Book review

'Age of Atheists' chronicles the rise of Secularism

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It has been 130 years since Friedrich Nietzsche boldly declared “God is dead.” Many scholars have debated the veracity of that statement and pondered the reasons Nietzsche chose that particular wording.

By Peter Watson
Simon & Schuster ($35)

English historian Peter Watson takes a different tack in his latest book by showing how philosophers, social scientists, novelists and artists have embraced a strong secular perspective in the years since Nietzsche’s bold statement.

“The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God” is an ambitious work that examines the history of secularism. It is far more dense than recent books on atheism, including those by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett or even Steven Pinker, which makes it a challenging read. However, readers with an interest in the topic will not be disappointed by his encyclopedic approach.

“The Age of Atheists” is divided roughly into three eras and the corresponding events that shaped world views. The most interesting was Part I, where Mr. Watson argues that remarkable technological gains at the end of the 19th century gave us new ways of looking at the world.

For example, the Eiffel Tower, built for the 1889 World’s Fair, showed that grand architecture was not limited to cathedrals and churches. X-rays and radio waves gave us new ways of experiencing the world.

Vision alone could no longer be taken at face value once we realized there was information beyond what could be seen by the naked eye. At the same time, art, architecture, literature and music were also becoming secular, in contrast to past centuries when religious themes were dominant in the arts.

Part II examines the role of the first and second World Wars and how death and destruction at a large scale proved problematic for religion. Religion was playing less of a role in everyday life and the deterioration of the religious support systems was widespread.

As the English poet Siegfried Sassoon noted, “The padres never came near us — except to bury someone.” In reference to the rise of Hitler, Mr. Watson is even more blunt, stating that “at a time when religious faith was most needed, it failed to rise to the challenge.”

Part III looks at philosophical developments in the past 60 years that have continued to refine arguments in the search for meaning. Changes in lifestyle led to a shift in perspective with cars and science replacing home and church as secularism grew.

Hundreds of small treasures are scattered throughout the book. For example, it was fascinating to learn how scientifically unfounded fads, such as homeopathy, came and went in the 19th century. Who knew it would reappear again more than a hundred years later? One also learns that nonbelief spread with the “act locally” movement, which has also gained steam at various times in the recent past.

Mr. Watson also discusses many false analogies, such as when atheism and communism were hopelessly confounded in the 1950s, even though there is virtually zero correlation between these two schools of thought. He is not afraid to be critical of ideas that he does not like and in the end does not hold back on his disdain for religion, which he calls “the most overbearing idea that is or has ever been.”

On the downside, the author sometimes employs long lists of individuals or develops makes obscure connections in an attempt to be thorough. Mr. Watson argues that his book does not exhaust the subject, but I am afraid that it might exhaust the reader. Those who stick with it will find interesting details on the lives and ideas of 19th- and 20th-century secularists. With a focus on “ideas about ideas,” both fiction and nonfiction authors were covered equally, which sets it apart from related works.

Finally, one might ask why is the book so diverse in its coverage to topics? In 1924, Virginia Woolf wrote that “when human relations change, there is at the same time a change in religion, politics and literature.” Mr. Watson traces such changes earnestly in a masterful treatise in “The Age of Atheists.” At 630 pages, it is no small undertaking for the reader, but worth the effort in the end.

Stephen Hirtle ( is a professor in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh.

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