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Quote of the Day: The Rising Tide of Religious Indifference

I’m sure that you’ve experienced it before; that passionless, detached “meh” you receive in response after asking someone questions about their belief in God. Those crucial questions to philosophy, faith, and the meaning of life, which you ponder and return to over and again, are dismissed with the kind of disinterest typically experienced by a policy specialist at the IRS when they explain what they do for a living. As a committed believer, you happily engage someone with the kind of dialogue that stirs your mind to explore the most significant questions human beings can ask. But, to your surprise, the person is wholly indifferent to the topic. You ask, “Do you believe in God?” And they respond with a deflating grin and shrug-of-the-shoulders reminiscent of The Office’s Jim Halpert deadpanning Camera 2 after his buffoon manager, Michael Scott, asked him a ridiculous question.

Sometimes, the disinterest comes from the kind of person you would expect—an agnostic who, after years of oscillating between religious and areligious beliefs, has finally thrown their hands in the air and given up. Other times, the disinterest comes from the kind of person you would least expect—a self-described religious person who, for one reason or another, is utterly indifferent to the very foundations upon which their worldview was constructed. Either way, the result is the same. In our culture, there seems to be a growing apathy toward theism. In conjunction with declining religious service attendance and the rising of the religiously unaffiliated has come a new challenge to evangelism. It is no longer the pugnacious New Atheism at center stage, but something far less passionate—apatheism. This nonchalant attitude toward God is more challenging to evangelism than religious pluralism, agnosticism, and atheism. For this reason, the phenomenon should be taken seriously. Evangelicals ought to examine and understand it for the sake of the gospel. The more that we understand apatheism, the better equipped we are to engage it.

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Apatheism—a portmanteau of apathy and theism—is, in part, the belief that God and questions related to his existence and character are irrelevant. These God questions (GQs) are the big ones: Does God exist? Can we know if God exists? If so, how does he reveal himself, and what is he like? What is the nature of his person and character? And what does God do? If God does not exist, then what does his non-existence mean? Apatheism is wholly indifferent to these questions.

….

So, why apatheism? Why is it that affections toward God today in Western society are so inert? It is difficult to imagine that a person could be so apathetic five centuries ago. Back then, questions about God’s province over salvation and moral duty dominated the public imagination. Everyone asked these questions because they believed that ultimate meaning is found beyond humanity and nature. Religion, especially the Christian faith, offered answers to questions of meaning, so GQs were very important. But something changed. Western society began to separate itself from religion or, at least, no longer aligned with a particular religion. This separation led to questioning whether or not God is involved in our lives (deism), if we can know God (agnosticism), or if he even exists (atheism). After a while, some people began to question the relevancy of GQs themselves, like Denis Diderot (1713–1784), who famously quipped, “It is very important not to mistake hemlock for parsley, but to believe or not believe in God is not important at all.” In short, apatheism has become possible because society has secularized.

— Kyle Beshears, The Gospel Coalition, Athens without a Statue to the Unknown God, December 4, 2019

Kyle Beshears is the teaching pastor of Mars Hill Church in Mobile, Alabama. While I don’t agree with his answers for apatheism, I did find his survey of indifference towards religion helpful. Your mileage may vary.

19 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Ami

    Pretty sure the reason for so much goddishness 5 centuries ago was ignorance.

    ‘My’ kids ask me about my beliefs once in awhile. I tell them they’re called personal beliefs because that’s what they are. It’s not a “meh” reaction, it’s an effort to keep from telling them it’s all bullshit. 😀

      • Avatar
        Astreja

        The day the religious stop interfering in civil society, forcing their ideas upon non-believers and different-believers, will be the day that I leave it alone.

        Not. An. Instant. Before.

  2. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    I am an atheist because I have spent a lot of time and effort pondering, researching, asking questions, and coming to the conclusion that based on the evidence, o cannot believe that the evangelical Christian God is real or that he came to earth in the form of a human (his son), preached and did miracles, died for our sins and was resurrected, and lives as part of a triune godhead. My kids, on the other hand, weren’t raised in religion and are more like the apatheists that the writer speaks of. My kids will chalk the evangelical Christian God to mythology in the same way they do Zeus, Osiris, Odin, or any other mythological tale. Their attitude is “you do you, but don’t force it onto me”. My kids aren’t likely to be won over by a Romans Road gimmick – maybe they would listen politely, maybe not, but they aren’t likely to fall to their knees and utter the sinner’s prayer. If that’s apatheism, I don’t know what evangelicals think they could possibly do to overcome it. Even Kanye with his “Jesus Is King” got nothing from my kids other than “old Kanye music was good, his new stuff sucks”. I could see if someone is really vulnerable, really in dire straits, and Christian’s come along offering hope and help, maybe they could get converts (which is why religious groups have so many programs for alcoholics, drug users, and homeless folks).

  3. Avatar
    Paul

    5 centuries ago in Europe (i.e. Christendom) the church and the state were in an unholy alliance that imposed religion on everyone. Heresy was punishable by imprisonment, torture and death. Martin Luther had just precipitated the Reformation, and 150 years of bloody religious warfare followed. There wasn’t even a concept of religious freedom or separation of church and state. Atheism was not tolerated and could be fatal. So it wasn’t just ignorance, it was religious oppression

    Remember, the Puritans didn’t flee religious oppression for the sake of religious freedom, the fled so they could be the religious oppressors. The modern-day evangelical wet dream is to revive the Puritan project and impose an abominable theocratic state on America. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

  4. Avatar
    Michael Mock

    His “five centuries ago” bit is interesting to me because of what he doesn’t say about it: he’s thinking about Christian, European countries five centuries ago. There are whole other sections of the world where I promise you “God’s province over salvation and moral duty” most assuredly did not dominate the public imagination.

    I’d also take issue with the idea that “Everyone asked these questions because they believed that ultimate meaning is found beyond humanity and nature.” That’s not even remotely how many religions work; while not unique to Christianity, it’s still a very Christian conceit in this context.

  5. Avatar
    dale m.

    Apatheism is just a name tag for “religion is totally unconvincing and makes no sense to my way of life or belief system …. which has nothing to do with religion”. They’ve heard it all before. Same shit. Different generation. Religious people simply do not get it …. ever! They’re trapped in a box! It’s like someone trying to sell you the movie “Gone with the Wind”. Then telling U that it’s the only movie you need to see. Then telling you that you must see it everyday and then come and discuss it every Sunday until U just go numb and want to barf! This is what happens when you have a State Religion. The State, like the Pope becomes your intermediary for THEIR god …. not yours. If U can live without “Gone with the Wind”, you can live without the Bible.

  6. Avatar
    Ian for a long time

    I guess that the portmanteau perfectly describes me.

    There were many times in my life when it appeared that God didn’t care about me. The only times it appeared that he cared is when is bolstered Christian beliefs. The truth be told, many of the young people attending church don’t really care, either. They go because they are supposed to, they enjoy the music and positive affirmations, and want the sense of belonging. Look at their day-to-day lives, though. Drinking, smoking, tattoos, parties, movies- all things that were evil in years past. These are now accepted activities in their lives. It is because they don’t care about God and his holiness. (This is a discussion for another day.)

    We have science and technology to replace fear and ignorance. No need for an invisible man to be the explanation of why things happen. The curtain has been pulled back and Oz isn’t so great and terrible.

    40 years of religion have made me not care about it any more, except in an academic sense. I don’t think I could even argue the Bible like I once did; although it wouldn’t take me long to get back to where I was.

    Dale M., the analogy to Gone With the Wind is perfect.

  7. Avatar
    Becky Wiren

    And…hundreds of years ago people were actually persecuted and killed for NOT falling in with the dominant Christianity of the area. So dude is pointing out that time as being BETTER than now? Wow.

    • Avatar
      Caroline

      I thought exactly this. I am teaching currently (to 10th graders) about France during WW2 and the Spanish Civil War. So much of both of these wars has to do with subscribing or not to the religion of the majority (France siding with the Nazis and sending its Jews to their deaths and the Catholic theocracy of Franco’s Spain.) Religion has always been about control, control, control.
      Also: Who says non-religious people don’t ask all the ‘big’ questions and think deeply about the answers? Just another pompous Christian know-it-all saving no one.

  8. Avatar
    Brunetto Latini

    “Apatheism”, that’s a good one. I like “gaytheism” better. It’s church-induced, and I like assigning blame where it belongs.

    I guess the author would feel better if everyone chose sides in holy war. Sorry, dude, that some folks have better uses for time than that.

  9. Avatar
    dale m.

    Kyle Beshears again makes my point about evangelicals not being able to peer back into their own little box world. In “Athens without a Statue to the Unknown God”, vol. 44, issue 3, “What Is Apatheism?”, he states, after an attempt to skirt around religion, in order to define this thing … “Unsurprisingly, apatheism is best known by what it produces, apathy towards God”. No! It is NOT! Apathy towards God does not produce apathy towards God! (Classical Circular Reasoning). Religion produces apathy towards God. They never, ever learn a damn thing! They’re afraid. And they know it. When the Soviet Politburo realized Russia was hurtling towards a terminal economic abyss, they could only blame capitalists for this. Deep down, the very idea that Marxism could be wrong AND responsible for the morass they were in was frighteningly unthinkable. So it is with Evangelicals. They built their own trap. Now they will have to sit in it as it slowly slams shut.

  10. Avatar
    angiep

    This: “Those crucial questions to philosophy, faith, and the meaning of life, which you ponder and return to over and again, are dismissed with…disinterest” and this: “…an agnostic who, after years of oscillating between religious and areligious beliefs, has finally thrown their hands in the air and given up. Other times…a self-described religious person who… is utterly indifferent to the very foundations upon which their worldview was constructed” — just NO! NO NO! The reasons I’m an atheist are not a result of disinterst or not wanting to ask the important questions about life, or giving up after considering “religious” and “areligious” beliefs. It’s actually quite the opposite – I am passionate in my opposition to religious belief–probably *because* I daily ponder the important questions of life. Beshears is disrespectful in assuming he knows how we all think. He doesn’t know how to change us, so he ignorantly blames us.

  11. Avatar
    dale m.

    To Beshears : I do see a lot of apathy out there. I see it towards Darwin and his theories. I see it towards Evolution, the Big Bang, a 14.82 billion year old Cosmos, to the fossil record, a spherical Earth and even towards Zeus and Thor. Lots of apatheism out there Beshear. And you know what Beshear? We in the secular world ARE going to do something about it. We’re going to bring the entire religious world straight into our domain to share the wonders and glory of our secular world with them. That should put a big pinch on apatheism for you. Be the first to join us! Show the rest of your followers that apatheism is just a small speed bump to drive over. No big deal. We did it. Now it’s your turn. Put your money where your mouth is. Drive them on over. Oh … and about Thor and Zeus …. we’ll work on that together. I really don’t know how to get rid of my apathy over those two. Ummmm … any suggestions?? It would help …

  12. Avatar
    Melissa A Montana

    I don’t believe it is lack of interest in the big “GQ’s” making people apathetic. I think people are just plain sick and tired of the lies, corruption, and hypocrisy of organized religion, now exposed even more by the Trump administration. I know I am.

  13. Avatar
    Paul

    Beshears says: “These God questions (GQs) are the big ones: Does God exist? Can we know if God exists? If so, how does he reveal himself, and what is he like? What is the nature of his person and character? And what does God do? If God does not exist, then what does his non-existence mean? Apatheism is wholly indifferent to these questions.”

    If the answer to the first question is, “I don’t know and I don’t see any possible path that will lead to a definitive answer”, there is no point in wasting time and energy on the other questions. That’s not apathy, it’s common sense.

    Besides, who gave Breshears and his ilk the right to say what the important questions are? I remember a Bloom County comic that goes (paraphrasing from memory):

    Opus: Dogs always seem to be so deep in thought. I wonder what they’re thinking about.
    Dog (thinking): I wonder if I’m going to get to poop again tomorrow.

    Now that’s an important question.

  14. Avatar
    dale m.

    One last thing and I’m done here with Beshears. It is religion that avoids the big questions continuously because they don’t have the tools to deal with them. Is there a god(s)? Is there an afterlife? How many angels can be balanced on the head of a pin? There R much bigger questions than these out there AND far more relevant. If there is no cosmic entity (god) or afterlife … SO WHAT?? To religion, that’s game over. To the secular world, it’s just the roll of the dice to commence the game. We possess ALL the tools to play this game. Religion isn’t even in the game. The tools of Science and Engineering allow the secular world to probe the nature of reality. We ask the really big relevant questions such as, “what would it take to get our species to a god-like level, to handle god-like power to create an actual afterlife for us to raise our own dead? Would Nature allow us to construct Wormholes through Spacetime?” We don’t care if somebody or someone else did it before us. What we want to know is if WE CAN DO IT!!! Religion can’t deal with that! So …. we ignore them. Besides, Religion is a special interest group. Their salvation … everyone else perishes that doesn’t back them. Our secular world takes a much, much higher moral ground. You don’t have to change your belief system for us to bring you back. That’s because we, not you, actually believe in FREEDOM! No special interest groups here in the secular world! Our higher set of morals forces us to accept that “Either EVERYBODY makes it through or NO ONE makes it through!” You can take your “special interest groups” and shove it up your ass! … In all due respect …

  15. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    The picture that precedes this blog entry shows a young person holding up a message written on the palm of his hand: “I don’t care.”
    In this context, I assume from the title regarding indifference, that the not caring is specific to religion and is not perhaps so much a matter of lack of care but more truly a lack of interest, an attention turned elsewhere. My own ‘not caring’ is a moral choice and one that challenges (because I care) the ethical choice we have made over time by sculpting religion to be the monstrous horror it is today.
    My saying no to Jesus is not entirely about the historical fellow who wandered to and fro talking to people. It is about your Baptist church and your buldging, gross Vatican. It is about historica atrocities in the name of God. These realities that I can observe day by day demonstrate to me that Jesus is very very dead and that those of his efforts bent toward assisting human caring are also quite deformed, an example perhaps of an evolutionary mistake that is slowly finding its way to dust again.
    I am not expressing something new here, just repeating what many of us have suggested: Religion as we know it today and particularly evangelical belief, harms people. It might help somebody drop a swtchblade and pick up a cross so that the inherent harm of an individual migrates more to the interior, doing harm more exclusively to self rather than to others: ‘I’ll get myself up on this cross instead of cutting someone.’ But harm is harm is harm finally and I have renounced evangelical faith and belief because I care.
    When believers describe my non-faith as a lack, I see that as evidence of Kool-aid blindness, the pandemic of denial that happens among congregations listening to preachers tell them what the Latin means in English.
    So, what happens is people come to this blog and suggest that Bruce Gerencser is inhabited by some dark force and at times it is so ludicrous that he will admit to eating babies!
    I don’t care if you believe in the Pope and/or Jesus, Mary and Joseph etc. But I do care that you vilify the rest of humanity with your great commission crap and you frighten children, bully women. Hell, you bully all of us with your ‘love’. Don’t tell me that your church is different. I’ve looked carefully at your flavours and offerings. Kool-Aid does indeed taste great but when you read what goes into it, one must wonder a bit before chugging another glass. Wait a second: This stuff makes me more thirsty than I was before I drank it!

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