If, as Nietzsche proclaimed, God is kaput, then what? In a highly readable and immensely wide-ranging work of intellectual history, Peter Watson surveys and summarizes the various answers to this question that have been proposed during the past 125 years. “The Age of Atheists” is, in effect, an account of 20th-century philosophical and moral thought, focused, as its subtitle explains, on “how we have sought to live since the death of God.”
Bear that subtitle in mind because it might otherwise be easy to mistake the character of Watson’s book. This is neither a polemic about the horrors of traditional religion nor an apologia for a rationalistic, scientific attitude to our place in the universe. You can go back to the work of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins or S.T. Joshi for sustained arguments about the virtues of atheism. What interests Watson is the proposed alternatives to religion, those systems, aesthetic beliefs and modes of life that have taken, or might take, its place. He thus ranges from Marx and Freud and Max Weber through symbolism and surrealism; describes theosophy, Bloomsbury, phenomenology, Nazi ideology and existentialism; discusses self-improvement and Samuel Beckett, as well as sex, drugs and rock-and-roll.
My ardor has dimmed somewhat when it comes to “intellectual” as a concept and identity, but Watson’s writing made me aware that intellectual history was an actual field, and also introduced me to the Journal of the History of Ideas. I’m grateful on both counts.