by Satyaraja Dasa
“God might exist—but who cares?” is an all-too-common attitude in modern culture.
There’s a new theological term being bandied about by scholars and historians of religion: apatheism. It refers to people who just don’t care, particularly when it comes to God. And if you think about it, that’s not a select few. In our modern age of quarrel and hypocrisy, people in general really don’t care about God—they don’t care to discuss Him, think about Him, or consider if He exists.
Unlike agnosticism, with which one might readily compare it, apatheism takes no position on whether God exists, or on whether one can know if there is a God or not. It simply states . . . nothing. It’s indifferent, implying, at least on a subtle level, that God is irrelevant, a thing of the past, a nuisance not worth our time. “Why even think about it? Why even care?”
As philosopher Jonathan Rauch explains in his recent article in The Atlantic (“Let it Be,” April 3, 2010):
blockquote class=”extract”>Apatheism concerns not what you believe but how. In that respect it differs from the standard concepts used to describe religious views and people. Atheism, for instance, is not at all like apatheism; the hot-blooded atheist cares as much about religion as does the evangelical Christian, but in the opposite direction. . . . Tolerance is a magnificent concept, John Locke’s inestimable gift to all mankind; but it assumes, as Locke did, that everyone brims with religious passions that everyone else must work hard to put up with.
Frankly, the entire idea lacks merit. It is almost understandable to disbelieve in God—based on disappointment or a bleak worldview. Or to propose that it is impossible to know for certain whether or not God exists. But if one concedes that a Supreme Being does indeed exist, then how does it make any sense to ignore Him or say that He is unimportant? This is His world; He created it. Consider this: If you visit someone’s home, doesn’t it make sense to know who your host is and to have cordial dealings with him or her? What are we doing here if we don’t know who the proprietor is? And if there is any mystery to existence—and there clearly is—it seems knowing God would be a large step toward solving that mystery.
Of course, apathy toward God is not a new thing. In many ways, it’s the very source of material existence. When living beings become indifferent to God, they become bound to material existence. And a primary function of maya, the illusory energy, is to allow them to do so. We want to be an imitation God, the material world is created so we can play out our delusional drama, and we incarnate, time and again, for that very purpose. In an interview published in The Harmonist, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura said:
This inferior potency has been stupefying the jivas [souls] that are apathetic towards God since before the beginning of time and causing misunderstanding in them, sometimes assuming the form of “twenty-four items of entity” of Kapila (the originator of the Sankhya system), sometimes as the “atom” of Kanada (of the Vaisheshika system), sometimes also as Jaimini’s principle of “elevation” (in the Purva Mimamsha system), sometimes again as the “sixteen objects” of Gautama (in the Nyaya system), sometimes as “superhuman power and absolute oneness with God” of Patanjali (of the Yoga system), and sometimes as the pretence of search after Brahman (of the Sankara school).
What all of this means in simple English is that numerous schools of thought—Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura here enumerates the major schools in India as examples—were conceived so that living beings could forget God or develop apathy toward Him, thus allowing them to play out their imitation Godhood.
Modern atheists, agnostics, and, yes, apatheists partake of many of the same notions as these traditional Indian thinkers and their schools, if in a less systematic fashion. But the conclusion is always the same: How can I forget the fact that I am constitutionally a servant of God and that life is meant for serving Him?
After all, who really wants to be apathetic about something (or someone) as important as God? He is our source and gives life real purpose.
The Living Dead
The word apathy has Greek origins and literally means “without feelings.” Can one experience life—be truly alive—without feeling? Victor Hugo wrote, “It’s nothing to die; it’s frightful not to live.” In other words, it is more than the act of dying that frightens us—it is the prospect of not living. Are the apathetic really alive, or are they, in a sense, the living dead? As the German social psychologist Erich Fromm phrased it, “In the 19th century, the problem was that God is dead; in the 20th century the problem is that man is dead.”
Apathy is a double-edged sword that wounds both the apathetic and the society in which they live. Apathy has horrific negative power. And apatheism is the worst form of apathy, because it’s directed toward the entity who most warrants our attention, our concern, our interest.
What causes apathy? It is usually frustration and a sense of powerlessness, making people withdraw from life or give up on things that could be important—like God. However, the ultimate cause is their attitude, the way they react to the world and things around them. The cause of apathy is not any particular thing itself, but people’s conditioned response to everything.
As Rauch tells us in his Atlantic article:
In America . . . the proportion of people who say they never go to church or synagogue has tripled since 1972, to 33 percent in 2000. Most of these people believe in God (professed atheists are very rare in the United States); they just don’t care much about him. They do care a bit; but apatheism is an attitude, not a belief system, and the over-riding fact is that these people are relaxed about religion.
Even regular churchgoers can, and often do, rank quite high on the apatheism scale. There are a lot of reasons to attend religious services: to connect with a culture or a community, to socialize, to expose children to religion, to find the warming comfort of familiar ritual. The softer denominations in America are packed with apatheists.
Rauch’s words are insightful. He enumerates well the shallow reasons for approaching God. These reasons are not wrong or inappropriate; they are just inferior. Prabhupada talks about this as well:
This is . . . the recommendation of Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.2.6) . . .: “The supreme occupation [dharma] for all humanity is that by which men can attain to loving devotional service unto the transcendent Lord. Such devotional service must be unmotivated and uninterrupted to completely satisfy the self.”
Yato bhaktir adhokshaje. The word bhakti comes from the same root as bhaj, the root of the word bhajate [worship]. The test of a first-class religion is whether or not we are developing our love for God. If we practice religion with some ulterior motive, hoping to fulfill our material necessities,our religion is not first class but third class. It must be understood that first-class religion is that by which we can develop our love of Godhead.Ahaituky apratihata. This perfect religion should be executed without ulterior motive or impediment. That is the yoga system recommended in Srimad-Bhagavatam and in this Sixth Chapter of Bhagavad-gita. That is the system of Krishna consciousness.
(The Path of Yoga, Chapter 8)
In short, people become apathetic toward God because they approach Him for lesser reasons. As Hari Sauri Dasa, who spent a considerable amount of time as Srila Prabhupada’s personal secretary, writes:
Prabhupada went on for some time, condemning the attitude with which people generally approach God. He explained that in India they sing a traditional arati song which repeats the words sab ko sampatti de bhagavan. De bhagavan means “God, give me.” And in the West, he explained, the Christians also have the same idea. “The whole world,” Prabhupada observed, “they have accepted God as order supplier: I order, You supply. The Christian church also, “God, give us our daily bread.”
(A Transcendental Diary, Volume 1)
This is the real cause of apatheism: not knowing who God is or how to approach Him. The Krishna consciousness movement was conceived to remedy this situation. If we become acquainted with the all-attractive form of Krishna, apathy will remain a million miles away. If we learn how to enthusiastically engage in His service—instead of asking what He can do for us—apathetic spirituality will fall to the wayside. Krishna consciousness is the surest cure for apatheism. One need merely try it to see for oneself.