Religion May 2003

Let It Be

The greatest development in modern religion is not a religion at all—it's an attitude best described as "apatheism"

It came to me recently in a blinding vision that I am an apatheist. Well, "blinding vision" may be an overstatement. "Wine-induced haze" might be more strictly accurate. This was after a couple of glasses of Merlot, when someone asked me about my religion. "Atheist," I was about to say, but I stopped myself. "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!"

That got a chuckle, but the point was serious. Apatheism—a disinclination to care all that much about one's own religion, and an even stronger disinclination to care about other people's—may or may not be something new in the world, but its modern flowering, particularly in ostensibly pious America, is worth getting excited about.

Apatheism concerns not what you believe but how. In that respect it differs from the standard concepts used to describe religious views and people. Atheism, for instance, is not at all like apatheism; 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. Tolerance is a magnificent concept, John Locke's inestimable gift to all mankind; but it assumes, as Locke did, that everyone brims with religious passions that everyone else must work hard to put up with.

And agnostics? True, most of them are apatheists, but most apatheists are not agnostics. Because—and this is an essential point—many apatheists are believers.

In America, as Thomas Byrne Edsall reported in these pages recently, the proportion of people who say they never go to church or synagogue has tripled since 1972, to 33 percent in 2000. Most of these people believe in God (professed atheists are very rare in the United States); they just don't care much about him. They do care a bit; but apatheism is an attitude, not a belief system, and the over-riding fact is that these people are relaxed about religion.

Even regular churchgoers can, and often do, rank quite high on the apatheism scale. There are a lot of reasons to attend religious services: to connect with a culture or a community, to socialize, to expose children to religion, to find the warming comfort of familiar ritual. The softer denominations in America are packed with apatheists. The apatheism of Reform Jews is so well known as to be a staple of synagogue humor. (Orthodox rabbi to Reform rabbi: "One of my congregants says his son wants a Harley for his bar mitzvah. What's a Harley?" Reform rabbi to Orthodox rabbi: "A Harley is a motorcycle. What's a bar mitzvah?")

Presented by

Jonathan Rauch is an Atlantic correspondent.

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