Peter Watson’s New Book Explores How Atheists ‘Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God’ February 18, 2014

Peter Watson’s New Book Explores How Atheists ‘Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God’

Journalist and historian Peter Watson has written a lengthy, substantive book about atheism as it has played out over the past 150 years, covering the major players, promoters, and philosophers. It’s called The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God and it’s available online beginning today.

In the excerpt below from the introduction to the book, Watson reminds us of the plight of Salman Rushdie and what modern atheism may still be missing:

By the summer of 1990 the author Salman Rushdie had been living in hiding for more than a year. This had followed a fatwa, an Islamic juristic ruling, issued by the Iranian supreme cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, on February 14, 1989, in which he had said, “I inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of the Satanic Verses book, which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Quran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death. I ask all Muslims to execute them wherever they find them.”

This was by any standard a monstrous event, made all the more terrible by Khomeini’s claim of authority over all Muslims. But, however wrong, the threat had to be dealt with and Rushdie was given police protection and the use of a bulletproof Jaguar, though he had to find his safe houses himself. In July of that year, the police had suggested a further refinement for his safety — a wig. “You’ll be able to walk down the street without attracting attention,” he was told. The Metropolitan Police’s best wig man was sent to see him and took away a sample of his hair. The wig was made and arrived “in a brown cardboard box looking like a small sleeping animal.” When he put it on, the police said it “looked great” and they decided to “take it for a walk.” They drove to Sloane Street in London’s Knightsbridge and parked near the fashionable department store Harvey Nichols. When he got out of the Jaguar “every head turned to stare at him and several people burst into wide grins or even laughter. ‘Look,’ he heard a man’s voice say, ‘there’s that bastard Rushdie in a wig.'”

There was certainly something missing in his life during those anxious times, the most precious thing of all — his liberty. But that is not exactly what the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas had in mind when he wrote his celebrated essay, “An Awareness of What Is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-secular Age” (2008). He, too, was concerned with the impact of religion on our lives but meant something no less precious perhaps, and far more difficult to pin down.


This something had first occurred to him after he attended a memorial service for Max Frisch, the Swiss author and playwright, held in St. Peter’s Church in Zurich on April 9, 1991. The service began with Karin Pilliod, Frisch’s partner, reading out a brief declaration written by the deceased. It said, among other things: “We let our nearest speak, and without an ‘amen.’ I am grateful to the ministers of St. Peter’s in Zurich… for their permission to place the coffin in the church during our memorial service. The ashes will be strewn somewhere.” Two friends spoke, but there was no priest and no blessing. The mourners were mostly people who had little time for church and religion. Frisch himself had drawn up the menu for the meal that followed.

Habermas wrote much later (in 2008) that at the time the ceremony did not strike him as peculiar, but that, as the years passed, he came to the view that the form, place and progression of the service were odd. “Clearly, Max Frisch, an agnostic, who rejected any profession of faith, had sensed the awkwardness of non-religious burial practices and, by his choice of place, publicly declared that the enlightened modern age has failed to find a suitable replacement for a religious way of coping with the final rite de passage which brings life to a close.”

And this more than a hundred years since Nietzsche announced the death of God.

Habermas used this event — Frisch’s memorial — as the basis for “An Awareness of What Is Missing.” In that essay he traces the development of thought from the Axial Age to the Modern period and argues that, while “the cleavage between secular knowledge and revealed knowledge cannot be bridged,” the fact that religious traditions are, or were in 2008, an “unexhausted force,” must mean that they are based more on reason than secular critics allow, and this “reason,” he thinks, lies in the religious appeal to what he calls “solidarity,” the idea of a “moral whole,” a world of collectively binding ideals, “the idea of the Kingdom of God on earth.” It is this, he says, that contrasts successfully with secular reason, and provides the “awkward” awareness of something that is missing. In effect, he says that the main monotheisms had taken several ideas from classical Greece — Athens as much as Jerusalem — and based their appeal on Greek reason as much as on faith: this is one reason why they have endured.

In his recent book, Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament, Nagel puts it this way: “Existence is something tremendous, and day-to-day life, however indispensable, seems an insufficient response to it, a failure of consciousness. Outrageous as it sounds, the religious temperament regards a merely human life as insufficient, as a partial blindness to or rejection of the terms of our existence. It asks for something more encompassing without knowing what it might be.”

Almost simultaneously, Nagel was joined by his fellow American philosopher colleague Ronald Dworkin in his Religion Without God (2013). Here, too, the main thrust of the argument will be discussed in chapter 26, but Dworkin’s chief point was that “religious atheism” is not an oxymoron (not anymore, anyway); that religion, for him and others like him, “does not necessarily mean a belief in God” — rather, “it concerns the meaning of human life and what living well means”; and life’s intrinsic meaning and nature’s intrinsic beauty are the central ingredients of the fully religious attitude to life. These convictions cannot be isolated from the rest of one’s life — they permeate existence, generate pride, remorse and thrill, mystery being an important part of that thrill. And he said that many scientists, when they confront the unimaginable vastness of space and the astounding complexity of atomic particles, have an emotional reaction that many describe in almost traditional religious terms — as “numinous,” for example.

The significant factor, for now, is that these philosophers are all saying much the same thing, if in different ways. They share the view that, five hundred and more years after science began to chip away at many of the foundations of Christianity and the other major faiths, there is still an awkwardness, as Habermas put it, or a blindness or “unsufficiency” (Nagel); a mystery, thrilling and numinous, as Dworkin characterized it, in regard to the relationship between religion and the secular world.

(From The Age of Atheists by Peter Watson. Copyright © 2014 by Peter Watson. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved)

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