Nearly two decades ago, writer Jonathan Rauch coined a term to describe his stance toward religion: apatheism.
What started as a humorous description of his religious views he readily recognized as accurate of himself—and, as he explained in an article in The Atlantic, an outlook gaining prominence around the world, even among people of faith.1
Whereas theists believe in some sort of god, atheists dismiss the divine, and agnostics suspend judgment on the question, apatheists don’t really care—especially when it comes to the religious views of others. It’s theism + apathy—more an attitude toward belief than a statement of belief (or lack thereof).
Writing a scant year and a half after the 9/11 attacks in the early days of the war on terror, Rauch saw such an indifference toward religion as a needed corrective to the excesses of religious fanaticism—whether al-Qaeda terrorists in the service of Allah or communist regimes dedicated to atheistic secularism.
“I believe that the rise of apatheism is to be celebrated as nothing less than a major
civilizational advance,” he wrote.
Practical, Private Religion
It is not too difficult to see that apatheism is winning the day. While most may never have heard the term, nevertheless this attitude toward religion is prominent, as polls continue to show religious “nones” to be on the rise.
It is understandable that this has come to be the case in our culture. Tolerance is venerated to the point of accepting everyone else’s beliefs as equally valid—especially in the areas of religion, morals, and value. The naturalism that pervades our contemporary culture, asserting that this physical world is all that exists, relegates discussion of religion to a plain far beneath the hard sciences.
Stripped of any authoritative status in the realm of ideas, religion becomes, at best, a matter of what practically works best for the individual.
And if this is the case, why get too bothered about it—and especially what others think about it!
What is not so clear, however, is if such religious apathy really is leading to peace on earth. Even casual observation seems to indicate that our discourse about everything from politics to social issues to sports has become less civil—even violent.
In a recent article from The Atlantic, Shadi Hamid observes, “If secularists hoped that declining religiosity would make for more rational politics, drained of faith’s inflaming passions, they are likely disappointed. As Christianity’s hold, in particular, has weakened, ideological intensity and fragmentation have risen. American faith, it turns out, is as fervent as ever; it’s just that what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief. … This is what religion without religion looks like.”2
When religious faith recedes, something must take its place at the apex of our devotion and hopes. As a result, lesser matters like politics are being called on to support a weight they are unable to bear.
Seventeenth century scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in his Pensées that, as a result of humans turning from God, there is an “infinite abyss [that] can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself. God alone is man’s true good, and since man abandoned him it is a strange fact that nothing in nature has been found to take his place.”
We are apathetic about the wrong things.
Certainly, religious fervor—including among Christians—has too often been channeled in ways that harm our neighbors. But Christ followers who are truly walking in their Master’s steps have the resources for knowing and sowing abiding peace.
As the apostle Paul writes, “But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall … for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph 2:13-14, 18, NASB95).
Paul is writing here of the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile in Christ—and if Jesus could break down that divide, He can bring peace between all people.
I must confess, I recognize that, far too often, I also live as an apatheist. Too often, I get outraged by current events, or bogged down in concerns about some election—and not focused on the Lord and living in His abundant life.
This is foolish! Now, there’s nothing wrong with speaking out on the latest issues and being active in the political sphere. This is a privilege as part of a free society and a responsibility as a follower of Jesus. But, these activities must be done as a follower of Christ. My focus, my hope, and my driving force in life must be to live “for Him who died and rose again on [my] behalf” (2 Cor. 5:15).
It’s about as far from apatheism as you can get.