Should we really care whether God exists? Why has it become so important to pick a side?

A presentation at UTC by Trevor Hedberg called “Apatheism: Uncharted Territory in Philosophy of Religion” aimed to help answer and understand the basic concept of apatheism and clarify some of the central features.

Hedberg is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. He also works as a graduate teaching associate. Hedberg’s main specializations are normative ethics, applied ethics, epistemology, political philosophy and philosophy of religion.

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In a handout for the lecture, Hedberg writes: “The majority of discussions in philosophy of religion operate on the assumption that apatheism is false and that God’s existence is a supremely important matter … This assumption, despite its intuitive appeal, has been endorsed too hastily.”

We caught up with him after the lecture on Wednesday to help us understand apatheism.

Can you give us just a brief overview of what apatheism is?

I don’t have any idea where the philosophy of apatheism came from, but it came into usage somewhere after 2000. I think the most substantive treatment of it was actually an article in The Atlantic called “Let It Be: Three Cheers for Apatheism” by Jonathan Rauch.But as I understand it, it’s the view that we should be apathetic or indifferent with regard to whether or not God exists. So whereas an atheist would say,“God, in fact, doesn’t exist” and an agnostic would say,“We just can’t know God exists,”an apatheist would say,“We just really shouldn’t be that concerned about whether or not God exists.” So the topic of the talk was first to clarify what the concept is and to go a little deeper on that-but also to imagine how someone who had this attitude might defend this position philosophically.

Can apatheism be a way of life?

It would be more like an attitude that you adopt. It probably is a fact that a lot of people who are descriptively apatheists don’t come to endorse this by way of sustained philosophical reflection or anything like that. They just look at the world around them and see these debates between theists and atheists and the religious disagreement and so on … and think,“I just don’t want to bother with that.” And then they just sort of subconsciously engrain it into their worldview. My gloss on apatheism is that I’m coming from it in a more reflective way. So it would be more like a considered judgment that you would make about these questions, so just a judgment of being indifferent about whether or not you got the answers to these questions right. You wouldn’t really spend your time on questions like,“Do I think God exists?” because it doesn’t really matter from an apatheist’s point of view how you answer that question. The real issue is, “Are you really worried about whether you’re right or wrong?” And an apatheist would say you shouldn’t worry about that sort of thing.

Because you’re not going to find out those answers unless you’re convicted in a certain way, right?

Well, I think there is a natural path to apatheism from agnosticism-thinking you can’t know the answers … But I think you can also be either an atheist or a theist and still be indifferent about the general questions. You might believe in God; you might be religious in some sense, but you might think,“At the end of the day, if I came to think God didn’t exist, it wouldn’t have that big of an impact on my life.” You might not do things differently. You might even still keep going to church because you might see the value there in the community, practices and religious rituals even if, metaphysically speaking, you don’t buy everything. [Apatheism] probably fits better with the nonbelief picture because, for the most part, concerns about whether or not God exists for most nonbelievers don’t fit with their worldview. Even if you’re a committed nonbeliever, you could say,“Even if it turned out that God did exist and I got the question wrong, it’s not really that big of a deal.”

Do you think apatheism can be a label for those people who don’t feel they fit on either side of the God question?

I don’t think apatheism, strictly speaking, is an intermediary view between the two extremes …. People who are nonreligious or nonbelievers are probably going to be more sympathetic toward the view because they haven’t structured their lives around belief in God. So they don’t have as much invested … but I also think there are a growing number of theists and believers who are just kind of fed up in a way with these disagreements and the way things are going. They sort of just want to adopt a “live and let live” outlook . They say, “If I wind up being wrong about my convictions, then so be it.” There are more productive things we can be doing in the world than be quibbling back and forth with one another about who has the right picture.

Does apatheism have more of a correlation with Buddhism/mindfulness, etc., with a “no positions” attitude?

So the Buddhist position would be particularly receptive to the apatheist view. I think one of the reasons-especially in the United States-why there might be more resistance to apatheism than other areas is because Christian theology, the dominant thing here, assumes a very particular view of the afterlife that if you don’t believe in God, things can be really bad; so obviously, it’s important to have certain religious beliefs. An apatheist would have to deny that kind of picture. You still have some sects of religious belief, even here, that would be conducive to apatheism, likeuniversalism,who broadly believe that everybody eventually gets an invite to heaven, even if you have to do some repenting .

But you still have to believe that heaven exists to go there, right?

It depends on your view. You imagine the really, really moral atheist who gives to charity and so on. You contrast that with someone like Hitler … maybe he had the “right” answers? I don’t think it’s crazy to imagine that the atheist has a better shot at getting to the afterlife party than someone like Hitler, who lived such a horrible life from the moral point of view, but had the “right” answers … the “right” metaphysical views. There are many routes that could get you to a broadly apatheistic view. But back to the Buddhist: … In the Buddhists’ case, there isn’t even a deity-it’s more a way of life, of practice. They don’t seem to have the same metaphysical commitments that a lot of Christian theists have. So they would probably be more receptive to apatheism.

Do you think apatheism will take off? Is it the next big thing?

I’m trying to see how you could defend the view philosophically. It’s definitely true there is a nontrivial number of both believers and nonbelievers who are indifferent about religious practices. But what I’m most concerned with is whether or not you could defend that position philosophically. Of course, people have these attitudes. But is it justified? Is it something you’ve just unreflectively embraced? So I’m interested in what argumentative picture the apatheist could paint to try and defend their position.

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