Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £30. Order at the discounted price of £23.50 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

The Age of Nothing by Peter Watson, Book of the Week

 

Peter Watson has written an intriguing and challenging book, which surveys the response of modern Western societies and their intellectuals to the decline of religion. To introduce the reader to the main currents of post-religious thinking, from Nietzsche, who started it with a bang, to Rorty, who tried to end it with a whimper, is no mean achievement.

Hardly an important school of thought is missing: all the ‘isms’ that have contended for attention during the 20th century are there, and Watson’s interest in what they have to say is unflagging. I recommend this book to anyone who needs to know what the loss of religious faith has meant to the high culture of our civilisation and what, if anything, we might do about it.

Nietzsche wrote Thus Spake Zarathustra in the early 1880s, but it was only after the philosopher’s death at the end of the century that its influence began to be felt. By the time of the First World War, Zarathustra had become the most popular work of philosophy in Germany, the book most frequently carried into the trenches by literate soldiers, and one printed for distribution to the German troops in a special durable edition of 150,000 copies. Today Nietzsche is at the heart of the university curriculum in the humanities, not simply on account of Zarathustra’s slogan that God is dead, but more importantly because of Nietzsche’s view that ‘there are no truths, only interpretations’.

With the death of God, Nietzsche thought, comes the loss of the objective world: all that remains is our own perspective, and we must make of it what we can. From this it was a small step to the philosophy of the Superman, who would spend life expressing his ‘will to power’, through weight-lifting, rudeness and – who knows? – the occasional life-affirming murder.

Watson has a lot of time for Nietzsche, while acknowledging that his influence is due more to his gifts as a writer than his capacity for argument. He moves on through the whole range of literature in French, German and English, taking in the post-impressionist and modernist painters along the way, and discovering in all those whom he discusses some interesting and idiosyncratic reaction to the news of God’s death. The range of Watson’s knowledge is amazing. There are things missing that might have been there, of course: music is conspicuously absent, which is a pity, since it was Wagner and not Nietzsche who first made the death of God central to the understanding of our condition, and it was the modernist composers – Schoenberg and Stravinsky in particular – who tried hardest to breathe life into the corpse. But there is a limit to what you can expect from a book like this, which covers a whole century of intellectual endeavour as lightly as it can.

The loss of God has been experienced in many ways: as a challenge to place humanity on the empty pedestal from which God had fallen; as a call to give up on the grand narratives and rest content with our nothingness; as an invitation to therapy, drug-taking, artistic exhibitionism or some other way of making the Self into the centre of attention. All those come under Watson’s eager microscope. In the end, however, he concludes that there is only one available stand-in for God and that is the intense moments of experience. Many writers have touched on these moments, presenting epiphanies in which the world is replete with a meaning that needs no God to explain it. That, Watson implies in his somewhat rambling conclusion, is all that we have.

The sacred moment is described in many ways and with many artistic embellishments. In Rilke it is an exchange of kisses between the earth and the observing consciousness; in Virginia Woolf it is a long sweet languish in a bubble bath of refined susceptibilities; in Lawrence and Nietzsche it is a Dionysiac encounter with life; in Proust it is a door into a space where the unseen eyes of Mother keep their unceasing vigil. And all those accounts are intriguing and suggestive. But they describe experiences that somehow fall short of what we are looking for, and Watson never really tells us why.

According to Watson the most important influence in shaping this search for the sacred moment was not Nietzsche or Proust but Husserl, the founding father of phenomenology. Husserl is widely referred to, but not widely read, since he wrote in an inspissated jargon that doesn’t translate easily out of German, or into it for that matter. But Watson is right to acknowledge him, since he was part of a highly influential movement of thought in the late Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Husserl turned the attention of philosophy towards the structure of consciousness. He held that the concrete, contingent and immediate experience has precedence over the abstract generalities of science, since experience is the reality against which theories are tested. This idea was given literary form by Robert Musil and Karl Kraus; it was given philosophical form by Martin Heidegger, who should be credited with the extraordinary achievement of writing worse than Husserl. And the sections on Musil and Heidegger are among Watson’s best.

However, the God-hungry atheism of the mid-twentieth century has a slightly quaint air today. The life-cult of D.H. Lawrence, the socialist progressivism of H.G. Wells, the naïve optimism of John Dewey, the existentialist nihilism of Heidegger and Sartre – all such religion substitutes have lost their appeal, and we find ourselves, perhaps for the first time, with a gloves-off encounter between the evangelical atheists, who tell us that religious belief is both nonsensical and wicked, and the defenders of intelligent design, who look around for the scraps that the Almighty left behind from his long picnic among us. What do we make of this new controversy? Watson gives a well-informed account of it, but he has no comfort to offer, other than those moments of meaning into which we stare and from which the face of God has vanished.

Or has it?

Roger Scruton’s The Soul of the World will be published by Princeton University Press in April.

Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little