ARTICLES

Volume 44 - Issue 3

Athens without a Statue to the Unknown God

by Kyle Beshears

Abstract

Apatheism is indifference and apathy toward the existence of God. In our secular age, a person adopts apatheism when they feel a sense of existential security absent God, effectively dissolving their reason, motivation, and will to care about questions related to his existence. This indifference presents a stronger challenge for evangelism than does religious pluralism, agnosticism, and atheism. For this reason, evangelicals ought to explore ways of engaging apatheism.

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.

1. What Is Apatheism?

Apatheism—a portmanteau of apathy and theism—is, in part, the belief that God and questions related to his existence and character are irrelevant.1 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. Philosopher Milenko Budimir noticed that this indifference distinguishes apatheism from otherwise intuitively related positions. He observed,

Classical theism is the position that a god or gods exist. In contrast, atheism argues that a god or gods do not exist. Lastly, there is agnosticism which holds that there is just not enough evidence to prove or disprove the existence of a god. Now apatheism is the position that whether or not a god exists is just not that important of a question, that it has little relevancy.2

Philosophers Trevor Hedberg and Jordan Huzarevich put it more succinctly:

[Apatheism] is distinct from theism, atheism, and agnosticism. A theist believes that God exists; an atheist believes that God does not exist; an agnostic believes that we cannot know whether God exists; an apatheist believes that we should not care whether God exists.3

They concluded that apatheism is “a general attitude of apathy or indifference regarding how we answer [existence questions relating to God].”4 They further emphasized that apatheism is a belief related to an attitude, i.e., what one thinks about GQs fosters how one feels about God and even vice versa.

Unsurprisingly, then, apatheism is best known by what it produces, apathy toward God. Recently, philosopher Gabriel Citron coined the term “theapathy” to describe the state of being completely apathetic or indifferent towards God.5 Apatheism manifests itself in theapathy, for if a person does not believe GQs are important (apatheism), then it naturally follows that they will express apathy toward God (theapathy). For this reason, I define apatheism as indifference toward GQs manifested as theapathy. Put differently, apatheism is when a person believes questions about God are irrelevant and feels apathetic toward him. This definition bifurcates belief and attitude in apatheism while noting the relationship between the two.

One question quickly arises: Is apatheism a bounded linear system that begins in belief and ends in attitude? Does cognitive indifference always come before theapathy? It would make sense, for how could a person express feelings about something without thinking it through? However, I doubt this is always the case, and the answer lies in a both/and rather than an either/or solution. Apatheism is reciprocal. The more convinced a person becomes that GQs are irrelevant, the more likely they will approach God in apathy, and the longer a person approaches God in apathy, the more convinced they become that GQs are irrelevant. Neither one, belief nor attitude, necessarily carries the prerequisite role of initiating the reciprocation. For some people, it may be that their cognitive indifference toward GQs affects their feelings about God. For others, theapathy influences how GQs are valued. Their dulled heart convinces their mind that God is irrelevant.

It seems counterintuitive that how we feel about something influences what we think about it. But psychologists have noticed that attitudes can influence beliefs because our emotional responses to objects (or affect) are not strictly post-cognitive, i.e., we do not experience affective reactions only after we have sufficiently thought things through.6 For example, imagine a hiker in the forest who encounters a bear. The hiker immediately experiences the activation of both affective information (e.g., danger, fear, self-preserving stimuli, etc.) and cognitive information (e.g., the size of the bear, the color of its fur, etc.). The affective information takes primacy, distressing the hiker before she’s had a chance to sort through the cognitive information. She didn’t need to know what kind of bear she met to know that she ought to flee. This affective primacy, in the words of psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, means that “one’s feelings are not a reaction to, or a superposition on, one’s cognitive assessment, but the reverse: the affect comes first, the thinking later.”7 The hiker fled the bear first and only later recalled its size and fur color. So, it is possible that a person acts in apathy toward GQs before they have thought it through. Their apatheism is a reaction to their theapathy, rationally justifying how they already feel.

Beliefs shape attitudes, but attitudes can also shape beliefs. Indeed, there is a powerful impulse within us that seeks to avoid cognitive dissonance so that a person will attempt to maintain consistency between their beliefs and attitudes. It is unlikely that someone would believe GQs are irrelevant but feel something toward God. It is just as unlikely for someone who is theapathetic to find GQs interesting.

Regardless of which causes what, two distinct elements constitute apatheism—belief and attitude. This distinction is not always discerned by observers, which typically results in a description of apatheism as mere attitude absent belief. For example, in 2003, journalist Jonathan Rauch penned an essay, “Let it Be,” that popularized the concept of apatheism.8 He denounced religion as the “most divisive and volatile of social forces,” evidenced by the 9/11 terrorist attacks.9 Rauch argued that zealous dogmatism, whether “fanatical religiosity” or “tyrannical secularism,” is an unfortunate natural state for humans.10 These ideological fundamentalisms severely jeopardize the progress and safety of society. So, if a religious impulse exists to care too much for ideologies, which results in terrorism or tyranny, societies ought to adopt apatheism to neutralize those threats. In other words, societies should care less about religion to cool the dogmatic fever that lays dormant in each of us. Apatheism enables a sort of ideological enkrateia, self-control over radical impulses caused by zealotry. Our reward for ideological enkrateia is tranquility of the collective mind undisturbed by dangerous enthusiasm that upsets the social order.11 Apatheism, according to Rauch, should be celebrated as “nothing less than a major civilizational advance.”12

He defined apatheism as “a disinclination to care all that much about one’s own religion, and an even stronger disinclination to care about other people’s [religion].”13 Apatheism is not concerned with what you believe but how you believe—it is “an attitude, not a belief system,” Rauch claimed.14 He is not wrong, but he is not entirely right. By focusing on theapathy, he overlooks the associated belief that God is irrelevant. Apatheism is a ‘what’ of belief inseparably connected to a ‘how’ of belief. Rauch himself cannot help but notice the –ism of apatheism, for he elsewhere described it as an “effort to discipline the religious mindset.”15 True, apatheism is not a belief system, but it is surely a belief. Ask an apatheist why they are uninterested in God, and their response will likely be that they don’t believe God is relevant to their life.

2. Is Apatheism merely Practical Atheism?

One might argue that apatheism is merely a subset of atheism, especially in its practical form. The result is certainly the same: a life spent ignoring God. However, practical atheism is disregard for the answers to GQs, not a disregard for GQs per se. Unlike atheism proper, the practical atheist acts as if God does not exist and has no authority over his life despite his belief in God. Hence, practical atheism and not actual atheism. The psalmist berates this behavior, warning that these “foolish people” intentionally suppress knowledge of God to indulge in moral corruption (Pss 14:1; 53:1). These “fools” do not cognitively reject God’s existence but deny his authority as moral standard and law-giver. They believe that God exists but act as if he does not. Apatheists, however, do not care at all about God and, thus, act as if he does not exist. It is essential to keep these two positions, practical atheism and apatheism, distinct from one another.16 Otherwise, one risks issuing the wrong diagnosis.

3. Why Apatheism?

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.”17 In short, apatheism has become possible because society has secularized.

When we read the word “secular,” we often think in terms of religion vs. areligion, especially as the debate relates to private and public spaces. We take the term “secular” to mean having no religion whatsoever. While this is true, it is not always the case, and it is not that useful for understanding why apatheism exists. (Remember, an apatheist can be religious, so they are not always secular in the areligious sense.) In A Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor helpfully explained that secularization is not necessarily the overthrow of religious belief by areligious belief in public spaces. Instead, secularization is a pivot in how our society approaches belief.18 In a former age, belief in God was uncontestable. Everyone cared about God and affirmed his existence. Now, in our secular age, as Taylor called it, belief in God is not only contestable but merely one option among many alternatives. As Taylor observed, our society shifted from being one in which “belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.”19 If religious belief is merely one option among many alternatives, then it is reasonable to imagine that some of us dismiss GQs as irrelevant because we are overwhelmed by our options or we find some of the options too difficult to embrace, especially Christianity. In a former time, GQs offered us answers to ultimate meaning because they provided the framework in which we understood our world. We had ample reason, motivation, and will to ask and answer GQs. Now, however, there are alternatives to Christianity, especially those beliefs that appear to offer greater existential security and liberal autonomy.

But dismissing God does not terminate our quest for meaning. The very moment an apatheist sets down GQs is the same moment they pick up a feeling that there must be something more that is missing. Taylor argued that our age “suffers from a threatened loss of meaning.”20 And with this loss of meaning comes a force that “pushes us to explore and try out new solutions, new formulae.”21 We are, after all, creatures meaningfully created by a God who is the very source of all meaning. Even if we find the source of all meaning irrelevant, we cannot find meaning itself irrelevant. So, an apatheist seeks meaning, but they lack the reason, motivation, and will to consider GQs the avenue to meaning’s source.22

Take, for example, lacking a reason to care about GQs. Non-religious explanations of origins and nature discount the need for God. Formerly, a person might have held, either tightly or loosely, to the supernatural for filling in the gaps of their knowledge. Yet, if they reject supernatural explanations in favor of, say, naturalism, then the importance of God becomes negligible. Their new beliefs provide all the rational answers they need, so GQs are no longer important. And, if GQs are not important for explaining the world and our place in it, then God is unlikely to help explain personal meaning. But atheists and agnostics come to this same conclusion. So, what sets apatheism apart? Atheists and agnostics still find GQs interesting. “God is dead,” they agree with Nietzsche, and ask with him, “What does that mean for us now?” An apatheist, in contrast, does not find GQs interesting. So, apatheism is born when a god-of-the-gaps dies but no one bothers to attend the funeral. “God is dead,” they say, “but who cares?”

A person might also lack the motivation to find GQs important. Comfortable with their beliefs, they find it easier to let bygones be bygones, viewing arguments over God’s existence or non-existence as trivial as Pepsi vs. Coca-Cola. Or perhaps they are too distracted and lack time to consider GQs. In our digital age, a person might lose motivation because they are continually interrupted by a cacophony of chimes and beeps from their smartphones. One moment they are contemplating life’s biggest questions. The next moment they are streaming funny cat videos and reading about the top ten fabric softeners ranked according to Star Wars fans.23 How can they care about God if they are distracted and demotivated continuously?

Still, others might lack the will to care, fearful of leaving what they know for the unknown. They don’t want to change because they enjoy their autonomy and are unwilling to amend their beliefs. Taylor sees this kind of behavior as a product of our secular age. With so many beliefs competing for our attention, we have become highly suspicious of outside forces seeking to manipulate our thoughts, especially religious ideas. So, we construct a buffer between our inner experience and the outer world to shield us from manipulation. We become, as Taylor called us, a “buffered self.”24 Buffered apatheists lack the will to care about God because they do not want to change, unless that change comes from within. Philosopher Douglas Groothuis sensed this kind of apatheism when he observed that it excludes “in principle the discovery of and adherence to any truths not found comfortable by people who place tranquility above reality.”25

All three of these factors—a lack of reason, motivation, and will—share one commonality: a sense of existential security absent God. For these apatheists, enough conditions have been met for feeling secure in life without God, so they see no point to him. As psychologists Will Gervais and Ara Norenzayan put it, apatheism “arises from conditions of existential security.”26 They argued that the frequency and intensity of religious belief in a society decline as a sense of existential security increases (e.g., decreased poverty rates, lower infant mortality, longer life-spans, economic stability, and reliable government services and social safety nets).27 To this list of socio-economic conditions, I add self-directed meaning, i.e., meaning created by one’s own preferences and decisions without being told what to prefer or think. Gervais and Norenzayan concluded, “Where life is safe and predictable, people are less motivated to turn to gods for succor.”28 And the less motivated people are to turn to God, the less likely they will find his existence relevant. After all, why concern yourself with God if you feel secure in body, mind, and soul without him?29 Apatheism, then, exists when a person in a secular society achieves a sufficient sense of existential security absent God.

4. Is Apatheism Growing?

Can we determine the scope of apatheism and measure its growth? After all, if it is an anomaly restricted to a small portion of society, then (ironically) who cares? In short, it is impossible to determine the population of apatheists and to know with certainty to what degree apatheism is growing, if at all. Polls that gauge religious life in America typically don’t ask whether or not people care about belief in God, only whether or not they believe.30 It would be beneficial if a new option appeared on future polls that indicated whether or not people cared at all about belief in God. We can, however, monitor two categories where apatheism most likely plays a role in behavior and identity change—declining religious activity and the rising of the religiously unaffiliated, or Nones.

An increase in apathy toward one’s religious views intuitively parallels declining participation in religious activities. Over the past few decades, religious organizations across America, especially Christian churches, report declining attendance at their services. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, the number of people who claim to attend religious services weekly or almost every week has declined slightly by four percent between 2008 and 2017.31 Sociologist Mark Chaves, whose work considered an array of data over decades, calculated a decline of one-quarter of a percentage point per year since 1984, or approximately eight percent overall.32 These numbers might elicit a yawn from those unconcerned with such a marginal loss. However, as sociologist Philip Brenner demonstrated, Americans tend to over-report their service attendance—a phenomenon dubbed the “halo effect”—so any decline might be more significant than the data appear.33

Moreover, this decline confirms what other sociologists have noticed is a slow and gradual waning of religious activity.34 Chaves noted the difficulty of measuring the decline, saying that “only with the most powerful lens provided by more than forty years of data have we been able to see through the noise of yearly fluctuations to discern that attendance in fact has been slowly declining for decades.”35 Chaves, along with his colleague David Voas, elsewhere concluded that “the evidence for a decades-long decline in American religiosity is now incontrovertible.”36 American religious activity—as truthfully reported by those surveyed—is declining, which could come as a result of apatheism, at least in part. Even apatheists who retain their religious identity are less likely to participate in religious services than those in their communities who care about their religion. I am not saying that apatheism pushes people out of religious service attendance—no, there are apatheists in the pews. But theapathy is undoubtedly a poor motivator for attending church to worship a God you don’t care about.

Relatedly, the rising of the Nones could also provide some evidence of apatheism’s growth. According to a 2016 Public Religion Research Institute study, one-quarter of all Americans identify as religiously unaffiliated.37 This group has grown consistently since the early 1990s, and there is no sign of slowing.38 It makes sense that apatheism would find a comfortable home among the Nones. Again, it is important to remember that apatheism permeates all religious and areligious beliefs. Apatheism lurks in religious categories where indifference about one’s own religion and the religion of others does not necessarily demand they identify as a None. These apatheists are like Rauch’s Christian friends who, he noted, “betray no sign of caring that [he is] an unrepentantly atheistic Jewish homosexual” and apatheistic to top it all off.39 Still, it is hard to imagine that the None category is not flush with apatheism. When faced with so many religious options on a poll, the apatheist simply shrugs and circles “None.”

So, if religious service attendance is declining and the Nones are rising, then apatheism is likely a cause for and result of both.40

5. The Challenge of Apatheism

To recap, apatheism manifests theapathy, thus the response “Meh” to the question, “Do you believe in God?” When asked the same question, a theist responds, “Yes,” an agnostic, “Perhaps,” and an atheist, “No.” Regardless of their diversity, all three of these responses invite a subsequent conversation about GQs. An apatheist, however, responds with disinterest, terminating the conversation prematurely as their apathy overwhelms and drains the question of its power. This draining is the reason why apatheism is far more challenging to evangelism than religious pluralism, agnosticism, and atheism. An unbeliever—be they religious, agnostic, or atheist—cares about GQs, and is typically willing to have a conversation about them. The apatheist, however, does not find GQs important, so they do not care to have a conversation about them, effectively closing the opportunity for gospel conversation.

Consider, for a moment, how contemporary apologetic approaches will fare against apatheism. We often look to the Apostle Paul’s famous Areopagus discourse as the quintessential model for Christian engagement with unbelief (Acts 17:16–34), and rightly so.41 The apostle gives us an example of engaging culture in ways it understands by addressing mutually common interests. After seeing a pantheon with a catch-all statue dedicated to an unknown god, Paul took for granted that he and his audience shared a minimally common belief (theism) and shrewdly leveraged this shared conviction to make a case for the gospel. Paul proclaimed with clarity the god whom the Athenians worshiped in ignorance.

Now, imagine for a moment that the Athenians were apatheistic. What if they did not care about the gods? There would be no pantheon, no statue to the unknown god, and, if there were, the statue would be concealed by overgrown vines and soot, evidence that the gods no longer captured the kind of interest they used to. How could Paul have proclaimed to them what they worshiped as unknown?

What if we are living in an Athens without a statue to the unknown god?

6. Approaching Apatheism

When approaching apatheism, evangelicals first need to understand its duality, that it is a belief and attitude, both cognitive and affective. A right understanding of apatheism will afford us the insight needed in assessing whether a person is a practical atheist or an apatheist, and, if an apatheist, whether their indifference stems from primarily rational or emotional reasons.

Second, it is vital for evangelicals to recognize that apatheism represents a significant challenge to the Christian faith because it affects the church inside and out, in both discipleship (with apatheism in the pews) and evangelism (apatheistic unbelievers). For discipleship, the concern is unquestionably apparent. As Groothuis noted, apatheism is “antithetical to the teachings of all religions: that one should care about one’s convictions and put them into practice consistently.”42 Christian apatheism (if such a thing could be called “Christian”) has all the trappings of nominal Christianity with the additional flaw of theapathy. They are “Christians” and “theists” in name only. How can an apatheist possibly love the Lord their God with all their heart and mind if their heart is listless and their mind indifferent to him (Matt 25:36–37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27a)?

For evangelism, apatheism requires us to rethink how we present the gospel. How do we walk toward the Way with someone who is constrained by spiritual inertia? Some of us will hope to find the answer in apologetics. But even our apologetic methods will need modification because, as we have seen with the Aeropagus, many of these methods have been built upon the assumption that both parties, the believer and unbeliever, are interested in GQs. Think about how an apologist approaches atheism with the classical method. Their first step is to present the atheist with arguments for the plausibility of God’s existence (e.g., transcendental, teleological, ontological, etc.). This step is possible because both parties hold a minimally common interest in GQs. That same apologist would find an apatheist intolerably frustrating because they will dismiss the apologist’s arguments as meaningless and boring. To an apatheist, talking about GQs is like listening to a lecture on tariffs by Ferris Bueller’s history teacher. “Anyone, anyone?”

To be clear, we do not need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It would be foolish to junk two millennia of thoughtful and effective apologetics simply because these arguments fall on deaf ears. Instead, we need to supplement our methodology with a prefatory maneuver, one that determines whether or not both parties hold a minimally common interest in GQs. If they do not share that interest, then an effort must be made to regain common interest before moving forward into familiar apologetic territory.

Third, because apatheism is two-fold, evangelicals ought to develop strategies for engaging apatheists that speak to both their mind and heart. And, considering our secular context, we need to show that our faith is not one option among many alternatives, nor is it merely something we add to our lives. Speaking on religious indifference, philosopher Ingolf Dalferth outlined our objective well:

Christians must find ways to show and communicate to their contemporaries that faith, hope, and love in God [transform] all areas of human life by changing the mode in which humans live their lives. Christian faith does not add a dispensable religious dimension to human life but rather transforms its existential mode from a self-centered to a God-open life that puts its ultimate trust not in any human institution, whether religious or non-religious, but in the creative presence of God’s love.43

The Christian faith transforms the entire “existential mode” of a person, a mode that must be reoriented wholly from death to life. Our faith is not merely an ornament to be donned and removed when desired; it is the fundamental recreation and renewal of our whole person, our resurrection from death into the life of a “new creature” in Christ (2 Cor 5:17). In him, we find true existential security having been conformed to a new existential mode after his image (Rom 8:29). If apatheism is a result of existential security absent God, then it ought to be demonstrated to the apatheist that such security is illusory. There is no existential security absent the faith, hope, and love of the gospel—the “creative presence” of the Creator’s love.

With these three suggestions in mind, how ought we approach apatheism? First, and foremost, we remember that the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit must fill the apatheist with affection for the God they do not care about. His work, and his work alone, brings about a renewed mind and softened heart where indifference and apathy once reigned. One way we can join the Spirit in his work is by leveraging the apatheist’s curiosity to stoke interest in self-reflection that leads to disillusionment with their beliefs, exposing the fragile state of their security.44 In doing so, we plough the soil of their hearts and minds to upend the apatheist’s sense of security. Elsewhere, I have suggested that presuppositional methods of worldview analysis accompanied by penetrating questions stoke curiosity.45 These questions force the apatheist to consider shortcomings in their beliefs. How can their curiosity be stoked? By examining the apatheist’s beliefs to expose inconsistencies.

This suggestion is by no means novel. Francis Schaeffer long ago argued for the same thing. He reasoned that whoever holds to non-Christian beliefs necessarily holds presuppositions that do not agree with the real world. Consequently, unbelievers are “far from reality,” and this distance can be demonstrated to them by uncovering “points of tension” in their beliefs.46 All people, as image bearers of God, are pulled toward his objective sense of love, beauty, meaning, significance, and truth. But, because we desire autonomy from him, we create our own myopic and disoriented sense of love, beauty, meaning, significance, and truth. We become caught between the objectivity of the holy Creator and the subjectivity in the fallen creation. We try to march according to our own beat, but the loudspeaker of God’s standards persistently thuds and pulses in our soul, undermining our project of rebellious liberty. These are points of tension. What is love? Why is something beautiful? From where do I receive absolute meaning? Am I significant? What is truth? But people do not like their autonomy challenged, so they shelter themselves from the thuds and pulses. A “roof is built as a protection against the blows of the real world, both internal and external,” Shaeffer explained, anticipating Taylor’s buffered self.47 For Schaeffer, a goal of evangelism is to penetrate this roof so that we may press hard on tension points to reorient unbelievers toward God. If we remove the roof, then the apatheist’s buffered self is no longer buffered. And when we push on points of tension, we expose the inconsistency with the way the apatheist lives and how things really are. The apatheist finally has a reason to care, being motivated by curiosity as to why those inconsistencies exist. So, we ought to remove the roof and push hard on tension points, causing the kind of discomfort that compels them to care, if even for a moment, and to doubt their existential security that has now been exposed as fragile.

Herein lies the key ingredient—doubt. Riffing off Søren Kierkegaard’s Johannes Climacus, a triad of anti-apathy—doubt, interest, and objective thinking—will compel the apatheist toward a sustained self-reflection that holds their interest long enough to allow for objective thinking about GQs. Kierkegaard argued that “doubt is a higher form than any objective thinking, for it presupposes the latter but has something more, a third, which is interest or consciousness.”48 If the apatheist is asked to think objectively about their beliefs without doubt, then disinterest will drain power from any penetrating questions asked. Objective thinking alone is powerless against apathy. We must first take a step backward in these dialogues to enlist the apathy-neutralizing aid of doubt. If the apatheist first doubts their beliefs, then their doubt will stir within them a curiosity-driven interest, which prevents their doubt from being defused in apathy and, further, inspires an exploration of self-discovery as they think objectively about their beliefs. Doubt about shortcomings in their beliefs stimulates an apatheist’s interest. Only then, having meet this prerequisite, can we ask the apatheist to think objectively about GQs. Doubt first, interest second, GQs third. Finally, we are able to have a conversation about the new “existential mode” in which God calls us to live by the gospel. We can proclaim, with Paul, that “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). We can declare that God cares for them always, even when they did not care for him.

In sum, apatheism is indifference toward GQs manifested as theapathy, making it distinct from theism, atheism, and agnosticism. A person adopts apatheism when they feel existential security absent God, effectively dissolving their reason, motivation, or will to care about GQs. Apatheism is more challenging to evangelism than other forms of unbelief. We ought to recognize that apologetic methods take for granted that people share a minimally common interest in GQs. Absent this common interest, apatheism requires us to explore new ways to generate interest in GQs before we can discuss them. One way to generate such interest is to cause an apatheist to doubt their existential security absent God by pushing on tension points in their beliefs.

At any rate, let us welcome one another to this new Athens without the statue to the unknown god, not in pessimistic despair but delighted hope, recognizing that, in the whole history of the church, we have been given a truly unique stewardship opportunity for the gospel.


[1] Pronounced “apathy-ism,” Robert Nash was the first to note that apatheism is, at its core, apathy toward questions of God’s existence or nonexistence (Religious Pluralism in the Academy: Opening the Dialogue [New York: Peter Lang, 2001], 27). Trevor Hedberg and Jordan Huzarevich paired apatheism with “existence questions” in their excellent treatment on the topic, “Appraising Objections to Practical Apatheism,” Philosophia (2016): 1–20. I prefer the term “God questions” over “existence questions” because apatheism moves well beyond mere indifference toward God’s existence into related topics concerning his person, character, and actions and our relation to him. My preference is not to be read as rebuffing or disagreeing with Hedberg and Huzarevich, whose project was limited to one’s affectivity specifically toward existence questions.

[2] Milenko Budimir, “Apatheism: The New Face of Religion?,” Philosophy of Religion 45 (2008): 88–93.

[3] Hedberg and Huzarevich, “Appraising Objections to Practical Apatheism,” 3. These authors wrote as an apologetic for apatheism. In 2018, philosopher Tawa Anderson offered a rebuttal to their argument, warning that “apatheism leads to the vices of acedia (failure to care sufficiently about things that deserve close consideration) and misology (hatred of reasoned argumentation)” (“The Big Questions: Prudence, Passion, and the Vice of Apatheism” [paper presented at the American Academy of Religion, Denver, CO, November 2018]).

[4] Hedberg and Huzarevich, “Appraising Objections to Practical Apatheism,” 3, emphasis added.

[5] Gabriel Citron, “Theapathy and Theaffectivity: On (Not) Caring about God,” unpublished paper received in communication with the author, 19 November 2018.

[6] Robert Zajonc, “Feeling and Thinking: Preferences Need No Inferences,” American Psychologist 35 (February 1980): 151–75. See also Robert Zajonc, “On the Primacy of Affect,” American Psychologist 39 (February 1984): 117–23; Stanley Rachman, “The Primacy of Affect: Some Theoretical Implications,” Behaviour Research and Therapy 19 (1981): 279–90; and Vicky Tzuyin Lai, Peter Hagoort, and Daniel Casasanto, “Affective Primacy vs. Cognitive Primacy: Dissolving the Debate,” Frontiers in Psychology 3 (July 2012): 1–8.

[7] Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 184.

[8] Jonathan Rauch, “Let It Be,” The Atlantic Monthly (May 2003): 34–35, https://tinyurl.com/y4heuznr. It is a common misconception that Rauch coined the term apatheism, a claim he does not make. The term was first coined by Canadian sociologist Stuart Johnson to describe the kind of indifference toward religion that accompanies an ever-secularizing society (“The Correctional Chaplaincy: Sociological Perspectives in a Time of Rapid Change,” Canadian Journal of Criminology and Justice 14 [1972]: 179). Robert Nash mistakenly claimed that he coined the term in 2001 [Religious Pluralism in the Academy, 27]. While Rauch did not invent the term, he certainly popularized it. Nearly every work written on apatheism in the past two decades has cited his article.

[9] Rauch, “Let It Be,” 34.

[10] Rauch, “Let It Be.”

[11] Rauch’s call for ideological enkrateia is not a bad thing. However, as philosopher Randal Rauser noted, Rauch is asking for the right thing via the wrong method because he conflates apatheism with enkrateia. If Rauch’s goal is to tame ideological zeal, then enkrateia, not apatheism, should be the goal. See Randal Rauser, “A Defense of Apatheism, sort of” (paper presented at the American Academy of Religion, Denver, CO, November 2018).

[12] Rauch, “Let It Be,” 35. Philosopher Paul Copan challenged Rauch’s cheery disposition toward apatheism, arguing that it represents a decline in civilization due to its negative “intellectual, cultural, moral, and existential implications.” See Paul Copan, “Apatheism and the Unexamined Life: Part 1,” The Worldview Bulletin Newsletter, 22 April 2019, https://worldviewbulletin.substack.com/p/apatheism-and-the-unexamined-life.

[13] Rauch, “Let It Be,” 35.

[14] Rauch, “Let It Be,” 35.

[15] Rauch, “Let It Be,” 35, emphasis added.

[16] Recently, philosopher Ian von Hegner suggested the possibility of apatheism falling under the genus practical atheism (or “pragmatic atheism”). He defined apatheism as a “form of indifference [toward] deities and religious postulates,” and then proposed that it “can fall under pragmatic atheism if by this one means negative atheism,” i.e., implicit disbelief in God. In doing so, von Hegner conflated practical atheism and negative atheism, where the former acts as if God does not exist and the latter implicitly denies God’s existence because a person does not or cannot articulate his or her beliefs (e.g., infants, people afflicted with intellectual or developmental disabilities, etc.). Practical atheism believes GQs are important but acts with disregard to that belief while negative atheism might also believe GQs are important but have not explicitly articulated their rejection of God. In stark contrast to both, apatheism does not care to believe and may or may not act contrary to that indifference. See Ian von Hegner, “Gods and Dictatorships: A Defense of Heroical Apatheism,” Science, Religion and Culture 3 (2016): 31–48.

[17] Denis Diderot, “Letter from Diderot to Voltaire, June 11, 1749,” ed. Arthur M. Wilson, Revie d’Historie Littéraire de la France 51 (September 1951): 258–60, quoted in Michael Buckley, At the Origins of Modern Atheism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 225.

[18] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 1–3, 19.

[19] Taylor, A Secular Age, 3.

[20] Taylor, A Secular Age, 303.

[21] Taylor, A Secular Age, 303.

[22] Elsewhere, I have argued that apatheism is caused by the lack of reason, motivation, or will to express interest in religious belief. See Kyle Beshears, “Apatheism: Engaging the Western Pantheon of Spiritual Indifference,” Churches on Mission: God’s Grace Abounding to the Nations, ed. Geoff Hartt, Christopher R. Little, and John Wang (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2017): 257–75.

[23] Alan Noble offers helpful insight into the relationship of distractions, secularism, and the Christian witness. See Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018).

[24] Taylor, A Secular Age, 37–39.

[25] Douglas Groothuis, “Why Truth Matters: An Apologetic for Truth-Seeking in Postmodern Times,” JETS 47 (2004): 450.

[26] Ara Norenzayan and Will M. Gervais, “The Origins of Religious Disbelief,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 17 (January 2013), 21–22.

[27] Norenzayan and Gervais, “The Origins of Religious Disbelief,” 21.

[28] Norenzayan and Gervais, “The Origins of Religious Disbelief,” 22.

[29] Norenzayan and Gervais argued that “where life is safe and predictable, people are less motivated to turn to gods for succor” (“The Origins of Religious Disbelief,” 21, emphasis added). However, can it be said that life is safe and predictable? Is not our sense of safety and predictability subjective in a dangerous and unpredictable world? I would rather say that where life feels safe and predictable, people are less motivated to turn to God. After all, from a Christian perspective, safety and predictability are not guaranteed within the kingdom of God, let alone outside of it. We do feel, however, a measure of eternal safety and divine predictability in that God is good, faithful, and able to accomplish his will for our good and his glory.

[30] One notable exception is a 2016 poll from PRRI that specifically addresses apatheism. It defines apatheists as those for whom “religion is not personally important to them, but believe it generally is more socially helpful than harmful” (Betsy Cooper, Daniel Cox, Rachel Lienesch, and Robert P. Jones, Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion—and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back [Washington, DC: Public Religion Research Institute, 2016], 13).

[31] Frank Newport, “Church Leaders and Declining Religious Service Attendance,” Gallup, 7 September 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yy8e77dn.

[32] Mark A. A. Chaves, American Religion: Contemporary Trends, 2nd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 47. Notably, Chaves pitted the inconsistent yet gradual decline in self-reported religious attendance from the General Social Survey against the more reliable American Time Use Survey, which shows a definite decline in religious attendance (pp. 41–46).

[33] Philip S. Brenner, “Exceptional Behavior or Exceptional Identity? Overreporting of Church Attendance in the U.S.,” Public Opinion Quarterly 75 (2011): 19–41.

[34] Mark A. A. Chaves and David Voas, “Is the United States a Counterexample to the Secularization Thesis?,” American Journal of Sociology 121 (2016): 1517–56.

[35] Chaves, American Religion, 47.

[36] Chaves and Voas, “Is the United States a Counterexample to the Secularization Thesis?,” 1524.

[37] Cooper, Cox, Lienesch, and Jones, Exodus, 2.

[38] Younger generations are more likely to identify as None than previous generations. Within the Nones, people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine represent 38%, those who are between thirty and thirty-nine represent 29%, and forty-to-forty-nine represent 23%. See Robert P. Jones and Daniel Cox, America’s Changing Religious Identity: Findings from the 2016 American Values Atlas (Washington, DC: Public Religion Research Institute, 2017), 25.

[39] Rauch, “Let it Be,” 34. Rauser is quick to note that these friends might care without displaying it in a manner unrecognizable to Rauch. Rauser elaborated, “These Christians may not ‘care’ in the sense of engaging in public and visible displays whereby they confront and condemn Rauch’s beliefs and actions. But that hardly entails that they do not truly care about their non-Christian brother. Indeed, for all we (or Rauch) know, they may pray for him for hours a day” (“A Defense of Apatheism”).

[40] I do not mean to say that apatheism is the sole cause of declining church attendance and increasing Nones, only that apatheism is a cause and a reason for both.

[41] See Paul Copan and Kenneth D. Litwak, The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas: Paul’s Mars Hill Experience for Our Pluralistic World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014). Daniel Strange called the speech “subversive fulfillment par excellence,” and an “exemplar of the apostolic preaching to pagans” in Their Rock is Not Like Our Rock: A Theology of Religions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 286. K. Scott Oliphint described Paul’s address as an “instructive” model for evangelism in his Covenantal Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defense of Our Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 229. Paul Gould likewise called it “instructive,” adding that it is a “helpful model for engaging ‘our Athens,’” in Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience and Imagination in a Disenchanted World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019), 25–27.

[42] Groothuis, “Why Truth Matters,” 450.

[43] Ingolf U. Dalferth, “Post-secular Society: Christianity and the Dialectics of the Secular,” JAAR 78 (2010): 339.

[44] What follows is a recommendation for approaching apatheism from a cognitive avenue. I have chosen this route to offer one possible approach, specifically for the apatheist who is curious about other things besides or tangential to GQs. This is an approach that I have found useful. Naturally, given the cognitive-affective nature of apatheism, there is an emotional avenue to approaching theapathy that also ought to be explored.

[45] Beshears, “Apatheism,” 271–75.

[46] Francis Schaeffer, “The God Who Is There,” in The Francis A. Schaeffer Trilogy (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990), 129–35.

[47] Schaeffer, “The God Who Is There,” 140.

[48] Søren Kierkegaard, Johannes Climacus, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 170.

Kyle Beshears

Kyle Beshears is teaching pastor at Mars Hill Church in Mobile, Alabama and teaches courses on worldview and religion at the University of Mobile. He is the author of the forthcoming book Apatheism: How We Share When They Don’t Care.

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