A Defense of Apatheism (Sort Of)
NOTE: This autumn I will be presenting a qualified defense of apatheism at a conference. This is a draft of the paper I plan to deliver. It is in response to Jonathan Rauch’s important essay “Let it Be” in which he develops the concept of apatheism.
The link between 9/11 and the new atheism is well-established, but that terrible day also spurred another lesser known response to religious zeal. I speak of the apatheist celebrated by Jonathan Rauch in a pithy but very influential 2003 article in Atlantic Monthly simply titled “Let it Be.”1Rauch begins this brief, 994-word essay in memorable fashion by recounting an occasion when he was asked to share his religious views:
“‘I used to call myself an atheist,’ I said, ‘and I still don’t believe in God, but the larger truth is that it has been years since I really cared one way or another. I’m’—that was when it hit me—‘an … apatheist!’”2
And thus was born “apatheism,” a portmanteau of apathy and theism. But what, precisely, does Rauch mean by apatheism? According to what I call the standard reading of this essay, Rauch’s apatheism reflects an ignoble attitude of intellectual laziness, of mere disinterest in matters of religious significance.
While I don’t dispute the fact that some people are becoming increasingly apathetic about religious commitment, in this essay I will focus my efforts on challenging the standard reading of Rauch’s concept of apatheism. Instead, I’ll argue for what I call the charitable reading according to which apatheism reflects an admirable attempt to chasten the human tendency toward fanaticism as expressed in anti-social behavior such as zealotry, bigotry, and affrontive expressions of proselytism and disputation. When viewed from that perspective, we can see that far from representing an ignoble fall into intellectual sloth, Rauch’s particular brand of apatheism reflects an admirable attempt to constrain public conduct. And for that, it should be respected, if not celebrated.
The Standard Reading
Let’s begin with the standard reading. Several Christian apologists and theologians have interpreted Rauch’s essay as conveying a deeply troubling intellectual apathy toward metaphysical and theological questions. For example, Dinesh D’Souza argues that Rauch’s apatheists “don’t care” whether God exists and that they are, in effect, practical atheists “because their ignorance and indifference amount to a practical rejection of God’s role in the world.”3
While D’Souza makes reference to apatheism only in passing, Douglas Groothuis offers a far more extensive treatment of Rauch’s essay in his book Christian Apologetics. For that reason, I will focus on Groothuis’ treatment to represent the standard reading.
Groothuis says that the apatheist of Rauch’s essay has a “relaxed attitude” toward religion, a “benign indifference” in which one refuses “to become passionate about one’s own beliefs or the beliefs of others.”4 Importantly, Groothuis recognizes that apatheism, like new atheism, is an intentional response to the danger of fanaticism. However, while the new atheists responded to religious fanaticism with their own secular version,5 Rauch’s apatheism targets all fanaticism, whether it be religious or secular. As Groothuis puts it, Rauch is seeking to provide a “tonic to incivility” that exudes the virtue of tolerance.
While Rauch’s apatheist seeks to avoid fanaticism, Groothuis insists that Rauch thereby places “tranquility above truth.” In short, Rauch’s misbegotten pursuit of civility is only secured at the cost of setting aside a swath of theological, metaphysical, and ethical questions. And this attitude, so Groothuis says, “is antithetical to the teaching of all religions and sound philosophy: that we should care about our convictions and put them into practice consistently.”6 In short, Groothuis charges Rauch with a toxic attitude which dissolves into a fundamentally anti-Christian intellectual sloth.7
The real cost of Rauch’s misguided response to dogmatic incivility is a failure to love either God or neighbor. Groothuis makes the point by quoting Rauch’s observation that his Christian friends “betray no sign of caring that I am an unrepentantly atheistic Jewish homosexual.” As Groothuis soberly observes, “For the serious Christian, however, an attitude of apathy over the eternal destiny of another human being is not an option.”8
Consequently, though apatheism may be borne out of a noble desire to avoid conflict, it sacrifices the pursuit of truth in the process and thereby becomes a textbook case of a cure that is worse than the disease.
The Charitable Reading
Now we turn to the charitable reading. This reading begins with the point that Groothuis himself makes: namely, that Rauch proposes apatheism as a way to avoid the dangers of fanaticism. It is also important to underscore the point that Rauch’s target is not religious fanaticism, per se. Rather, he targets fervent fanaticism generally, and it can be exemplified in atheistic or secular attitudes as surely as religious ones. As Rauch writes:
the hot-blooded atheist cares as much about religion as does the evangelical Christian, but in the opposite direction. “Secularism” can refer to a simple absence of devoutness, but it more accurately refers to an ACLU-style disapproval of any profession of religion in public life—a disapproval that seems puritanical and quaint to apatheists.9
Thus, Rauch has as little sympathy for the “hot-blooded atheist” as for the fire and brimstone street preacher. Both of these folk need to take an apatheistic chill pill.
At this point, it may help to illustrate the kind of behavior that Rauch is seeking to avoid. And to that end, I’ll briefly summarize two examples of fanaticism or dogmatic incivility, one religious, and the other secular.
We can begin with the religious example. When I was a teenager I was taught that we had to do street evangelism by going out and accosting people with this question: Do you know where you would go if you died tonight? I still remember two young women shaking off our religious invitation with a forceful riposte: “Leave us alone!” My companion, undeterred, followed them down the street calling out with increasing fervency, “But you have to believe!” As for me, I channeled my evangelistic fervor in another direction, by emptying a newspaper box holding copies of the Jehovah’s Witness magazine Awake! and tossing them in a dumpster. If we couldn’t win souls, at least we could prevent the JWs from damning them!10
That’s an example of the kind of behavior that Rauch would like us all to avoid, but as noted above, it is not limited to religious people. Just consider Barbara Ehrenreich’s description of growing up in a fervent secular household:
I was raised in a real strong Secular Humanist family—the kind of folks who’d ground you for a week just for thinking of dating a Unitarian, or worse. Not that they were hard-liners, though. We had over 70 Bibles lying around the house where anyone could browse through them—Gideons my dad had removed from the motel rooms he’d stayed in. And I remember how he gloried in every Gideon he lifted, thinking of all the traveling salesmen whose minds he’d probably saved from dry rot. Looking back, I guess you could say I never really had a choice, what with my parents always preaching, “Think for yourself! Think for yourself!”11
Whether the issue is a Christian wannabe evangelist preaching repentance and destroying JW literature or a secular evangelist preaching freethought and stealing Gideon’s Bibles, the same fanaticism is on display.
We can identify the following disturbing traits in these cases. First, both teen Randal and Mr. Ehrenreich exhibited zealotry, the expression of excessive zeal in their beliefs. Second, this zeal expressed itself in bigotry, an intolerance toward the beliefs of others, particularly evident in the effort to censor alternative views (Awake! Magazine, the Gideon’s Bibles). And finally, both exhibited an affrontive style of proselytism and disputation whether it was teen Randal accosting people in the street with the threat of hell or Mr. Ehrenreich always preaching “Think for yourself!” (One can only imagine the fireworks if young Barbara had actually dared to think for herself by embracing religion.)
It’s also worth keeping in mind that the target of such fanatical behavior is not limited to members of an outgroup, for it can equally target in-group members. Indeed, sometimes the pursuit of group purity encourages an even more rigorous enforcement of group solidarity. Witness the irenic Philip Melanchthon who, late in life, sadly commented that he welcomed his impending death so that he might “escape ‘the rage of the theologians.’”12
Like Rauch, I applaud the move away from this kind of in-your-face fanaticism, whether it be religious or secular. And this brings me to the second point: Rauch’s apatheism is not simply a matter of becoming lazy about religious belief. Rather, it represents a determined commitment to chasten our own innate impulses toward fanatical zealotry, bigotry, and affrontive proselytism or disputation.
We’ve all heard the maxim “Never discuss politics or religion in polite company” and we all know why. Religion and politics are topics which are uniquely able to inflame passion and stoke division. And because human beings have a tendency toward conflict in these areas, this is precisely why Rauch proposes we determine to guard ourselves against a lapse into overly zealous, potentially intolerant, and excessively aggressive behavior. Rauch puts the point like this: “it is the product of a determined cultural effort to discipline the religious mindset, and often of an equally determined personal effort to master the spiritual passions. It is not a lapse. It is an achievement.”13 This is a crucial point: Rauch’s apatheism, this chastening of our radical tendencies, is not mere laziness or sloth: rather, it is an earnest discipline.
Consider an example from that other incendiary field: politics. A married couple, Steve and Darlene, are traveling to the house of Steve’s parents for Thanksgiving just after the 2016 presidential election. While both Steve and Darlene campaigned for Hillary Clinton, Steve’s dad voted for Trump. As they drive, Darlene coaches Steve not to get into an argument with his dad about the president-elect: “Don’t take the bait, Steve. I don’t care if your dad wears his MAGA hat all through dinner. I forbid you to talk politics. You need to control yourself!”
The same advice that Darlene gives to Steve to avoid an incendiary topic and with it the risk of lapsing into fanatical behavior could likewise be given to the religious devotee with similar inclinations. Insofar as you have a tendency toward dogmatic zeal, bigotry, or affrontive proselytism or disputation, you should simply avoid these topics. This is not laziness. It is, rather, a careful discipline.
Finally, let’s turn to consider what Rauch says about Christians who are apatheists. This is a particularly important point because while some of Rauch’s statements here might appear especially damning, when read with the appropriate nuance I propose that they actually reveal admirable exercises of wisdom fully congruent with love of God and neighbor.
Here’s how Rauch describes apatheistic Christians: “Most of these people believe in God …; they just don’t care much about him.”14 This lack of care apparently extends to one’s neighbor as well. Rauch continues:
“I have 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. They are exponents, at least, of the second, more important part of apatheism: the part that doesn’t mind what other people think about God.”15
Even if what I’ve said thus far about Rauch’s apatheism is true – that is, even if it largely consists of an admirable determination to constrain the tendency toward fanaticism on incendiary topics – surely at least this attitude is problematic, is it not? After all, a Christian is called to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love their neighbor as themselves. But Rauch appears to describe quite the opposite attitude with Christians who don’t particularly care about God orother people.
However, it seems to me that a closer reading of Rauch can defend him against this charge. While Rauch says that apatheistic Christians “just don’t care much” about God, he immediately adds that he knows many apatheistic Christians who “organize their lives around an intense and personal relationship with God”. This presents us with a puzzle: how can it be that they don’t care about God if they organize their lives around an intense and personal relationship with him?
The answer, I would suggest, is that Rauch is using “care” in a very particular way with respect to public expressions of religious fanaticism. In other words, “care” is understood here to consist of visible displays of devotion and piety. But it should be clear to any Christian that such visible actions do not thereby constitute a truly devotional life; indeed, they may even run counter to it. For example, when Jesus instructs on the discipline on prayer he advises his listeners to pursue private devotion rather than grandiose, public displays (Mt 6:5-6). Thus, so-called publicly visible care has little to do with one’s fulsome love of God.
Fair enough, but what about the fact that Rauch says his own Christian friends “betray no sign of caring” that he is “an unrepentantly atheistic Jewish homosexual”? Once again, we need to keep in mind Rauch’s very particular understanding of “caring.” 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.
Further, keep in mind that Rauch knows these individuals have deeply devout Christian faith. Their religion is no secret to him. Furthermore, it would presumably be commonly understood between parties that if Rauch had any questions about their faith, he’d be more than welcome to ask. We can assume that the door is open for further conversation, should he be interested. With that in mind, this essay gives no hint at present that Rauch is interested. So it should not surprise us that his friends have opted not to broach the subject at this time. Rather, they are simply sharing life together with their non-Christian friend while being sure not to repel him with off-putting displays of zeal, bigotry, or affrontive proselytism or disputation.
To be sure, you may not agree with the behavior of these apatheistic Christians or with the reasoning I’ve imputed to them. You may instead prefer the Christian to adopt a more confrontational expression of care toward the non-Christian. Even so, it still seems to me that the behavior Rauch describes is fully consistent with love of God and neighbor.
In this paper, I’ve sought to argue that the standard reading of Rauch’s apatheism is incorrect. Far from advocating for an ignoble intellectual sloth, Rauch instead makes an important point about chastening our own tendency toward radicalism. Within that context, he also offers a more balanced conception of devotional commitment to God and neighbor, one which is centered on the interior life rather than external, visible displays of piety and devotion.
Having said all that, I do want to extend an important olive branch to the standard reading. While I admire Rauch’s proposed discipline of chastening fanatical impulses, it does seem to me that his own present disposition is not a matter of exercising a discipline but rather of simply not caring. Indeed, that’s precisely what he says: “it has been years since I really cared one way or another.”
In short, it appears to me that “Let it Be” begins with one definition of apatheism – the state of not caring about the truth of religious or metaphysical questions – before Rauch then segues to a second definition of apatheism, one which describes the discipline of chastening fanatical impulses.
Thus, it would appear that the standard reading gets Rauch’s own disposition correct. Where it goes awry is in failing to recognize that Rauch conflates his own disinterest in religious and metaphysical questions with the principled chastening of fanatical impulses that he focuses on for the bulk of the essay. Given that these are, in fact, very different topics, we should ask how we might best disambiguate this unfortunate conflation. In response, I propose that we continue to use the term “apatheism” to refer to the sense described by the standard reading and exemplified by Rauch’s own religious disinterest. Meanwhile, we could refer to the latter concept of self-control with the Greek term enkrateia, a word that philosophers like Plato used to refer to an internal wisdom and self-control over the exercise of one’s passions. But one thing is clear: it is deeply misleading to refer to the latter attitude as apatheism.
- Rauch, “Let it Be,” The Atlantic (May 2003), https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/05/let-it-be/302726/ ↩
- Rauch, “Let it Be.” ↩
- What’s So Great About Christianity p. 24. While D’Souza doesn’t reference Rauch here, he does refer to him on page 36. ↩
- Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith(Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 150. ↩
- See Randal Rauser, You’re not as Crazy as I Think: Dialogue in a World of Loud Voices and Hardened Opinions (Colorado Springs, CO: Biblica, 2011), 63-70. ↩
- Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 151. ↩
- Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 150-52. ↩
- Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 151. ↩
- Rauch, “Let it Be.” ↩
- For all the gory details, see What’s So Confusing About Grace? (Canada: Two Cup Press, 2017), chapter 7. ↩
- Barbara Ehrenreich, “Give Me That New-Time Religion,” Mother Jones (June/July 1987), 60. ↩
- Williston Walker with Richard A. Norris, David W. Lotz, and Robert T. Handy, A History of the Christian Church, 4th ed. (New York: Scribner, 1918, 1985), 528. ↩
- Rauch, “Let it Be.” ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
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