The Trouble with Continental Philosophy #5: Paul Tillich
Today’s example is not a philosopher, strictly speaking, but a theologian who was influenced by a philosopher, Heidegger, and who has had a great deal of influence on philosophers. Paul Tillich (1886-1965) writes:
Atheism can only mean the attempt to remove any ultimate concern – to remain unconcerned about the meaning of one’s existence. Indifference toward the ultimate question is the only imaginable form of atheism. Whether it is possible is a problem which must remain unsolved at this point. In any case, he who denies God as a matter of ultimate concern affirms God, because he affirms ultimacy in his concern. (Dynamics of Faith; quoted from White, Eternal Quest, p. 94)
This passage consists of two main assertions, the first in the first two sentences, the second in the last.
The first assertion is plainly, indeed breath-takingly, false. Tillich is saying that an atheist is one who is indifferent to the meaning of his existence, and that this is the only form atheism can take. This is refuted by the simple fact that there are atheists such as my old friend Quentin Smith who are centrally concerned about the meaning of their existence. An atheist is either one who denies the existence of God, or else does not affirm the existence of God. (These are different.) Either way, being an atheist is consistent with being an affirmer of existential meaning. It is just that the source of one’s meaning would have to come from some source other than one’s belief in God.
One who affirms God (in his heart and not merely verbally), will seek the meaning of his existence in his relation to God, whether by prayer, meditation, worship, attempts to discern the will of God for one, attempts to prepare for ultimate union with God, and the like. But one who denies God, or refuses to affirm God, has the option of seeking the meaning of his existence elsewhere, in helping to bring about the Revolution, or whatever it might be. A third possibility is to be both an atheist and an existential meaning-denier. A theistic existential meaning-denier is a fourth combinatorial possibility but arguably not an existential one.
Tillich’s second main assertion involves an arbitrary redefinition of ‘God’ as object of one’s ultimate concern. The assertion can be unpacked as the following argument:
1. God =df one’s ultimate concern.
2. To deny God is to deny that God is one’s ultimate concern.
3. To deny that God is one’s ultimate concern is to affirm one’s ultimate concern.
4. To deny God is to affirm one’s ultimate concern.
5. To deny God is to affirm God.
The problem with this argument is the initial assumption, (1). God cannot possibly be identified with whatever is one’s ultimate concern, since this is different for different people. God is not a role occupiable by different things for different people, but an individual. Once this is clearly seen, it will also be clearly seen why atheism cannot be defined as the attempt to remove any ultimate concern. Atheism is not the denial of ultimate concern but the denial that a certain being is a possible object of one’s ultimate concern. The fact that ultimate concern cannot be removed since everyone has one does nothing to show that God’s existence cannot be denied.
In brief, Tillich is confusing a role with one of its possible occupants. In linguistic terms, he is confusing a definite description, ‘the x such that x is one’s ultimate concern’ with a proper name.