The Importance of Being Apathetic

Columnist Jonathan Rauch believes that America has made "a major civilizational advance" in recent years. Rauch, a longtime atheist, is thrilled about a phenomenon he calls "apatheism." It's not that people don't believe in God anymore, Rauch writes in the Atlantic Monthly -- the majority will still say they believe. But statistics show that they're going to church less, and when they do go, it's more to socialize or enjoy a familiar ritual than to worship. And as Rauch observes, they're refraining from sharing their faith with their friends and neighbors. On the whole, the people Rauch describes haven't been putting much thought or effort into their faith. They're looking for comfort and reassurance, not for a God who asks anything of them. Hence the rise of "apatheism," which Rauch defines as "a disinclination to care all that much about one's own religion, and an even stronger disinclination to care about other people's." Writer David Brooks noticed a similar trend a few years ago. In his book Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, Brooks popularized the term flexidoxy to describe the form of religion practiced by many educated young Americans. He wrote that in a complicated and confusing world, these people "spend much of their time pining for simpler ways of living, looking backward for the wisdom that people with settled lives seem to possess." But at the same time, they "show little evidence of renouncing freedom and personal choice. They are not returning to the world of deference and obedience." It appears that flexidoxy was a natural precursor to "apatheism." If a person makes himself the center of his own faith, there's not much room for God. Rauch thinks this is great, because he believes that "religion, as the events of September 11 and after have so brutally underscored, remains the most divisive and volatile of social forces." If you must have faith, he argues, it's better to be lukewarm about it than to be "controlled by godly passions." There are several problems with Rauch's analysis, but the main one is that the "apatheism" he describes looks very much like selfishness. And it's selfishness, not religious faith, that is a truly disruptive force. If we really have faith in God, and aren't just paying lip service to Him, that faith takes us out of ourselves, leading us to serve God and other people. It's selfishness, not tolerance, that dictates that we direct our own lives and stay where we're comfortable. Selfishness makes us keep our faith strictly personal, afraid to integrate it with the rest of our lives or even to talk about it for fear of being judged harshly. In Jonathan Rauch's ideal world, without the "godly passions" he deplores, there would have been no Mother Teresa, Corrie ten Boom, or William Wilberforce able to identify evil and stand against it. There would be no BreakPoint challenging you to do the same. Rauch may not like the idea of a world controlled by godly passions, but if he could see a world free of godly passions, controlled entirely by human passions, he might not think it were such a great civilizational advance after all. For further reading: Jonathan Rauch, "Let It Be," Atlantic Monthly, May 2003. David Brooks, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (Touchstone edition, 2001). "A Conversation with David Brooks," Online NewsHour, PBS, 9 May 2000. "Survey of American Political Culture," Insight, Spring 2003. (Adobe Acrobat reader required). BreakPoint Commentary No. 030506, "An Unstable Balance." BreakPoint Commentary No. 021119, "Loving Your Neighbor in Tennessee." BreakPoint Commentary No. 021127, "Faith at Work: Transforming the Culture from Within." Fred Barnes, "The Media Gets Religion," Daily Standard, 6 May 2003. Edward Farley, "Transforming a Lukewarm Church," Christian Century, August 27-September 3, 1997, 754-57. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (1937). John Fischer, Fearless Faith: Living beyond the Walls of 'Safe' Christianity (Harvest House, 2002).


Chuck Colson


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