What is postmodernism? (AP14)

In this final section of the Atheism and Postmodernism unit, we will focus on postmodernism and religion.  Before looking at the postmodern view of reality, we need to understand what postmodernism is.

Postmodernism means ‘after modernism’, in the same way that 2:30pm means ‘post-meridian’ or after midday.  This means that in order to understand postmodernism we need to look at the idea of modernism.


When we talk about modernism and postmodernism, we are using sociological terms that try to describe the society we live in.  These labels are not linked to dates, though they can be linked to time periods.  They are more to do with the key ideas found in cultures at particular times.

The modern world began around the middle of the 18th century and is closely linked with the rise of science and empiricism.  Perhaps the key feature of the modern world is the importance given to human reason as the source of truth.

The modern world was convinced of the supreme ability of human thinking to understand everything about the world around us and therefore our ability to master and control the world.  We might not yet have all the answers to these questions, but using the tools and methods of science and empiricism we one day would know all that there is to know.

Consequently, the idea of modernism was focussed on there being a single, objective, discoverable truth, an absolute truth and that progress towards this complete truth was inevitable.    This single truth would be conveyed in a metanarrative – a big story that would help explain all things.

The modernist metanarrative (literally ‘over story’) held  that through human reason and intellect, all questions could be answered; it was just a matter of time before we got there.

As such, modernism was a confident, ebullient, optimistic idea about human potential.  Perhaps the greatest example of this ebullience and confidence came in 1961 when President Kennedy committed the US to putting a man on the moon by the end of that decade.  The optimism with which President Kennedy announced this led to a sustained drive by NASA and the American government which was successful with the moon landing taking place in 1969.quote-we-choose-to-go-to-the-moon-in-this-decade-and-do-the-other-things-not-because-they-are-easy-but-john-f-kennedy-307383

The belief in the scientific and technological ability of humans to achieve this nicely illustrates the idea that humans could conquer any challenge they set themselves.

Modernism, being linked with science and empiricism, is closely associated with atheism.  Modernism promised that humans could occupy a “God’s eye” view of the world in which we knew all things and could control these, making God redundant.

Now that we have an understanding of modernism, we can turn our attention to postmodernism.

Postmodernism can be extremely difficult to define by itself, so it is best understood by concentrating on the ‘post’ aspect of it – how is it different to modernism?  how does it come after modernism?

Whereas modernism argues that human reason can lead us to a compete understanding of an objective and absolute truth, postmodernism rejects the very idea that there is a single absolute truth.    Postmodernism argues that truth is relative and not absolute and so there are limits to what humans can know.  A “God’s eye” view of reality is not possible. Nothing is certain.  There is no metanarrative.  There is no TRUTH.

Postmodernism’s rejection of absolute truth leads it to think of truth as subjective, relative and local.  Truth depends on who you are and where and when you are.

In place of one over-arching metanarrative that explains all things, there are many mini-narratives, each one true in its own setting.

As such postmodernism is far more pessimistic than modernism.  Since there is no absolute truth, there can be no progress towards it.  Since there is no total explanation, the best we can ever hope for is a partial, fragmentary understanding.  Whereas modernism could shout, “This IS the truth”, postmodernism more meekly says “This is true for me, it might not be true for you.”  And because truth is relative, the focus of postmodernism is now more on searching rather than knowing.

Though postmodernism is more pessimistic, it is also far more tolerant and respectful of other worldviews.  Whereas in modernism truth needed to be found so that falsehoods could be exposed and eliminated, in postmodernism there are no truths so there are no falsehoods.  The “what’s true for me” approach does not allow for arrogance or confidence in your being right, because there is no such think as right, only right for you.

Postmodernism emerged in the latter parts of the 20th century, so you have grown up entirely in a post-modern world.  In this world, truth has to be decided on by each individual for themselves, depending on what works for them at that particular time.

Os Guiness wrote:

“Where modernism was a manifesto of human self-congratulation and self-confidence, postmodernism is a confession of modesty, if not despair.”

Guinness rightly identifies modernism’s self-confidence, and that self-confidence led to a very congratulatory nature.  In the modern world, humans were very impressed by themselves, we saw how we were able to tame and control the world around us, and thought that nothing was beyond our capabilities, if only we set our minds to it.  However, this self-confidence has vanished as we have realised that maybe there is no single truth for us to know.  There are limits to what humans can achieve.

Guinness continues by noting the differences between modernism and postmodernism.

“There is no truth, only truths.  There is not grand reason, only reasons.  There is no privileged society (or culture, belief, norm and style), only a multiplicity of cultures, beliefs, normal and styles.  There is no grand narrative of human progress, only countless stories of where people and their cultures are now.”

Here, Guiness is focussing on the change from the single truth of modernism, to the many truths of postmodernism.  Whereas in modernism a single truth was an absolute truth, in postmodernism there are many truths and therefore  truth is relative, truth is different for each person.

If you want to look into this a little more, the two videos below, ‘What is postmodernism?’ and ‘Bill Kynes – What is postmodernism?’ are both good summaries.  Though both of them are speaking from a Christian perspective, they neatly explain how postmodernism differs from modernism.