Don’t Take Your Religion So Seriously!

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.

racial-tolerance

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.

Ryan Dueck

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9 responses to “Don’t Take Your Religion So Seriously!

  1. Thanks Ryan. Helpful unpacking of “apethesim”, which I think many Canadians subscribe to, even if they don’t have a word for it.

  2. Is there really any signifiant difference here between apatheism and just a lazy yet slightly assertive agnosticism?

    • I’m not sure if this kind of agnosticism is categorically “lazy” or not. Sometimes, it probably is just an unwillingness to think about things; at other times, I suspect it is an understandable (if still misguided, in my view) response to the bewildering array of religious options out there, and the simple desire for peace.

  3. I am living in a society where if one even falls down from a bicycle, there are ten persons passing by are ready stop and help . Thanks God above mentioned concept has not gone into our daily life, otherwise we should have forgotten the names of our mother, father,sisters, brothers and children. I think living with God, should not make us force other to follow , rather we as God fearing people should be ready to help people in distress, whenever & wherever they need our help.

    • Sounds like you live in an idyllic community! I think there are obviously many examples of people doing good, serving, helping, etc—for explicitly religious reasons or otherwise.

      The post had less to do with the effects of this kind of professed apathy in every day life than it did with whether or not “apatheism” is an intellectually coherent view of the world. I think we can all be thankful that people—religious or not—very often behave better than their view of the world might lead us to expect.

  4. Yet our relationship with God is very important to our eternal life. I agree, we should not attempt to shove it down others’ throats, and anyone should be free to take it or leave it. After all, that’s what God gave us free will for. What we know is that God is just. What we give Him, He will give us back on Judgement day.

    • I suppose this would fall into the category of the “deep existential needs of humanity” that I referenced briefly at the end of the post. “Apatheism” seems like an attempt to bracket or ignore these kinds of questions for the sake of political peace. I think this is a strategy that can only work for a while… Eventually, ultimate questions have a way of forcing themselves into view.

  5. Hi Ryan,
    as always, really insightful post – thanks. I just finished listening to Miroslav Volf’s Laing Lectures at Regent, on the theme of religious believers (particularly Christians) finding a genuine public voice in a pluralistic culture. His thoughts are more fully treated in his book “A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good.” He makes quite a compelling argument that–at least for Christianity–it is precisely where our religious belief is ‘thin’ that it is most dangerous. By ‘thin’ he means lightly held, syncretised with other frames of reference, and ill informed rather than taken seriously. He argues that ‘thin’ Christian belief is most ‘idle’ (impotent to bring good) and also most ‘oppressive’ (violent in its form). In contrast, what is actually best for the common good is when Christians take their religion *more seriously* … living what Jesus taught, sacrificing self-interest out of love, and working in the power of the Spirit toward wholesale flourishing/shalom.

    So, I guess it’s not so much about whether we take our beliefs seriously or not–as though all beliefs have the same valence regardless of dogma–but which beliefs we hold, and how the practise of such beliefs affects everyone.

    Anyway, perhaps another angle?

    • Hey Dave, good to hear from you! I appreciate you bringing Volf into the discussion because I think he provides a much more intellectually coherent approach to the issue of how we are to live in a pluralistic culture than the ones I talk about in the post. I think he i

      I like what you say about “thin” and “thick” beliefs. I don’t think anyone in a pluralistic context is well served by people of all perspectives holding limp versions of their historical faiths. As you say, it’s not how seriously we believe but what we believe that matters.

      Another point of irony that just occurred to me: How often do we hear some variation of the following in the postmodern west: “Just follow your heart”; “The most important thing is that you believe in something”; Whatever you believe in, follow it with everything you have.” It seems to me that these sorts of statements have a lot of traction in popular culture, yet they seem to directly contradict the maxim stated above.

      So what we’re left with is, essentially, a directive to stop caring so much about stuff that we are passionate about. Or stuff that has consequences we don’t like. Or about ultimate questions. It turns out to be a very selective and inconsistent directive, doesn’t it? Again, as you say, everything comes down to the content of the belief, not the fervency with which it is held.

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