A recent review of American Grace, a sociological study of religion in America, came to the conclusion that in an ethnically and ideologically diverse culture where religion is increasingly seen as a matter of personal preference as opposed to fixed identity, our survival as nations and citizens depends upon the following maxim: “Don’t take your religion too seriously.” Intense, sectarian devotion is dangerous and suspicious. Peace and harmony in the twenty-first century depend upon adopting a “bland is beautiful” approach to religion.
Better yet, why not just stop caring about religion at all? Canadian journalist Neil MacDonald coined the term “apatheism” to get at the idea that given the political reality in the USA (and Canada), apathy toward the divine is the best approach:
I have no religious beliefs. None…. There’s a better word for what I am: an apatheist. It’s a neologism that fuses “apathy” and “theism.” It means someone who has absolutely no interest in the question of a god’s (or gods’) existence, and is just as uninterested in telling anyone else what to believe.
Well that certainly sounds tolerant and politically astute, not to mention admirably humble. MacDonald simply doesn’t know and doesn’t care if God exists and wouldn’t it be great if everyone else could just find it within themselves to adopt “apatheism” as a way of approaching questions that we can’t be certain about or agree upon?
Yet is “apatheism” even coherent? Does MacDonald really have no interest in telling anyone else what to believe? Presumably he might have a thing or two to say to those who are interested in telling others what to believe or how to live. Presumably his apathy would become a bit more strained if, say, those convinced that God has commanded them to act violently toward those who do not share their beliefs begin to threaten his nation or his person. “Apatheism” seems like an approach that could only work in a very specific set of cultural circumstances and parameters.
MacDonald “apatheism” simply turns a political strategy into a more explicit worldview pronouncement. While he lives and works in America, MacDonald’s home and native land (Canada) has officially advocated “multiculturalism” as a political strategy since 1971. In order for multiculturalism to work “on the ground,” the government has to bracket the question of whether or not any one culture or religion has access to some kind of singular “truth.” All are granted political liberty to practice how they see fit (within limits); all religious claims are relegated to the realm of “things you can believe if you want to as long as they stay mostly private and aren’t socially/politically disruptive.” At a political level, this is necessary to allow people of radically different views on (what they seem to consider to be) important matters to exist in the same space peacefully.
MacDonald just turns this into a worldview. “Apatheism” is “why can’t we all just agree not to care about god(s) so much” writ large. What MacDonald seems to mean when he says he is an “apatheist” is that he is apathetic about the question of whether or not a private God who meets individual psychological needs and makes no difference in public life exists, and will continue to tolerantly, if condescendingly, allow others to believe in whatever publicly irrelevant god they happen to prefer.
In a sense, MacDonald’s apatheistim is a logical outcome of spying some of the limits of multiculturalism as a political strategy. Forty years into the Canadian multicultural experiment, some are seeing potential hazards. Can a nation that allows people of radically different beliefs to live together really survive and thrive? Are there some worldviews that cannot be accommodated into the “official” Canadian metanarrative of peace and tolerance and “niceness?” What happens when worldviews simply prove fundamentally incompatible, politically and ideologically?
MacDonald and, to a lesser extent, the writers of American Grace offer one response: Just stop caring so much. Adopt a worldview of apathy about the divisive questions like whether or not God exists. Yet apathy and (limited) tolerance as a worldview seems unlikely to inspire broad allegiance as a framing story. Aside from its obviously limited value in addressing some of the deep existential needs of humanity—needs for hope, forgiveness, reconciliation, and salvation, among other things—having no interest in the beliefs of others only works if the beliefs of others make no difference in the world.