The philosopher Immanuel Kant said that all of philosophy aims to answer three basic questions: What can I know? What can I do? What may I hope? He then linked these three questions to three more: Does God exist? Is man free? Is there life after death?
The failure to take seriously life’s biggest questions—all of which are inherently religious—is one of the most unflattering characteristics of our day. Of all the great civilizations that have ever existed, ours “is the first that does not have to teach its citizens any answer to the question why they exist,” laments Peter Kreeft. “As society grows, it knows more and more about less and less. It knows more about the little things and less about the big things.”
How can we evangelize in such a spiritually indifferent culture?
The first step is to understand the problem.
When I was in my early twenties, I suffered from a wicked bout of spiritual restlessness. After a couple years of university, my Catholic upbringing had lost much of its hold on me. But although I was no longer attending Mass or receiving the sacraments—or living my life as though God existed—I was still open to the idea of something like God existing “out there.”
On some days I leaned towards a deistic view of God—the idea that a divine power had created the world but was no longer present to it. On other days I was swayed towards pantheism, the “everything is God” view that is characteristic of New Age thought. And still on other days I felt a pull, however slight and brief, towards the Catholic faith of my youth. Spiritually, I was all over the spectrum.
Not one of these fleeting attractions, however, ever amounted to a conviction. The problem was not that no case could be made for those worldviews. The problem was that I failed to take any of them seriously enough to consider the case for or against. Instead I was like a child, “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14).
I think we can look at religious indifference in just that way: the failure to 1) think seriously about religion and 2) to give God his due. One failure is intellectual and the other is practical. But, since will follows reason, most people won’t give God his due if they’re not even thinking seriously about him. What we choose follows what we know. Thus, the intellectual component is primary.
Since our minds are naturally ordered toward truth, to be indifferent to the most persistent human questions about reality is an unnatural way to live. Whether we like it or not, it matters whether God exists—and it matters what kind of God exists. It matters whether we are free or not. It matters whether heaven and hell really await our choosing. Many of our ordinary assumptions—like the existence of free will or of objective morality—hinge on how these questions are answered. “All our actions and thoughts,” reflects Pascal in his Pensées, “must follow such different paths, according to whether there is hope of eternal blessings or not.”
Catholic philosopher Robert Sokolowski contends that it is at the core of man’s nature to desire the truth of things. This desire, he says, “is very deep in us, more basic than any particular desire or emotion. We are made human by it, and it is there in us to be developed well or badly.” Our appetite for truth, then, is not optional—it makes us what we are.
That is why religious indifference is so crippling. It is like ignoring your hunger for food and not eating because you “don’t feel like it.” Ignore it long enough and it may become numbed, but such desensitization will not prevent the ensuing weakness, sickness, and death—it will only mask their approach.
How did we become so indifferent towards humanity’s most persistent questions? Surely there are many reasons, but a big one may be the rise of “smart” technology and its impact on how we see ourselves and others. Psychology professor Jean Twenge notes that the generation born in the mid-1990s and after—what she calls the iGen—has never known a time before the internet and smartphone. According to her research, not only is this generation the most digitally connected; it is also the least religious generation in U.S. history.
Given all that modern technology does for us, it should be no surprise that people are becoming more and more convinced of their own self-sufficiency. Such radicalized autonomy makes it easy to accept the illusion that we are masters of our own world. We rely on others—and the authority of others—less than ever before. The temptation to “be as gods” has been around since Eden, but no culture has ever made a sense of omnipotence easier to attain. Who needs God and his rules when we can be gods and make up our own?
“The most deadly poison of our times is indifference,” wrote St. Maximilian Kolbe. But although the problem is urgent, it is not insurmountable. For one thing, the Catholic Church is a seasoned veteran when it comes to facing cultural resistance to its mission: it always finds a way to persevere against the odds and get the job done. And of course, the Church’s mission of making disciples has the almighty power of Christ behind it, and it will until the end of the age.
We must remember, too, that even the most hopeless indifferentist is never a total write-off. His nature can never totally shed its thirst for truth and, more importantly God never ceases to draw him into all truth (John 16:13). As the Second Vatican Council declared in Gaudium et Spes:
Man is continually being aroused by the Spirit of God and he will never be utterly indifferent to religion—a fact proved by the experiences of ages past and plentiful evidence at the present day. For man will ever be anxious to know, if only in a vague way, what is the meaning of his life, his activity, and his death. The very presence of the Church recalls these problems to his mind. The most perfect answer to these questionings is to be found in God alone, who created man in his own image and redeemed him from sin (41).
This is all good news, but it's not the only reason for hope. There are practical things that we can do in our witness to others that will help them respond to God's prompting and bravely seek the answers they long to know. By leading with open questions, open ears, and a patient tongue, and by challenging them to face with seriousness the true costs of their apathy over life's Biggest Questions, you can engage the indifferent effectively. After all, they're not dead—they're just asleep. With the right tools, you can awaken them from their spiritual slumber.
Matt Nelson's new book, Just Whatever: How to Help the Spiritually Indifferent Find Beliefs that Really Matter, is available for pre-order from Catholic Answers Press.