In 2003 Jonathan Rauch hit a cultural nerve when, in an article in Atlantic Monthly, he declared himself an “apatheist”. With this neologism Rauch sought to convey the point that he didn’t fall into either of the traditional theist/atheist camps. He certainly wasn’t a theist, but neither was he an atheist of the traditional sort because traditional atheists cared about whether God existed or not. They may have thought the evidence was overwhelmingly in favor of “not”, but they still thought God’s existence was a question well worth debating, and his non-existence a fact well worth establishing.
Rauch was an atheist of a different sort, for his unbelief was seasoned with a heady dose of apathy. Truth be known, Rauch was an atheist didn’t really care either way whether God existed or not.
Rauch is not an anomaly. In fact, apathy about important matters is increasingly endemic to our age. Do we have any idea how many people cast a vote based on a winsome smile and smart suit rather than a careful evaluation of poltiical platforms and personal characters? And how many people don’t care enough to cast a vote to begin with? It is a well established trend that rates of voter participation in western democracies have been decreasing for years. If people no longer care who is governing the country, is it much of a surprise that they don’t care who, if anybody, is governing the universe?
One of the most worrying things is how many people share the spirit of Jonathan Rauch but slip under the radar of the pollster because they check a “religious” box on a survey and warm a pew every Sunday. They’re the kind of people who are “religious” to a sufficent degree that they’ll show up for church every once in a while. Heck, they may attend church regularly and operate the sound board every Sunday. But there is no passion or vigor in their faith. It is held with a tepidity tantamount to the motorist who opts to fuel up at station A simply because the “Coffee and muffin for 2 bucks” sign just happened to catch his eye.
If the wide distribution of apatheism in the general population is one of the most worrying things, its deep penetration into the academy strikes me as one of the most perplexing. Consider Noam Chomsky, widely considered the world’s leading intellectual (judged by peer-reviewed citation). Chomsky started out with a focus on philosophy of language but with Vietnam his interests increasingly turned toward world politics. His output has been voluminous with more than a hundred dense books, countless essays, and a broad cultural impact unmatched by very few people in the modern age. Ask Chomsky about God however, and he shrugs. In one quote I have buried in my files he responds that while some people find the question of God interesting or important, he simply doesn’t. Next question please.
As I said, perplexing. “God” is an idea which has dominated the intellectual landscape for centuries. It has occupied the minds of the greatest philosohers, scientists, and poets of history. And yet today it merits barely a “Meh, not interested” by many of the world’s leading intellectuals? What has gone wrong?
In my estimation apatheism is either incoherent or it represents the collapse of epistemic virtue. Let me explain.
First, we need to consider how we are using the word “God”. Consider, for example, the Mormon view of God as a finite creature that evolved to attain a very lofty status. You can call this the Tim Tebow concerpt of God. Tebow, currently the starting quarterback for the Denver Broncos, was born in the Philippines to American Baptist missionaries. Tebow grew from his humble origins to carve out his own lofty place in spectator sports. But no matter how lofty that perch may be it is perfectly reasonable for Noam Chomsky to be uninterested in the exploits of Tim Tebow. After all, he still is a finite creature. And if God is merely another finite, evolving creature then it is likewise in principle possible to be reasonably uninterested in God for much the same reason. There is nothing particularly troubling about lacking interest in a Tim Tebow God.
That is not the God of western theism however. The concept of God that has been central in the West for millennia is the concept reflected in the Exodus “I AM” and the Johannine Logos, in Plato’s Form of the Good and Aristotle’s Prime Mover, in Anselm’s being than which none greater can be conceived and Aquinas’s “ipsum esse subsistens” (God’s essence is to exist). It is God as ultimate, unique, classless, origin of all and end of all.
To reject the pursuit of God in the sense that threads together these very different conceptions is to reject the quest for ultimate understanding. It is to say you are not interested in knowing what is ultimate, what stands as unique and classless, what is the origin of all and what, if anything, is the end of all.
When we’ve understood God in that sense, there really are only two options. On the one hand a person might say that they are passionate about truth even as they declare their lack of passion for the biggest truth question of all. But this is incoherent. Or they might say they really don’t care about the ultimate questions of truth. And this, it must be said, can only be declared a fundamental failure of epistemic virtue.
So whether you are convinced that God exists or you remain very doubtful matters not for this discussion. The point is that you cannot reasonably and consistently adopt the apatheist’s attitude of not caring either way.