Theology Thursdays: How to Be an Apatheist by Jonathan Rauch

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?")

Finally, and this may seem strangest of all, even true-believing godliness today often has an apatheistic flavor. 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. They are exponents, at least, of the second, more important part of apatheism: the part that doesn't mind what other people think about God.

I believe that the rise of apatheism is to be celebrated as nothing less than a major civilizational advance. Religion, as the events of September 11 and after have so brutally underscored, remains the most divisive and volatile of social forces. To be in the grip of religious zeal is the natural state of human beings, or at least of a great many human beings; that is how much of the species seems to be wired. Apatheism, therefore, should not be assumed to represent a lazy recumbency, like my collapse into a soft chair after a long day. Just the opposite: it is the product of a determined cultural effort to discipline the religious mindset, and often of an equally determined personal effort to master the spiritual passions. It is not a lapse. It is an achievement.

"A world of pragmatic atheists," the philosopher Richard Rorty once wrote, "would be a better, happier world than our present one." Perhaps. But best of all would be a world generously leavened with apatheists: people who feel at ease with religion even if they are irreligious; people who may themselves be members of religious communities, but who are neither controlled by godly passions nor concerned about the (nonviolent, noncoercive) religious beliefs of others. In my lifetime America has taken great strides in this direction, and its example will be a source of strength, not weakness, in a world still beset by fanatical religiosity (al Qaeda) and tyrannical secularism (China).

Ronald Reagan used to insist that he was religious even though, as President, he hardly ever entered a church. It turns out he was in good company. Those Americans who tell pollsters they worship faithfully? Many of them are lying. John G. Stackhouse Jr., a professor of theology and culture, wrote recently in American Outlook magazine, "Beginning in the 1990s, a series of sociological studies has shown that many more Americans tell pollsters that they attend church regularly than can be found in church when teams actually count." In fact, he says, actual churchgoing may be at little more than half the professed rate. A great many Americans, like their fortieth President, apparently care about religion enough to say they are religious, but not enough to go to church.

You can snicker at Reagan and the millions of others like him; you can call them hypocrites if you like. I say, God bless them, every one.

Jonathan Rauch is the author of Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America. He is a senior writer and columnist for National Journal, a contributor to Reason Magazine, a resident writer for The Brookings Institution, and a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly. You may email the author at This editorial appeared in the May 2003 issue of The Atlantic Monthly

Jonathan Rauch

Thursday, July 14, 2005