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Apatheism as the new agnosticism

December 25, 2011

I was reading this article on USAToday.com: Many say ‘So What?’ to God, religion, atheism. And it was peculiar how much of the framing of the article didn’t make sense to me. It seemed like Grossman was trying her hardest to put religious apathy at odds with atheism. For example, very early on in the article, she writes:

Sunday mornings, when Bill Dohm turns his eyes toward heaven, he’s just checking the weather so he can fly his 1946 Aeronca Champ two-seater plane.

Helton, 28, and Dohm, 54, aren’t atheists, either. They simply shrug off God, religion, heaven or the ever-trendy search-for-meaning and/or purpose.

Emphasis added. Or, later in the article:

Ashley Gerst, 27, a 3-D animator and filmmaker in New York, shifts between “leaning to the atheist and leaning toward apathy.”

“I would just like to see more people admit they don’t believe. The only thing I’m pushy about is I don’t want to be pushed. I don’t want to change others and I don’t want to debate my view,” Gerst says.

These things don’t really seem opposed to each other, atheism and apathy. Not saying that atheism is about apathy, but well, that’s because atheism isn’t really about anything…so to say it’s something more fervent is also incorrect.

When I saw a particular quote in the passage, I started to figure what Grossman was trying to get at:

Neither raging atheist scientist Richard Dawkins, author of numerous best sellers such as The God Delusion, nor televangelist Pat Robertson would understand this fuzzy stance, says Barry Kosmin, co-author of the ARIS and director Institute for the Study of Secularism at Trinity College, Hartford, Conn.

“But a lot of these people are concerned more with the tangible, the real stuff like mortgages or their favorite football team or the everyday world,” Kosmin says.

So, atheism is “raging,” but apatheism is about the “tangible,” and the “real stuff like mortgages…favorite football team…everyday world.”

I must not have gotten the memo years back. See, the reason why this framing doesn’t make sense to me is because the latter stuff informs the former stuff for me. The “tangible” and “real stuff” informs my lack of belief in god (or, to use one word: atheism). So, it doesn’t make sense to place the two at odds. I mean…what do people think atheists are focusing on, if it is not the “real stuff like mortgages…or the everyday world.”

It seems to me that this is an attempt at a semantic shift (if not simply a chronicling of a semantic shift in the general public…not sure which is the case). See, in general, what I’ve heard people say is that “atheist” and “theist” are at ends, and in the middle is “agnosticism,” the middle-way don’t-know point. In fact, most of the statements in this article would probably have been attributed to an “agnostic” viewpoint in most other articles.

Now, the discourse shifts from knowledge (OK, so far, so good), to care. Instead of talking about the agnostics, we have to talk about the apathetic. But since it’s still fundamentally the same model (two extremes and a middle), the apathetic must be distinguished from the atheists and theists.

Ultimately, I’m ok with this shift because it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter whether people identify as atheists or agnostics or apathetic or whatever else (notwithstanding the identity politics ramifications, which understandably many people consider to be extremely important)…I think the bigger point is that if this article is describing a trend, there is a shift in attitudes and beliefs. Regardless of what they call themselves, there are more people who “would just like to see more people admit they don’t believe” or “who simply shrug off God, religion, heaven, or the ever-trendy search-for-meaning and/or purpose.”

Not so similar after all?

Actually, there is a subtext of this article and articles like it that makes me doubt whether the people it describes are really all that similar to me and my motivations. While I agree to some extent that the descriptor of “spiritual” is a murky, trendy, ambiguous, or maybe even “hipster” designation, I’m not quite sure if the search for meaning and purpose itself was, is, or has ever been “trendy.” I think few people are serious about it — either on the religious or non-religious side (because I don’t think apathy is new…and I also don’t think it is mutually exclusive to either atheism or theism…in other words, if apatheism is a trend…then it is a trend to be found in the pews as well as outside. And just for a Mormon example, I think that bears out.)

Those who search for meaning and purpose are in the minority, I think. And while I think it might be better if more people were introspective about these things, I think that the search itself is something that should be regarded positively. I don’t think that it has to be considered as something impractical, as it is referred by many of those quoted in the article, or as something esoteric, as it is typecast by others quoted in the article. Rather…maybe I’m just a romantic, but I think that a framework story can be of value in this life. To take a few quote selections that I liked from the article:

“…the whole purpose of faith is to be a source of guidance, strength and perspective in difficult times. To be human is to have a sense of purpose, an awareness that our life is an utterly unique expression of creation and we want to live it with meaning, grace and beauty.”

and

“Judaism teaches that spirituality is practical. When you see something that is broken, fix it. When you find something that is lost, return it. When you see something that needs to be done, do it. In that way you will be taking care of the world and fulfilling your role as God’s partner, know it or not,” the rabbi says.

“Spirituality is about the relational — whether you are relating to God, to others, to the world or to yourself. I do believe most people see life more as a mystery than as a machine. I would call that God even if they don’t,” Greenstein says.

I am really not opposed to a grander overarching narrative. Really. It’s just difficult for me to get absorbed in stories that have a bunch of continuity issues, plot holes, or unrealistic characterizations.

Yeah, also…Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. Whatever.

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3 Comments
  1. I first encountered the word “apatheism” a couple of years ago, and while I don’t especially like the term (“apathy” carries with it too much baggage, I think), something from Wikipedia’s entry really struck me:

    “Apatheists hold that if it were possible to prove that God exists, their beliefs and behavior would not change. Similarly, there would be no change if someone proved that God does not exist.”

    Eureka. For me, a focus on right behavior rather than on right belief makes excellent sense (which is why I also like the quotes at the end of your piece). Whether God exists or not, I’ll be okay if I can manage to follow my own moral compass. (Is that weasel-y of me? Perhaps it is.) There’s another bit of irony there, of course: a “moral compass” comes perilously close to approaching “still small voice” territory. But that’s okay with me, as is the (possible) existence of God.

    So maybe I am an apatheist, as long as the definition of “apatheism” isn’t confined to a state of not “caring.” I care very much, being (or trying to be) one of those “few [who] are serious about” trying to make sense of existence (though I’m not sure what “few” means — is it only those who are constantly or consistently preoccupied with the meaning of life, or does it include those for whom it’s a concern at one time or another? — or “serious,” for that matter: is seriousness an absolute?). 🙂

    Anyway … thanks for the post. Made me think.

  2. SLK,

    Whether God exists or not, I’ll be okay if I can manage to follow my own moral compass. (Is that weasel-y of me? Perhaps it is.) There’s another bit of irony there, of course: a “moral compass” comes perilously close to approaching “still small voice” territory. But that’s okay with me, as is the (possible) existence of God.

    One thing I like about the distinction between calling it your own moral compass and calling it the still small voice is that with the former, you recognize the personal and subjective nature of it…but with the latter, well…the still small voice is from God. So, if my moral compass and yours differs on some issue, that’s ok…but the still small voice isn’t really allowed to differ for people.

  3. Definitions are also sometimes “personal and subjective,” and can be tricky (for me, at least). Great point about that distinction. I need to think some more. 🙂

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