I think that it is fair to say that most atheists have reasons for not believing in gods. There are intellectual reasons aplenty for not believing that I will look at in the coming weeks. There are some who do not believe because of the way they were brought up or educated, or because they have simply adopted the beliefs of the culture in which they grew up. The same is probably true of many Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, etc.
Other atheists choose atheism because they just feel that atheism is right. The intellectual reasons either escape them or simply don’t matter because they follow their feelings that atheism is the right choice. Perhaps they looked into other faiths and couldn’t decide which one suited them most and so decided on none. Again I strongly suspect that the same is true for many people of faith who hold their beliefs because they just seem right to them.
There is another group though who are labelled as apatheists. Apatheists or people who are apathetic with regards to religion choose atheism as a default option. Rather they don’t choose at all, they simply don’t care one way or the other about or for questions of religion.
I don’t mind admitting that I find the idea of apatheists more than a little unsettling. How can people not care? For me a key event that triggered my own exploration of religion and rejection of many aspects of it was the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001. In that case religion was used as a force for evil (and I don’t use the word lightly) to motivate people into attacking the West. The reaction to this from religious groups helped to cement my views. These views though are more about religion than about the existence or non-existence of God or gods. Turned away from religion I explored the matter of existence from an intellectual view point. Finding no compelling reason I am an atheist. For other people 9/11 drew them into a faith a cemented their ties with a religion, perhaps they drew strength from their faith where I saw only division. One thing 9/11 did was to prompt people to decide on faith.
Yet to have people who just don’t care strikes me as callous and more than a little odd. Was 2001 really so long ago that people have forgotten about it? Were the events so far removed from their lives that they’ve been able to dismiss them as unimportant? I do not understand it and I do not feel that it is right. Yet it must be the default position for anyone who comes into this world.
A child is born with no knowledge of religion and is taught all that they later know about the gods or God, about faith and about the organisations that are built on these viewpoints. By my definition of atheism, that it is a lack of belief in God or gods, a child has had no chance to believe or not. They fail to believe because they do not know that there is a choice. These are not atheists but apatheists. Once apprised of the facts they can choose to believe in one faith or none and can choose their own reasons for doing so. To remain uncommitted is not something that makes sense to me.
I should point out that apatheist here is a different stance than agnosticism. An agnostic has explored the ideas of faith and no faith and decided that they haven’t got enough information to choose. The information is not quite compelling one way or the other. They are not indifferent but intellectually honest. Being unable to know in the true sense of the word they wait patiently for a juicy piece of evidence or reasonable argument that may sway them. This is not a lack of interest or a path of ignorance but a balancing act of competing ideas. Atheism answers the question of belief and agnosticism answers the question of knowledge. They are not on the same scale of belief.
Perhaps an apatheist is simply exercising the same lack of interest in God that they see God exercising in them. Now there’s an idea, if a callous one.
I originally wrote this for Off The Map – Atheist in 2009 as part of a series explaining why I lacked belief in gods.