I am a lover of words, relishing such arguments as whether the phrase “the whole nine yards” refers to the fact that a Scottish kilt is made from nine yards of wool, or whether the phrase is derived from the old cement mixers that held nine yards of concrete. Words are handles on the world. They spur the imagination, fuel the emotions, and sometimes provide surprising windows into our common past.

National Journal columnist Jonathan Rausch recently coined a new word that set me thinking: Apatheism, meaning a mixture of atheism and apathy. What a word. Now, there have been atheists around for years. Long after her death, well-meaning religious people still circulate petitions about Madeleine Murray O’Hare. Atheism requires quite a lot more faith than agnosticism; the latter leaves the question of God open, while the former makes a creed of non-belief. As Americans we have every right to be an atheist, although I am awfully glad I am not one of them.

Now for apatheism. The atheist presumably cares about the conviction that there is no God, while the apatheist adds apathy to the condition. The apatheist’s creed, then, is “There is no God, and I don’t care.” You see? Apatheism.

Rausch goes on to say that some apatheists are religious. That is, some people don’t believe and don’t care, while others believe, but don’t care either. A friend of mine likes to quip, “I used to be concerned about apathy, but then I decided that I really didn’t care.”

If this is a particularly modern tendency, this bent toward apathetic atheism or indifferent belief, then I am increasingly concerned. This may sound peculiar for a pastor, but frankly I respect the gutsy honesty of a passionate atheist more than I do the devil-may-care (no pun intended) ennui of a partway believer.

Maybe apatheism is the force that lies behind the malaise that seems to have settled over so many faith communities. Rausch tells us that the proportion of people who say they never attend church or synagogue has tripled since 1972. But, in a piece for the religion- and culture-focused newsletter Context, he adds: “Most of these people believe in God; they just don’t care much about him. They do care a bit; but apatheism is an attitude, not a belief system, and the overriding fact is that these people are relaxed about religion.”

Well, I suppose I don’t really want people to be uptight about religion either; there’s enough of that going around. But I do get concerned at our level of apatheism.

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