Markets and the Good   /   Fall 2023   /    Book Reviews

Technoculture and the Plausibility of Unbelief

The material and cultural roots of divine absence.

L.M. Sacasas

Photograph by Umberto/Unsplash.

We are living in an age of tech backlash. Especially given the perceived effects of social media on the outcome, the 2016 election undoubtedly catalyzed much of the critical sentiment about the role technology plays in our private lives and in society at large. This backlash can be attributed to a shift in thinking neatly expressed by the title of sociologist Zeynep Tufekci’s 2018 essay for MIT Technology Review, “How Social Media Took Us From Tahrir Square to Donald Trump.” The same technologies that, circa 2010, were expected to herald a golden age of democracy were, by 2018, more likely to be framed as authoritarian tools and threats to democracy. Around the same time, less rapt voices also gained traction in debates about the relative merits not only of social media but of smartphones, the Internet, algorithmic governance, automation, self-driving cars, and, most recently, artificial intelligence. While it is not obvious to me that this critical sentiment has amounted to a reconfiguration of how our society relates to technology, it nevertheless seems clear that our collective technoenthusiasm has been dialed down a few notches.

It remains to be seen whether the tech backlash was a genuine challenge to our technologically mediated environment or merely another expression of it. If the critique flounders, it will be in part, a function of the language we use to talk and think about technology. In short, we lack an adequate set of terms and concepts. Technology itself may be, as the late historian Leo Marx once argued, a “hazardous concept” in this regard. How useful is a term that encompasses such an immense variety of artifacts, devices, tools, systems, and processes? Is it really helpful to think of both toothbrushes and telecommunication satellites as members of the same class of things we call technology? Conversely, what genuine insights can be uncovered by fine-grained analysis of specific tools or by historical studies of the emergence of this or that technology? It seems as if something can and should be said, not just about individual technologies but about the broader material ecosystem that frames our lives. We are entangled with technology in ways that make genuine understanding of our situation all the more difficult. This methodological impasse suggests that we need a mixture of rigor and precision in our apprehension of technical phenomena; a well-tempered, multiperspectival expansiveness of vision; along with a disciplined effort to think beyond the narrow normative parameters technological culture establishes for itself.

In Bulwarks of Unbelief: Atheism and Divine Absence in a Secular Age, humanities scholar and theological educator Joseph Minich gives readers a lively example of how such an approach can illuminate the profound consequences of technological change. He is primarily interested in proposing a thesis about the rise of atheism in the modern world, one that expands and elaborates Charles Taylor’s account of secularism. Minich sets out his thesis in two arguments. First, he argues that a felt sense of divine absence is the “most illuminating point of departure for interpreting the rise of unbelief over the last century and a half.” Raising what is, in part, a historical question, he asks, “When did it become the case that the phenomenon of divine absence pressured human persons in the direction of non-belief?” Minich proposes, in response, that the lived experience of modern technoculture has transformed the problem of divine absence, which used to revolve around questions of God’s justice or goodness and other matters of theodicy, into a matter of God’s nonexistence. The bulwarks of unbelief in Minich’s title are the conditions that render unbelief plausible. He borrows the phrase from what Taylor calls, in his book A Secular Age, the “bulwarks of belief”—the social structures that rendered belief in God the default setting of the premodern period. Just as Taylor’s bulwarks encouraged belief in God, Minich argues that the characteristics of modern technoculture discourage belief.

It is worth emphasizing two elements of Minich’s approach. For one thing, he uses the term technoculture, as opposed to simply technology, because he is less interested in technology itself considered abstractly than he is “in its concrete historical and cultural usage and the manner in which this shapes the human’s relationship with his or her self, with others, and with the world.” This is a helpful way of avoiding the interminable debates about technological determinism that often accompany discussion about the role of technology in society.

Second, following Taylor’s example, Minich advances a phenomenological analysis of how technology shapes our relationship to the world. In other words, his concern is not necessarily with this or that particular use of a given technology but with how modern technology encourages us to perceive the world and imagine our relationship to it. Minich pushes readers to see that technologies are not merely neutral tools at our disposal, but critical components of a material milieu that structures and conditions our encounter with reality. Technologies shape the often-unnoticed background of our lives, framing the worlds in which certain arguments make sense and others don’t, certain questions can be raised but others not, and certain propositions bear the burden of proof while others have the force of foundational assumptions.

It is for this reason that Minich insists on the inadequacy of “idea-centric hypotheses concerning the pedigree of unbelief.” Such hypotheses present the rise of unbelief as a merely intellectual matter, one in which better arguments and sound reasoning eventually triumphed over long-held but previously unchallenged traditional beliefs. This narrative amounts to an intellectualist trickle-down theory of secularization whereby the ideas of philosophes and other philosophers eventually work their way down to the masses, undermining their belief in God. By contrast, Minich considers circumstantial explanations, which focus on the material conditions of existence and what he terms “contrarian ‘hybrid’” perspectives, perhaps best represented by Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern. Finally, however, Minich focuses on the work of Charles Taylor, who remains his most important interlocutor throughout. Taylor’s focus on the conditions of belief, rather than the content of belief, is closest to the model of change Minich seeks to construct. But Minich finds certain gaps in Taylor’s account, which he aims to fill by his focus on technological change.

Minich is keen to show that it was in the late nineteenth century, in the wake of industrialization, urbanization, and the transformation of the technological milieu and conditions of labor, that unbelief became thinkable for large segments of the population and that narratives of secularization, disenchantment, and modernity proliferated among the scholars and intellectuals. As he puts it, “There are good reasons to suspect that the metaphysical furniture of the cosmos and our basic/tacit sense of things probably changed less (at least in the West) between 750 and 1750 than it did between 1850 and 1950.”

In the two central chapters of Bulwarks of Unbelief, Minich sets out, first, to establish a correlation between the rise of modern technoculture in the mid-nineteenth century and the rise of modern atheism, and then to argue for a causal relationship between the two phenomena. Citing historical and literary sources, he contends that the rise of unbelief is properly correlated not to the emergence of modern science or Enlightenment models of rationality, but to the lived experience of urban and industrial settings and, critically for Minich, an alienation from the world through the vector of humans’ alienation from their labor. In other words, Minich is positing both a distancing from the realm of nature, or better, a tipping of the balance toward a primary experience of the human-built environment, and a disruption of our relation to the world through labor. What these developments yield is a new experience or felt sense of the world, one characterized by God’s absence. In a later chapter, Minich explores the implications of these developments for Protestant Christianity. Rather than detail his observations on this score, I will note the spirit in which Minich advances his claims. Essentially, he makes a compelling case for a chastened hopefulness about our situation. While the world-alienation he describes brings with it notable problems for human well-being, Minich calls us to resist the temptation either to pine for a return to preindustrial conditions or to despair. Rather, we need to embrace our responsibility for the world and for one another. Humanity has entered a new epoch of technological power, and we ought to reckon with our present situation rather than seek to escape it. And with regards to religious belief, it is true that in our technological milieu belief in God is no longer the default position. But here, too, Minich would have us see the conditions of possibility for a more mature and robust faith which is more deliberately embraced.

Some readers will fault Minich for his failure to engage the most recent scholarship on technology arising from a variety of specialized disciplines, including, for example, sociology, anthropology, history of technology, and varieties of science and technology studies. Most of the work that orients Minich’s thinking about technology, as opposed to the more recent work he cites on labor, the history of atheism, and theories of modernity and secularity, comes from older scholars and theorists whose thought is generally considered dated and empirically lacking: Jacques Ellul, Walter Ong, Richard Sennett, Martin Heidegger, Herbert Marcuse, and, to a lesser extent, Karl Marx. Notable exceptions include references to historians David Edgerton and Leo Marx. But in my admittedly biased view as someone who spends a great deal of time thinking about technology through the works of Ellul, Ivan Illich, and Ong, I hardly think this counts against Minich. Understanding technology requires a multiplicity of perspectives, a promiscuous intermingling of disciplines and approaches. The insights of an older generation of thinkers, while not to be accepted uncritically, offer a distinctive perspective: They arise out of a different lifeworld from ours, one that still had traces of older technocultural configurations, and thus they can illuminate our own thinking by shaking loose stale assumptions and presenting us with alternative ways of thinking about the technohuman condition.