Journalist and intellectual historian Watson (The Great Divide: Nature and Human Nature in the Old World and the New, 2012, etc.) analyzes what people have done to supplant or supplement religion since Nietzsche declared the death of God in the late 19th century.
The author begins with the horror of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie (religion out of control) and returns to Rushdie some 500 pages later. In between is a rich mixture of cultural, intellectual, political and religious history that demands much of readers and is in ways a multilayered chronicle of the past 140 years. But a basic question underlies all: What do we do without God? Watson looks initially at the effects Nietzsche had on the arts (Thomas Mann and Isadora Duncan write and dance through this section) and then looks at American thinkers including Emerson William James, John Dewey and George Santayana. Poets and artists of various stripes also figure prominently (Rimbaud, Cézanne, Bergson), and Freud makes an early appearance as well (he returns periodically). Playwrights are next (Strindberg, Shaw, Chekhov most prominently) before he devotes a chapter to the impressionist painters and their successors. In a solid chapter about the power of desire, a topic to which he returns, Watson explores the works of Gide, Henry James, Wells and Proust. And on the author goes, moving seamlessly from literature to art, philosophy, psychology, political movements, world war, drama and popular culture (the Doors, Dylan, etc.). Watson blasts the world’s religions for their failures during the Holocaust, but he doesn’t have a lot to say about music (a little bit about Charlie Parker and bebop). He delivers a sturdy chapter on the works of today’s scientific atheists (Dawkins, Harris, Pinker) and ends with praise and analysis of Ronald Dworkin.
An erudite opus demanding substantial patience, intelligence and education from its readers.