Apatheism and the Unexamined Life: Part 1
by Paul Copan
Back in May 2003, Jonathan Rauch’s Atlantic article “Let It Be” appeared. The topic? Apatheism. Apatheism, he claims, is a mindset, a psychological state. Apatheism doesn’t make a truth claim like atheism does (“God does not exist”). Apatheism isn’t a belief system. Rather, it is an attitude of not caring about whether God exists or not: it “concerns not what you believe but how.” Apatheism, he says, can actually apply not only to, say, agnostics. This label could be used for those who may believe in God at an intellectual level but who don’t really care much beyond this, don’t attend church, and so forth.
In Rauch’s words, apatheism is a “disinclination to care all that much about one’s own religion, and an even stronger disinclination to care about other people’s.” What’s more, Rauch considers this emerging mood of apatheism a major civilizational advance.
Is apatheism a civilizational advance? How do we gain an intellectual and existential foothold to offer an effective response to it?
Civilizational Advance—or Decline?
As it turns out, apatheism is an indication of civilizational decline. After all, the question of God is a wide-ranging one, with profound intellectual, cultural, moral, and existential implications. So to neglect the ramifications of the divine would be—to one degree or other—indicative of an unexamined life.
Consider the cultural. As it turns out, the idea of God is a major civilizational advance and the inspiration of so many cultural goods and much aesthetic inspiration. The noted agnostic philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny observes:
If there is no God, then God is incalculably the greatest single creation of the human imagination. No other creation of the imagination has been so fertile of ideas, so great an inspiration to philosophy, to literature, to painting, sculpture, architecture, and drama. Set beside the idea of God, the most original inventions of mathematicians and the most unforgettable characters in drama are minor products of the imagination: Hamlet and the square root of minus one pale into insignificance by comparison.
So we can appreciate the remarkable cultural contribution inspired by faith in God.
In addition, consider the related historical dimension. Understanding our own history and what has shaped us is critical and necessary to prevent widespread cultural illiteracy, as H.D. Hirsch once warned. Another British philosopher—Sir Roger Scruton, a theist—insists that the idea of God is an endeavor worthy of exploration, even in a thoroughly secularized culture:
Our most pressing philosophical need, it seems to me, is to understand the nature and significance of the force which once held our world together, and which is now losing its grip–the force of religion. It could be that religious belief will soon be a thing of the past; it is more likely, however, that beliefs with the function, structure and animus of religion will flow into the vacuum left by God. In either case, we need to understand the why and wherefore of religion. It is from religious ideas that the human world, and the subject who inhabits it, were made.
As atheist Richard Dawkins acknowledges, “A native speaker of English who has never read a word of the King James Bible is verging on the barbarian.” Even Dawkins admits to a certain “nostalgia” for Christian traditions he would be sorry to be without—even to the point of calling himself a “secular Christian.”
Apatheism as a Parasitic Stance
It seems that apatheism is parasitic on the beneficial structures and democratic assumptions that have shaped Western civilization. This is due in large part to the influence of the biblical faith and dedicated believers who have taken its precepts seriously. As one of Europe’s leading philosophers Jürgen Habermas (an atheist) writes:
Christianity has functioned for the normative self-understanding of modernity as more than just a precursor or a catalyst. Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and a social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.
Postmodern thinker Jacques Derrida—also an atheist—notes something similar:
Today the cornerstone of international law is the sacred, what is sacred in humanity. You should not kill. You should not be responsible for a crime against the sacredness, this sacredness of man as your neighbor…. In that sense, the concept of crime against humanity is a Christian concept and I think there would be no such thing in the law today without the Christian heritage, the Abrahamic heritage, the biblical heritage.
If we lived as the minority group with restricted options under the Taliban, Nazism, Communism, or some other oppressive or dysfunctional regime, would we be apatheists? It appears that because we live in the Western world, which has experienced many Christian-inspired cultural and moral goods and key democratizing gains that make for human flourishing, apatheism becomes a live option for many. Apatheists should acknowledge the efforts of those who took God seriously enough to create hospitals, hospice care, public education and literacy as well as key moral reforms (abolition of slavery, widow-burning in India, foot-binding in China). These are benefits from which so many in the modern world benefit.
Dedicated Christians who have followed a suffering Savior have often identified with the less fortunate, the disempowered, and the suffering. Agnostic political scientist Guenter Lewy notes this penetrating contrast between the mindset the dedicated Christ-follower and the ethic of the “secularist”:
Adherents of [a secularist] ethic are not likely to produce a Dorothy Day or a Mother Teresa. Many of these people love humanity but not individual human beings with all their failings and shortcomings. They will be found participating in demonstrations for causes such as nuclear disarmament but not sitting at the bedside of a dying person. An ethic of moral autonomy and individual rights, so important to secular liberals, is incapable of sustaining and nourishing values such as altruism and self-sacrifice.
Those who fit within the apatheistic camp won’t likely be committed to “nourishing values such as altruism and self-sacrifice”—values that are inspired by a theological vision in which all humans are made in God’s image and are the object of God’s love and Christ’s self-giving death on the cross.
 The online article can be found here: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/05/let-it-be/302726/.
 Anthony Kenny, Faith and Philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), p. 59.
 Roger Scruton, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 85-86.
 Richard Dawkins, “Why I want all our children to read the King James Bible,” The Guardian (May 19, 2012), https://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/may/19/richard-dawkins-king-james-bible
 Sarah Knapton, “Richard Dawkins: ‘I am a secular Christian,’” The Telegraph (May 24, 2014), https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/hay-festival/10853648/Richard-Dawkins-I-am-a-secular-Christian.html.
 Jürgen Habermas, Time of Transitions, trans. C. Cronin and M. Pensky (Cambridge: Polity, 2005), 150-51.
 Jacques Derrida, “To forgive: the unforgivable and imprescriptable,” in Questioning God, eds. John D. Caputo et al. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001), 70. Robert D. Woodberry, “The missionary roots of liberal democracy,” American Political Science Review 106 (2012): 244–74.
 Robert D. Woodberry, “The missionary roots of liberal democracy,” American Political Science Review 106 (2012): 244–74.
 Guenther Lewy, Why America Needs Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 237.
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