Is modernity inescapably godless and immoral?

Sincerely religious people, and conservatives generally, believe that human beings are responsible for their actions, not the slaves of fate. Yet they also know that beliefs and ideas have consequences for how we act, often unintended ones; and the ideas that accompanied the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity undoubtedly—some say inevitably—facilitated the rise of contemporary political secularism and its philosophical accomplice, rationalism. To restore society to religion and moral order, must we shun modernity and its offspring—political liberalism, religious freedom, the market economy, and the culture of science?

It was in part to answer this worry that the twentieth-century Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce wrote his 1964 book, The Problem of Atheism. Secularism undoubtedly accompanied modernity, he admits, but it is a mistake to conflate the two. A perfect case study for this truth is the thought of the father of modern philosophy himself, René Descartes. Although Descartes enabled the birth of rationalism, it was not a necessary consequence of his thought. Rather, rationalism emerged from others’ deliberate rejection of the Christian religion that Descartes strove to defend.

The Worldly Spirit of Rationalism

Rationalism, a signature philosophy of the Enlightenment, tries, as conservative philosopher Yoram Hazony says, to make philosophy as certain in its conclusions as “a mathematical system,” proceeding from “universal truths” that reason discovers. Most rationalists—such as Locke, Kant, Hegel, and the French philosophes—assert that reason is the highest form of knowledge, above even supernatural faith, and that it alone should govern public life. God and religion are at best incidental to human affairs, and at worst their enemy.

René Descartes is often taken to be the founder of this school. A gifted mathematician, he created a metaphysics that many think better suited to geometry than philosophy. He so trusted reason’s ability that he attempted to prove God’s existence by reason alone. He began his philosophy from radical doubt, rejected all prior philosophical tradition, and conceived man’s spiritual life as a “separate interiority” (what others call a dualistic separation of the mind from bodily experience) in order to, like Machiavelli, “dissociat[e] . . . the spiritual life from politics and from history.”

Later rationalists used Descartes’s framework to separate religion from social life, regrounding the aspects of Christian culture that they liked on a non-Christian basis. The philosophes accepted the biblical belief that history follows a linear progression, but detached it from belief in divine providence. Spinoza accepted the ideal of love of neighbor, but he denied God’s transcendence and affirmed pantheistic naturalism. To defend individual freedom, British empiricists (“moderate” rationalists by Del Noce’s account) accepted Descartes’s separation of religion from politics—a legacy of Christ’s separation of “the things of Caesar” from “the things of God”—but they concluded religion should stay out of public life, since they thought it was nearly impossible to know the transcendent.

In short, the rationalists wanted to retain Christianity’s politically attractive elements—respect for human freedom and dignity—without relying on God. They meant to effect “man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage” as Kant famously said, that he might “use [his] own understanding without another’s guidance.” And what inspired them was the conviction that man’s state in this life is “his normal condition,” not “fallen” from any ideal life of grace that only God could restore. In place of the Bible’s humble acknowledgment of man’s dependence on his Creator, made most obvious by his inveterate sinfulness, rationalists adopted an attitude of proud self-reliance: paradise can be ours now, as Marx later said, if we only liberate ourselves from the alienating claims of religion.

The rationalists wanted to retain Christianity’s politically attractive elements—respect for human freedom and dignity—without relying on God.


Freedom, Transcendence, and the Person

But although Descartes perhaps enabled rationalism’s rebellion against Christianity, his intended project was quite the opposite. He meant to preserve Christianity’s distinctive and closely related commitments to freedom, transcendence, and human dignity.

Descartes by no means rejected biblical religion. He affirmed the doctrine of original sin through his condemnation of egocentrism as an obstacle to true knowledge. He separated religion and politics not to drive religion out of public life, but to affirm that religion does not need the state: “every [political] order,” he thought, “since it is historical,” can never be justified by “religious or rational necessity,” whether by revelation or natural law. And he promoted science not so that man could do without religion, but so that, with dignity and freedom, he could exercise his God-given dominion over creation without being enslaved to nature’s subhuman elements.

At the same time, Descartes did not hate the world. He did not want to devalue social life or the body, as many say; he only meant to assert that the person’s “interiority”—his spiritual existence—is fundamentally free, that is, other than the world around him. Descartes’s whole project, Del Noce suggests, could be called a “philosophy of freedom.” But unlike the rationalists, he loved freedom not from self-interest, but out of devotion to the transcendent God—in his words, to “the three wonders God has made:” “creation from nothing, free will, and the Man-God,” or we might say: God’s freedom in making the world, man’s own freedom of choice, and God’s freedom to intervene in nature through miracles, above all the Incarnation.

Freedom, transcendence, and personal identity, Descartes recognized, stand or fall together.


This is why he so strenuously opposed the anti-transcendent philosophy of Renaissance naturalism. Following Aristotle, many naturalists privileged the order of nature (or essences) over existence, and therefore conceived all reality as a necessary outflow of the natures of things. Some subjected even God to necessity, suggesting that creation is the automatic byproduct of his nature (not the free choice of his love); they effectively made the universe part of him. In their world, Christianity’s talk of moral responsibility and freedom, whether of God or man, is meaningless, since there is nothing in reality that is not necessary, and therefore no metaphysical “space” in which persons could exist apart from other beings.

Freedom, transcendence, and personal identity, Descartes recognized, stand or fall together. In order to save them, he felt he had to start from scratch, not from Aristotle and the medieval philosophy that used him. He wanted to create a purely Christian philosophy, freed from the aspects of Greek thought that tended to confuse God and the world.

Faith in God versus Faith in Man

But Descartes’s philosophical defense of freedom can lead one at least as easily away from religion as toward it, and there lies its danger.

Descartes by faith believes God’s creation is good; but out of excessive concern to protect God’s freedom to create and intervene in nature, he asserts that creation’s goodness is a function only of God’s will and not also of the wisdom that God built into creation (a position known as “voluntarism”). He can give reasons why one ought not to abandon religion once it is accepted, but he cannot give reasons to become religious to start with: he will not point to nature’s goodness as a proof of its Creator’s goodness and hence of that Creator’s credibility. It is therefore unsurprising that Descartes’s most famous religious interpreter, Pascal, presented religious faith as a “wager,” sometimes “without” or even “against” reason, which to many seems arbitrary. Descartes’s separation of man’s transcendent interior life from his bodily experience also makes it difficult to give reasons why some uses of freedom are good and others sinful. The more one downplays the role of the body in human nature, the more difficult it is to define which acts follow nature and which do not.

Like Ockham’s nominalism, Descartes’s philosophy ends up conceiving freedom, whether God’s or man’s, merely as indifference, with little or no positive orientation. It is merely “the power of negativity,” the freedom “to distinguish myself,” “break my dependence on history, and become capable of an absolutely new beginning.”

To a believer, this notion of freedom might confirm man’s moral responsibility and God’s sovereignty over creation; but to the unbeliever, “the religious position distracts my attention from the future and from the realization of my natural perfection.” In the end, the only thing that distinguishes a religious Cartesian from a rationalist one—a Pascal from a Spinoza—is not that one might be more logically consistent with Descartes than the other, but that one accepts belief in a transcendent God and the other does not. They are divided not by reason but by faith—the choice they make for or against God before they come to philosophy.

Some religious believers might dispute Descartes’s implied suggestion that the choice for God is as arbitrary as the choice against him. And yet many of them who think belief should not contradict reason should still agree that, because God transcends the soul, our final union with God must be achieved not only by the intellect’s understanding—which can grasp things only on its own level—but also by the choice of the will, by which the soul can unite with realities greater than itself.

In the end, the only thing that distinguishes a religious Cartesian from a rationalist one—a Pascal from a Spinoza—is not that one might be more logically consistent with Descartes than the other, but that one accepts belief in a transcendent God and the other does not.


But the Cartesian notion of freedom as arbitrary and non-rational perfectly describes the rationalist-atheist’s choice against God, even if he claims to be pursuing truth. After all, all truth claims, as Marx pointed out, whether natural or supernatural, are by definition transcendent—universal principles that exist above the individual knower, that can be shared by or “participated in” by anyone, and that bind everyone. A “philosophy” that shuns transcendence and justifies man on merely human terms cannot consistently appeal to truth, reason’s proper object, but only to “self-respect” or “authenticity.” Rationalism is no philosophy at all; it is faith of the most radical kind—a mere, unreasonable choice: a “gratuitous option in favor of man’s . . . self-sufficiency.”

Thus Del Noce’s analysis of Descartes’s thought paradoxically reveals that neither Descartes nor any ideas are the primary cause of our rationalist secular age. True atheism, in which consistent rationalism ends, is “not the result of speculative proofs” (“atheists” who are committed to truth are in fact on the way to God). Atheism uses proofs only as an afterthought, to rationalize “the will to live consistently the original attitude” that is the “essence of rationalism:” a blind faith in man, rooted in the denial “of sin, . . . of [man’s] initial Fall.”

Hope for Modernity

Thus, despite the flaws in Descartes’s thought that enabled the rise of rationalism, one cannot call him the founder of modern secularism. Today’s widespread irreligion has arisen less from ideas than from our choices to use ideas to rationalize our own selfish decisions. Atheism is not a necessary consequence of any forces outside of us: whether we live for God with his help, or live for ourselves by our limited understanding, is up to us.

This is the message of hope at the core of The Problem of Atheism: a refutation of the pessimistic notion that “in every philosopher, from Descartes onward,” “the history of philosophy is a process of secularization.” The solution to contemporary atheism is not to abandon modernity and its noble aspirations for freedom, truth, and respect for human dignity. We must instead find a way to show our fellow citizens why we cannot live up to these ideals consistently without God.

Del Noce prefers Descartes’s general philosophical approach (which he calls “Ontologism”), with some corrections, as a starting point for expressing the need for transcendence to the modern world. Others might prefer Thomas Aquinas’s philosophy of being and its “real distinction” between nature (a person’s possible ways of being) and existence (the way of being he actually lives by). This framework permits man the freedom to live as he chooses while still rooting him in nature, both body and soul, and it avoids the problems of conceiving freedom as indifference.

But most importantly, each of us must devote himself more to God and his will, not our own. The crisis of modernity is less a crisis of thinking than of a lack of saints in the world. Let us resolve to be more generous toward God and the others he has put in our lives, freely—indeed heroically—transcending our selfish, worldly comfort-seeking by our daily choices—choices that we alone can make for ourselves.