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 the summum 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.

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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.

Words, Words, Words
Surely all we are doing here is playing with words, or so some people might believe. I have merely decided (with Tillich) to use the word “God” or “god” for whatever it is that people value most and to call their valuing of this thing “religion.” Any argument can come out in our favor—our critics might assert—if we but manipulate the relevant vocabulary to suit our interests. Isn’t this just Thrasymachus’s subversive strategy in the Republic employed in a different context?

And couldn’t our own “game” be turned against us? Let’s not forget that the ancient Romans charged the Christians with atheism over their disbelief in the gods of the Roman state.

It seems to me that an arbitrary game of words is hardly what is going on here. Many religious people take the divinity or divinities they worship to be what in scholastic vocabulary we, justifiably, would call the “highest good.” If they did not understand their gods in this way, they would not consider them gods. All I am doing (taking my cue from Tillich, filtered through Aristotle and Aquinas) is pointing out that atheists too have highest goods (or ultimate concerns) and cannot not have them. They behave toward them as many religious people behave toward their gods. It is perfectly reasonable, therefore, to speak of the “gods” of atheists.

As for the Romans considering the Christians atheists: as Athenagoras argued at the time in his Legatio, the charge of atheism against Christians is absurd on its face since Christians clearly believe in a divinity; it is only that they believe in one divinity and not in any of those recognized by the Romans.

Homo Religiosus
In the end, I think what we have been coming up against is the fact that human beings are religious animals; we are religious by nature. Atheism is, in this sense, contra naturam. In fact, it is so much so that no one can—as I have argued—really live it. We have no choice in the matter, although we are free to profess atheism—that is, to be theoretical atheists in some fashion (with the qualifications I mentioned above).

Does this fact of our nature show us that God or gods exist? Tillich would deny that it does because he denies that the term “existence” can be applied to God, as it would (so he thinks) reduce God to a being among other beings. On this I part company with Tillich. To my mind, “existence” is a flexible enough term that it can be applied beyond the realm of mere beings.

At any rate, before we could begin to answer the above question, we would first have to figure out which among the tangled mass of heterogeneous conceptions of the summum bonum truly answers the exigencies of our nature; which, as it were (and to use, or misuse, the helpful language of Jean-Luc Marion), is the icon among the idols. Aquinas, following (but also surpassing) Aristotle, has done much of the work here already. I am not aware of a consensus among Catholic philosophers and theologians on the soundness of what we could label the “argument from human finality.” Nevertheless, I tend to think that a conclusive argument can be made. But developing that argument is not a part of my purpose in this essay.

If we think of religion as a moral virtue related to justice, as is traditional in Catholic thought, then to speak of atheists as “religious” is evidently to use the term analogously but still, I would add, meaningfully. You could say that it is to employ it in a morally neutral sense. Similarly, the word “God” is also being used analogously.

Whatever the case may be, this way of understanding divinities and religion, were we to accept it, might appear to force us—just for starters—to rethink quite radically our analyses of various cultural currents and cultural, political, and military conflicts. We would have to redescribe the rivalry between religion and secularism as a rivalry between competing religions. The so-called “nones” would disappear as a meaningful category (and the recent Pew survey that generated so much press would have to be thrown out). The wall of separation between church and state would crumble. The “New Atheists” would have to get a new name or add an asterisk.

I am not necessarily advocating any of these changes (some of which I only include for their comic value). What I do think is important is that we, above all, come to understand that atheists do, indeed, have gods and that, no matter how hard they try, they can never be rid of them.

Editor’s note: The image above is a photo of twentieth-century French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.


  • Joseph G. Trabbic

    Joseph G. Trabbic is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University and is the assistant editor of, a website for the academic study of St. Thomas Aquinas. Professor Trabbic earned his doctorate from Fordham University in 2008.

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