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Apatheism

A friend sent me a link to this article by CBC journalist Neil MacDonald last week.  Apparently, MacDonald locates himself within a growing minority that are increasingly finding the courage to “come out” as non-believers in a cultural milieu that frowns upon lack of professed religious belief (MacDonald is a Canadian living and working in the USA).  Unlike committed atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, however, MacDonald claims simply not to care about the matter.  He has none of the proselytizing zeal of “Ditchkins” (that wonderful hybrid moniker combining the names of the aforementioned evangelical atheists); MacDonald’s atheism/agnosticism is of a different sort:

I have no religious beliefs.  None…. There’s a better word for what I am: an apatheist.  It’s a neologism that fuses “apathy” and “theism.” It means someone who has absolutely no interest in the question of a god’s (or gods’) existence, and is just as uninterested in telling anyone else what to believe.

Well that certainly sounds heroically tolerant, not to mention admirably humble.  It is undoubtedly preferable to the misguided venom and hostility of Ditchkins.  MacDonald simply doesn’t know and doesn’t care if God exists and wouldn’t it be great if everyone else could just find it within themselves to adopt “apatheism” as a way of approaching questions that we can’t be certain about?

Yet is MacDonald’s presentation of “apatheism” even coherent?  Does MacDonald really have no interest in telling anyone else what to believe?  Presumably he might have a thing or two to say to those who are interested in telling others what to believe or how to live.  Presumably his apathy would become a bit more strained if, say, those convinced that God has commanded them to act violently toward those who do not share their beliefs begin to threaten his nation or his person.  “Apatheism” seems like an approach that could only work in a very specific set of cultural circumstances and parameters.

MacDonald “apatheism” seems to simply involve transferring a political strategy to a more explicit worldview pronouncement.  MacDonald’s home and native land (Canada) has officially advocated “multiculturalism” as a political strategy since 1971.  In order for multiculturalism to work “on the ground,” the government has to bracket the question of whether or not any one culture or religion has access to some kind of singular “truth.”  All are granted political liberty to practice how they see fit (within limits); all religious claims are relegated to the realm of “things you can believe if you want to as long as they stay mostly private and aren’t socially/politically disruptive.”  At a political level, this is necessary to allow people of radically different views on (what they seem to consider to be) important matters to exist in the same space peacefully.

MacDonald just turns this into a worldview.  “Apatheism” is “why can’t we all just agree not to care about god(s) so much” writ large.  What MacDonald seems to mean when he says he is an “apatheist” is that he is apathetic about the question of whether or not a private God who meets individual psychological needs and makes no difference in public life exists, and will continue to tolerantly (if condescendingly) allow others to believe in whatever publicly irrelevant god they happen to prefer.

In a sense, MacDonald’s “apatheistic” worldview is a logical outcome of spying some of the limits of multiculturalism as a political strategy.  Thirty years into the multicultural experiment that is Canada, some are seeing potential hazards.  Can a nation that allows people of radically different beliefs to live together really survive and thrive?  Are there some worldviews that cannot be accommodated into the “official” Canadian metanarrative of peace and tolerance and “niceness?”  What happens when worldviews simply prove fundamentally incompatible, politically and ideologically?

MacDonald offers one response: Just stop caring so much.  Adopt a worldview of apathy about the divisive questions like whether or not God exists.  Yet apathy and (limited) tolerance as a worldview seems unlikely to inspire broad allegiance as a framing story.  Aside from its obviously limited value in addressing some of the deep existential needs of humanity—needs for hope, forgiveness, reconciliation, and salvation, among other things—having no interest in the beliefs of others only works if the beliefs of others make no difference in the world.

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    People are so different where I live in a bohemian area in southern California. Here disbelief is the norm. It is belief, not disbelief, that is an embarrassing or scandalous admission. I think if people don’t speak about their belief or disbelief here it is because it is considered a private matter and people do not want to offend others by things they may say about religion. We do have many Dawkins types here, typically angry former evangelicals or Catholics, who despise religion, but they also tend to keep their feelings to themselves mainly. Such anger disrupts the mellow social climate we have here.

    If Eliade is right, then almost all of us in the west are apatheists, or at least non-theists with some regret that their is no eternal hope, but also some relief that we need not fear judgment.

    I have known many people from China who are truly apatheists. They simply grew up without religion and do not seek it now. They don’t dislike it, they just don’t care about it.

    June 8, 2009
    • I’m not an American, but there are obviously huge differences in how religiosity is perceived depending on where in the USA you are. I think most parts of Canada are very similar to your neck of the woods. I certainly agree that there are many who adopt something like this as a default worldview, I’ve just never seen it articulated in such explicit form. It’s an approach that I think lacks consistency—and I do think the existential concerns I referred to above do make themselves known at some point.

      June 8, 2009
  2. I agree with Ken (eh hem): I suspect this kind of “apatheism” is more or less the default for a growing segment of the population, particularly among the working class. When I worked in construction, probably 75 percent of the people I met were simply unconcerned about religious matters. They had no particular bone to pick–they didn’t even mind if you raised the subject–it just never warrented more than a “hmmm, that’s nice, I’m gonna go have a smoke.” To be honest, I’m not sure this is any better than vitriolic atheism; at least the latter is interested in the subject.

    Heh, but my first thought when I read the title to this post was of the the planet in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where everyone voted (year after year) to be ruled by reptiles because they were too busy playing video games to care about things like politics. Which is pretty much just Aldous Huxley/Neil Postman in space…

    June 8, 2009
    • You’re probably right Ken. When I think back to my days of manual labour or in hockey locker rooms it was pretty much the same as your construction friends—don’t know, don’t care.. that pretty much summed up their response to religion. I guess this is preferable to the atheism of Ditchkins in tone, if nothing else, although as you say at least hostility implies conviction.

      I love the Hitchhikers analogy—very funny (and also very accurate!).

      June 8, 2009
  3. Jeff #

    Wow, what a fantastic post Ryan. I absolutely love the conversation of beliefs and politics, even though I am not necessarily a competent contributer. You wrote, “What happens when worldviews simply prove fundamentally incompatible, politically and ideologically?” This, above the many good things that were written, was what caught my eye the most. We obviously cannot have apathy as our worldview – it would never work. It might work for people who only care about themselves all their life and who work throughout life at places that offer no more significance than punching the clock. But for people who become responsible for others in any fashion, pretty soon you realize that apathy disqualifies you. And of course, politics is the work of caring for society (well….I mean….I could be wrong about that!). Anyway, my point is that those who are responsible for others cannot live out an apathetic worldview. And no matter how you slice it, they bring their worldview with all of its beliefs into their work.

    And so the question, “What happens when worldviews simply prove fundamentally incompatible, politically and ideologically?” I think this is a conversation that needs to be explored. We talk about inter-faith dialogue, almost to prove to ourselves that we are grown up and mature….but can we do it when it really matters – when our laws hang in the balance?

    Do you have any thoughts as to the future of a nation whose goal is to embrace a multicultural / multi-faith posture? Especially as we see the pot growing more and more diverse every year?

    June 8, 2009
    • Thanks for the kind words Jeff. I do think inter-faith dialogue is possible, but it has to be done carefully and without reducing all of the “competing” voices to caricatured irrelevant versions of themselves. I think it is important to look for common ground and affirm it where we find it, while preserving those beliefs that separate us respectfully and compassionately. Perhaps that sounds idealistic, but I do think (hope?) it’s possible…

      Re: the future of our nation? Whew, I don’t know. I hardly feel qualified to tackle that one. I suppose I do see the caricaturing thing happening more and more. Increasingly, I suspect, religions will be pressured to accommodate themselves to hollow versions of themselves that are acceptable within something like the default Canadian narrative espoused by folks like MacDonald. I think those who resist these attempts will be increasingly marginalized (i.e., labeled “intolerant,” “bigoted,” or other less than complementary adjectives) in the public sphere. Not a terribly optimistic picture, I suppose, but it certainly isn’t difficult for me to imagine something like this scenario unfolding.

      June 8, 2009
  4. It is irresponsible ignorance to suggest that multiculturalism (the specific Canadian politcal policy) does not afford us some signficant challenges in working out the place of religious beliefs in the public sphere. Best understood, multiculturalism is not (it certainly was not designed originally as) a laissez-faire policy whatsoever rather it factors a constant political surveillance that can dodge and weave around and between the beauty of diverse ethnic expression and ugliness of intolerant racial strife. This constant state of alert is far from easy and those governments choosing to lighten their politcal work load have dismissed and avoided issues around multi-culturalism like a disease. Active engagement between cultural paradigms is a delicate but valuable task because there is much good and beauty to be gained from diverse positions. But what this kind of exchange can offer most importantly of all is a clearer revelation of truth. We should never be too carelessly quick or arrogant to wish for singularity. It serves us well to embrace the plurality that we encounter with the eager anticipation of the refinement of our own understanding.
    Like you said, beliefs matter alot. They shape our behaviour.
    I feel suspicious about people who see doom and gloom in multiculturalism. I wonder if they fear the validity of their own beliefs or if they suspect that their beliefs might not hold the test of interactive scrutiny? I also wonder if there is some latent sense of entitlement that precedes sceptics of multi-culturalism. At times it feels as though some still beleive that the public/political ice rink ought to be tilted toward the Christian side. I hope we might escape the shadow of those artificial constructs quickly.
    Beliefs matter to mr. MacDonald as well. MacDonald’s apathy is disingenuous especially since his career might come to an abrupt halt were he not to extricate the complexities of religiousity from the politcal stories he covers. His own piece belies his false apathy. What I think might be an interesting angle to cover is to what extend his ideas are the expression of frustration over lack of genuine engagement that seemingly intelligent people continue to perpetuate.

    June 8, 2009
    • Active engagement between cultural paradigms is a delicate but valuable task because there is much good and beauty to be gained from diverse positions. But what this kind of exchange can offer most importantly of all is a clearer revelation of truth. We should never be too carelessly quick or arrogant to wish for singularity. It serves us well to embrace the plurality that we encounter with the eager anticipation of the refinement of our own understanding.

      Well said Dale. I absolutely agree. The “clearer revelation of truth” is an important part to me. If we can sharpen our understanding and practice of the truth by learning from others then we will be living well “multiculturally” and following Jesus’ command to love our neighbours as ourselves. But if we just allow the political structure that makes our living and learning together possible to shape and determine our faith (i.e., adopting the “don’t know, doesn’t matter” approach MacDonald claims to embrace), then the potential for learning from each other is reduced. Then we will have simply embraced a new framing story under which to locate our old one.

      June 9, 2009
  5. Ken #

    Like Dale, I sensed some false apathy in MacDonald’s essay, even though I do see a large degree of apathy towards religion where I live and in at least the urban areas of the U.S.

    I have always been attracted to a multicultural environment and live in such a place. I am married to a woman from another culture and so my family environment is also multicultural. At the same time I understand the fears that come with living in a multicultural environment. Pluralism does make it harder to believe anything while giving us the option to believe almost anything we like. Apathy, anomie and nihilism seem inevitable because it is so hard to sustain belief and find meaning in such a situation. Unfortunately, the alternative to living with pluralism is loss of freedom. I think most of us will choose freedom and find ways to cope with the problems of multiculturalism.

    BTW, I have also seen much false admiration of multiculturalism at the university and in a liberal church. While espousing devotion to multiculturalism, many white liberals act like what they really want is for people from other cultures to embrace white liberal values and ways of living. In that context admiration of multiculturalism is oppressive.

    June 9, 2009
  6. Gil #

    I was reading George Lindbeck the other day and reading this post reminded me of the following:

    “It is not the business of a nontheological theory of religions to argue for or against the superiority of any one faith, but it does have the job, if it is to be religiously useful, of allowing the possibility of such a superiority. It must not, in other words, exclude the claims religions make about themselves, and it must supply some interpretation of what these claims mean.”

    I think multiculturalism does serve as a ‘nontheological theory of religions,’ here in Canada and I think its usefulness is debated for precisely the reason above. I think multiculturalism (or pluralism) are both options that have potential to create a space within which people can figure out what to do with the many commonalities and differences between them. But at present these ‘isms’ carry a bit too much ideological freight for many religious people to feel entirely comfortable with them.

    This is a huge question – I think, at least from the perspective of evangelical theology, we are just starting to appreciate how much work has to be done around the question of pluralism. In my opinion this is the issue that will dominate in the years ahead.

    June 9, 2009
    • That’s a good lens through which to look at multiculturalism—and a very accurate one. I think there is definitely an implicit value (or lack of value) attached to any and all cultural or religious expressions within the “nontheological theory of religions” that is multiculturalism. As you say, this is one theory that carries a fair amount of ideological freight but the ideology is often implicit, and often goes unnoticed/unstated.

      I think the challenge for Christians (and Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and any other group living under this political reality) is to maintain their conviction that multiculturalism is not the comprehensive framing story by which they live. Multiculturalism is not necessarily antagonistic or hostile to it and there will be a lot of areas where there is ideological overlap, but they are two different framing stories.

      I think you’re right—this issue is not going away. We are going to have to get better at understanding and articulating Christianity within this context in a way that expresses proper respect and gratitude for the good things it brings, but which also does not compromise our most basic allegiance.

      June 9, 2009
    • Gil, I am curious to know what Lindbeck means by “religiously useful”. I am not sure if I follow the logic of his argument in suggesting that a nontheological theory of religion must afford one religion superior status.
      Do you think that the attitude of selfless servanthood might apply to the positional attitude that followers of Jesus can take with respect to other religions? Do think that the exercise of arrogant superiotity might be a contravention of Christ’s attitude toward other faith perspectives? Maybe thosse principles do not apply here?

      June 9, 2009
  7. Gil #

    “I am not sure if I follow the logic of his argument in suggesting that a nontheological theory of religion must afford one religion superior status.”

    He doesn’t say that at all. He argues that a nontheological theory of religion couldn’t rule out the possiblity BEFORE THE FACT, because to do that would be to distort the actual claims of the religions themselves (it’s not only Christians who believe they’re right, after all). He’s arguing against the view that suggests that “whatever else these religions THINK they believe, they REALLY are all just partial approximations of some grand, universal religious truth (usually only known to the religious critic). To do that would be to offer a new totalitarian system – namely the system of religious pluralism.

    The second part of your question is a very different issue. It has to do with how people hold their views and specifically how they hold them with respect to others who disagree. I’m not sure what “Christ’s attitude toward other faith perspectives” is (I’m not aware that he really addressed the issue), I’m quite convinced that selfless servanthood toward others does not require us to abandon all truth claims. It’s only recently that genuine disagreement – in principle – became synonymous with oppression.

    June 10, 2009
    • I guess I assumed that any nontheological theory of religion (ntor) would have to assume that the religion(s) it theorizes about could necessarily consider themselves superior to other included or excluded religions under the theory. What did not compute for me was how this assumption would necessarily be able to afford one religion privileged status politically over another when this theory is applied to public policy. It sounds to me like he is likely not making that argument but I thought you used his perspective to argue your about in relation to the application of the multicultural policy in force in Canada.
      It seems to me that a public policy could very well afford religions the right to consider themselves superior but not necessarily grant them privileged status even if such religions considered their own superiority just cause for political privilege. In such a case the religious position would necessarily stand in political conflict with the prevailing public policy and either leave said political entity or change its position.
      Like you I am also convinced that selfless servanthood toward others does not require us to abandon all truth claims. It seems silly to argue for instance that Christ himself denied the truth of his own identity when accused in his trial before the religious leaders even though he clearly did not assert his the validity of his convictions and allowed himself to be even wrongly accused. Impossible to argue that one I suspect. I suppose that it may not at once seem that my later questions are distinct but I suppose I saw them related to the way Christian political behavior should be addressed. I was wondering if sentiments that seek political superiority might also contribute to the notions that have fueled the killing of abortion clinic workers, and vitriolic public discourse on the part of some ‘Christian’ organizations.

      June 10, 2009
  8. Gil #

    Dale,
    I think another important distinction needs to be made here. I would see a major difference between believing in the truth of a particular worldview and somehow expecting that truth to be given some kind of political privilege.

    I think the Anabaptist notion that our job is not to ‘convert’ (people, political structures or whatever else) so much as it is to ‘bear witness’ (through our testimony, ethics – the whole of life) has something important to offer to this debate. There are numerous periods of Christian history where that witness has been offered from the margins of society and many would argue (myself included) that these have been the times when the church has been most faithful.

    June 11, 2009

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