Or specifically, why I am not an apatheist.
I’m not exactly sure how long the term’s been in common usage (and you know how I feel about doing research), but I’d guess it’s only really taken off since atheism started becoming mainstream. For anyone not quite caught up, “apatheism” is a portmanteau of “apathy” and “theism” (or “atheism”, I suppose), and refers to people who profess not to care whether or not God exists.
Now, I don’t generally have many complaints with apatheists. I’ve been living with one for the better part of a year, and it’s a position which doesn’t naturally give rise to any sort of fundamentalist fervour, so generally we’re cool, apatheists and me. But I’ve decided lately that it’s not a position that I personally identify with.
It’s simple enough to sum up why.
A substantial number of the most popular conceptions of God throughout history and around the world – including probably the all-time numero uno himself – possess, we’re told, both the power and the authority to condemn each of us to eternal suffering, should he will it.
I’m a heroically lazy individual, but even I can’t muster up much apathy on the subject of my being condemned to eternal suffering.
Anyone who’s ever really believed in it can probably back me up on this: Hell is really fucking scary if you actually take it seriously. If I thought there was any remote possibility that I might be screwing things up the way I’m going at the moment, and risking sending myself there by worshipping the wrong god or rejecting the one true path to salvation, I’d want to seriously look into that. I don’t think I’d be able to simply shrug the problem off, or dismiss it as something not really relevant to my life. I’m pretty sure you’d have to be insane not to care about God’s possible existence, or the exact nature of his whims, if you thought that unending torture was genuinely on the cards.
But in general – my flatmate notwithstanding – those apatheists aren’t crazy. And so I don’t think it’s overly presumptuous to suggest that most apatheists do actually maintain some significant religious positions. They’d probably agree, if pushed, that they count their odds of being sent to Hell for eternal punishment after they die to be about as negligible as I do. And that’s not a trivial or careless conclusion; Hell is a culturally ubiquitous concept, described in the holy text of the predominant religion on the planet, held sacred by billions of people. It’s not an obvious nonsense to someone who’s never given the subject a moment’s thought.
So I think it makes sense to suggest that an actual disregard for the subject isn’t what most people mean when they call themselves apatheists. They may not have expended much effort in forming the opinions they have, but they’ve considered the matter far enough that it doesn’t need to trouble them any further. They’ve decided that the dire consequences often heralded by God’s self-appointed spokesmen are so unlikely that they can be ignored. Beyond that, who cares?
Well… still me, actually.
Obviously a great deal of the first bit does apply to me, too. I’ve rejected the possibility of God in any form that I might need to worry about, and don’t generally let the fiddly philosophical details bother me beyond that. But I still undoubtedly take an interest in much of the related discussion (my recent inactivity on this blog notwithstanding). I emphatically do give a shit, not so much about what can or can’t be conclusively disproved or vaguely hypothesised about some supreme being, but about the implications of people’s responses to the question “Is there a God?”
Clearly, there are battles here that I think are worth fighting, even if God himself isn’t my opponent. Religious fanaticism is one of the most damaging forces in today’s world, and I really think that a broader understanding of science, and skepticism, and humanism, and the kind of reality-based thinking that leads people to disbelieve in God, would be more beneficial to our species than just about anything else. While there are still people stoning witches to death, rationalising their own hate and prejudice as being that of an almighty creator, and telling millions of their followers that condoms are making the African AIDS crisis worse, I can’t be apathetic on this.
For those who can, it may be largely a case of picking your battles. Of the people in Africa not dying of AIDS, for instance, there are plenty of them busy starving to death instead. If you’re directly trying to combat famine by helping to feed people, then your faith or that of your colleagues probably isn’t much of an issue, and whether or not someone’s wearing a crucifix in a hospital in Kansas might not seem all that pertinent.
I can’t possibly tell what’s the most useful thing for me to be doing, on those fleeting occasions when I give some thought to the notion of doing something good. But this is something I can do. It feels like my fight. It ain’t nothin’. So there’s really not much about the question of God’s existence that I truly don’t care about.