"Apatheism" (neutrality) toward religion abandons the search for God.
Apatheism. It's not exactly a religion, per se. It's a mindset of apathy towards religion. And it is to be praised and encouraged.
So says Jonathan Rauch, a respected social thinker writing in the May issue of the Atlantic Monthly. He coined the word apatheist on the spur of the moment when recently asked what was his religion. The term means "a disinclination to care all that much about one's own religion, and an even stronger disinclination to care about other people's."
According to Rauch, the "modern flowering" of apatheism, "particularly in ostensibly pious America, is worth getting excited about." Rauch's excitement arises because he believes that religion, generally speaking, "remains the most divisive and volatile of social forces." (He points to the tragic events of September 11 as a demonstration.) Yet he is evenhanded with the blame, also mentioning the "tyrannical secularism" of China. Given that too-fervent beliefs, whether religious or anti-religious, are so dangerous, the rise of apatheism is a proud achievement, the "product of a determined cultural effort to discipline the religious mindset" and to "master the spiritual passions."
But let's not break out the celebratory wine just yet. For one thing, apatheism is next to impossible to maintain with any consistency. Rauch himself appears to violate his own apatheism by expressing dislike for the Al Qaeda brand of Islam. He tries to escape self-contradiction by saying at one point that apatheists are not "concerned about the (nonviolent, noncoercive) religious beliefs of others." (Emphasis added.) Since Al-Qaeda-style Islam is violent, Rauch allows himself the freedom to dislike it.
But the term noncoercive is quite a bit wider in scope. Almost any religious belief could be described as "coercive" if it affects public policy. Does Rauch care whether his fellow citizens are religiously opposed to abortion, for example? If the answer is, "No, as long as the pro-lifers keep their beliefs to themselves and don't try to coerce anyone else," then this much vaunted apatheism is close to meaningless. Pro-lifers are not going to keep their beliefs to themselves; nor would anyone else who believed that millions of human lives were being wrongfully ended. If Rauch reserves the right to "care" about any religious beliefs that affect public life, then his "apatheism" will rarely, if ever, be called into action.
More than that: Arguing for apatheism amounts to arguing against any religion that is evangelical in nature. When Rauch says that we should all be apatheistic, he is necessarily setting himself in opposition to all the Christian denominations who take seriously Christ's charge to go unto all the world and preach the Gospel.
So it seems that self-contradiction is almost built into the notion of apatheism. Only a non-apatheist could argue, as does Rauch, that millions of people should change their religion and become apatheistic.
Rauch does hit on a partial truth in praising his "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." One is thankful that some devout Christians are willing to set aside any personal disagreements they might have and befriend Mr. Rauch. After all, Christ said that we should be known for our love, after all, not for our readiness to berate and condemn.
On the other hand, perhaps Rauch's Christian friends are not acting out of Christian charity and kindness, but instead have fallen prey to the modern misconception that beliefs about God are not really capable of being "true" or "false." Perhaps the real reason that they do not challenge his atheism is not because of politeness or charity, but because they don't have a solid commitment to their own belief in God.
The fact is, many Christians fall into spiritual relativism, and thereby simulate tolerance and love for others. It may look the same from the outside--in either case, an atheist like Mr. Rauch may think what nice people these Christians are--but there is a vast difference between a Christian who befriends atheists out of love and a Christian who befriends atheists out of a squeamish uncertainty in his own faith. The first type of Christian might struggle with the natural human tendency to reject other human beings who are different in some fashion, and instead rise above that tendency by the power of God's love and grace. The second type of Christian might never have had the struggle in the first place, because his own faith in God is so ephemeral that it would never occur to him to think that atheism was any different.
Unfortunately, Rauch seems to suggest that the second type of Christian is what he is looking for. He notes approvingly that many of the "softer denominations in America are packed with apatheists," and suggests that such apatheists may attend church services "to connect with a culture or a community, to socialize, to expose children to religion, to find the warming comfort of familiar ritual." Notably absent from that list is the most important function, the one that distinguishes a church service from a meeting of the Rotary Club or the PTA: worshiping God.
And there's the rub. Rauch, perhaps because he writes from the atheist's limited perspective, completely misses that the whole purpose of religion is to seek after God. In this he is not alone; it is a well-known paradox that academic sociologists tend to discuss every possible aspect of religion except what it teaches about God. Yet this is missing the point in the most spectacular way. Surely the question of how we human beings can come to know God is the most important question any of us will ever face.
That being the case, it is difficult to see how apatheism, in Rauch's sense, can ever take root, except to the extent that people stop truly believing in God. Look at how we human beings act: We care about whether our friends like the right kind of music, read the right kind of books, associate with the right people, wear the right clothes, cheer for the right sports teams, drive the right kind of car, or vote for the right candidate. While we can always grow in love and charity towards others, how can we--without sapping our own faith--stop caring whether our friends have reached the right conclusion about the most important thing there is?
Stuart Buck is an attorney and a graduate of Harvard Law School. His articles have appeared in the Harvard Law Review, the Harvard Crimson, the Stanford Technology Law Review, and the Texas Review of Law and Politics. His website is http://www.stuartbuck.blogspot.com/.
This article appeared on the Breakpoint website. Reprinted with permission of the author.