This paper addresses the plausibility of practical apatheism: an attitude of apathy or indifference about philosophical questions pertaining to God’s existence grounded in the belief that they lack practical significance. Since apatheism is rarely discussed, we begin by clarifying the position and explaining how it differs from some of the other positions one may take with regard to the existence of God. Afterward, we examine six distinct objections to practical apatheism. Each of these objections posits a different reason for thinking that belief in God is practically significant. Five of these objections prove unsuccessful. The sixth, which appeals to the practical significance of belief in God with respect to our fates in the afterlife, is more promising but nonetheless encounters significant obstacles. Since the success of this objection is controversial, whether we have good grounds to reject practical apatheism should be similarly controversial, and the view should be given further examination.
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Assuming that practical apatheism were the appropriate attitude to take toward EQs, whether EQs would therefore deserve less philosophical attention depends on one’s views regarding how the practical significance of a topic of inquiry should affect its worthiness of being examined. Some may argue, for instance, that the question of whether the external world exists is a topic worthy of philosophical examination even if how we answer it has no impact on how we live. In this paper, we take no stand on the relationship between an issue’s practical significance and its all-things-considered philosophical importance. As we discuss in the following section, we leave open the possibility that there can be worthwhile intellectual reasons for pursuing topics of inquiry that lack practical significance.
One might worry that even if we adequately appraise these six objections to practical apatheism, there might still be other objections that offer more decisive reasons to reject the view. While this concern is understandable, no single paper could address every possible objection to practical apatheism. Given that apatheism (in any form) is a rather underexplored philosophical position, we must begin with the objections that already have a firm basis in the literature and proceed from there.
Some philosophers have addressed a position similar in spirit to apatheism. Guy Kahane (2011), for instance, briefly discusses whether an indifferent attitude toward God’s existence could be justified (pp. 677–678), though it is not clear that this attitude precisely captures apatheism as we have defined it. Similarly, Kraay and Dragos (2013) briefly discuss indifferentism – “the claim that it would neither be far better nor far worse if God exists” (p. 158; original emphasis). Indifferentism is a claim about how the value of the universe is impacted by God’s existence, and clearly, it is much different than apatheism. It is perfectly coherent for someone to think the universe as a whole would be better (or worse) if God exists and thereby reject indifferentism while also holding that this fact about the universe’s value does not matter for her as an individual and therefore does not make her concerned about EQs.
As we will address in a later section, however, we doubt that an apatheist who believes in God will be able to endorse traditional theistic beliefs about the afterlife.
Just in the Bible, one can find justifications of the following behaviors: attempted human sacrifice (Genesis 22), murder over religious differences (Deuteronomy 13), murder and rape (Numbers 31, Deuteronomy 20, Judges 21), the tacit approval of slavery (Ephesians 6), and administration of capital punishment for the following activities: witchcraft (Exodus 22), homosexual acts (Leviticus 20), adultery (Leviticus 20), and women losing their virginity before their wedding night (Deuteronomy 22).
Kraay (n.d., pp. 7–8) makes a similar criticism of Hasker’s response.
This observation also explains in part why a shift from theism to atheism is unlikely to impact moral motivation significantly. Many theists may explain their moral motivation with at least partial reference to God, which suggests that their theism contributes in some way to their moral motivation even if it is not essential to it. In practice, however, we do not see a significant difference in the incentives that theists have to act morally in comparison to non-theists – likely because their central motivation originates in facts about their psychology and biology that are not tied to their evaluations of these abstract issues.
In fact, rational deliberation primarily serves as a source of post-hoc justifications for otherwise automatic evaluative judgments (Haidt 2001).
One might wonder, however, whether people’s actual behavior would correspond with the philosophical arguments we have presented. For example, there may be no good reasons to think that God is necessary for a meaningful life, but it may be the case that people who relinquish their belief in God feel as if their lives are suddenly meaningless. In one respect, this provides a clear reason for apathy toward EQs: caring about EQs can lead us into unnecessary and irrational despair!
A more substantive response draws on psychological data. A test case for this empirical reality might be those social psychological studies of the reactions of people who are directly confronted with clear disconfirmation of strongly held beliefs (Balch et al. 1983; Festinger et al. 1956). Some ignore or otherwise rationalize away the disconfirmation. Others shift the focus of their beliefs, such that the disconfirmation is no longer relevant. Still others accept the disconfirmation and walk away from their beliefs entirely. Importantly, for the third group, the act of changing one’s beliefs is not enough, by itself, to usefully predict how a person will psychologically react. Rather, people react to the events in their lives, such as a disconfirmed expectation or a surprising if disturbing insight, based on who they are (i.e., their self-identity, their personality traits) and what social influences are operating on them at the time (e.g., do they have a strong social support system?). Thus, we are left with probabilities rather than certainties, and so the question becomes: is it likely that people who relinquish their belief in God will feel as if their lives are meaningless (and to feel this as if it were of great practical significance rather than, say, a passing mood)? To this question, we can only return to our discussion of meaning and to the empirical reality that atheists do not report living lives that are less meaningful than theists.
We thank an anonymous reviewer for bringing this concern to our attention.
In a similar manner, we might expect psychologists to have some familiarity with the history of psychology or evolutionary biologists to be especially knowledgeable about Charles Darwin.
One may worry, for instance, that Pascal’s wager ignores the fact that there are many possible deities and that we are, therefore, very likely to believe in the wrong God even if we reject atheism. Others may doubt that a benevolent God would reward those who believe only on self-interested reasons (rather than for moral or spiritual reasons) while punishing truth-seeking skeptics. Michael Martin (1983) has even reformulated Pascal’s wager as an argument for atheism.
Of course, if our beliefs in God affect how others fare in the afterlife, then we might have moral obligations to alter our beliefs (if we can) on that person’s behalf, but since a deity who allocated rewards and punishments in this way would not seem ethical, it is unclear why we would trust this deity to treat those inhabiting the afterlife in ways consistent with our behavior.
This condition assumes that an afterlife would be eternal or at least extremely long (relative to an ordinary human life), an assumption held by many theists. Some may reject this assumption, but doing so would also entail that the consequences of having the wrong belief about the afterlife would be much less severe than they would be if the afterlife was unending. Thus, as the afterlife shortens in length, this objection to apatheism gets proportionally weaker.
A reviewer suggests that the mere knowledge that the truth of theism increases the probability of a personal afterlife might be sufficient to motivate an interest in EQs. If that is the case, then only the first of these five claims (which secures the notion that the afterlife will be one that we can personally experience) would be necessary to generate an objection to practical apatheism.
We do not think this picture is accurate, however. Even if a personal afterlife is more probable given the truth of theism, we do not think this will have practical significance if the other conditions are not met. One could reason that an afterlife is more likely on the truth of theism, but if she also cannot see, for instance, a reliable way to control what kind of afterlife she experiences – for example, because she thinks that God’s judgments about how people are treated in the afterlife is not based on having the correct beliefs about God; or because she believes God’s judgments about who receives good and bad afterlives is arbitrary; or because she cannot reliably determine what beliefs she is supposed to have – then she does not have a reason to spend time investigating EQs. Her fate would be out of her hands, and so from a practical standpoint, there is no reason for her answers to EQs to affect the way she lives. Similarly, if she thinks all possible afterlives would be equally desirable (or undesirable), the potential increase in the probability of an afterlife would not give her a practical reason to investigate EQs because the quality of her afterlife would not be affected by how she answers EQs. Again, she lacks a reason to change how she lives.
For a concise overview of these problems, see Perry (1978).
We do not mean to imply that McKim would endorse practical apatheism as we have defined it. In fact, some of his remarks about the importance of religious beliefs for the people who hold them appear to be in tension with some of the beliefs a practical apatheist would hold (McKim 2001, pp. 137–138). Our point is only that this particular argument – held in conjunction with certain other views – could clearly yield support for practical apatheism.
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We thank audiences at East Tennessee State University, University of Tennessee Chattanooga, and Western Washington University for providing valuable feedback on material that was incorporated into this manuscript. We extend special thanks to E. J. Coffman, Garret Merriam, Robert McKim, Brian Ribeiro, Scott Aikin, Don Hatcher, Jonathan Kvanvig, and Ira DeSpain for their insightful comments on earlier versions of this manuscript. Finally, we thank the many anonymous reviewers whose feedback helped us to clarify and refine our arguments.
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Hedberg, T., Huzarevich, J. Appraising Objections to Practical Apatheism. Philosophia 45, 257–276 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-016-9759-y
- Practical apatheism
- Existence of god
- Meaning of life