In 2001, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas gave a lecture entitled “An Awareness of What is Missing”. “The philosophically enlightened self-understanding of modernity,” Habermas said, “stands in a peculiar dialectical relationship to the theological self-understanding of the major world religions, which intrude into this modernity as the most awkward element from its past.” In his new book The Age of Nothing: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God, the journalist and author Peter Watson takes Habermas’s identification of unprocessed religious longings in the modern imagination as the point of departure for a comprehensive examination of the search for meaning in art, philosophy and literature in the wake of the “death of God” announced by Nietzsche in the late 19th century.
JD: The book begins and ends in the same place: with a discussion of the work of contemporary secular philosophers—including Habermas, Thomas Nagel and Ronald Dworkin—arriving independently at, in Habermas’s words, “an awareness of something missing” in modern secular societies. Was this phenomenon the original impulse for the book?
PW: Yes and no. In a way, I’m slightly anti-Habermas and Dworkin, as I don’t think there’s anything missing—not in my life anyway. I find it quite easy to live without some overarching idea. But I do think it’s reasonable for secular people to worry about meaning, and with the question of how you construct the moral life. When I tell people what sort of book I’ve written, they often ask, “Well, how can you have the moral life after the death of God?” And there I think the work of philosophers like Dworkin, and also Alasdair MacIntyre and John Rawls, is useful. People need this stuff brought their attention.
Quite. The assumption that Dostoevsky was right when he wrote that “If there is no God, then everything is permitted” is tenacious and widespread isn’t it? I take it you think Dostoevsky’s remark is a fallacy?
The book is doing several things at once, it seems to me. In the first place, it’s a history of successive attempts to find meaning after the “death of God” . But it’s also an intervention in the contemporary “God wars”, those debates about science and religion that pit scientifically-minded “new” atheists against religious believers. You think there’s something unsatisfactory about that debate don’t you?
I think there’s far more to it than evolution vs god! We’ve got to get used to the idea that there’s no big answer, no one answer. There’s no unifying idea.
You discuss an extraordinary wide range of thinkers, novelists, poets and artists—from Nietzsche to the present day. They’re all engaged, in different ways, in what you’d call a “search for meaning” in the wake of the death of God, of what Matthew Arnold called the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the sea of faith.
That’s the right way to put it. Beginning the book, I didn’t know what I was going to find. I found that many people have concerned themselves with this issue—it emerges, as I say in the book, as an important plank of modernity.
The book is comprehensive and exhaustive in its treatment of other thinkers and writers that it’s sometimes difficult to discern what your own position in this debate is. How would you characterise it?
I have a scientific background. I think that evolution is the most important idea [in science], so I’m in agreement with people like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett on that. But for me an equally important idea is the insight of phenomenology—that life is made up of beautiful details. We need a dual vision. Perhaps I should have made that clearer. But I was mainly concerned to show that there’s far more to the argument than the evolutionary people suggest.
What about the account of religion itself that one finds in Dawkins or Dennett? Dawkins, for example, does seem to see religion exclusively as a matter of holding certain beliefs about the origins and ultimate nature of the universe, rather than, say, as a way of life, a moral vision or as practice and ritual.
I think we have to distinguish here between religion and theology. There’s something profoundly silly and empty about a lot of theology. When people accuse Dawkins of being simplistic theologically, I just shrug my shoulders and say, “Well, a lot of theology is simplistic.” But there’s also the Durkheimian idea of religion—that it’s about rituals, liturgy, and that these things have given enormous satisfaction to people. So maybe Dawkins and Dennett are deaf to that side of things.
Peter Watson’s “The Age of Nothing: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God” is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£30).