Interpreting Divine Absence
In the previous essay, I introduced the problem of divine absence. That is, why does God, who should presumably be obvious, seem so much less obvious than we might hope for Him to be? Or recalling Taylor’s set-up, why is it that it was virtually impossible not to believe in God in 1500 AD, and now even the most fervent believers can faintly understand (in a visceral way) why someone might not? What has changed in the “background” of our beliefs, our plausibility structures, our filter(s) for determining what is likely and unlikely? For presumably, God was non-obvious to our ancestors in similar ways (they did not “see” Him). Why, then, do we reflexively make the connection between divine absence and a divine vacuum?
Under-discussed, in my judgment, is the role that is played by the emergence of late modern technoculture. Here I’m not thinking merely of the proliferation of modern technology in an aggregate or abstract way, as though a collection of new inventions makes God irrelevant. Rather, what I’m interested in is the way that mankind has actually used technology to organize life and society, the manner in which technology is employed to mediate between man and world, and even between man and man (in labor and otherwise). Modern labor is actually a huge part of this narrative, but perhaps we can begin to get into it simply by asking the following question(s).
If we were to try and understand reality or what it means that something is real (exists, stands out in the community of beings) in the mirror of modern technological culture and modern labor, how would we answer it? What does the modern order, in whole or in part, day in and day out, suggest to us (both tacitly and explicitly) concerning what it means to even say that a thing is real? If we were to try and infer from our ordinary experiences what reality is like, what would we come up with? I think that asking and answering this question will help us to explain what’s going on with divine absence. So let’s back up and (first) tell the story of the development of modern atheism very briefly, and then (second) interpret it relative to this question.
The Development of Modern Atheism: A Narrative
It is interesting to note that there aren’t great reasons to believe that atheists existed in Christendom before the 1600s. This is not to say that there weren’t accusations of atheism all the time. This has always been the case. But we don’t find people who understood themselves as atheists prior to this period. One reading of this is that, “of course” people didn’t talk about their atheism because they’d be in trouble if they did so. But if you reflect a bit more on this, that’s not such a great response. Many people died for their beliefs at the time. And yet still, by the 1650’s, we could count on one hand the amount of instances of self-professed atheists in Europe. What is uncontroversial is that by the middle of the 1700’s, there are very explicit and public atheists – but only a few (such as Diderot and d’Holbach). Even then, in the 1750’s, it was still considered an extreme position by someone such as Voltaire – no friend to Christianity. And for the next 100 years – between 1750 and 1850 – it remained a mostly isolated and elite phenomenon, a belief held by a minority of European men of letters. Even toward the middle of the 19th century, explicit atheism had marshaled no more than a handful of intellectual devotees (some of the left Hegelians in Germany, for instance).
Most historians of atheism would argue that it is in the middle to the end of the 19th century that we begin to see an emerging critical mass of atheists, agnostics, or so-called “freethinkers” in European civilization. Remarkably, the years 1860-1890 (roughly speaking) appear to be the crucial years for the development of atheism in England, Germany, France, and in America. One of the interesting details in this development is that atheism tended to arise in urban environments among the working class, albeit the more educated amongst them. One explanation for the significance of these dates is, of course, the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. But most historians of Darwin have demonstrated that its initial reception among Christians was diverse, and that many Christian intellectuals felt little threatened by its conclusions. But if that were not enough, Susan Budd – one historian of the period – in her study of over a hundred de-conversion narratives in Victorian England, notes that those who point to Darwin as having any influence on their deconversion could be counted on one hand.
This, it seems to me, points to the significance of the urban and class dimensions of this critical mass of atheists. Presumably it’s not coincidental that this period is also the climax of the industrial revolution – a generation after the impact of European enclosure laws had pushed most of the population to cities. That is to say, this period is the first time in history where the majority of persons in a major civilization moved through life almost entirely in an urban space, and, removed from the native habitat and economy of their ancestors, generally had to perform some kind of wage labor for this sustenance. Before I comment further on this, let’s briefly tell the rest of the story and then come back to interpret what’s going on here.
By the end of the 19th century, atheism is an option among intellectual elites and urban working classes. It becomes a major option for the middle class – basically, an option for pretty much any modern person – around the 1960s. What’s going on between 1860 and 1960?
For one thing, the life of urban laborers is progressively transformed into, of course, the modern middle class. This does not diminish, but increases, the manner in which the common person’s experience of the world is heavily mediated by the ever-increasing and ubiquitous technologies of the period. But we should not see this in the abstract. Specifically, it is crucial to note that it is also the case that the labor of the middle class remains (as today) some form of wage labor – that is – labor that is performed for the immediate purposes of another (rather than one’s own immediate purposes) in exchange for wages.
And indeed, the most thorough sociological analysis of modern unbelief (the studies of Phil Zuckerman) suggest that unbelief is often predicted by certain class and lifestyle indicators rather than the other way around. Likewise crucial to note is that the shift from working to middle classes is often a shift of intra-communal dependence to mobility and new forms of individualism.
Is there a way to pull these threads together? I think there is.
Interpreting the Narrative: Modern Technoculture
Classically speaking, what has reinforced the God instinct is not just arguments for the existence of God, but also the nature of the world and of human experience itself. Our ancestors experienced the world around them in ways that felt like engaging an “agent”, as “imposing forces” around which they had to navigate. To successfully work one’s way through life was to communicate with all of reality. Now, I’m not romanticizing this. Life might have been lousy and unenviable on all sorts of registers, but it felt very “personal,” like one was in a constant state of negotiation with communicating “natures.” Gardeners understand this. But this was not just true in terms of the natural world, but of one’s experience of one’s fellows, of human community and family, of one’s social network, etc. Moreover, most of this was given and imposed – entirely ineradicable by will. That is to say, there was much less mobility or capacity to change one’s circumstances. And so, experiencing the world as a collection of stubborn agencies and hierarchies of social and ecological dependency, the image of a grounding Agent behind everything is quite natural. Read in the mirror of the the world as a sort of chorus of “Actors,” a divine Agent is just a transcendental “more of the same.” As well, this reading of things was not just a passive way of relating to the world, but involved active participation in the negotiation. That is to say, I understand myself as an agent among agents within this overall organism. Despite the sometimes oppressive nature of historical subsistence, the ordinary experience of labor in the world was the experience of working for immediate purposes. To plant one’s own crops, build one’s own house, sew one’s own clothes, perfect one’s own crafts; it was to experience participation in a whole – to belong to a world of meaningful action.
For good or for ill, the Industrial Revolution changed this to a significant extent. First, certainly by the end of the 19th century, and increasingly afterwards (especially in our own time), the world is not merely thought or treated like but actually experienced as a passive material to be shaped according to human will. Some point to the role of Baconianism and various other Medieval intellectual trends to explain how we began to “look at the world” this way, and there is some truth here. A certain kind of posture toward the world develops very gradually. But I think this can be quite overstated as well. I would argue that, for most people, a more powerful force was simply being born into a set of instrumentalizing practices and postures. That is to say, if one is born into the world in which everything is treated like a nail, one will think of one’s own agency as a hammer quite naturally and quite apart from overt ideas.
Especially toward the end of the 19th century, entire portions of our civilization lived in a world that did not need to be navigated around, but merely conformed to one’s convenience. We know that the food at the grocery store doesn’t just show up, but we relate to the food as though it is just “there,” separated from any sense of what it took to acquire it. We do not relate to “place” as to a land with which we negotiate, but rather as raw material out of which I make whatever will efficiently serve human ends. I don’t know what the land around here is like, what its properties are as distinct from the properties of other places, unless I decide to abstractly make a note of such things because I’ve decided to. But that’s just the point. I don’t have to do that. I don’t have to navigate around it. What the increased ubiquity of technological artifice (again, as it is actually used) has progressively allowed is a suspension of the felt existence and insistence of the world upon us. Even storms which would have been a crisis for our ancestors are now felt to be delightful curiosities that we enjoy from inside our houses. Much of this is good, of course, but in aggregate, it subtly changes our perception of things.
Crucially, these developments increasingly encroach upon communal life. Increasingly with the invention of modern mobility, and especially of the automobile, even our irreducible dependence on other persons is subsumed under the agency of the modern sovereign agent. If I don’t like these people or this church, I don’t have to deal with them. If I don’t like my family, I’m not so dependent on them that I have to talk to them. This is especially true of the upwardly mobile middle class. And crucially, this is irreducible. Even if you do otherwise, you choose to do otherwise. Modern persons do not have to do otherwise with the same degree of dependence and necessity that most of our ancestors did.
And so, the world (both of things and of persons) is experienced, on a certain level, as subject to me and my will. And yet, it doesn’t stop there. Even our experience of “being an agent” is no longer quite as obviously person-like as it was for our ancestors. It is through the agency of others that we experience our own agency. But we live in a world in which it is increasingly possible (as just noted) to cut ourselves off from others, or to choose our community. And this inevitably makes it possible that certain dimensions of our agency are left unengaged and often under-developed.
Further, and perhaps most crucial for our analysis, our agency in our modern labor is often not ordinarily and immediately connected to our lives. Much modern labor remains “cog in the machine” labor that, however specialized, is replicable. Even if we are very “good at what we do,” we are mostly unclear precisely how we fit in the social organism, and rather serve a function whose ends are not immediately meaningful to us, but rather serve to “get us a paycheck.” We all have a place in a cultural assembly line whose total motions we barely understand and whose managers we can hardly identify. It works, of course, but at the expense of a certain connection between our creativity, our gifts, and our capacity for immediate creation in this world.
And this is a great irony of modernity. On the one hand, the world manifests as a world “for me” in my passive relation to it. That is, it has been red-carpeted for my convenience in all sorts of immediately practical ways. But in my active relation to the world, it does not manifest as “for me,” but almost entirely for another – or for nobody – an abstract social organism. The agency of the world is silenced. The agency of others is silenced. Our own agency is silenced. It is not surprising, then, that a transcendental Agent seems superfluous (even inelegant) in our imagination.
This is one way, then, of framing the question of modern atheism and divine absence. If we were to ask our pre-Modern ancestors what reality is like or query concerning what it means that a thing is real in the mirror of a more classical human existence, the discourse of the divine, the language of God, would actually be a pretty natural felt inference. God is the grounding agent of a world experienced (pleasantly or not) as having an agent-like aspect from the bottom all the way to the top. If we were to ask the same question of our own modern experience over the last 150 or so years, we’d get a different response. Read in the mirror of our own labor, our experience of other persons, our experience of ourselves, and our experience of a world that is almost entirely mediated to us in a way that suspends its intrinsic “voice,” it is not difficult to see why discourse concerning God, an Agent behind it all, seems superfluous. Nothing in reality seems agentic or personal, and so it makes less sense to think of ourselves as grounded in a divine Person. It feels a lot more plausible and instinctual to think of this sea of the impersonal as grounded in what amounts to a blind force.
It is for these reasons, in my judgment, that atheism becomes plausible in just this crucial period. And it is worth noting that it is also in this period that divine absence becomes a philosophical problem with atheist implications. What does it mean that a thing is real? How does reality manifest? Well, reality is whatever is material and manipulable – and revealed so by the instruments through which I treat the world as such. We are all initiated into imagination-shaping rituals about reality, rituals which mostly suggest an inert and unspeaking world. Reality is that stuff that can, in principle, be interfered with. Attuning ourselves to the world as though it were simply this, the material world becomes the paradigm rather than an instance of reality. And against that register, God can only be “seen” in direct experience or via a design inference. Lacking the former and suspecting the god-of-the-gaps problem in the latter, God is increasingly out of a job, and His absence becomes a crisis. God is not like reality as we tacitly think of it. And we infer, wrongly, that we’ve ceased needing Him, rather than that we have become “numb” to those aspects of reality wherein He is simply obvious – bracketing these aspects of life and experience out by continual habituated fiat.
Of course, much of this could be qualified. Nothing I’ve said could ever be a total accounting of things. But I think this makes precisely the point. In our minds, we can have all sorts of reasons to think that reality isn’t quite what the modern order attunes us to think that it is, but our default experience of the world is still and almost necessarily this way. As such, here is now an almost inevitable tension between our beliefs about the world and our experience of it. And I think this accounts for why we have very persuaded Christians who nevertheless still feel the wooing of an atheist interpretation of their world. This does not discredit the possibility (or even probability) of a distorted mind or a will, but it adds a layer to our interpretation that can help calibrate pastoral care.
Now, in a way, I’ve simply named the phenomenon. I haven’t evaluated it. As I’ll argue in my next essay, I don’t think we should take the track of being big cynics of modernity. The implication of all of this is not that we should go back before all this bad technology was hamming up our reality signals. Moreover, I think our situation is an opportunity to see some dimensions of reality more clearly. That is to say, an under-appreciated aspect of modernity involves thinking through what God might be about pedagogically in this experience of things. Perhaps, that is to say, this is precisely the crisis we require.
Joseph Minich (Ph.D, The University of Texas at Dallas), is a Teaching Fellow at The Davenant Institute. He is the author of Enduring Divine Absence.
Read next: [ part 1 ] [ part 2 ] [ part 3 ] [ part 4 ] [ part 6 ]
 To be sure, some consider figures like Baruch Spinoza and Pierre Bayle atheists, but these are highly contested readings for a host of reasons that I can’t get into here.
 And even then, the reasons for it had little to do with the problem of divine absence. The provenance of atheist claims was actually a response to Christian apologetics. One of the ironies uncovered by most historians of atheism is that it almost always developed out of the felt need of Christians to intellectually defend their faith. It was as though the moment the faith had to be defended, it was shown to be vulnerable, and then the reasons offered were often seen as much less solid than one might have otherwise simply assumed.