I learned a new word recently. That doesn’t happen all that often- although it is occurring more frequently since I moved into a job significantly outside my regular wheelhouse of history, literature, religion, myth, story, music and etc.

I was watching a TEDTalk (have I mentioned how I’m hooked on these things? No wait. That discussion is in a post that is still languishing in the drafts folder. I need to stop being so easily distracted…) by Dr. Ben Goldacre.

This TEDTalk here:

I was watching it for a couple of reasons- I am working in the healthcare industry at the moment, so the subject matter is relevant to my day-to-day involvement in scientific, evidence-based research and the public policies that are informed by this research.

Mainly, though, I decided to check it out because there has been a whole lot of irresponsible let’s call it ‘journalism’, for lack of a better word, out there lately, further inflaming the public’s inclination to buy into ‘facts’ that support a previously-held worldview. Like those worldviews informed by ‘celebrity’ doctors (and the shills who follow them) that encourage different types of supplements as a requirement for good health. Or those that claim that vaccines cause autism. Or death.

Recently, the Toronto Star, a news organization that, in general, I tend to support in its measured reporting, presented a front page ‘exposé’ of the ‘dangers’ of the HPV vaccine. The irresponsibility of the ‘journalism’ behind the piece was staggering. Enraging, actually.

But this isn’t about that.

I did a little background searching after watching Dr. Goldacre. His name was familiar- and he is undeniably engaging. The Wikipedia (my old friend Pythia- Source of Quick Wisdom) told me that I recognized his name because of discussions I’ve seen ’round his recent book Bad Pharma, and the earlier Bad Science.

He’s a guy after my own heart- stating, in his science-y way, a number of the things that I tend to talk/think about. He’s a cool dude- a self-described ‘nerd evangelist’ and critic of pseudoscience, ‘alternative’ medicine and, generally, irrationality. That last extends to those scientific institutions (like pharmaceutical companies) that have a tendency to forgo good science for the purpose of economic expedience.

The Pythia also informed me that Dr. Goldacre is a contributor to The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas (a volume I haven’t read, yet one that I can picture sitting on a friend’s bookshelf- I meant to borrow it quite some time ago. Note to self…) and also a self-described apatheist.

There’s the word that gave me pause.

I can break down its constituent parts and figure out what it’s all about, but, until I looked up Dr. Goldacre, I honestly didn’t know that this was a thing.

From first glance, I wasn’t a big fan. I don’t like apathy. It’s lazy. And symptomatic of a wasteful lack of engagement in the world. It’s all about lack – of interest, of enthusiasm, of concern. I can’t advocate for any of those things as an approach to life.

Interestingly, the word originally stems from the Greek word apatheia– ‘without (a) suffering/passion (pathos)’- that was used by the Stoics to describe an admirable state of acceptance of the lack of control one has over things that are exterior to oneself. This sense of the word was picked up by later early Xian monastics as a virtue.

As a distinction, the Greek word apathes (‘without feeling’) came to be associated with the Xian concept of denial of the good god and his works, associated with that laziest of the 7 Deadlies, Sloth.

I concur, very strongly, with the opposition to laziness bit. The denial of the good god stuff? With that I am okay.

Still, this concept of apatheism has some intriguing aspects. It sees itself as pragmatic, or practical, atheism with the following characteristics:

  • Absence of religious motivation—belief in gods does not motivate moral action, religious action, or any other form of action;
  • Active exclusion of the problem of gods and religion from intellectual pursuit and practical action;
  • Indifference—the absence of any interest in the problems of gods and religion; or
  • Unawareness of the concept of a deity

Essentially? Apatheists don’t care about religion. At all.

I get it. Particularly from the perspective of Science. Philosophical mindsets that suggest that the existence (or non-existence) of a god (or bunch of them) matters not at all in an evidence-based, scientific methodologically-sourced way of approaching the natural world/universe are pretty resonant, generally speaking, with the way that I approach this here existence of ours.

All gods, and all religions, are equal in ‘value’- and, as such, equally irrelevant. Especially since moralistic societies need not rely on religions for their foundations. They might be nice as sources of childlike comfort, but there’s no real call for them in an educated, incredulous and secularized society. This, however, remains a minority view here on Planet Earth.

Historically, practical atheists/apatheists were regarded as immoral embracers of hedonism and vice.

Like my Gnostics. And anyone else who disagrees with the institutions of the religious status quo.

Shockingly/disgustingly/terrifyingly this was news this morning. I’ve written before about some of my feelings about my own atheism – how I’ve tended to remain quiet about it unless challenged, and how the whole ‘live-and-let-live’ mantra has stood me fairly steadfast for some time now, but also how I’m being forced to rethink that way of approaching the world.

With the rise of the Reactionary Right- in all its forms (political, religious et al)- remaining quietly assured in my evidence-based beliefs about the world is no longer enough. Atheism shouldn’t require ideological defence. Not in this day and age. It certainly shouldn’t be something that ends with a death sentence at the hands of credulous individuals who assert the dominance of their fairy tale view of the world – although using ‘fairy tale’ as a descriptor in this case connotes a worldview that is far less indelibly stained by violence than is historically demonstrable.

The distance between those shouldn’ts and the way things are is becoming alarmingly disparate.

There has always- in my experience of the academic discipline- been discussion about the connection between religion and violence. I read René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred as part of a dialectic-based course I took with one of my mentors- a philosopher of religion who had a profound influence on my way of approaching religious studies, and the world in general.

The discussion is on-going- even outside of the halls of the academy- these days. There’s a whole lot of name-calling and finger-pointing and claims about the violent tendencies of ‘Other’ groups, Ironically, that finger-pointing and name-calling generally leads to suggestions for ‘initiatives’ to counter that violence with violence- sourced in and supported by ‘Our’ religious beliefs- directed back at the ‘Other’.

There’s also a whole lot of apologist literature out there defending religion- generally heralding one religion over another- that speaks to the need to shore up our morality by returning to one credulous fold or another.

While I respect some of Karen Armstrong’s work, and very much respect her as a person- her compassionate view of the world with all its variety is really quite wonderful- she’s missed the boat with her latest comparative survey of the world’s religions.

As is succinctly noted in this response to her response to the charge that religion is causally inseparable from violence, in attempting to defend religion against all comers (primarily us atheist-types), to ‘exonerate’ religion (something that isn’t, in my academic opinion, possible) Armstrong ‘muddies the water’ of an otherwise ‘academic intervention in an ongoing but oversimplified and disheartening “debate”.

This is a common fallacy found in the arguments of apologists. Who are, by definition, credulous.

In the face of such discussions- and their worldwide implications- it isn’t enough for the incredulous, evidence-based thinkers among us to claim indifference to the problem of gods and their existence. How wonderful it would be if we were able to ‘actively exclude the problem of gods and religion from intellectual pursuit and practical action.’

How wonderful indeed.

Somehow, I doubt we’ll get there any time soon.

Until we have worldwide consensus that ‘the belief in gods does not motivate moral action, religious action, or any other form of action’, we have to acknowledge that such beliefs are going to colour our discussions about how we can all get along and share this planet. Unfortunately, I don’t see that consensus on any visible horizon.

Which means that eliminating the reality of the opposing perspective smacks of the intellectual laziness suggested by the apathy part of apatheism.

Intellectual laziness- from all sides- is pissing me off. The fact that the main ‘news’ of the day seems to be an ongoing discussion about the colour of some randomly-posted dress is kinda messing with my expectations as to the proper order of things.

I’m thinking that my embracing of a wee dram this evening will be anything but apathetic. I will enjoy my Scotch with real enthusiasm and interest. Believe me.

So- a little song about apathy, with a very special, much beloved, guest star in the video.

I’m going down to Liverpool to do nothing
I’m going down to Liverpool to do nothing
All the days of my life
All the days of my life.

Farewell, Leonard. I can’t imagine a world without you. Strong characters enchant and endure- and only truly strong people can imbue such characters with real humanity. That Vulcan- and the human who brought him to life- were examples of the best that humanity has to offer. Go gently, Mr. Spock.


21 comments on “Apatheism

  1. quiall says:

    He will be remembered.

  2. bethbyrnes says:

    There is so much here Cole.

    It strikes me that if atheists were to choose a religion, it would be Zen because that middle path of balance is a calm and almost intellectual approach to guiding behaviour.

    We are talking about guiding behaviour for the most part. In an ideal world, there would be one absolute set of rules to do so. That was supposedly the idea of the founding of the United States by Masons. Clearly, taking a look at it today, it merely created selfish interpretations of those rules that are anything but absolute and direct people to very different and often contradictory modes of behaving.

    From the point of view of an empiricst, we would simply use trial and error in the real world and hopefully arrive at some point in life with practices that work vs those that didn’t (which are then discarded from the array of choices when acting). That is found in a lot of social science texts. One classic that comes to mind is the volume: Toward A General Theory of Action by Parsons and Shils, two sociologists if I remember correctly. It is not an easy read but upon several readings, you begin to get the social and psychological mechanisms at work underlying almost all human behaviour. If you know them, theoretically, you could employ them to make the best choices. It takes a willingness to undertake a significant intellectual lift — not for all people.

    If one simply wants a guideline to being as good as one can be, I think that the Christ ideal type does the trick nicely. Or I would think that if it had not been so perverted to resemble anything but Christ, especially here in the US right about now.

    I can’t be apathetic and I cannot be an atheist in my inner life. I can however be a complete empiricist/scientist in my social (any interaction with others) life. That is the best I can do at this point. And I still give in to selfish anger and scathing retorts even when my Zen self knows they don’t work to change minds, much less hearts.

    If any of this makes sense, that is what your post brought to mind, LOL!!

    • colemining says:

      Beth- I’m not sure, anymore, with what I have the biggest issue- the gods or the institutions that continue to support them… This is all part of the reflecting I’m doing on my approach to the world- and my fellow humans.

      You know that I’m a big fan of using our stories to help us decide what is right behavior- I just think it’s long past time that we figure out that such guidelines lose their effectiveness when they become dogmatic proclamations that are dictated out of all context.

      I may have moments of apathy, certainly. When the futility seems insurmountable… when the stupid is too in-your-face… but it isn’t a place I can live. I’m comfortable with my lack of gods- more than comfortable, really. And that comfort means that I can be okay with those who do choose to have gods- provided they don’t expect that those gods should impact my life in any way.

      I can be a cynical, scathing angry ol’ pain at times. But that’s one of the things that tends to snap me out of those apathetic instances. I’ll have to add the Parsons and Shils to my reading list…

      Thanks for reading- and thinking about this stuff. Have a great weekend! xo

      • bethbyrnes says:

        Well, just to be clear, since I often get lost in my own words, I don’t have any gods either. I just have an inner connection to the non-sensory knowing about the world that people in various disciplines have many names for. That is essentially in my interior life. Exteriorly, dogmatism is exactly the problem. Self-discipline and objectivity are mandatory but people are more comfortable becoming lazy and solidified in their egos and their base fears. Most of what runs this world is fear and anger.To overcome them in ourselves and others is extremely difficult because we have so little self-awareness. Anyway, this set of issues is of the utmost importance to me, so I appreciate your grappling with them here.

      • colemining says:

        I’m happy to have a place in which I can do some grappling- and have a chat about some of these things.

        Personally, I’m fine with knowing that there is no un-scientific order to the universe, and with the realization that we order our world as a matter of necessity. We fear those things/people we’ve been taught to fear, and I very much believe that we can overcome this preconditioning and learn to think for ourselves, but doing so requires a level of involvement that doesn’t permit apathy.

        It seems like we are on the same page (as expected)- we just come at from slightly different approaches.

        Heading out into the sunshine and hoping the temperatures match- at least a little. xo

  3. Oh, the Bangles. Thank you for that.
    And, oh, the wavelength-sharing. Apathy as a defense-mechanism has been on my mind these past few days, although I am not nearly as well-informed or well-read as you are. Morality, ethics, compassion — those things have insinuated themselves into the mix. The eternal question for me is where does striving for those things come from? Lately, on Wednesday to be more specific, I decided they must come from a similar place as hatred, cruelty, savagery. Bad things happen to good people. Good things happen to bad people. Maybe there’s no good or bad. Something inside tells me that’s not true. All the while that these things battle it out inside my head and heart, I am keenly aware that no one around me cares nearly as much. On Wednesday, a beautiful, happy, kind, good human being died unexpectedly and it was just too much to add to the tragic murders and savagery happening “over there”. Over there is here. There is no far away, and sometimes it feels like even more of a burden to care when no one else seems to, so I threw up my hands, metaphorically, said ,”This is the day I stop believing in God,” and . . . .boom. . . there were llamas to entertain me, Elena Kagan’s citing of Dr. Seuss in her dissent argument (I loved it), and that dress. I *know* I’m distracting myself from serious things, but — at least for this moment in time — apathy is what I need to get me through. And to watch that Bangles video again. Thanks for your thoughts. I’ll be thinking about them all day. Points you.

    • colemining says:

      Hi HC- a friend posted the Bangles vid in the wake of the loss of Spock and I realized it was a pretty apt tune to use to accompany my thoughts- and a lovely tip of the hat to Mr. Nimoy as well.

      I think your instincts are spot on- our striving for good and our capacity for hatred DO all come from the same place- attempts to understand and draw meaning from the inexplicable events.

      Too many people, unfortunately, would rather drift with the dictated tide than work out their reactions for themselves- while being distracted by llamas, and dresses and kittens. (I have to admit that the llamas were awesome, and I will always love the cute animal pics- distractions have their place. They just need to managed and acknowledged as temporary, rather than permanent foci).

      As I said, I do drift into apathy from time to time- when the windmill tilting proves too daunting. I just do my best to make sure it’s not a place where I take up permanent residency.

      Hope the weekend brings some brightness. Thanks for your visit! xo

  4. lennymaysay says:

    Reblogged this on Lenny Says and commented:
    Not quite an apatheist, but there are times when the world appears to have gone ape-shit, I feel like one.

    • colemining says:

      Thanks for the reblog, Lenny. I’m not into apathy, so the apatheism thing took me by surprise, a little bit. Smacks of the same sort of thing as slacktivism. Appreciate you stopping by!

  5. Interesting, I had not heard of this word. What is the difference between apatheism and atheism?

    Spock is a hero of mine. I married a man who has many of the same characteristics (not the pointy ears), and I am the opposite. Rational & irrational coming together. It’s been good for us. I take great comfort in his scientific view of the world, he takes comfort from my emotional view of the world. We balance each other out. And it’s created a pretty neato child!

    Like the wonderful TEDTalk explains, science or “evidence” is not always right. This is not the fault of science, but the people doing the science. In the absence of good information there will always be people who reject the “evidence” and the science (anti-vaxxers)–and people (those natural practitioners, some good, some not) who will fill the void & take advantage of vulnerable people. We need to figure this out. Pronto.

    Take for example, that Star article. OI!! It’s out there now, and the damage is done. I agree it’s a problematic article. On many levels. But it also doesn’t make sense to ignore the voices and real concerns of these girls. My heart goes out to them, and their parents. I want to know all the risks associated with a medical intervention. I don’t want to just go in blindly and put all my faith in science–which is the same way I feel about religion.

    When you get your child vaccinated, they only briefly mention possible side effects. If you ask about these side effects, they will tell you that there is a “small risk” to vaccines. How small? What is the risk? Are some children more prone to adverse reactions? But the answer is simply this: “it’s worth the risk.” Really? Is that the best you can come up with, as my mind starts reeling with worst case scenarios…(note: we did vaccinate fully, and I’m glad we did).

    This leads to another bugaboo of mine: why is everything black & white today? If you ask questions about vaccines you are a bad parent. You ask questions about the new curriculum you are a right-wing nutter (and I do have questions — not about the content, but about the roll-out…who will teach it? how will they teach it? will their be safe spaces for kids to disclose information? The province is notoriously bad at dumping stuff on local school boards, and expecting them to do it right…). You question certain religious practices, and you are a racist or intolerant. The list goes on…

    Phew. Now I better do some housework, I’ve heard it has many health benefits for women (so says the man that did that study!).

    Hugs from Ottawa.

    • colemining says:

      Hey Booksy- from I what I can glean, the significant difference between the two is that those with the apathy added in couldn’t care less about whether or not others choose to follow gods- they don’t exist, so there’s no point talking about them- while many atheists see the problem of gods and organized religions as a social issue that needs addressing. I am, decidedly, in the latter group. We have to acknowledge the implications of imposed religious beliefs- even as we must work to remove them from our social and political organizations.

      I see a little of myself in Spock, TBH, but I have a lot of Kirk in me, too. That was the beauty of those two characters- they complemented each other so well and were strengthened through the embracing of their differences. Mr. Nimoy was such a quietly progressive and influential man- we have suffered a great loss, but we are so much better for having had him around as long as we did.

      I agree- we shouldn’t be ignoring red flags and concerns- but we have to strike a balance (which the Star did NOT) between the stats and the science and anecdotal situations that are presented as causality. The one poor girl- who had a previously-known sensitivity to metals- should NEVER have had the vaccination administered. That was a failure in the way that the vaccines are given, though, rather than in the vaccine itself.

      I don’t know if you happened to catch The Fifth Estate this week? All about the foofarah over gluten and ‘frankenstein wheat’. Most of the ‘evidence’ supporting that guy who wrote the book that started the gluten-free fad is anecdotal- with no scientifically demonstrable evidence of cause/effect.

      Things should never be black/white. It’s this whole dichotemization of the world- Us/Them, Right/Wrong. No gradations are permitted. Which is a pretty lousy way of dealing with our fellow humans and the policies/social conventions that allow us to co-exist.

      In talking to many of the educators I know- including my sister, who was trained in the implementation of the last curriculum (that was shouted down and pulled for reasons of political expediency) and is being trained in this one- I’m fairly confident that there will be solid preparation completed before the roll-out begins. But yours are certainly fair questions- that should be answered by those who have designed the changes- and those who will be teaching them.

      Big lol to your last thought re. the housework- and the study that touts its benefits. Perfect example of the issues besetting the ‘popularization’ of ‘scientific’ studies.

      Hugs back at you! It’s warmed up here, and the sun is shining, but we’re being told it’s not necessarily going to last… xo

      • So nice chatting with you. Re: vaccines. That’s exactly the problem–parents don’t get enough info..Dr’s just don’t have time/or inclination to talk about possible reactions. Not crazy about that aspect.

        Enjoy the sun!

      • colemining says:

        Too true- especially with this model of ‘one appointment/one issue’. Doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for answering questions/educating patients.

        Sun? There’s sun? At work in a room without windows. Ah well- off to see my ol’ buddy Midge Ure tonight at the Phoenix- so there’s THAT to which I can look forward.

  6. Ste J says:

    Tonight I am having a Star Trek marathon and a steak to pay my respects to the pointy eared one. I followed this dress thing with much interest, not because I care about the colours but because people were suckered into caring and the media, not knowing how to cope with a public it doesn’t understand latched on. I think it says a lot about our culture today when people are so easily swayed from important subjects by what was most probably a marketing ploy.

    • colemining says:

      Oh, Steve. So very true. It was SO telling- about our capacity to be distracted by the mindless nonsense that is fed to us on a daily basis.

      Hope you had a great marathon. Oh how he will be missed.

      Thanks for the visit!

  7. […] links to the time of year are all sentimental – it has nothing to do with religion/belief (obv), it isn’t about giving gifts for the sake of getting gifts (the exchange of lists of stuff […]

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