As a part of the Western philosophical cannon, Buber's thought is best understood as a reaction to two previous attitudes toward the question of religious meaning. The first, which can be loosely termed "enlightenment theology", tried to carve out a place for God within the new, modern, rational understanding of the world. The second group, which were atheistic philosophers, attempted instead to deny religion any legitimate place at all within human experience. On the surface, Buber's ideas seem to have more in common with the first group, since he does, after all, believe that there is a place for God in the world. But Buber was deeply influenced by atheistic philosophers, particularly by Friederich Nietzsche, and his theory bears strong resemblance to their thought.

In trying to forge a place for God within the rational world, enlightenment theologians often reduced the deity to a rational principle. Instead of the personal God familiar from traditional religions, these philosophers viewed God as something abstract and fundamentally rational. These philosophers used God as a basis for enlightenment values, for ethics, for tolerance, and for rationality itself. But in their view, God had almost no other qualities or capabilities. In a way it was only a small step for the 19th and 20th century atheists, such as Karl Marx, Freiderich Nietzsche, and Siegmund Freud, to claim that there was, in fact, no divine being. Enlightenment theologians had made God into an abstract principle, with no anthropomorphic features; the atheists simply took the next step and made God into a myth.

According to the atheistic philosphers, the human notion of God is nothing but a sign of weakness or distress. Religion, in fact, prevents us from addressing the most fundamental problems of humanity by creating an opiate which dulls human suffering without actually healing the problem. According to Karl Marx, for example, religious desire is a symptom of social conditions that are not providing people with the proper environment for their flourishing. He sees religion as a drug which helps soothe the pain caused by the improper conditions, without doing anything to actually improve the situation. For Nietzsche, religion is a crutch that is used by the weak to avoid facing life in its full power and unpredictability. For Freud, religion is an obsessional neurosis that keeps us from reconciling ourselves to the burden of culture.

Buber partly directed his thought towards answering these atheist philosophers. He wanted to prove, first and foremost, that religious experience is not deceptive: it is not a mask that hides deep human problems. Instead, it is a true experience of communion with a higher power, an experience that has tangible and wholly desirable results. But Buber was also unsatisfied with the religious thought of the enlightenment thinkers. He saw that the God they envisioned was merely a tool for human reasoning, a principle that they used rather than a being with whom we can relate. Nietzsche, then, Buber claims, was absolutely correct when he argued that such a God is dead; such a God, in fact, could not possibly be alive.

While the enlightenment theologians tried to carve out a space for God within the realm of reason, and the atheists tried remove God completely from the picture of human life, Buber takes a third path: he removes God from the realm of reason, but does not therefore discard Him. Buber claims that there are two modes of engaging with the world. There is the mode of experience, in which we gather data, analyze, and theorize; and there is also the mode of encounter, in which we simply relate. The first mode is that of science and reason. When we experience something in this mode, we treat it as an object, a thing, an It. If God existed in this realm, as the enlightenment theologians believed that he did, then He would have to be a thing, something we use, such as an opiate, a crutch, or an obsessional neurosis. But religious experience is not a part of this realm, Buber claims; religious experience can only be achieved through the second mode, encounter. Through encounter we relate to another as a You, not as an object to be used, but as an other with whom we must relate.