Apatheism

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.