Is Apathy More Dangerous Than Atheism?

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God might exist. And He might not. There might be a Judgment Day. And there might not. Oh well.

If that sums up your creed, you just might be part of one of the nation’s fastest growing religions. In the May (2013) issue of the Atlantic Monthly, correspondent Jonathan Rauch notes that he finally stopped calling himself an atheist, when he realized that he just doesn’t care about God-one way or the other. He is an “apatheist.”

And Rauch discovered that he is not alone. In fact, he argues, apatheism represents the silent majority of American religion-a movement of those bored by the whole question of God.

After all, Rauch argues, few people are more militant in their dogmas than the snarling atheists of American secularism. These angry God-haters aren’t his tribe. Neither are those whose worldviews are shaped by a commitment to a belief about God and the universe-conservative Christians, for example. Instead, Rauch finds his “church” among the overwhelming majority of Americans who tell pollsters they believe in God, and yet they rarely attend church. It doesn’t matter what they say they believe, Rauch notes, they don’t care.

Rauch even believes that American churches are buying his new religion. “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 religion,” he writes. “The softer denominations are packed with apatheists.” For Rauch, this is a very good sign, since-as September 11th demonstrates-religion is “the most divisive and volatile of social forces.”

Conservative evangelicals might chuckle at Rauch’s tongue-in-cheek “religion.” It is nothing new. It is what we have called “civil religion” and “unregenerate church membership”-and it has been around at least since Cain. But what we might be less prepared for is the fact that Rauch says we’ve joined his “church” too. Some of the most committed Christians are closest apatheists.

“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,” he notes. His evangelical friends might believe in Christ, he concludes, but they don’t really care whether he comes to Christ or not.

These words from an unbeliever ought to bring a cold sweat to the brow of a follower of the Jesus who promised to “draw all men to myself” (John 12:32). If our churches really believe that the Kingdom has dawned in Christ-that a new age of the Spirit has come-how can we continue to yawn in the face of the billions of unregenerate humans, many of them seated on the pews next to us every Sunday?

This unbelieving journalist may have hit on something most of us have missed. Apatheists have always been with us. They were the ones who hoped this first-century Galilean might be the Messiah. But, he was executed, and who has time to listen to fishermen ranting about raised corpses? We have to earn a living and raise our families. But there were another crowd. They believed the Resurrection of Christ was so significant that it turned the entire world upside down (Acts 17:6). They believed the revelation of God must reshape their priorities, their families, their political commitments, and their cultural values. These people were called “Christians.”

Let us pray for the Spirit to break the hearts of our churches-where no unbeliever in the world can brag that Christians are apathetic about eternal matters. Let us recapture the urgency of the New Testament church-an urgency built on the expectation of the coming day when every eye will see the unveiling of Jesus of Nazareth, the rightful sovereign of the cosmos.

And no one will be apathetic then.

A version of this post appeared in May 2003 entitled “America’s Newest (Yawn) Mega-Church.”

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).