To “see” modernity we need to first compare and contrast the environment and way-of-life of a modern city with those of a premodern village. The basic characteristics of a modern city are so distinctive that every modern city looks and feels the same. Someone who has lived in a modern city is able to adapt quickly when in another modern city for the very first time. But imagine what happens when someone who has always lived in a premodern village suddenly finds himself in a modern city. We can see modernity most clearly through his eyes. But having “seen” modernity, even Christians may still wonder what the big deal is.
Since modernization is driven by materialist assumptions, modernity incarnates materialism and hence atheism. Craig Gay (1998: 3), a professor in interdisciplinary studies, has warned Christians that “because practical atheism is so deeply embedded in the central institutional realities of our society and culture—in political life, in science and technology, in the economy, and in the production and transmission of culture—the threat that it poses to the Church and to truly human existence in general is not always immediately evident.” This warning is about the incarnation of materialism and atheism in the modern way-of-life. We only need to recall and consider the consumer economy to appreciate the seriousness of this warning. For a consumerist way-of-life is built on the assumption that God and spiritual things do not exist or matter.
Materialism not only infuses and shapes our way-of-life but also our environment to the detriment of our soul, which materialism denies exists. Lewis Mumford (1961: 426) remarks in his classic book on the city: “The law of urban growth, as dictated by the [materialist] capitalist economy, meant the inexorable wiping out of all the natural features that delight and fortify the human soul in its daily rounds.” We witness this whenever “development” takes place. But there have also been voices of caution. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's first Prime Minister, speaking at the official opening of the National Orchid Garden in 1995, said: “I have always believed that a blighted urban landscape, a concrete jungle destroys the human spirit. We need the greenery of nature to lift up our spirits” (Koh 2000: 40).
The built environment of modern cities is not just the incidental consequence of “the law of urban growth.” Smith ( 2011: 81) reports that
in a classic study of the history of urban planning, Peter Hall observes that the influence of Le Corbusier’s ideas on urban development in the twentieth century has been “incalculably great”, with results which were “at best questionable, at worst catastrophic” (Hall 1996: 203) .... For Le Corbusier city building involved a struggle against nature in which she must be undermined; the architect and planner need to “hack at nature” and take a position in which they oppose her.
This means the “blighted urban landscape” that characterizes modern cities is also intentional. Not only that, Gorringe (2002: 4) reports that in the twentieth century, architecture was dominated by “a brutalist technology for which ‘man’ was a ‘machine’ and buildings, accordingly, ‘machines for living in’.” He is referring to the slogan of Le Corbusier. This means the house we live in only needs to be functional from a machine’s point of view.
What then is the function of a house from this point of view? According to philosopher Alain de Botton (2006: 57), “Le Corbusier arrived (‘scientifically’ he assured his readers) at a simple list of requirements, beyond which all other ambitions were no more than ‘romantic cobwebs’. The function of a house was, he wrote, to provide: ‘1. A shelter against heat, cold, rain, thieves and the inquisitive. 2. A receptacle for light and sun. 3. A certain number of cells appropriated to cooking, work, and personal life.’”
The “romantic cobwebs” would include the design of the building, the decorations and furnishings that serve no function except to make the house look beautiful. But “the human soul cries out for the nourishment of beauty” (Gorringe 2002: 198). So it is not surprising that most of us would invest in some “cobwebs” to find some relief for our soul.
Hence, thanks to the materialist ideology driving Le Corbusier’s influential ideas on urban development, not just the landscape of a modern city, but even the buildings we live or work in may be hostile to the human soul. With such a stifling of the human spirit, in a modern city God does not feel real and spiritual things do not seem true. Instead of quickening the fear of God the modern city quenches it. So much so that even religious people may not see anything wrong with the consumerist way-of-life. In modernity it is very tempting for even religious people to live as though God and spiritual things do not exist or matter (cf. Gay 1998).
God’s purpose for humanity involves having fellowship with Him and with one another. This requires a community that is conducive for cultivating fellowship with God and with fellow humans. But modernity not only renders the idea of fellowship with God quaint but also treats the need for fellowship with fellow humans trivial. For the environment and way-of-life in a modern city are also hostile to the formation of community, where neighbors have face-to-face fellowship and can be counted on in times of need. This cultural development is consistent with the materialist view of human beings that in-forms the building of a modern city. For if humans do not have a soul, they need fellowship with one another as much as robots do.
What is more consequential to belief in God, and in God’s purpose for humanity, is that modernization not only modernizes our environment and way-of-life but also our way-of-thinking. As theologian David Wells (1993: 91) laments, it is “precisely because modernization has created an external world in which unbelief seems normal, it has at the same time created a world in which Christian faith is alien.” Thus it can be difficult for even professing Christians to resist the materialist mold of the external world from shaping their way-of-thinking. In a different context, anthropologist John Reader (2006: 9) concludes, “clearly, the integral role of the city in human affairs runs deep—well beyond the streets and buildings and into the realms of conscious and sub-conscious awareness that make us who we are. To paraphrase Winston Churchill: ‘We shape our cities, then they shape us’.” For better or for worse.
Given how godless modern civilization is, it is not coincidental that, like the Cainite civilization, morality and God’s will for marriage are increasingly falling apart. A materialist would certainly deny that godlessness has anything to do with the disintegration of morality under modernity. An argument for the necessity of religion to restore and maintain moral order has come from an unlikely source. In reviewing Guenter Lewy’s book Why America Needs Religion: Secular Modernity and its Discontents, philosopher J. Budziszewski (1997) highlights that Lewy actually set out to disprove the view that “the real crisis of our age is a crisis of unbelief.” He ended up doing the opposite though he still rejects the reality of God. “While he insists that a few individuals manage to be good without belief in God, he just as insistently denies that a whole culture can do so. The reason turns out to be that even these few are living on borrowed scruples.”
This partial conversion of one who professes to be “neither a Christian nor a theist” is not surprising. For in his book Lewy (1996: 133-34) himself raises this challenge:
Those inclined to doubt the important role played by religion in upholding the moral order may want to confront the question posed by Dennis Prager, a Jewish writer and editor in Los Angeles: Imagine that you are walking alone at night in a dark alley in a bad neighborhood in Los Angeles, and you see several [Prager specified 10] strapping young men walking toward you. Would you or would you not be relieved to know that they had just attended a Bible class? It is a sure bet, Prager maintains, that “even if you are a member of Atheists United, if you are a member of Down With God, Inc., you, too, would breathe a major sigh of relief if you were walking in a dark alley and you knew they had just been studying Genesis. Because while it is possible they will mug or rape you, deep in your gut you know that the likelihood is that they won’t” (Prager and Glover 1993: 4).
There are atheists who argue that they would also be relieved if they knew that the 10 men in the dark alley had just been studying secular humanism. Even if we grant this, Prager would respond that in the real world, in the bad parts of modern cities, it is more likely to find 10 men studying the Bible than secular humanism, or any other subject that would bring us relief in that dark alley. This observation is itself a testimony to the role (true) belief in God plays in changing lives for the better.