philosophy and ethics

Atheism, Culture & God

I am working on my next book, which I am determined to finish and publish in 2024.

It will explore the impact - personal, philosophical and cultural - of what I see as the rather strange and much-misunderstood word 'God', and how it relates to atheism and culture.

I'm doing battle with this subject, which has haunted me for more than 50 years, and am determined to be absolutely honest.

Key questions: Does Western culture make atheism (in the sense of a rejection of supernaturalism) inevitable? Was atheism always the more honest answer to the question of life's meaning? If so, what then happens to the legacy of 'God'?

But, for now, to give you an idea of the problem with 'God' that I am addressing, take a look at my notes of Feuerbach and (below it) at an already published article about 'The Question of Being', which tries to reconnect Philosophy and Theology.

Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72)

If you've always thought of Feuerbach as an atheist who saw God as no more than a projection of humankind's best qualities, think again. He's a remarkable thinker, and contributes positively to our understanding of 'God' in today's secular world.

Here are some of my notes on The Essence of Christianity, 1841.

The word 'God' links together philosophy, theology and culture, here is the text of an article published in 2020 in The Philosopher magazine...

THE QUESTION OF BEING: Reconnecting Philosophy and Theology

Why has a caricature of God been allowed to dominate much modern Philosophy of Religion? The answer, I believe, reveals a crucial blind spot of the Enlightenment.

Back in 1959, the American theologian and Christian existentialist thinker, Paul Tillich, published a book of essays entitled Theology of Culture, in which he explored a question that would be anathema to many philosophers today. He argued that the question of the nature of being (ontology) should be related to existential questions about life, asked most often within the discussion of religion and culture. He suggested that the questions with which theology deals – the nature of reality (‘being-itself’) and that which is of the most profound existential concern (‘ultimate concern’) – are raised from within art, literature, drama, religion and other cultural products.

Should the same apply to philosophy? Should it see itself as a vehicle for engaging directly with intuitions about value and meaning raised within culture? Should its primary focus shift from the linguistic and analytic towards the existential?

Some philosophers would dismiss religious claims, assuming them to be fundamentally linked to a view of the supernatural that is out of step with modern thought and science, preferring to attend to the analysis of argument rather than intuitions of meaning. That, of course, is not the whole story of philosophy today, since Continental and existentialist philosophy thrive, and at the popular level there are philosophies of everything including, on my bookshelf, coffee. But philosophy has, in general, kept its distance from theology, and theological discussion has frequently been reduced to ‘The Philosophy of Religion’, where religious concepts and propositions have been examined, and generally found wanting, from within parameters set by philosophy.

If religion is seen primarily as a set of literal claims about the supernatural, it is easily dismissed as non-rational. But my reading of Tillich is that he believes that theology – and specifically the idea of ‘God’ – is not about some external, possible world, but about the depth and unconditional within human experience. This shift in the perception of religion sets an entirely new agenda for the relationship between theology and philosophy, simply because they are then dealing with the same world and nourished by the same experience.

Tillich sees the question of ‘Being’ as the central one for philosophy, in a tradition that goes back to Aristotle (for whom the study of being, or what it means to say that something exists, was described as ‘first philosophy’) and was emphasised again by Heidegger, in whose shadow the young Tillich lectured in Marburg in the 1920s. Tillich argues that ‘Man is by nature a philosopher, because he inescapably asks the question of being. He does it in myth and epic, in drama and poetry, in the structure and the vocabulary of any language.’ A philosopher may therefore explore religion and culture with a view to extracting their intuitions about life.

However, philosophy and theology have generally failed to nourish one another. Why has this come about? Is it intellectually healthy? And might Tillich’s approach provide a mutually beneficial reconciliation?

The Enlightenment’s blind spot?

Modern philosophy owes much to the period of the Enlightenment and the rise of science, and I have neither the expertise nor scope to give an adequate outline of its legacy. Nevertheless, it is broadly true that the effect of the Enlightenment was to caricature earlier religious thought as superstitious and sustained by religious authority rather than reason.

Whether one looks at Hume’s argument that there is never sufficient evidence to prove a miracle, or at Kant’s dismissal of the traditional arguments for the existence of God, the method used was to set out a theological claim as a literal proposition – for example that there exists an omnipotent God – and then proceed to examine that proposition from the standpoint of reason and evidence. And, of course, by those standards it is generally found wanting.

This is particularly true of the traditional ‘problem of evil’, which was explored in my book Through Mud and Barbed Wire (reviewed here). The obvious incompatibility of the existence of innocent suffering with an all-loving and omnipotent God is presented as a major challenge to theism. But, as so often happens with apparently insoluble problems, the fault lies not with the answer but with the question and its presuppositions.

The problem is that such issues – in the form of ‘The Philosophy of Religion’ – have typically presented religion as a set of propositional beliefs, susceptible to the normal process of analysis and evidential testing. The issue I have with this (illustrated in Paul Tillich’s philosophy and theology) is that religious language, and particularly the idea of ‘God’ is misused if it is set out as a literal proposition to be accepted or rejected.

This was not a twentieth century innovation. One has only to unpack the sophisticated arguments of Anselm or Aquinas, or the subtle blending of Greek and Hebrew thought in the Early Fathers of the church, to realise that the concept of ‘God’ is not to be taken literally, in the sense that God is not to be thought of as a separate entity alongside others. The sort of ‘God’ against whom the new atheists protest, is not one that would be recognised by many of the great theologians of the past. Tillich clarifies this by saying:

‘The God who is a being is transcended by the God who is Being itself, the ground and abyss of every being. And the God who is a person is transcended by the God who is the Personal-Itself, the ground and abyss of every person. In statements like these, religion and ontology meet. Without philosophies in which the ontological question we have raised appears, Christian theology would have been unable to interpret the nature of the being of God to those who wanted to know in what sense one can say that God is.’

Yet why has a caricature of God been allowed to dominate much modern Philosophy of Religion? The answer lies, I believe, in a major blind spot for the Enlightenment. The rise of science and its immense achievements, along with the perceived futility of many religious disputes, suggested that the modern, eighteenth century person, should be guided primarily by reason and evidence. It was always allowed that literature, drama and music could continue to point to a reality that was not so narrowly evidenced – as we see in the wealth of culture developed at that time. What failed to be grasped, however, was that the existential implication of removing the subtlety of religious ideas, is to leave them merely as a shell of propositions to be debated.

Hence we find within nineteenth century debates about evolution, a sad dichotomy between those who see design primarily as evidence of an external designer, and those who see the wonder of nature as displayed in its inherent powers of development and self-design. The same is true today, when Richard Dawkins can extol the wonders of natural creativity, in words that are almost mystical or religious, while at the same time dismissing language about God in terms taken straight from the eighteenth century debates.

Although you have examples in the nineteenth century of those who sought an integration of religious insights with contemporary culture and philosophy (for example, the German theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Speeches on Religion to its Cultural Despisers), it is clearly true that, within the broad sweep of ‘modern’ philosophy, religious concepts have been marginalised and relegated to a siding entitled: ‘Philosophy of Religion’ that has frequently examined arguments without adequately appreciating the reality to which religious concepts were intended to point.

Hence the chasm between philosophy and theology: the former being (in theory, if not in practice) open, literal and rational; the latter, explored within a closed circle of believers, circumscribed by an already accepted set of doctrines. A radical theology is trapped by a double duty: on the one hand to explore the religious depths of life, and on the other to express its explorations in terms that are compatible with conventional religious doctrine.

Fundamentalism and the shrinking of theology

In parallel with the exclusion of theological subtlety from philosophical debate, there has been the equally sad emphasis on a literalist approach to tradition and scripture. It seems to me that the rise of fundamentalism in the twentieth century was a reaction to philosophical criticism. It sought to define and defend a limited number of doctrines as the essence of religion, and to interpret them literally. This played directly into the hands of the narrowing philosophical view of religious claims – particularly by the logical positivists – so that both sides of the argument accepted definitions of ‘miracle’ or ‘God’ that would have been anathema to a Mediaeval theologian such as Aquinas, for whom ‘God’ was not of the order of existing beings and should not be treated as such. Thus, for example, Aquinas, drawing on Aristotle’s philosophy, sees God as the ‘uncaused cause’ lying behind the whole sequence of physical causes, rather than as one cause alongside others, a category into which a literal, interventionist God so easily falls.

Hence the dilemma for would-be radical theologians in modern times. On the one hand, they are attacked from some philosophical quarters for entertaining ideas that are beyond matters that can be decided by the application of reason and evidence. On the other, they may be attacked from the standpoint of the fundamentalist religious believer, for whom any attempt to import subtlety into religious doctrine is seen as a capitulation to philosophical fashion.

It is because of the apparent conflict between Biblical religion and ontology that Tillich is led to conclude that:

‘It is understandable that some reject Biblical religion completely because they are called in the depths of their being, or their intellectual and moral conscience, to ask the radical question – the question of being and nonbeing. They become heretics or pagans rather than bow to a religion which prohibits the ontological question.’

By detaching religion from universal human experience, fundamentalism makes it irrelevant to the secular. But then secular culture is in danger of becoming rootless, deprived of any sense of an ultimate truth to be explored. In a world of ‘fake news’, any view is equal to any other, without reference to factual reality. Equally, political and social issues may be discussed without key terms such as ‘growth’, ‘profit’ or ‘efficiency’ being challenged as to whether they are genuinely foundational.

In this situation, both philosophy and theology miss out on the benefits of mutual exploration. Theology narrows to a set of propositions to be defended, while philosophy devotes itself to logical precision, even when dealing with matters that require a broader conceptual basis. Between the two sits the broad span of culture, which continues to explore the reality that is intuited in an awareness of life’s finitude or ethical challenges, without relating it to either philosophy or theology, probably regarding the first as dry and the second as irrelevant.

Yet the present climate crisis and the scale of human self-inflicted suffering through war, suggest that there is a fundamental need to explore that which is foundational, basic to the nature of human experience and conducive to human flourishing. A postmodernist acceptance of alternative and conflicting perceptions would seem inadequate when it comes to the major global issues with which we are confronted.

The confrontation

Here lies the origin of the confrontation between Biblical religion and philosophy, however, for Tillich:

‘… a confrontation would be impossible if philosophy were logical analysis and epistemological enquiry only, however important may be the development of these tools for philosophical thought. Yet philosophy, “love of wisdom” means much more than this. It seems to me that the oldest definition given to philosophy is, at the same time, the newest and that which always was and always will be valid: Philosophy is that cognitive endeavour in which the question of being is asked.’

He goes on to add that it was in accordance with this definition that Aristotle summarised the development of Greek philosophy, anticipating the consequent periods up to the Renaissance and preparing the modern ways of asking the same question. This is because:

‘The question of being is not the question of any special being, its existence and nature, but it is the question of what it means to be. It is the simplest, most profound, and absolutely inexhaustible question – the question of what it means to say that something is.’ Aristotle originally referred to ontology as ‘first philosophy’, and it is unfortunate that it has instead been stuck with the name ‘metaphysics’, simply because it followed the books on physics in the collection of his writings. The frustration with that term is that it has been taken to refer to realities that are beyond the empirical, in ‘a world behind the world, existing only in speculative imagination.’

Notice, therefore, the way in which theology and philosophy have been set up against one another in modern thought. The misunderstanding of metaphysics as being external to the empirical world has suggested that it is concerned with the supernatural and uncertain, to be contrasted with the experienced world of solid matter and facts. What is lost is the sense that metaphysics can be about the reality of that solid matter, its meaning and its significance for us.

In any such confrontation, theology is deprived of its physical and experiential base, and philosophy is deprived of its existential significance and breadth of meaning. Their failure to connect impoverishes both. How, then might they be reconciled?

Two Key Terms

Well, given that Tillich is writing theology, it is appropriate to start to answer this question by asking what he means by ‘God’. Tillich uses two terms to give the context for the use of the word ‘God’ and to focus on what is distinctive in theology: ‘Being-itself’ and ‘Ultimate concern’.

Being-itself is distinguished from the individual beings that are the objects of our everyday experience. Springing from such fundamental questions as ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ it expresses the intuition that, beneath the diversity of experience, there is some basic level of reality that underpins and sustains the world. It very definitely is not about a hypothetical entity, some ‘Being-itself’, but is a general term for a reality to which, because of the limitations of our sense experience, we do not have direct access. In this, Tillich follows Kant in his esoteric distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal realms. ‘Being itself’, it seems, is not part of the phenomenal world, nor is it experienced directly, far less does it sit alongside other beings. Rather, it is the term for what we intuit as the sense of reality within which everything participates.

As for Tillich's notion of ‘Ultimate concern’, this describes the situation of someone who, above all contingent considerations, is grasped by a sense of what is of significance, importance or finality. It may take the form of an unqualified ethical demand, or a sense of purpose, or a drive to achieve something worthwhile. It contrasts with limited ambitions and inclinations. It is the stuff of legend, of the best drama, of the spine-tingling moments in music. It speaks of a direction, purpose and goal.

In his theology, Tillich uses both terms of ‘God’. God is described as ‘Being-itself’ rather than an individual being. He is not something that might exist ‘out there’ in any sense. To affirm the existence of an objective ‘God’ is as atheistic as to deny it. Tillich insists that God is not that sort of thing, and the trivialisation of much Philosophy of Religion follows from the failure to understand the correct use of the term ‘God’.

Equally, for him, the religious dimension is about an ultimate concern, not a partial one. This might  suggest that many great works of literature are also works of theology.

Tillich argues that truth is presupposed in every philosophical argument, and that it is impossible to deny truth, because that can only be done in the name of truth. He sees that quest as fundamental, quoting Augustine:

‘Where I have found the truth, there I have found my God, the truth itself.’

If this approach is taken, it is clear then that, in Tillich’s words ‘God can never be reached if he is the object of a question, and not its basis.’ This is not to import God into secular debates, but instead to recognise that the term ‘God’ points to the quest for the foundational truth that underpins philosophy.

Yet, the question remains as to how these rather generalised concepts relate to what most people would recognise as religion. How, in particular, do they relate to religious experience?

Symbols – the mechanism of insight

It seems that if metaphysics is to be reinstated in its relationship to physics, there needs to be a mechanism by which our experience of the physical world can convey metaphysical concepts. It is this that Tillich explores in terms of symbols, arguing that the difference between a sign and a symbol is that the former merely points, while the latter participates in the power to which it points. In other words, the symbol conveys to us a sense of reality, meaning and significance.

Much more could be said about Tillich’s theory of the symbol, but suffice here to note that his theory conforms to the way in which a sense of meaning and value is conveyed within any cultural creation. An event happens on stage, a crescendo to the power of the full orchestra sends a tingle down the spine, a poignant moment in a novel reveals a truth about the situation depicted, we are grasped by the power of the art image. In all these situations, what is conveyed is quite beyond the empirical description of the object, and yet there is no empirical data other than that which we see or hear, whether in book or stage, gallery or concert hall. The cultural creations become self-transcending, they reveal levels of meaning that are beyond scientific analysis. They evoke response, they offer insight. And this, Tillich argues, is the way in which our ultimate concern is both understood and expressed.

Nietzsche asks, recognising the enormity of the death of God:

‘Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Where is it moving now? Where are we moving?... Is there still an ‘above’ and ‘below’? Are we not wandering through an endless nothingness? Does not the emptiness of space breath at us?’

And for Nietzsche, the legacy of the Enlightenment and the sense that God is no longer a socially acceptable idea, leads him to recognise the terrible emptiness in a world without a foundational concept. It is cold, directionless and valueless.

There may be (indeed, should be) no way to re-insert God into that situation. But recognising the emptiness might just lead philosophy to start to explore what it is that, through secular culture, gives a sense of direction, meaning, and hope. And so one finds in culture. Could you describe Munch’s Scream, or a Shakespeare play as merely ‘interesting’? They are nothing unless you feel grasped by them, confronted by a reality with which you can in some way identify.

Philosophy and culture

My real aim with this paper is not to try to smuggle theology into the secular philosophical agenda, but rather to recognise that there is a single quest that motivates both philosophy and theology, and that this can be pursued in an entirely secular context – once the secular is seen as embracing foundational questions of meaning and reality. By appreciating the symbolic nature of experience, and being prepared to explore what is genuinely foundational in our understanding of reality, philosophy and theology both address the intuitions and moral sentiments displayed so often within culture.

Indeed, for me, personally, the discovery of Tillich’s theology was liberating. I no longer felt obliged to accept the truth of supernatural beliefs in order to explore fundamental, existential questions or to appreciate the insights of religious art, music and ritual. My own move away from formal religion was not by way of a lack of belief, but a rediscovery of those intuitions to which the beliefs had pointed.

It seems to me that, just as fundamentalism did a disservice to religion, in putting its focus outside the world of human experience, so philosophy fails to do itself justice if it wantonly restricts its field of concern to the examination of reason and evidence and by its willingness always to defer to science. As important as science is in the human world, its methods are not necessarily going to yield the answer to all human questions. The most profound questions deserve to be explored in the context of secular philosophy: hence the possibility of a genuine philosophy of culture. One that keeps open the freshness and intuitive richness of raw experience, while examining its presuppositions and foundational assumptions.

First published in The Philosopher, Volume CVIII No. 1 Spring 2020




An article entitled 'Behind the Idea of 'God'', exploring these ideas against the background of A-level Philosophy of Relion, has been published in the April 2023 edition of Dialogue. If you do not already subcribe to Dialogue, take a look at this link:

Dialogue cover






Some of the ideas to be explored in this new book have already been touched on in two of my previous publications. Take a look at:

And for two great thinkers who stuggled with the impact of the First World War on their idea of religion and God, see...