I finally read THE PROBLEM OF GOD—a neglected classic by the great Jesuit theologian and political thinker John Courtney Murray (1904-67). Here’s the contribution Murray makes to our understanding of postmodern conservatism or postmodernism rightly understood.
Distinctively modern thought is constituted by a will to atheism. That will to freedom understood as complete autonomy is prior to any modern science or theorizing. Modern man (and woman) fell in love with himself or what he creates for himself. He aimed to will into being an anthropocentric world, a world made up of free beings who no longer have any need for God or anything given. Modern man was determined to impose his will on nature, to create a world worthy of who he is.
The modern will to atheism has displayed itself in three ways. The first Murray calls “aristocratic atheism.” That’s the intention of a philosophical elite to explain everything without the “hypothesis” of God. The inability of aristocratic atheism to achieve definitive success produced “bourgeois atheism.” Its intention was to show that people could live happily and comfortably without God. But, as Rousseau, Marx, and Freud (among others) showed, bourgeois men and women are in certain ways more anxious and miserable than people have ever been. The failure of bourgeois atheism produced “political atheism”—the effort to impose a wholly secular political unity upon naturally anarchistic beings. Political atheism was the remedy of the Jacobin French republicans, as it was, in different ways, of the German Nazis and the Soviet Communists. These forms of atheism have a definite logical relationship: The movement is from the relatively theoretical efforts of the aristocratic atheists to the intensely practical or wholly willful and ruthlessly forcible efforts of the political atheists. But all three forms of atheism exist simultaneously in the modern world. So it wouldn’t have surprised Murray to see, with the collapse of Communism as the extreme or logically consistent form of political atheism, revivals of aristocratic and bourgeois atheism. Our basically neo-Darwinian “new atheists”—such as Dawkins and Dennett—are really aristocratic atheists. They believe that they can explain everything without God, and that our real problem is that fundamentalist Americans are too dumb and scared to affirm their wisdom. We also have our “bourgeois bohemian” atheists, who claim to have made bourgeois success compatible with personal self-fulfillment.
And we even have our Rawlsians or soft political atheists. They say that religion is nothing but a private fantasy that has no place in “public reason.” They wouldn’t kill those who speak as if God is real, but they would marginalize or ostracize them.
It’s Sartre—or the insistent existentialist—who saw, according to Murray, the truth about modern atheism. It’s rejection of all natural and divine order in favor of the unlimited human will is basically absurd. Sartre still affirms the absurdity as definitive evidence of our freedom from all "essential" determination except our own, arbitrary impositions There’s something quite Biblical, Murray observes, in Sartre’s thought that the willful rejection of God culminates in absurdity.
For Murray, postmodernism begins by a decision against willful atheism, a decision that’s quite reasonable in view of the obvious failure of every modern effort to solve or explain away or willfully negate the problem of God. Modern human beings, as Pascal saw at the modern world’s beginning, are miserably anxious—or experience themselves as absurd leftovers—in the absence of God, partly because that absence is only willed or not real or merely a diversion from what we really know.