality, community, and comfort from religious practices, but Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan members get theirs from group practices too! Lest one bristles at the comparison, religions have much blood on their hands. The point is that useful is not the same thing as beneficial—alcohol is useful to alcoholics as are guns to psychopaths.

In fairness to de Botton, he believes that some religious practices are beneficial. Of course the same can be said of almost any practice—beating my wife may sometimes be beneficial, perhaps she’ll respond to her beating by saying “thanks I needed that.” The question is whether a practice is generally beneficial, whether it causes more harm than good. Needless to say, many thinkers have found the claim that religious practices cause more harm than good to be false. Count me among them.

There is also the question of whether the rituals and traditions can be adopted by secularists, or whether they will retain their power when stripped of religious superstitions. Now if a religious practice passes the test of scientific respectability, meditation for instance, then by all means employ it. But if gathering in large groups promotes community as well as bigotry and hatred, then I’m not so sure. Applying such tests, the only remnants of religious traditions left will be the few that are scientifically respectable. In that case the best way to proceed in the search for meaning would be continued investigations into the field of positive psychology, happiness studies, and other scientific studies of how people can live happier and more meaningful lives. That de Botton does not discuss this is a gross oversight.

In my view William James offered the best defense of religion with his pragmatic argument in “The Will to Believe.” As long as religious beliefs and practices work for us, why not believe and practice? Ideas, as he said, are to be judged by their “cash value.” The problem is that this allows us to believe and practice whatever we want. The history of religious war, cruelty and torture testify to the problems with doing so. In the end, scientific studies of human nature are the key to understanding what is beneficial to society, and all of us, religious and non-religious alike, would be best served to heed their advice.


I was talking with a friend today about nostalgia. He was not attracted to it; I admitted its pull. Here’s a definition: “pleasure and sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing that you could experience it again.”1 The definition seems appropriate. Thinking of a street and a neighborhood, of the trees and the people, of a certain moment in the solar systems long journey around the center of the Milky Way, fills me with joy; thinking of how it has all vanished, fills me with sadness.

Do I desire to go back? For a few hours maybe, to see that world from the outside, to see if my memory is accurate, to experience its beauty. But not to be in it, from the inside, as a ten or twenty year old. Who would want to actually be young again, to return permanently? Fools maybe, but no others. The wise love that the past was once home, that is molded them, but they no longer desire to live there. As Tennyson said:

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!

Would I live my life over again? Maybe, if the other option was oblivion and I could learn more the second time around. But not to live in Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence. 

I will continue to reminisce, but I reject traveling  back in time even for a moment. If I did I might be disappointed; the past might not be as good as I remember. And then I would have lost something special … good memories, however flawed.


Seamus Heaney on Poetry

An earlier post used music as a way of revealing deep truths. This reminded me of something I read by the Nobel prize winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney (1939 -2013), who was the most famous poet in the world before his death. Here he is on what poetry is, wants to be, and how it can bring meaning to life:

[A poem] begins in delight … and ends in a clarification of life–not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion … in its repose the poem gives us a premonition of harmonies desired and not inexpensively achieved. In this way, the order of art becomes an achievement intimating a possible order beyond itself, although its relation to that further order remains promissory rather than obligatory. Art is not an inferior reflection of some ordained heavenly system but a rehearsal of it in earthly terms; art does not trace the given map of a better reality but improvises an inspired sketch of it.1

Heaney believed that meaning does not derive from one large idea like god, but from many smaller ideas put together from poems, art, conversations, and experiences. A  good brief poem hastens the encounter of language with meaning.

But does poetry (or art or music) intimate an order beyond itself, can it unravel the mystery of meaning? I don’t think so. Heaney has it right that it intimates “a possible order.” But Heaney has it wrong when he suggests an order exists that poetry is a rehearsal for, or a sketch of. This implies that the order is out there waiting to be uncovered. No.

The only goodness, beauty, justice, truth and unity is the kind we build from the ground up, through arduous toil, as mature adults without heavenly help, and with the outcome uncertain. Poetry, like the rest of literature, music, art, and politics is a small part of the ediface. But none see through to a beyond. The only human endeavor capable of seeing past our intuitions and realizing our dreams is science. Whether it will succeed or not remains to be seen.

All of this may not ameliorate our fears, but it is an honest appraisal of our situation.


1. Seamus Heaney, The Government of the Tongue, London: Faber & Faber, 1988, pp. 93-94.

More Songs About Time

A recent post about the Passage of Time contained a few music videos on time’s passing. An astute reader sent me three more videos touching on the same subject. I was moved by them all. They reminded me that music  communicates something that prose cannot; it evokes different sentiments. Perhaps that is why Gabriel Marcel, the existential philosopher and concert pianist, thought that many great philosophical ideas couldn’t be put it into words but could be played on the piano. (For more see his : Music and Philosophy, trans. Maddox and Wood.)

The first one is a little known Sinatra tune, “100 Years From Today.” It’s philosophical argument is straightforward, live life now because in a hundred years you won’t be here.

The next one is from the group Fountains of Wayne and the song is titled: “All Kinds of Time.” It uses a football quarterback surveying the field in the last few moments of the game as a metaphor for the moments of our lives. For me  it evokes the sense of eternity in the moment, as well as the possibility of doing great things with a single act. But I’ll leave you to interpret it for yourself.

The final song is “Wheels of a Dream,” from the musical Ragtime. It conveys the hope that each new child will move us forward; and most importantly that the dream of a better world keeps us going.

I thank my reader for his contribution.