Early theorists of religion understood the presence of supernatural figures in religions as evidence of a “primitive” mentality. Only “savage,” “primitive,” and “unenlightened” races and persons—in the terminology of modern theory—imagined their gods to be tangible, to be really present in places and things, to be danced with, to be begged for help, and to be cursed. Practices of presence came to be associated with women, children, dark-skinned people, and the lower classes. But the prototype for this judgment was Catholicism. The notion of the “fetish,” for example, of the thing alive with the presence of the spirits, was explicitly derived by analogy with Catholic sacramental theology and devotional practice. Catholics were modernity’s once and future “primitives.” This judgment may still be found in developmental theories of the stages of faith development, in which practices of presence directed to beings who hear and respond are taken as indicators of a lower level of religious consciousness.

Social, political, and religious theorists from the eighteenth century forward took the absence of supernatural figures from everyday life—from workplaces, public forums, and the state—as constitutive of modernity. To be a modern person meant precisely to free oneself from superstitious and infantile subservience to and dependence on supernatural figures really present, those embodied in bread and wine as well as those in plaster, paint, rock and bones, whose existence was understood to be projection of human weakness, powerlessness, and ignorance. To be in such a posture of submission—a posture that may be seen to this very day at any shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary—was to abdicate one’s human dignity. It was assumed that over time, as particular cultures and humanity generally progressed, such beliefs would disappear. The philosopher David Hume predicted in The Natural History of Religion (1757) that the day was soon coming when modern men and women would no longer even remember that once upon a time there were humans on this planet who believed that the gods were really present to them.

Marcel Mauss adopts this teleology in his study of prayer. Over time, he argued, prayer (which is taken by ancient practitioners to be effective only as it is embodied) becomes “completely mental and interior,” as it goes from being collective to “the individual’s free converse with God.” Prayer as speaking is closer to the act of thinking (or cognition), and this is why it is “able to become more abstract and spiritualized at the same time as religious things become more immaterial and transcendent.” But progress is not uninterrupted; there will be regression, Mauss says, when “the most spiritual prayer” degenerates into “a mere material object,” or when prayers are mindlessly spoken in languages no one understands. In such contexts prayer itself becomes fetishized. It is the fate of prayer, as of religion and of civilization, to become ever more interior and less relational.

The notion of sacred absence is so firmly embedded in modern and contemporary intellectual culture that the most influential theories of religion today make no reference to supernatural figures and humans beings’ relationships with them as being integral to the practices of religions. In his history of the making of modern consciousness, philosopher Charles Taylor refers to supernatural presences in the Catholic imaginary as “the old model of presence.” Supernatural beings really present in matter, time, and space thus become the key markers of a story about time. This way of being in the world belongs to the past of the species and the childhood of individuals. The phrase “modern religion” has always entailed both descriptive and prescriptive dimensions, inscribing one way of being religious as “religion” itself. Fundamental to this disciplinary work of boundary construction is the absence of real presences. The problem is that this is the way most of the world is “religious” today.