Why Apatheism Is More Challenging than Hostility

Episode Summary

Collin Hansen and Kyle Beshears discuss the dangers of apatheism and how to encourage nonbelievers toward the opposite—a joy-filled fervor for God.

Episode Notes

Maybe you imagine the biggest problem facing Christians in the West today is hostility, whether from media or government or schools. You wouldn’t be wrong to notice how these venues don’t usually look kindly on orthodox, observant Christians these days.

But what if we actually face a bigger problem? What if the problem isn’t that our unbelieving friends and family care too much about what we believe—it’s that they don’t care at all what we believe? That’s not a challenge we’re typically prepared to address.

Until now, thanks to Kyle Beshears in his new book, Apatheism: How to Share When They Don’t Care (B&H). Kyle is teaching pastor at Mars Hill Church in Mobile, Alabama. I met him when he taught worldview and apologetics at the University of Mobile. Kyle explains of his book, “Atheism believes that God does not exist; agnosticism believes that we can’t know whether or not God exists; apatheism believes God’s existence to be irrelevant.”

Kyle Beshears joined Collin Hansen on Gospelbound to discuss the causes and cures of apatheism.

This episode of Gospelbound is sponsored by The Good Book Company, publisher of the God’s Word for You expository Bible study guides. More information at thegoodbook.com.

Episode Transcription

The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.

Collin Hansen: Maybe you imagine the biggest problem facing Christians in the West today is hostility, whether from media or government or schools. You wouldn't be wrong to notice how these venues don't usually look kindly unorthodox observant Christians these days. But what if we actually face a bigger problem? What if the problem isn't that our unbelieving friends and family care too much about what we believe? What if they don't care at all what we believe? That's not a challenge we've typically been prepared to address until now, thanks to Kyle Beshears and his new book, Apatheism: How to Share When They Don't Care, published by B&H.

Kyle is teaching pastor at Mars Hill Church in Mobile, Alabama. I met him when he taught worldview and apologetics at the University of Mobile. And Kyle explains of his book this: “Atheism believes that God does not exist, agnosticism believes that we can't know whether or not God exists, apatheism believes God's existence to be irrelevant.” And Kyle joins me now on Gospelbound to discuss the causes and cures of apatheism. Welcome, Kyle.

Kyle Beshears: Hey, thanks for having me, Collin.

Collin Hansen: Kyle, how can someone be apathetic about where and how they'll spend eternity?

Kyle Beshears: Well, it's a difficult question to answer from the perspective of somebody who's a believer and cares very deeply about the end or where we end up. But for somebody who lives in a secularized culture, somebody who is persistently distracted, somebody who lives a very lush life in comfort, like we do here in the United States, God can just fall off the radar of interest all together. We have science that can explain our origin, and we have a trajectory narrative of improvement or evolution or progression. So our purpose and our meaning is found in our participation in that I don't really rely on God so much for food. That's what grocery stores are for.

Or I can just pick up my smartphone and order it and have it delivered to me. And frankly, our smartphones and sources of technology are so distracting and have leveled out our attention across so many different things that contemplating on life, the ultimate source and meaning, and God is just not worth it. We don't have the bandwidth anymore because we're so distracted today. So I think answering that question, it's multifaceted, but there are a lot of reasons in particular, in our culture of why somebody wouldn't care.

Collin Hansen: We'll get to those. Thanks for giving us the preview of that. Just personally, Kyle, would you rather have someone yell at you about how you're wrong or shrug and say, "Whatever Kyle."

Kyle Beshears: I'd take the yelling for sure. And I know that probably is not the answer you would expect, but at least if somebody is yelling, they're invested in whatever idea or theology or proposition we're talking about, right? So they clearly feel passionate about something. And I think it's easier to have a conversation with somebody that's thought through something or they feel passionate about rather than somebody who's indifferent.

Collin Hansen: Did you ever notice a shift personally? Where did this book idea come from? Was this something that you were reading in your academic research, working on your PhD, teaching in classrooms, or it's an evangelistic thing you're talking to people and you start to pick up on this? Was there a particular point in time where you noticed a shift toward apatheism?

Kyle Beshears: Yeah, there is a specific moment in time I could point to when I think I've first recognized what apatheism was and how pervasive it really is in Western culture in particular. Something, I think everybody experiences, but for me, there was this aha moment that I had living over in England in Cambridge. And I met this Muslim man who was trying to proselytize people to the Islamic faith. And he wasn't very successful. He set up this booth in the center of town at this market. And I saw him weekend after weekend, trying trying. Nobody ever seemed to be interested in talking to him. Now parallel to witnessing that, I had my own experiences of trying to strike up gospel conversations with people around town, and the conversations never really went anywhere. Kind of mistook those reactions as hostility or they're being bothered by the fact that I would even ask them what's it to me what they believe.

But one pretty soggy afternoon, I bought that guy a coffee, the Muslim man, to just strike up a conversation. There's something in me that empathized with his inability to have these conversations. And that's when he drew my attention to the fact that it wasn't that people were hostile to religion, ideas of God, questions relating to his existence in his character, it's that they were just completely indifferent altogether. And he asked the question, they don't believe in God, how can that possibly be? And that's the moment when all of those experiences I had came flushing to the forefront of my mind. It wasn't that they were hostile. It was that they were apathetic. And I thought to myself, well, this is a much more difficult obstacle to evangelism than perhaps, like you said earlier, the person who is angry and yelling at you, because at least you have your attention here with this apathy towards God. There's no attention whatsoever. So how do you even begin to have a conversation if there's a lack of interest that swats away any possibility of talking about God in the first place.

Collin Hansen: What you're describing is a challenge particular to a post-Christian West. Help explain how we can adjust to this because what we're reading in Scripture is the pre-Christian West. Most of what we know from Christian history is obviously a Christendom environment in many cases, at least in the West, very different than other parts of Christian history, including through the 20th century. But you're describing that particular challenge in the post-Christian West, and what have just been some helpful things you've begun to pick up on how to make that adjustment, because you talk about it being much harder. So if it’s much harder, we've got to learn things, and we don't necessarily have history to draw on. So how did you begin to find a way forward for us?

Kyle Beshears: Yeah. This is the challenge, right? As we continue to march toward the frontier of a post-Christian culture, a lot of these types of challenges I think are going to pop up. Perhaps the church has never experienced them before. Maybe they experienced them in embryo, but now we're really having to wrestle with the birth of, and the development of these new types of challenges. And certainly apatheism, I believe, is one of those. It's interesting. If you go back through church history, there's the apathy that we dealt with in Christian history, wasn't necessarily an apathy to God questions. Does God exist? If so, what's he like, what's his relationship to me, what's my relationship to him? How does God's existence shape and inform my life? The apathy was putting those questions into practice, or at least the answers of those questions into practice.

Now, apatheism is different because it's indifferent to the questions to begin with, that people have lost interest in God altogether. You might find an apatheist that's interested in religion, but they're more interested in it as like a sociological thing. They're interested in knowing what their neighbors believe, but when it comes to God questions, they're not interested in it personally. So I think we have to first recognize when it comes to evangelism and apatheism, we’re starting in a deficit of interest that we have long taken for granted. So two examples I like to bring up, the first one is the famous Mars Hill sermon with Paul in Acts where he's going to the Athenians, he's preaching the gospel. He gets invited by the crowd to come preach this new message to them. He walks past the statue of the unknown God. And then he makes a case for the true and living out of Scripture, being that unknown God, unknown to the Athenians, but known to the Christians.

Now the one thing Paul and the Athenians had in common were mutually interests or mutual interest in theism, right? At least we all believe there's a supernatural. We care about what the supernatural is. It's just, we differ. We don't understand in the Athenian situation, who is the source, who is God, right? And then if you fast forward to the reformation, there's this fun quote I found from John Calvin. He said that nobody, no one is going to want to be seen as being entirely indifferent to their religion.

It would have been almost a taboo or a shameful thing in culture 500 years ago. Now, if you fast forward to today, there isn't a statute to the unknown God in our Athens. If there is, it's covered in soot, there's vines growing on it, we haven't been interested in it for a while. And there are plenty of people that don't mind if you know that they're not interested in God, it's not some kind of social shame to be thoughtless in religion, will say, not personally speaking, not that they're unaware of religion. So I think the first step is to recognize we're starting from a deficit of interest. And we need to learn how to garner that interest.

Collin Hansen: Are there any examples of apatheism in the Bible?

Kyle Beshears: I don't think there are. I think there's a close cousin to apatheism, which is practical atheism. So there's a couple of examples in the Old Testament. The Psalms in particular: "The fool says in his heart, there is no God." There's a lamenting that there's a belief, maybe even an interest in God, but at the end of the day, I'm not interested in what that belief means for me. So it's not that they reject God or that they're disinterested in him, it's just that they're not going to care about the consequences of his existence. So I do believe it's a truly unique thing that the Christian church is facing.

Collin Hansen: Which is owing as you point out primarily then to technology and affluence, is that correct?

Kyle Beshears: And secularism.

Collin Hansen: And secularism. Okay. Well, let's come back to the technology and the affluence there. Let's talk about secularism then and who has taught you the most about this rise and spread of apatheism?

Kyle Beshears: I think it's been a number of sources, but really the three sources that have put me down and said, "Hey, we really need to do something about this” is definitely Charles Taylor, the, the philosopher who pioneered a re-narration of what it means that we live in a secular age. Jamie Smith, and his pointing out the importance of the effect or desires and wills in the human experience. And then Alan Noble has a great book called Disruptive Witness. And he was the first one to awaken me to the idea of technology has so distracted us from God. So with those three voices speaking into my life, I wondered if there was a way to get all three of the concepts that they're bringing up together in conversation and how it relates to apathy.

Collin Hansen: Well, talk more about secularism once you drop there a little bit on the Charles Taylor front, because I don't know that I would have necessarily expected apatheism to come out of Taylor's analysis, because in his description of really the subtraction story, I guess, you'd think there would be a little bit of hostility because the essence is we would be in such great shape if all we did was drop Christianity here. So it seems like there would be an awareness, at least for hospitality of this is what we're trying to explicitly reject. So how do you get from Taylor talking about that aspect of secularism to more apathetic approach?

Kyle Beshears: Yeah. So what Taylor is very helpful in doing is recognizing how the shift in the way that we think in the way... in the location of finding meaning moved into the mind away from the external world around us and watching throughout history, how secularism has developed, not merely being the contestability of God, so that we come up with beliefs that God does not exist, or that we can't know God exists. So atheism and agnosticism. But also a diversity of belief. So secularism is also the permission to believe however you want to. So you can be an atheist in a secular society, but you can also be some kind of theist. You can be a spiritualist, which is why we see many new religious movements or more worldviews and ideas after that shift during the enlightenment, not less. So as it relates to apatheism, if somebody believes in the materialistic naturalistic worldview, then they can be taken to that hostility that you're talking about.

That's very much the case with the new atheist movement, right? They care very much about God and questions related to his existence. They just answer them negatively, and they're very hostile toward it. But it could also be true that if you hold a naturalistic or materialistic worldview, that the question of God becomes irrelevant. And if it becomes irrelevant, it becomes uninteresting, and if it's uninteresting, you can be indifferent towards it. And so I think we're seeing a kind of atheism that expresses itself in that that hostility I believe is lessening in culture.

We're not as interested in the New Atheist movement anymore, and that the kind of atheism and the naturalism or materialism, whatever you want to call it that's remaining is this more neutral or indifference to God questions. But Taylor also points out that there's a lot of different types of beliefs and worldviews out there now. And this could play into apatheism in that there's just too many options. It's too difficult to go through every single worldview and explore it for yourself and come to your own conclusions and with so many different options. So many different beliefs calling to us constantly. Sometimes you just want to take the headphones off and stop listening and you drift into an apathy. And there's this state of tranquility of not having to worry about it and not caring about what is right, what is wrong, what is true, what is false.

Collin Hansen: Kyle, I don't know if you saw we published an article at The Gospel Coalition by Ryan Burge, whose data analysis is remarkable, but he talked about how this big category of the people who say that they have no religion. Of course, we know that that's basically the single biggest religion development in the West, specifically the United States in the last 25, 30 years. And he says, "But the problem is when you investigate, and when you look into it more closely, very few of these people are actually atheists or even agnostic. But by far the biggest group of the nones are those people who say nothing in particular," not atheist, not agnostic, but nothing in particular. He says, "In fact, that group of people who say no religion in particular is bigger than the number of white Catholics in the United States and bigger than the number of all evangelicals combined." That's got to be your apathiestic category, right?

Kyle Beshears: Well, they could definitely be there for sure. Yeah. When it comes to the nones, the more I've been thinking about it, the more I think it might be helpful to introduce another concept of term instead of nones, that they're somes, so that they're picking some aspects of different worldviews. They're picking some social causes or political positions, and they're creating a patchwork quilt in their beliefs. So nothing in particular. I would say that they have some beliefs, but they also have no beliefs. It just depends. But yeah, for sure there's apatheism there. But to be an apathiest means that you express indifference toward God questions in particular. That means that you can believe in God, but be apatheist, and you can reject God and be an apathiest. You can be somewhere in the middle and be an apatheist.

And I think a shift or a change in the way that we think about belief is needed to understand apatheism, that we typically think about belief in God as the sum of our ideas, of who God is, what God is like. But there's also an emotional element to our belief. How strongly do you believe what you believe? How weakly do you believe? And the more apathy you have towards the beliefs that you hold, the closer you come to apatheism. So that does sound like a pretty good candidate pool for a lot of this.

Collin Hansen: I've got a book that I'm going to send your way on the history of belief and ask you to review for The Gospel Coalition. Anyway, that made me really, you asked very good questions about what do we mean by belief? And that is a changing term.

Kyle Beshears: Yes.

Collin Hansen: Very much a changing term over Western history, especially going back to theTreformation. And it's one of those things we simply take for granted and don't understand not only is it shifting, but it's also contestable as a concept. Now I was going to ask you this question of how it's possible to be apathetic, apatheistic, and also believe in God. Why don't you just explain that quickly.

Kyle Beshears: Yeah. So again, apatheism is a disinterest, an apathy toward God questions themselves. You can answer those questions in the affirmative, "Yes, I do believe God exists, but I don't really care about that belief." You can say, "No, I don't believe God exists, but I don't care about that belief either." I think probably one of the best examples for listeners and I highly recommend reading this article, it's by a guy named Jonathan Rauch who wrote an article called “Let It Be” from The Atlantic monthly, back in 2003. And he was the first one to popularize the concept of apatheism. And he self-describes as a Jewish, atheistic, apathiest

Now, how can you hold all three of those positions together? He outlines it pretty well in the essay, and it is pretty convincing. It's not a matter of the content of your belief, more of the quality. It matters less what you believe, but how you feel about those beliefs.

Collin Hansen: Hmm. Okay. That, we'll come back to that. I think that's extremely helpful. Okay. So you wrote this book before COVID-19, right?

Kyle Beshears: I did. Well, during... yeah.

Collin Hansen: Yeah. Okay. The concept at least. I mean, you work on the concept of book proposal, all that sort of stuff. I saw a copy quite a while ago. So I know it's been a long time in the works there. Did you, as a pastor, as an author, did you see the pandemic drive people to considering their mortality and the divine or distract themselves until it ended?

Kyle Beshears: Yes. I think both. I'm going to cheat and take both because honestly I did, I saw both. I mean, the first part of that question, you're asking about a well-known sociological phenomenon in culture where the closer we come to death and chaos disorder, the more people, no matter what they believe, look upward to the transcendent for answers, they're looking beyond themselves because we don't like to feel like we're out of control and in danger. And so for example, after 9/11, church pews were swollen with people. And in the teaching ministry where I get to pastor, I noticed an uptick in streams online, not just from our people that had to be separated, but many more people, I think just looking for answers, but that quickly faded. And I think that's where the distraction comes in, because we're not so much looking for answers anymore.

It seems like there might be a vaccine, I'm just going to hunker down tight, and here comes binge watching The Office, or here comes the next video game release. And I'm going to get lost in this story for the next 15 hours or something like that. So, yeah. I think it's a little bit of both. And I do think it's really interesting that it was a really great example of a pretty well-known governor right now in New York who essentially appealed to God without doing it directly, that he was happy that healthcare workers are doing what they were doing. He said they were doing God's work, numbers started going down. And he said, "Well, God didn't do this, we did." So it was a matter of weeks that that shift occurred, but it does happen.

Collin Hansen: I see what you're saying. I mean, at first, a lot of us felt as though this could be cataclysmic. It could be one where all of our lives were endangered. It was enough to be able to throw off our typical comforts. But then as it progressed, we realized this is very serious, but not likely to be fatal. So then you shift into more of, okay, I'm just going to fall back into what I typically use to cope, which is technology and affluence. I mean, the ability to be able to spend a lot of money and to keep your job and thus, to be able to insulate yourself from a lot of those consequences there, and not having to think about the grand questions there. Now, typically Kyle, apologetics has been concerned with veracity. You write about this in the book about what is true, but now unbelievers are more with utility, you point out. So let's try to be constructive here. What do we do to meet this shifting demand?

Kyle Beshears: Yeah. And I would go on to say that a lot of our evangelistic, especially our apologetic models are built on trying to demonstrate Christianity primarily as rational, reasonable, true. But there's a lot of folks that are less interested in asking the question what is true? because truth is now something we manufacture in our hearts and in our minds and our own wills to more along the lines of does Christianity work? So that's the utility of it. Is Christianity good? Is it desirable? Is it beautiful?

So what we need to do I think is to recognize that, well, first not to throw the baby out with the bath water. There's been a lot of great thinkers throughout the history of the church that have defended the faith very well grounded in Scripture. It's just that we need to find new ways to utilize those works to a new audience. So again, I think it goes back to recognizing that we begin in a deficit of interest. And the question we have to ask ourself is, well, how can we overcome that deficit? How do we spark interest in God? And that's the million dollar question when approaching an apatheist with the gospel.

Collin Hansen: To me, it seems like the way through that is transformed lives lived out in counter-cultural but appealing community.

Kyle Beshears: I agree. Yeah, no, I think that's a great point. So, I mean, I've spoken with a number of apatheists who walked away from the Christian faith or never came near it because they didn't see what they believe to be a credible display of that faith. And I think a lot of that comes down to either a misunderstanding of what Christianity is or a mismatched expectation of what Christianity is. But at the same time, if Christians are living the Christian life, then they're ought to be a tangible love in a radiating joy that's difficult to look away from. And that we are truly a light in the midst of darkness, because we have been illuminated by the Holy Spirit, what that looks like. Like you say, it's found in community, in the church, in our marriages, in our friendships. And that is where the world will see credible displays of the Christian life and be interested. What makes you different from the rest of us?

Collin Hansen: Yeah. My last question about the book, Kyle, is the big one that I couldn't shake reading through the book. So how do we pitch Christianity as contributing to, you didn't say this, I'm saying this, how do we pitch Christianity as contributing to your best life now, without falling prey to some kind of soft prosperity at least, or downplaying divine judgment in the afterlife altogether? Again, this is not something you introduced. I'm just taking away as a reader thinking. So we have to show the utility of Christianity in this life. But of course we are worshiping a God who seems very concerned about judgment and sin in the afterlife. So how do you, how do you bring those two things together?

Kyle Beshears: I think one of the last things you want to do is to reduce Christianity down to some kind of ornament that you add to your life to try to bring you happiness by your own definition, that is not going to go very well. I think we've tried that in decades past, and we've seen the result. At the same time, there is a universal longing in all humans for joy. And this is the big thing that I advocate for in the book. I'm not going to say what is the opposite of apathy, but I will say that at least part of the opposite of apathy is a joy-filled fervor for God. So with that said, to present Christianity as a desirable faith is to point out that one of the blessings that comes from a life spent in Christ and dwelled by the Holy Spirit worshiping the Father is one that gifts us with a joy that is powerful and permanent, more powerful and more permanent than any other kind of happiness or joy that we could find in the created order.

I mean, that's the big problem that we all have and Christians included is that we try to find our primary sources of joy in the creation, whether that's in relationships, hobbies, things, ideas internally to ourselves, but over and over and over again, throughout Scripture, even though there are glimpses of happiness and joy that we see in the created order, the fountainhead of our joy comes from the creator. It comes from God himself. And so one of the questions we can ask an apatheist is what is your greatest source of joy? Inevitably, it's going to come from the created order, and the uncomfortable question that we have to ask them, and even ourselves is what happens when that joy bringer ceases to bring joy. The Bible kind of breaks joy up into two categories that we have joy because of God, what he has done, his person and work, the sacrifice of his son and resurrection, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

And there's a joy that comes in spite of the fallen state of the world, sorrow, sin and death. And that's the joy that's foreign to us and can only be sourced in God. I think also, so you could go too far in one direction, like you're pointing out, okay. Then Christianity is just going to be something that can... it positively bring me joy, but what do we do with eternal consequences for the rejection of the gospel? And I think that's a really good question to ask.

But it has the same answer that once you truly recognize the depth at which the Son went to rescue you and to redeem you and the unimaginable sacrifice that the Father gave for you and the unimaginable destiny, for those who are outside of his love, the blessing of joy that we receive in this life and will continue throughout eternal life magnifies itself beyond our comprehension. So it's definitely, I think, a balancing act and not something we ought to shy away from, but reducing Christianity to just a set of beliefs, to try to make your life happier and better now, by your definition and by your terms. No, that's definitely not what we should do.

Collin Hansen: My guest on Gospelbound has been Kyle Beshears, his new book, Apatheism: How to Share When They Don't Care, published by B&H. Kyle, final three lightning round. Kyle, where do you find calm in the storm?

Kyle Beshears: Calm in the storm, I find it in Scripture. Specifically, I'm going through the Proverbs right now.

Collin Hansen: It's good spot. A lot of wisdom. Wonderful, wonderful timeless wisdom, divinely, ordained, and inspired wisdom there. Where do you find good news today, Kyle.

Kyle Beshears: I'm finding good news right now in the community of our church and stories of God's faithfulness, despite the way that the world is right now and hearing a lot of stories about light and darkness. And that's been a good source for me recently.

Collin Hansen: Last question, Kyle, what's the last great book you read?

Kyle Beshears: You know what? The last book that I thought was great was How (Not) to Be Secular. So I re-read it again, just as the Apatheism book was coming out just to revisit it, and I really enjoy Smith's voice. And he had this uncanny ability of condensing down Taylor's massive tome into bite-size and pretty practical chunks.

Collin Hansen: Very good by Jamie Smith. My guest again, Kyle Beshears Apatheism: How to Share When They Don't Care. Kyle, thanks for joining me on Gospelbound.

Kyle Beshears: Yeah. Thanks for having me.