Peter Watson: The Age of Atheists

In a previous post, 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 magisterial 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 amaze me. 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, of 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 to 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;



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6 thoughts on “Peter Watson: The Age of Atheists

  1. I don’t understand the connection you describe between freedom and religious belief. After all, Luther wrote “The Bondage of the Will”. I see no reason why a rejection of God is tantamount to a rejection of freedom. Could you expand on that connection, or would such an expansion be overly lengthy?

  2. The impact of the scientific conception of the universe– including humanity– is enormous. That view sees a material, purposeless cosmos, without human meaning.

    In 1956, Joseph Wood Krutch wrote in “The Modern Temper” that
    “The universe revealed by science, especially the sciences of biology and psychology, is one in which the human spirit cannot find a comfortable home. That spirit breathes freely only in a universe where what philosophers call Value Judgments are of supreme importance. It needs to believe, for instance that right and wrong are real, that Love is more than a biological function..”

    Only a few years before that, Francis Crick discovered the DNA molecule with James Watson. In his later career he studied consciousness and became a material reductionist of the first order. He wrote, “Your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will are, in fact, no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

    But in the face of scientism– and despite its great power and validity– higher forms of spirituality remain accessible.

    This and much, much more are explored in
    “Wellsprings of Work”
    ‘Surprising Sources of Meaning and Motivation in Work’

  3. thanks for this Samuel. I’m very familiar with Crick but not with Krutch. Thanks for introducing him to me.

  4. You are right that rejecting the gods does not entail rejecting a belief in some form of freedom. Many atheists are compatiblists or soft determinists. My point was simply that the scientific worldview–with its implicit determinism– has made the belief in free will more problematic. In fact the quote in the comments by Samuel quoting Crick make the point, “Your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will are, in fact, no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

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