Secularization and Hiddenness

I think J.L. Schellenberg’s atheistic argument from divine hiddenness is profoundly compelling. However, it’s a relatively recent argument; for much of human history, God didn’t seem so hidden. Even today, most people don’t appreciate the force of the argument. After all, billions of people believe in God. To the extent that God is hidden, he’s apparently not that hidden. Thus, in order to appreciate the argument from hiddnness one has to understand it, I think, against the background of secularization.

Secularization is the process whereby religion, at least in its public influence, declines. It has many components, one of which is disenchantment. The term was coined by Max Weber and describes the process by which science erodes belief in the supernatural. In ancient times, the world was enchanted; gods and spirits inhabited the natural world and could, thus, be clearly seen. This carried over also into monotheism. Although God no longer inhabited the natural world in an animistic sense, as St. Paul says in Romans 1, the invisible things of God can be clearly seen by what has been made. No problem of divine hiddenness here! However, once the natural world is disenchanted, it’s no longer as easy to see God in all things. Under conditions of secularization, then, the problem of hiddenness has real teeth.

Another way of putting the point is to say that hiddenness becomes a problem once belief in God becomes optional. When one no longer lives in an enchanted universe belief in God, formerly a necessity, becomes an optional accessory. Charles Taylor makes this point in his monumental book A Secular Age. He says that in the past five hundred years, at least in the West, we’ve gone from a culture in which virtually everybody believed in God, to one in which belief in God is one option among many. This has much to do with the forces driving secularization. One of these forces, though by no means the only one, is disenchantment. The modern person — religious or otherwise — no longer sees the world as a populated by gods, spirits, and demons. For this reason, belief in God can be abandoned. By contrast, in an earlier age, abandoning belief in God was not simply to go it alone in an indifferent, naturalistic universe, but to go it alone in a universe full of spirits, not all benign. Under these cultural conditions, the hiddenness of God simply isn’t felt. Rather, the world is characterized by the ubiquitous presence of God and lesser spirits as well. With secularization, however, comes the disenchantment of the world. The absence of God can be fully experienced. People living under the legacy of modernity — whether they identify as religious or not — can now feel the force of the argument from hiddenness.

Another point Taylor makes is that these secular conditions make it more difficult to have religious experiences, or perhaps more precisely, make it more difficult to experience phenomena as religious phenomena. Most non-theists are acquainted with feelings of awe, wonder, perhaps even what they might call the transcendent or the sublime. The sublime, an important category in 18th century aesthetic philosophy, is the feeling of smallness one experiences when faced with the grandeur of nature. It’s the familiar experience of feeling that one is in the presence of something greater than oneself. Of course, this could be interpreted in various ways. It’s very possible, especially in an enchanted universe, to interpret this as a religious experience. In the modern period, coinciding with the rise of secularism, the preferred interpretation of the sublime is as an aesthetic experience. The disenchantment of the world doesn’t make it impossible to experience the sublime, but it does make it more difficult to experience it as a purely religious phenomenon. And, of course, without religious experience, moderns feel the absence of God more acutely.

Thus, it’s necessary to understand the processes of secularization and disenchantment in order to fully appreciate the force of the argument from hiddenness. Those who still cling to the enchanted worldview will probably not be convinced by the argument. However, that number appears to be in decline, at least in the West. We are all modernists and secularists to some extent, including those who identify as religious. Indeed, I argued in a previous post that pretty much everybody in the contemporary West is a dispositional atheist. What I mean by that, in part, is that when the chips are down we’re all good little modernists. We place our trust in modernity, science, technology, etc. instead of in an enchanted universe. For those who recognize themselves in this description, I suggest that the argument from divine hiddenness has real force.

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