No God, No Problem?

Peter Watson rejects the view that “there is something missing in our lives” when we try to live without religion. He turns to his own recent book, The Age of Atheists, for examples of those who didn’t get down about the death of God:

I surveyed a raft of playwrights, poets, philosophers, psychologists and novelists who have been active since Nietzsche made his fateful pronouncement, many of whom did and do not share this view that there is something missing in modern life. Some did – Ibsen, Strindberg, Henry James and Carl Gustav Jung would all be cases in point. But far more did not see any reason to mourn the passing of God – George Santayana, Stéphane Mallarmé, Wallace Stevens, Stefan George, Sigmund Freud of course, and, not least, the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters. Alfred Sisley and Gustave Caillebotte, Degas, Pissarro and Renoir were each very different in artistic style but they did have something in common. As the art critic Robert Hughes writes in The Shock of the New, “It was a feeling that the life of the city and the village, the cafés and the bois, the salons and the bedrooms, the boulevards, the seaside and the banks of the Seine, could become a vision of Eden – a world or ripeness and bloom, projecting an untroubled sense of wholeness.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, reviewing Terry Eagleton’s Culture and the Death of God, tells a less happy story:

We are meaning-seeking animals. And if we can no longer believe in God we will find other things to worship.

Eagleton’s book is a brisk, intelligent, and provocative tour of Western intellectual history since the Enlightenment, understood as a series of chapters in the search for a God-substitute. The Enlightenment found it in reason, the Idealists in the human spirit, the Romantics in nature and culture, the Marxists in revolution, and Nietzsche in the Übermensch. Others chose the nation, the state, art, the sublime, humanity, society, science, the life force, and personal relationships. None of these had entirely happy outcomes, and none was self-sustaining. …

The result is that we are witnesses to the advent of the first genuinely atheist culture in history. The apparent secularism of the 18th to 20th centuries was nothing of the kind. God—absent, hiding, yet underwriting the search for meaning—was in the background all along. In postmodernism, that sense of an absence, or what Eagleton calls “nostalgia for the numinous,” is no longer there. Not only is there no redemption, there is nothing to be redeemed. We are left, Eagleton writes, with “Man the Eternal Consumer.”

Recent Dish on these questions here and here.