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Peter Watson – The Age of Nothing review

An invigorating journey through the modern history of non-religious culture.

The Age of Nothing

In 1882 philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche declared that ‘god is dead’ a few decades after naturalist Charles Darwin proved that the human species evolved alongside the rest of life on earth.  In the intervening years, the intellectual movement has for the most part accepted that we live in a universe indifferent to our needs and desires. The human challenge since that time has been how best to live in the absence of any divine plan or guidance.

Peter Watson’s The Age of Nothing – How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God is a thorough account of the development along secular lines of human ideas in the last century and a half or so. It begins with Nietzsche’s declaration in The Gay Science and guides the reader through a roughly chronological account of secular human culture.

This book will appeal to anyone with intellectual curiosity about the human condition and the development of ideas. It will especially appeal to the non-religious reader. This isn’t a book about, or even particularly in defence of atheism as a worldview, but it sets out objectively a history of non-religious thought that covers everything from science to poetry, incorporating philosophy, the rise of new age ‘spiritualism’ and therapy.

The scope of the book is immense, and it’s no easy task to pull it all into a coherent narrative: but for the most part Watson achieves this admirably. The Age of Nothing unfolds with sparkling prose, where every page explores interesting ideas and each new section guides the reader through an intellectual journey that takes some unexpected directions and intriguing digressions. Against the expansive premise, Watson brings his argument together cogently, achieving a fascinating and never before told narrative of modern secular thought.

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The historian in Peter Watson is in evidence in his objective treatment of the counter-arguments to secular developments, such as philosopher Mary Midgley’s objections to Richard Dawkins’ pioneering ideas set out in The Selfish Gene, and Thomas Nagel’s recent forays into doubting evolution. Whether or not science is enough to replace the awe and transcendence some attribute to religion is one of the book’s themes, to which Watson returns in different guises. Science aside, Watson approaches subjects as diverse as the influence of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis on twentieth century thinking, and the rise of counterculture, its advocacy of hallucinogenic drugs and its iconic jazz music soundtrack.

We raved about Peter Watson’s previous book – The Great Divide – which offered a magisterial account of the isolated developments of the Old World and New World, offering hypotheses as to why human cultures emerged so differently on separate continents. The Age of Nothing is no less intellectually invigorating, and with this new magnificent title, we are convinced that Peter Watson demonstrates not just thorough research and insight, but breathtakingly good prose. To call him a great historian is in a sense an injustice, because the description is accurate but incomplete. Peter Watson is also one of the best writers working today, and reading his works is an unalloyed pleasure. Treat yourself.


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