I take this entire article, Searching for meaning in the age of atheism, from Alasdair Craig’s May 1st review of two new books in Prospect Magazine. And if you do read it I’d ask you if you also think that we have lost sight of purpose, meaning, and truth in the postmodern age.
The Age of Nothing: How we have sought to live since the death of God
By Peter Watson and
Culture and the Death of God By Terry Eagleton
Verdun. The ruined church on the crest of the captured height of Montfaucon
The physicist Paul Dirac is said to have been bewildered that his colleague, the father of the atomic bomb, J Robert Oppenheimer, could write poetry while also studying physics. “In science,” he said, “one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in the case of poetry, it’s the exact opposite!”
We might half agree with Dirac. Science uncovers new, often counter-intuitive facts, while as Peter Watson puts it in his new book The Age of Nothing: How we have sought to live since the death of God, literature and poetry “clarify … thoughts we have almost had, that we wish we had had.”
This explains the role that Watson, following Heidegger, gives to poetry and art. He sees them as ways of doing phenomenology—concentrating on our personal experience of the world, rather than on the world as it is in itself. They thus offer “a way of being … at home in the world … that science … does not,” to quote Heidegger. Watson tends to leave oracular statements like this to dangle unexplained, but the general idea is that poetry and art imbue the world with meanings and purposes that make sense to us.
By contrast, scientific inquiry seems to have revealed an impersonal world, which, for those without some academic background in science, is hard to comprehend. Worse still, along with philosophy, science is responsible for showing humanity that God almost certainly doesn’t exist. The result, says Watson, is that many of us feel alienated from the world as science describes it. This sounds bad, but Watson never really explains what he means. We hear a lot about loss of “wholeness” and “unity,” but rigorous definitions are absent. This inability to spell out the problem fatally undermines his attempt to provide therapy for it.
Terry Eagleton’s new book, Culture and the Death of God, states the problem more precisely. God’s death is religion’s undoing. For Eagleton, only Christianity has succeeded in synthesising deep truths about the universe with popular, human-sized stories that speak to us on a personal level. In the figure of God the Father, Christianity contains the grandeur and cosmic scale that modernity accords to science; and in theology’s abstractions it retains a place for rigorous intellectual activity. In the figure of Jesus, Christianity unites this unknowable Father with a flesh-and-blood man who lived out a personal, practical message. It thereby integrates reason with intuition, the intellect with the emotions, the abstract with the practical.
When Watson writes about a lack of wholeness, he seems to be gesturing at the destruction of the synthesis that Eagleton sketches. We feel alienated from the cosmos because we struggle to integrate the truths of science with our everyday desires and emotions. Proselytizers for science like Richard Dawkins often miss this point. In 2009 Dawkins wrote an essay promoting science entitled “There is grandeur in this view of life.” But we already know that science discloses grand, even sublime truths. The problem is that this grandeur has proven difficult to connect with purpose, intimacy, emotion—the stuff that matters most in people’s everyday lives.
This, for Eagleton, is where Christianity excels. The Christian worldview was structured around a narrative that began with Creation and ended with Heaven/Hell. In such a world, humans found themselves in the midst of a quest, and we could choose to act accordingly. Before science discredited it, religion had what Eagleton calls “the power to motivate”; science, he says, lacks this.
Narrative becomes all the more precious in the face of earthly sorrows. For Nietzsche, the point of the story of the Fall and the coming redemption is to justify suffering and to offer hope to those who have least: the meek shall inherit the earth. But this story dies with God. “What actually arouses indignation over suffering is not the suffering itself, but the senselessness of suffering,” wrote Nietzsche in On the Genealogy of Morality. He concludes that the “herd” can never do without a grand narrative.
This, for Nietzsche, explains why although science and reason have killed God, we’ve failed to bury him. Eagleton describes the ways in which humans have tried—but failed—to replace God with concepts such as “Reason, Nature, Geist, culture, art, the sublime, the nation.” Theological concepts such as inspiration, unity, autonomy, epiphany and so on have also been imported into our talk about art. (Curiously, Eagleton says nothing about morality, the sphere Nietzsche found to be the most deeply infected by theology.)
Eagleton allows one exception to the pervasive influence of theism in our culture: postmodernism, which he believes is the first “authentic atheism.” Postmodern art has achieved widespread popularity (in pop music, fashion, film and so on) even while renouncing those things that Eagleton thinks made Christian art so appealing: purpose, meaning and truth. But, says Eagleton, this popular atheism comes at the “enormous price” of “renouncing depth.” Little wonder, he implies, that its dismal art is so at home in the shallow worlds of “fashion and design, the media and public relations, advertising agencies and recording studios.”
Watson is more optimistic about the possibility of an emotionally satisfying atheism. His proposal is that we use art and literature to comprehend and re-enchant the world that science has made foreign. Science is one way of understanding the world; art and literature another, he seems to say. Science provides technology, medicine and abstract knowledge; art provides meaning, purpose and a different, more intimate and immediately relevant kind of knowledge. God’s death just means that we need to construct our own, non-authoritative narratives and art, replete with purpose and meaning. Instead of one unified story to which everyone subscribes, we should play around with a plurality of downgraded stories, which can form the basis of our day-to-day lives.
But, of course, this is what we already do, and it is less a solution than a re-statement of the problem. His various narratives won’t provide the emotional relief he wants. For just as Christianity made sublime and cosmic “truths” accessible on a human level, so it invested everyday human life with cosmic significance. With God out of the picture, this is lost. Watson quotes the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s beautiful summary of this problem: “Existence is something tremendous, and day-to-day life, however indispensable, seems an insufficient response to it.”
Watson implicitly recognises this when he tries to show how some of the old grandeur of religion can be retained. Though no art will channel the authority of divine revelation, there’s a loose consensus among the thinkers Watson surveys that the purposes and values lost to the world with God’s death can be rediscovered “within” ourselves, though they do not exist out there in what Ibsen calls the “cosmic emptiness.” The important things—moral truths, aesthetic beauty, purpose—are just relocated. We are to make our own meanings now.
Eagleton would rightly say that to locate autonomy, creativity and purpose within artistic individuals, as Watson does, is just another way of retaining the “fragments of theology” that we are left with after God’s death. Watson wants to preserve in humans something that science cannot explain. But of course most scientists no longer regard humans as containing anything that lies beyond what science will eventually explain. They may be right. The really interesting question—the one that Nietzsche would have asked, but that neither Watson nor Eagleton ask, despite his influence on their work—is how we can live without any theology at all.