I. Introduction

Last year, in the case of Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the Supreme Court extended Free Exercise jurisprudence in a manner that should be troubling to religious moderates and secularists alike. As has been covered extensively (here, here, and here, for example), the facts of the case are fairly straightforward. Montana had a state constitutional provision that banned public funds to schools “controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect, or denomination.” This provision is called a Blaine Amendment, a tool with a long history of controversy beyond the scope of this article to recount. At the same time, Montana had a tax credit program that gave favorable treatment to organizations that award scholarships to private schools. Following the Montana state constitution, the Montana Department of Revenue promulgated a rule that prevented such scholarships from being used at religious schools. The Court concluded that this violated the Free Exercise rights of families that would have otherwise used the scholarships for instruction at religious schools.

Chief Justice Roberts, writing for a conservative majority, held that, despite recent historical trends away from public support of religious institutions, a state cannot withhold aid simply because of religious status. Could the scholarship be used for expressly religious training (e.g., training to enter the clergy? Maybe not. But the fact that it was left up to the individual students and their families to use the scholarships and that the schools themselves were not expressly indoctrinating students was enough to raise Free Exercise problems.

This case is sandwiched between two other cases: Trinity Lutheran, decided in 2016, and Fulton, to be decided by the Court this year. Like Espinoza, these cases involve withholding public support by a state or municipality to a religious organization. In Trinity Lutheran, the denied benefit was a public grant for installing playground equipment at a religious preschool and daycare. In Fulton, it was adoption referrals to Catholic Social Services that refused to place children with same-sex foster parents. Despite the obvious tensions with the Establishment Clause’s prevention of respect for a religious establishment, the justices seemed to think in Trinity Lutheran and Espinoza that public support for religion is perfectly justified — despite a democratic signal from citizens to the contrary. And the Court will almost certainly extend that line of thinking next year in Fulton.

Now, contrast this line of cases with two other realities. First, consider the fact that the religious liberty in question is one rooted in a Judeo-Christian perspective. Almost reflexively, the Court will permit Free Exercise protections for Christian belief at the expense of the rights of others. Recent cases highlight this reality. For example, consider these cases:

  • the right of Christian fundamentalist business owners to deny services to those who identify as queer (Masterpiece Cakeshop);
  • the right of Christian fundamentalist businesses to withhold public benefits because doing so would conflict with Christian doctrine (Hobby Lobby); and
  • the denial of the right of taxpayers to challenge federal funding decisions that favor religious organizations (Hein).

And these are just the most recent ones. In all of these cases, the Supreme Court continues to indicate that it will side with the rights of Judeo-Christian religions over that of other individuals, interest groups, and states. Meanwhile, the Court rarely does likewise with minority religions, such as Native American faiths. It has denied Free Exercise protection when the federal government, even over its own impact reports, decimates a Native American sacred site, thereby ending a faith (Lyng). It has carved out whole Free Exercise exceptions for “generally applicable laws” when Native American religious activities run afoul of drug laws (Employment Division v. Smith). And lower courts have routinely followed the Court’s lead on these types of cases. These inconsistencies should at least give an outside viewer some pause.

Second, the latest round of religion cases comes at a time of increasing secularization. As of 2019, over a quarter of the United States’ population no longer identifies with any religion — a number that has nearly doubled in the last 15 years. At the same time, Christianity, the United States’ historically dominant faith, continues to lose adherents at an even more rapid rate. This phenomenon follows a similar trajectory in Western Europe. While some continue to debate whether these statistics indicate growing secularization, there is a sense among many social commentators that this trend will continue — along with a growing partisan clash over matters of faith in the public sphere. To put this in the context of the recent religion cases: as more of the population moves toward a public sphere free from religion, the Court appears to be granting one subset of it — Judeo-Christian traditions — increasing protection. While there may be good arguments for these kinds of jurisprudential shifts when a minority group requires protection from majoritarian tyranny, it is hard to take such arguments seriously when the Court spends page after page recounting the prominent place of faith in American historical development; faith gets protected both because it is an unassailable tradition and because it is threatened by changes in public thought. There is no room for discussion with that sort of logic.

This article aims not to wade into the morass of First Amendment religious jurisprudence; there is no exit strategy for such discussions. Nor do I intend to argue whether the U.S. Constitution or any governing document should protect religious belief. Instead, the cases I have recounted raise important questions about public thought. How should a religious moderate or a secularist navigate public debates about religious liberty? What ethos or set of principles should guide a person, an organization, or a state through what will inevitably be a century of religious conflict? As the momentum toward secularization builds, how should a non-zealot react? If constitutional liberties and rights are protections from government interference, then the decision to enforce one set of such protections over that of others is a value judgment on the part of a society. And as these value-judgments favorable to religion proliferate, the constitution will continue to subsidize one form of behavior (religious belief) over others (personal liberties, equal access, and individual identity) during a time of religious/secular conflict.

This article is one of a series that (I hope) will offer one preliminary answer to these questions. I hope to provide a conceptual framework for those who are irreligious to think through the coming decades of change. The purpose of this serial primer is to develop a set of guiding principles under the label “apatheism,” a term I will borrow, redefine, and defend. My thesis is essentially this: apatheism is a philosophical attitude, rather than a belief-system or claim to knowledge, that allows religious moderates and secularists (1) on the one hand, to feel a measure of protection for their religious beliefs (such as they are), while (2) on the other hand, to defend their view of a society that does not elevate religious liberty above that of other social goods. While some of these concepts are not new, my purpose is to bring them under one rubric for application and debate.

In this first article, I have a small goal: to sketch out what I understand apatheism to be. In later articles, I intend to expand the concepts and implications that I present here.

II. A Working Definition of Apatheism

I am not the first to discuss the term apatheism. Trevor Hedberg, currently a postdoctoral scholar at Ohio State University, has perhaps the earliest and most thorough account of the practical implications of apatheism as a full-fledged philosophy. Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, has noted that apatheism promises to be a helpful guiding principle in an increasingly secularized society. Moreover, there are glimmers of apatheistic beliefs in Enlightenment philosophers, such as Kant and Rousseau. So, in many ways, I am not covering wholly new ground.

At the same time, apatheism is undertheorized. No writer, to my knowledge, has yet to provide a precise definition of the philosophical position. While Hedberg has given an excellent defense of its pragmatic quality, we need a foundation from which to generate greater dialogue on what may prove to be an important subject in the coming decades.

To that end, my working definition of apatheism is as follows: Apatheism is the philosophical attitude of indifference, both public and private, to (1) the question of the existence of a deity, (2) the metaphysical and practical value of loyalty to that deity, and/or (3) the interaction of that deity with the natural world.

Because this is only a working definition, I will reserve a full explanation of it for other articles. But each component of this definition deserves a brief note:

a. Philosophical Attitude: As I discuss below, apatheism is not a claim to knowledge or belief. Rather, it is attitudinal: how does one feel about deity instead of how one thinks about deity. Apatheism treats these two sets of cognitive experiences as distinct.

b. Indifference: The root of apatheism is indifference. This is neither positive nor negative. Apatheism’s main thrust is to meet the various questions about deity with total disinterest. At the same time, apatheism does not have to be non-confrontational or passive. One can be aggressively indifferent or argue for normative reasons behind indifference. Indeed, apatheists might have every reason to defend and advocate for their position. But when it comes to belief in deity, an apatheist shrugs.

c. Public vs. Private: Apatheism can have both a public and private impact. As a political theorist, I see apatheism as both a highly individual attitude and a collective attitude of a community. Private apatheism is the apatheism that individuals display in their personal relationships: family, friends, colleagues, and so forth. Public apatheism is the apatheism that groups and states display in their communal relationships: citizens, corporations, governments, and so forth.

d. The “Three Prongs”: My definition includes three subjects — the “Three Prongs” — to which apatheism can be directed: the existence of a deity, loyalty to deity, and a deity’s interaction with the known universe. Each of the three subjects listed above is a matter to which apatheism may be directed. Not all three are required to “be an apatheist,” and an individual apatheist might display varying degrees of indifference to all or any of the three subjects. But each of the three subjects is a matter that is ripe for an apatheistic attitude.

III. The Logic of Apatheism

Given the above definitions, what distinguishes apatheism from some of the other “-theisms” that one might adopt? Is it just agnosticism by a different name? The answer to this question depends on the knowledge vs. attitude distinction discussed above.

Standard discussions of god and religious matters revolve around the degree of one’s belief. “Do you believe in god?” is often seen as the fundamental question in any would-be discussion of religion in private and public life. It does not require elaboration to point out that there are varying degrees of affirmative or negative responses to this question. They range along a first-dimensional spectrum, with agnosticism at the origin and forms of atheism on the left and deism or theism on the right (see Fig. 1). In each of these cases, these forms of belief have taken a position on matters of religion. Whereas atheism and theism take polar-opposite positions on these questions (no vs. yes), agnosticism denies that such knowledge is available at this time.

Fig. 1: A one-dimensional spectrum of knowledge claims about deity

Apatheism raises a completely different question that can operate as a second dimension interacting with the first. Instead of the question of knowledge, we might also ask, “How do you feel about god?” This is an attitudinal question that tests whether or not a person cares about religious matters at all. Apatheism might be best understood in relation to its opposite: zeal. Just as atheism and theism arrive at opposite conclusions concerning knowledge of deity, apatheism and zeal arrive at opposite conclusions about attitude. Zealotry likely needs no elucidation; you need only read the latest news story about sectarian conflict somewhere in the world to get a sense of what zealotry is. Apatheism is equally forceful in its indifference to matters of deity. Thus, a hard apatheist might take the negative position that “I do not care at all about matters of god,” while a zealot might take the positive position that “I care a great deal about matters of god.”

Note, though, that there is an interesting implication of treating apatheism/zeal as a second dimension. Because it is second-dimensional, apatheism (and its opposite, zeal) is consistent with the first-dimensional epistemic positions. For example, one could be an apatheistic atheist (“I know there isn’t a god, but I don’t care a great deal about such matters”) or an apatheistic theist (“I know there is a god, but I don’t care a great deal about such matters”). The reverse could also be true. One could be a zealot atheist (“I know there isn’t a god, and I care a great deal about such matters.”) or a zealot theist (“I know there is a god, and I care a great deal about such matters.”). These two dimensions, when combined, offer a very helpful rubric for understanding how claims of knowledge and attitudes interact with one another when a person discusses belief in deity.

The following graph (Fig. 2) gives a nice visual representation of what I mean. Visualizing both of these dimensions at once, we can begin to see how some groups might be categorized epistemically and attitudinally. These are not hard and fast categorizations. Rather, they are my effort to signal how these concepts relate to one another, with the idea that we will have more precision as we work through the definition sketched out above.

Fig. 2: A two-dimensional spectrum of knowledge claims about and attitudes toward deity

IV. Conclusion

As I have said, this article is only a sketch. In later articles, I intend to take a much deeper dive into the definition I have laid out above. I will also discuss the practical effects of apatheism, building on the work that Hedberg has already started. To reiterate, my overall goal in this project is to give an account of what I believe many individuals are feeling and are likely to feel as the topic of religious freedom continues to take up so much of our time — politically and culturally.