Do you know someone who isn’t exactly hostile to God and religion, but just doesn’t seem to care much about them one way or the other?
Such a person exhibits religious indifference: the failure to think seriously about religion and, accordingly, to give God his due.
This is a general definition, but in real life indifference occurs in a variety of forms and to varying degrees. One common form of indifference involves a failure to take religion seriously due to disbelief in a personal, present God. Such disbelief leads the indifferentist to treat all religious beliefs and behaviors as absurd since God—whatever he may be—cannot know (or care) what we do in this life.
This radical closed-mindedness towards religion that results from such skepticism is called closed indifference.
Not every unbeliever is a closed indifferentist. Some skeptics take religious claims very seriously. This was notably evident in the twentieth century, before the rise of the New Atheism. Atheist philosopher J.L. Mackie, for example, made an honorable attempt at rebutting theistic arguments when he published The Miracle of Theism in 1982. Many theistic philosophers took his philosophical charges against the classical arguments for God’s existence seriously then—and still do today.
Mackie was not alone. Antony Flew, one of the most prominent philosophers of the twentieth century, was respected by believers and unbelievers alike. Indeed, Flew took the arguments against and for God so seriously that at the turn of the millennium—despite his first-rate philosophical contribution to atheistic thought—he would ultimately argue himself into deism, finding himself rationally unable to reject the existence of God. In a discussion in 2004 with Christian professor Gary Habermas, Flew said:
I don’t believe in the God of any revelatory system, although I am open to that. But it seems to me that the case for an Aristotelian God who has the characteristics of power and also intelligence is now much stronger than it ever was before. And it was from Aristotle that Aquinas drew the materials for producing his Five Ways.
Aristotle’s first cause argument for God so impressed Flew that it led him to theism, even though, he insisted, his “discovery of the Divine has proceeded on a purely natural level, without any reference to supernatural phenomena. . . a pilgrimage of reason and not of faith.”
Catholics everywhere, like Flew, have also found the Aristotelean approach to arguing for God—especially as developed later by St. Thomas Aquinas—to be deeply compelling. Richard Dawkins, on the other hand, would beg to differ. Consider the following remarks in The God Delusion, which are representative of all-out dismissal of St. Thomas’s philosophical case for God:
Even if we allow the dubious luxury of arbitrarily conjuring up a terminator to an infinite regress and giving it a name, simply because we need one, there is absolutely no reason to endow that terminator with any of the properties normally ascribed to God: omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, creativity of design.
In only a few pages, Dawkins attempts to reduce to mere rubbish —or at least ridicule—Aquinas’s classic Five Ways, and his related arguments for the divine attributes. But as other critics have pointed out, one can hardly take seriously this four-page attempt to take down one of Western civilization’s greatest philosophers. If Dawkins wants to take a serious stab at heavy hitters like Aristotle and Aquinas, so be it—but he should at least try. We should not take Dawkins seriously, except for the fact that many armchair skeptics today have done so.
Such dishonest caricaturing is symptomatic of closed indifference; and the intellectual apathy it betrays has upset even fellow unbelievers—such as philosopher and atheist Michael Ruse, who writes:
[U]nlike the new atheists, I take scholarship seriously. I have written that The God Delusion made me ashamed to be an atheist and I meant it. Trying to understand how God could need no cause, Christians claim that God exists necessarily. I have taken the effort to try to understand what that means. Dawkins and company are ignorant of such claims and positively contemptuous of those who even try to understand them, let alone believe them. Thus, like a first-year undergraduate, he can happily go around asking loudly, “What caused God?” as though he had made some momentous philosophical discovery.
How do we awaken the closed indifferentists? The solution could be as simple as re-introducing arguments for God’s existence and inviting the spiritually indifferent into a serious discussion. It could be that many closed indifferentists have simply never heard a proper explanation of such proofs before. Antony Flew admitted, after his conversion to deism, “I was not a specialist on Aristotle. . . . I was reading parts of his philosophy for the first time.” It is easy to assume non-believers have heard more than they have.
It could also be the case that, in addition to never hearing a clear and rational case for belief in God, many indifferentists have never been challenged to give an account for their own skepticism. As the respected atheist philosopher Quentin Smith observes, “The great majority of naturalist philosophers have an unjustified belief that naturalism is true and unjustified belief that theism (or supernaturalism) is false.”
We might also remind closed indifferentists of the costs of their beliefs. Many skeptics are strict materialists, for example—they believe in nothing outside of physical reality. This obviously rules out God, angels, and the like. But this also means that mental thoughts, for instance, amount to nothing more than a kind of secretion of the brain. It also means that we have, to quote biologist Anthony Cashmore, no more free will than a bowl of sugar. This calls into question whether we can really be responsible for our actions—a line of reasoning most closed indifferentists probably haven’t considered.
Since God has placed in our hearts a hunger for him and his truth, I would like to think that, deep down, every human being has in interest in religious questions—like those regarding the meaning of life, morality, and life after death. Our evangelical task, therefore, is first and foremost to show that we are willing to take the indifferentist’s thoughts and questions seriously and, second, to be prepared to give a compelling account for the hope that is within us. We plant the seeds. God takes care of the rest.
Want to help the spiritually indifferent people in your life? Matt's forthcoming book, Just Whatever, can help!