Looking back on the first two decades of the 21st century, what attitude seems to dominate? I nominate apathy.
We know that particular attitudes have characterized particular historical periods. For example, if you had to pick the dominant attitude of the late 19th century with scores of inventions developed, diseases irradiated, and treaties signed, you might pick the attitude of optimism. If you had to pick the dominant attitude of the first half of the 20th century, after rehearsing what you know about world wars and economic depression, the attitude of cynicism might come to mind. If you had to pick the dominant attitude of the second half of the 20th century, you would observe 1960s skepticism towards tradition grow through the turn of the millennium into a postmodern skepticism towards everything.
But now, looking back on the first two decades of the 21st century, what attitude seems to dominate? I nominate apathy.
Apathy in Culture
Apathy has shown itself to have a unique strength in how it has permeated and endured in our culture.
First, apathy permeates throughout culture in a way that other cultural attitudes cannot.
For example, an attitude of militancy can be found in anyone, conservatives and liberals, believers and unbelievers. However, militancy rarely persuades anyone except for those who were already militant. That is probably because a red face and a raised voice are rarely backed by a sound argument. Militancy is unattractive. It ruins your good standing even with those with whom you agree.
By comparison, there is nothing cooler than apathy. Every stereotypical “cool kid”—both on TV and in real life—has a proportionally large dose of “meh.” Apathy, unlike militancy, does not try to compensate for a lack of a good argument. Furthermore, it doesn’t care to try.
Second, apathy endures within culture in a way that other cultural attitudes cannot.
For example, we see an attitude of compassion ignite with nearly every tragedy that hits the headlines. In recent days, we have seen people across our country mobilize to help in hurricane relief. However, the compassion all too often dies out all too quickly. It lasts only as long as the corresponding profile picture frame stays fashionable. The compassion never seems to last.
On the other hand, apathy is a survivor. Apathy is a virus with its own immune system. It is nearly impossible to get an apathetic person to care about anything simply because when you point out the toxicity of their apathy, they don’t care. And they don’t care that they don’t care.
Apathy in Worldviews
In recent decades, we have seen a notable spike in apathy regarding people’s worldviews. By all accounts, the fastest growing religious category in the U.S. is the religiously unaffiliated, known by the nickname “nones.” The curious thing about this growing demographic is that they do not necessarily believe less, they only seem to care less. While 49% of “nones” claim downright unbelief, the remaining slight majority claim some belief in spite of a dislike of organized religion, an undecided spirituality, or religious inactivity. In other words, for a growing number of U.S. citizens, religious belief is important enough to not abandon but not quite enough to commit.
Writing for The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch coined a term to describe this phenomenon: apatheism. In the article titled “Let It Be” he explains, “Apatheism concerns not what you believe but how.” Rauch goes on to outline two important layers of the apatheist’s attitude. First, it involves not caring about one’s own religious beliefs, and second, it involves not caring about anyone else’s. In this way, the apatheist stands apart from both the theist who wants everyone to be theists, as well as the atheist who wants everyone to be atheists. In fact, an apatheist could be either one and does not mind which one you are.
Apatheism for the Unbeliever
Rauch explains that the term came to him not so much in a moment of enlightenment as much as in a “wine-induced haze.” Someone asked about his religious beliefs, and before he could throw out his typical credentials, he replied, “I used to call myself an atheist, and I still don’t believe in God, but the larger truth is that it has been years since I really cared one way or another.” And so, the term was born.
Rauch further explains by contrasting his apatheism to typical atheism and secularism:
Atheism, for instance, is not at all like apatheism; the hot-blooded atheist cares as much about religion as does the evangelical Christian, but in the opposite direction. ‘Secularism’ can refer to a simple absence of devoutness, but it more accurately refers to an ACLU-style disapproval of any profession of religion in public life—a disapproval that seems puritanical and quaint to apatheists.
As Rauch proceeds, he quickly mentions agnostics. Agnostics are those who believe that we can neither prove nor disprove God’s existence; we simply cannot know for sure. It is easy to see how this perspective could be effortlessly calibrated for apathy. However, Rauch passes quickly by it.
Rauch highlights the tolerance that he believes our world needs so desperately and that his apatheism provide so abundantly. Typically, believers, specifically Christians, get the indictment of intolerance. So, Rauch is to be commended for his equity in leveling the charge against unbelieving groups as well.
However, you can read between the lines and see that this is not the principled tolerance of John Locke that Rauch claims it is. Apatheism is not tolerating someone else’s views as they conflict with yours for a higher ideal of peaceful dialogue. Apatheists presumably don’t care about the dialogue. Apatheism does not promote freedom of speech to foster a healthy debate in the marketplace of ideas. Apatheists presumably don’t care to debate.
This is what makes apathy particularly useful for an unbeliever. They are immune to any argument, because to them, it is simply not worth the effort. Their lack of belief in God is unaffected by evidence for God’s existence because even if God does exist it ultimately does not matter. Their opinion of Jesus Christ is immovable because even if he is everything Christians say he is, they just do not care.
In other words, apathy allows the unbeliever to not believe without having to explain why.
Apatheism for the Believer
We Christians know well the detrimental effect that apathy has on the life a believer. Our pastors warn us of it regularly, and we fight it vigorously. However, what happens when the believer embraces apathy?
My first run-in with apatheism was not with a high society writer but with a high school student. It happened my first year of teaching apologetics. I was excited because so many of the questions my students had were questions that I had struggled with for years. In the middle of all the excitement, one statement from one of the brightest girls I have ever taught brought everything to a screeching halt.
I believe in God. I just don’t care.
I just froze. She just stood there. She showed no sign of emotion except for the slightest bit of frustration for having to take the class in the first place and with me for not getting why she was frustrated. I tried to process. I was ready for the questions. I was ready for the doubts. I was ready for the challenges. I was not ready for the apathy. I found as the year progressed, there was nothing I could say to her or do for her. She just didn’t care. And, she didn’t care that she didn’t care.
Her statement echoed in my mind for days, even weeks. How could someone believe and not care? How is that even possible? I will admit, I have lived many days, even weeks of my life apathetic toward God and his will. But, those seasons of apathy have always ended with my realization of how I should care and my embarrassment of the fact that I didn’t. So, for a teenage girl to claim apathy towards the things of God as such a matter-of-fact reality for herself, I was officially stumped.
Then one day, I overheard a group of boys before class, discussing the NBA. It was playoff season, so just about every other word was “LeBron.” The discussion turned into an argument, as these things do, and at a fever pitch one of the boys turned to me and asked me to settle the debate.
Now, I love basketball. I have been playing it all my life, and I have been coaching it longer than any class I have taught. When my students want to talk basketball, I’m all in. However, these guys weren’t talking basketball. They were talking LeBron. And, when it comes to LeBron…I just don’t care.
When I answered, my shoulders shrugged, the boys were baffled.
“You must be a LeBron hater!” they countered.
“Nope. I get it. He is great. He’s one of the few players that make sense in the ‘next/greater than Michael Jordan’ debate. I know he’s a great player. I just honestly don’t care.”
My own words hit me a like a ton of bricks. I had just done what I thought was impossible—believing without caring. I pondered it for days but then came to a realization: these boys were believers and they were invested. They spent time and money on supporting these teams and players. They placed their reputations on the line, arguing for the greatness of their favorites. When their teams won, they were ecstatic. When their teams lost, they were devastated.
I know how they feel because I have been there and done that. I just don’t care half as much as I used to (at least not about professional basketball), and I don’t really care that I don’t care. I am not invested. I have nothing to lose. So, when I see grown men moping around because their team lost last night, a sort of pride comes over me that such things do not bother me. I am a pro sports apatheist.
That is what makes apathy particularly useful for the believer. They can escape what they are told are the consequences of not believing, without having to pay the cost of being a believer. It keeps them in the good graces of other believers, without being ostracized by unbelievers.
In other words, apathy allows the believer to believe without having to be invested.
When it comes to the application of apathy to worldviews, Jonathan Rauch seems to care quite deeply. He may not believe in God, but he adamantly believes in apatheism. He claims, “…the rise of apatheism is to be celebrated as nothing less than a major civilizational advance.” He seems convinced that apatheism can save us from both militant religiosity and oppressive secularism. In his personal discovery of apatheism, he finds strength. In the national trend towards apatheism, he finds hope. However, is his hope well-founded?
Here’s the thing…
There is too much at stake to not care.
For the unbeliever
I believe I was justified in claiming apathy about LeBron James and the NBA playoffs because for me there was nothing at stake. After all, my life changed in no way, shape, or form when the Cavaliers lost in 2015. Nor was there any life-altering moment when they won in 2016. Nor was I affected at all when they lost in 2017. Win or lose, I did not care, and as it turns out that was OK.
However, when a person claims to lack belief in God while also claiming not to care one way or another, I have to wonder if they really understand what they are claiming. The questions raised in religious discussions have enormous consequences. The answers to these questions change everything. Therefore, answering “no” should not be taken lightly.
If God does not exist, then the universe is a cosmic accident and conscious life is a meaningless curiosity. In the end, we have nothing to lose. If, however, God does exist, then he created the universe purposefully, and our existence is eternally meaningful. In the end, we have everything to lose.
If Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead, then the Christian religion is a two-thousand-year-old scam, the greatest of all time, having duped billions. If Jesus Christ did rise from the dead, then Christianity has a validity not even claimed, much less achieved by any other religion in the world.
If the Bible is not the word of God, then perhaps the most influential documents of all time is internally dishonest about itself and can be reduced to moral advice no different from any other religious text. If the Bible is the word of God, and God has in fact revealed himself to humanity, then morality has been mandated as an absolute standard for living, as absolute as the character of God.
Unbelieving apatheists may not care about these and other questions, but they should. There is too much at stake if they are wrong.
For the believer
When a person claims to believe in God while also claiming to not care one way or another, I have to wonder if they really believe at all. In his article, Rauch mentions with delight some believing friends of his.
I have Christian friends who organize their lives around an intense and personal relationship with God, but who betray no sign of caring that I am an unrepentantly atheistic Jewish homosexual. They are exponents, at least, of the second, more important part of apatheism: the part that doesn’t mind what other people think about God. (emphasis mine)
I see only two possibilities: either these Christian friends have completely rationalized themselves away from any Biblical authority, whether through misinterpretation or willful ignorance, or they are simply the worst friends a guy could ever have. If they had any genuine commitment to what the Bible teaches about those who remain unrepentant, they would reach out to their friend with the gospel. If they really believed, they would really care, and if they really cared they would show as many signs as possible.
Believing apatheists may not care about convincing others of what they believe, but they should. There is too much at stake if they are right.
In the end, apatheism is an attitude, not an assertion, and attitudes are not changed as easily as minds. Nevertheless, that does not mean that the apatheist cannot be reasoned with and convinced. It does not mean that we should not try to convince them. As one Christian thinker put it, “God cares about those who don’t.” We should too.