lunes, 14 de diciembre de 2015

Atheists do have gods and no matter how hard they try, they can never be rid of them

The Gods of Atheism


The German Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich famously claimed that “God”—or “god”—is the name for what “concerns man ultimately.” What this means, says Tillich in the first volume of his Systematic Theology, is that “whatever concerns a man ultimately becomes god for him, and, conversely, it means that a man can be concerned ultimately only about that which is god for him.”

Evidently, in what he says about “ultimate concern,” Tillich is looking at the human side of the equation. In other words, he’s talking about what we treat as divine. He’s not talking about what truly deserves to be called “divine.” This is why Tillich explains this concept of God as a “phenomenological description.”

Tillich’s insight is not without precedent. There is something like it in, for example, Aquinas’s analysis (more or less following Aristotle) of the different conceptions of thesummum bonum or “highest good.” But whatever historical precedents there may be, the important thing is the insight itself, which is quite valuable. For one thing, it can help us better to understand atheism. If Tillich is right, atheists are not—indeed, cannot be—people who do not treat something as if it were divine.

This is not to say that atheists call anything they believe in “god” or “God,” for typically they do not. It is to say, rather—if we follow Tillich’s line of thought—that atheists live their lives as if something were divine; that is, atheists too treat something as of “ultimate concern.”

I regard “ultimate concern” as a name for whatever it is we value most; it’s whatever we treat as the “pearl of great price,” the highest good, what are lives are finally about. This could be our work, our country, other people, science, vacations on the Riviera—any number of things. It might even be God, which, of course, would make the most sense (anti-theistic objections aside).

Let me take a well-known atheist with well-known views to illustrate my point. It can be plausibly argued that Jean-Paul Sartre, at least in his early work, values freedom above all. We are only what we make ourselves to be, Sartre believes. Everything depends on our choices. This is the cardinal point of his existentialism. Freedom, therefore, is Sartre’s ultimate concern (assuming he put his theory into practice) and, consequently, his god.

Why We Do Anything At All

But does everyone really have an ultimate concern? Well, to switch back to the language and moral theory of Aristotle and Aquinas, people do not act at all, they do not do anything, unless there is something they regard as the highest good, which is the final term of their action, that for the sake of which they do everything else.

Every action that I do “on purpose” (and this purpose can be dimly or clearly in mind) has a reason or aim—a why. If it doesn’t, then it’s not an action that I do on purpose,but is something that happens to me beyond my control, and so is not truly my action at all. The why of my actions is supplied by that which is achieved—either by my present deed, or by another deed, toward which the present one is directed. Therefore, the good I get from either the action I do hic et nunc or from another action—to which the first is subordinated—is the highest good for me, that is, what I’m ultimately after.

All that may sound pretty abstract, and it is. Let’s try to bring it down to earth. Suppose that right now I’m buying olives, gin, and vermouth. The actions I’m doing at the moment are meant to procure these items. But that’s not what they’re ultimately about, of course. You might—if you have even the most rudimentary knowledge of cocktails—say that they’re ultimately about making a martini. You might say that but it would be true only if, for me, martinis are the highest good. But if martinis are not what I see as the highest good, then there is still some other ultimate reason for what I’m doing at the moment. That reason will be whatever it is I understand my highest good to be because highest goods (or ultimate concerns) are, by definition, what our lives are really about. We can be mistaken about what that is. We can make our lives about something that we shouldn’t, but we cannot fail to make them about something.

I do not have the space in this essay to completely lay out Aristotle and Aquinas’s account of human action, or entertain objections against it, so this all-too-brief sketch will have to suffice.

Theoretical and Practical Atheism

A standard distinction is made between theoretical and practical atheism. In this context “theoretical” means what people officially profess and “practical” refers to how they actually live their lives. Theoretical atheists, then, are people who expressly deny the existence of any gods and practical atheists are people who live as if there are no gods.

Thinking of the divine and religion in the way suggested by Tillich (supplemented by Aristotle and Aquinas), we see that some obvious problems arise for both theoretical and practical atheism.

The problem for atheism at the theoretical level consists in having to admit that everyone, including theoretical atheists, has a god and, hence, is religious in some plausible sense. However, theoretical atheists can still go on arguing (whether they can do so successfully is another question) that nothing exists that truly deserves the name “God” even if everyone lives as if there were and cannot do otherwise.

The problem for atheism at a practical level is far more devastating, to put it mildly. If the reasoning that I have been urging is cogent, then practical atheism is simply not possible. Ultimate concern (or having highest goods) is unavoidable. So, no one can be an atheist, practically speaking.

But all of this is only restating in a different way what I have said earlier. Still, the distinction between the theoretical and practical allows us to note a further problem for atheists that has only been implicit so far. Their theory will always be inconsistent with their practice. The slippage is ineliminable. Even if they continue to argue that nothing truly deserves to be called “God,” they must behave as though the opposite were true.


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