Bulwarks of Unbelief: A Phenomenology of Atheism and Divine Absence in Late Modernity
In this dissertation, I attempt to account for the fact that God’s absence or invisibility has, since at least the middle of the 19th century, been seen as plausibly accounted for by the fact that God does not exist. That is, rather than a mere item of theodicy (i.e. Where is God when I am suffering?), divine absence has become part of a philosophical arsenal in support of God’s non-existence as such. Granting that, for most theists, God has presumably always been (for the most part) invisible, this more recent association between divine invisibility and divine non-existence, in my judgment, reflects a shifting plausibility structure during the above period until the present – a still-occurring shift in which all late modern persons are caught up. In Chapter 1 of my dissertation, I situate my own argument in the context of recent scholarship concerning the emergence of atheism and secularization, the so-called disenchantment of the world, and the nature of whatever we term “modernity.” Therein, I argue that the accounts on offer (both those that emphasize intellectual and those that emphasize practical causes) need supplementation. Specifically, I argue that the emergent plausibility of atheism or materialism is related to the development of what I term modern “technoculture,” the world as conceived in the mirror of modern labor-systems, technological artifice, and their inter-relationship. In Chapter 2, I show that there is enough circumstantial linkage between the rise of atheism on the one hand, and the rise of this modern technoculture on the other hand, to at least make the case that these two phenomena are strongly correlated. In Chapter 3, I go on to argue that the latter has a causal relationship to the former. In dialogue with philosophers of technology and labor, I argue that the relationship between technology and culture has always shaped human perception of the basic structures of reality, and I attempt to show how their modern arrangement has attuned us to the world in such a way that it manifests as devoid of inherent meaning or agency. Therefore, discourse which would speak of “God in the mirror of the world” or anything mind-like behind all phenomena, increasingly feels implausible to modern persons whose “lived world” renders such discourse tacitly foreign. Having accounted for this shift in plausibility structures, I conclude that I have offered a deflationary argument with respect to the veracity of modern atheism because it renders the latter relative to historical circumstance (rather than being a warranted intellectual default). Nevertheless, objectifying our plausibility structures does not eradicate them. As such, in Chapter 4, I attempt to speak from within and towards practitioners of my own orthodox Protestantism, offering (in conversation especially with Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer) suggestions about what it might mean to find religious orientation in this historical moment. A proper response to modern atheism, I argue, requires a proper response to those features of the world that render it plausible in the first place (per the argument of Chapters 2-3). I claim that, despite its temptations (from my perspective), there are many good things about the modern order, and that it presents us with an opportunity to unite our intellectual and affective capacities (mediated by our will) in order to achieve disciplined attunement to those realities that we confess. Toward this end, I address the problems of modern alienation from labor, technological anxiety, and (what is under-estimated) our alienation from the history to which we nevertheless always belong. Finally, in the conclusion – after summarizing the argument – I address the elephant in the room of modern pluralism. Recognizing that my evaluative reflections irreducibly possess what many have called “the scandal of particularity,” I attempt a final act of rhetorical calibration in order to assuage (but also redirect) these concerns while clarifying the immediate and most basic calling of the human being relative to them.