Religious Indifference

Author: Battista Mondin


Battista Mondin

The pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, reviewing from a phenomenological point of view the various forms of atheism, a word which "is used to signify things that differ considerably from one another", also contains this note: "There are also those who never enquire about God; religion never seems to trouble or interest them at all, nor do they see why they should bother about it" (n. 19). The phenomenon of religious indifference can be recognized in these words. It is perhaps—many people are inclined to think so today—the most widespread and, from some standpoints, the most serious form of unbelief.

Up to now, however, it has also been the form least studied. This is probably because, more than as a doctrine, even if a negative one with regard to religion, it appears as a personal attitude, and, what is more, almost an impalpable one. Hence the opportuneness and urgency of a more careful and thorough study of the phenomenon.

Indifference is a well-known psychological state of mind. It is clearly distinguished from ignorance as from rejection, from acceptance as from desire, from affirmation as from doubt. For example, a traveller on a train would like to smoke, and asks the others if he may do so. If there is a foreigner in the compartment who does not understand the language, he will look at the smoker with greater attention but will not answer either yes or no. As for the others, some will answer with consent or with refusal, and some passenger will be content to shrug or will pay no heed to the question. This last case is the attitude of indifference.

"Indifference", Antonio Grumelli rightly notes, "is characterized as disinterestedness and disaffection; the first term stresses mainly, even if not exclusively, the intellective aspect and the second one in the same way the volitive aspect. It is quite obvious, in fact, to recognize in the indifferent attitude a double element, one of which refers to the intellect and the other to the will".

Among the many definitions that have been given of religious indifference, I find particularly felicitous the one offered by Goblot in his Vocabolariofilosofico: "Indifference in the religious or philosophical field is the state of mind which does not pass judgment, which does not affirm and does not deny, either out of heedlessness, or out of scepticism.

The psychological foundation of indifference is freedom, which, as we know, is that sovereignty which man exercises over his own acts and things. Thanks to freedom man is his own master: free to do or not to do, to do this or to do that, to pursue this or that aim Animals are not indifferent because they are not free. They are driven by instinct to desire or to shun, to operate in one way or in another.

Priority of values

On the psychological plane man is endowed with absolute freedom: he is supreme with regard to any object and any action. To everything, he can say yes or no. Therefore he can assume the attitude of indifference to any person, thing or action.

On the moral and theological plane, on the contrary, human freedom is not absolute. it is ordained and conditioned by certain aims, such as the promotion of justice, peace, love and brotherhood. These aims determine the goodness of the choices that man makes. Therefore on the moral and theological plane indifference may take on various connotations: it can be good or bad, praiseworthy or reprehensible. For example, as regards the murder of Mr Moro or abortion, indifference is not permissible: on the moral plane these are crimes which must be severely condemned.

Among the various aims which man is called to fulfil in his life, two occupy the first place: the improvement of his own person and the glory of God. He is inclined almost instinctively to carry out the first one, because every creature is driven to persevere and progress in being.

As for the second one, the glory of God, the duty of fulfilling it is clear to the believer (who feels surrounded by the fatherly concern and infinite love of God). But must the same be said also of the non-believer? Are the atheist, the agnostic, the person who is indifferent, also bound to glorify God?

Also with regard to religious indifference as to atheism and agnosticism there are authors such as Scheler, Rahner, Tillich, Grühn, who question its existence. To their mind the psychical structure of man is such that it is never possible for it to break off with the Absolute. "Every man", Werner Grühn writes, "believes in God, and it does not matter whether he admits it or not. Radical (or "scientific") atheism is rather an artificial product of armchair speculation, a theoretical invention of some heads that are not always among the best".

But most scholars recognize that religious indifference is an incontrovertible fact which finds its psychological justification in that absolute freedom which is at man's disposal, thanks to which lie has also the possibility of driving God out of his own conscience and of "falling in love" with a finite good, putting it in God's place and treating it as if it were God.

But is this lack of attention and interest in God legitimate? Is it admissible?

From the century of Enlightenment onwards, religious indifference has been invoked as a sign of the intellectual maturity of modern man or as the condition to realize his perfect liberation. It was claimed that man had become, or that at least he was on the right way to become, completely self-reliant and self-sufficient, capable of solving all problems and of satisfying all desires, without having recourse to God. Consequently he could, and should, set him aside and behave as if he did not exist: etsi Deus non daretur.

But two centuries of history have shown the absurdity of this claim. Modern man, however more advanced and better equipped than all the men who have preceded him, has not only failed to solve any of his fundamental problems (justice, brotherhood, peace, happiness, pain, death, etc.) but he has made them even more acute and deep.

So it is more and more evident that indifference is not the blossoming of intellectual maturity but the consequence of superficiality and lack of judgment. So Augustine's testimony is still valid and relevant today: "Fecisti nos Domine ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te".

Evidence of History

On the philosophical and theological plane, therefore, there is no justification of religious indifference; whereas it is possible to enumerate a great many reasons of a cultural, historical, social, political, economic and even religious nature (such as the shortcomings and betrayals of believers and of the various religious institutions) which have fostered its development and spread. Among the reasons that have had most weight, scholars recall secularization, religious pluralism, the consumer society, prosperity, lay and laicizing culture, etc.

On the moral and theological plane, the attitude of religious indifference must not only be deemed unlawful and blameworthy, but considered attentively it is seen to be even more serious than atheism. The latter, in fact, implies a sensitiveness to the religious problem even if it solves it badly; indifference, on the contrary, denotes such deep mental obtusity that it cannot even perceive the existence of the problem. De Lamennais correctly writes: "Indifference... is systematic ignorance, it is a willful sleep of the soul, which exhausts its vigour in resisting its own thoughts and in struggling against inopportune memories; it is a universal lethargy of the moral faculties, an absolute absence of ideas on what, for man, is most worth knowing".

This is also the judgment of the Second Vatican Council. Gaudium et Spes iscategorical in affirming: "Without doubt those who willfully try to drive God from their heart and to avoid all questions about religion, not following the biddings of their conscience, are not free from blame" (n. 19).

But in formulating an ethical and theological judgement great attention must be paid to that willfully to which the text of Gaudium et Spes refers, since voluntariness is an essential requisite for moral and theological evaluation. Also in the case of religious indifference it is necessary to check if voluntariness is present. It will be seen that very often direct voluntariness does not exist, since the indifference is the fruit of the social, political and cultural environment.

We must be careful, however, not to administer too easily general absolutions from guilt and responsibility, because, as the same Gaudium et Spes declares: "man is continually being aroused by the Spirit of God and he will never be utterly indifferent to religion—afactproved 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" (n. 41).

For the tenth anniversary of its institution, the Secretariat for Non-Believers has dedicated an interesting volume to the problem of religious indifference, the main lines of which I have tried to define in this article. Its title is: L'indifferenza religiosa (Cittá Nuova, Roma 1978). Eminent scholars from Italy (Miano, Morra, Grumelli, De Rosa, Mezzadri) and abroad (Cottier, Defois, Faricy, Kumar Lal, Cuog) have collaborated in it.

The volume is presented as an interdisciplinary study—philosophico-theological, psycho-sociological and historical—with reference to related phenomena such as are those of secularization, agnosticism, systematic atheism, and with openings to problems of the apostolate and of spiritual life. Of great interest are the essays on the way in which the phenomenon of indifference occurs, in view of their specific nature, in non-Christian religions: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism.

Analysing the philosophical, historical and theological roots of religious indifference, we were able to see the extreme seriousness of this disease of the spirit. A great many authors rightly consider it even more serious than atheism itself. For in the case of indifference there is not the slightest sensitiveness to the religious problem, while in the case of atheism the perception of the problem of God persists in man, who has still the sensation of being pursued and tormented by the shadow of God.

The psychological condition of indifference being such, it is understandable that the agents of the apostolate are unable to find effective remedies against it. In fact there is no worse patient than he who ignores or pretends to ignore his own illness. On the other hand, just because it is a question of a very serious disease of the spirit, those who are spiritually healthy must endeavour with all their might to free those who are affected by it. In what way?

Treatment of diseases of the spirit is similar to that of diseases of the body. Now the remedies for the latter are always in proportion to the causes. Hence the enormous effort of medicine to discover the causes of the various diseases in order to prepare adequate treatments.

Sense of mystery

In the judgment of historians the cause that has contributed most to causing God to disappear from the consciences and minds of so many people and to spreading religious indifference, was the achievements of science and technique in the last two centuries. These marvellous achievements served not only to demolish a wrong image of God (the stop-gap God), but were also instrumentalized to cause God himself to disappear (death of God). In fact, on the one hand technico-scientific progress has fostered prosperity, the consumer society, attachment to the earth, immersion in this world. On the other hand it has brought forth in man a sense of security, maturity, self-sufficiency and the conviction that he is able to cope with all problems and all necessities by himself. In the world of nature, subjugated and manipulated by all kinds of machines, the marks of man became more and more evident, while the marks of God became less perceptible. Thus contemplation of nature gave way to its radical transformation by man.

This set of factors (technico-scientific progress, prosperity, the consumer society together with a strongly secularized culture, supported not infrequently by a policy decidedly hostile to religion and propagandized with those powerful mass media which have been invented in this century) has caused, especially in Europe and in America, lack of interest in, indifference to, and ignorance of God's presence, as also abandonment of the worship due to him.

Reality of God

Therefore if it is desired to defeat religious indifference, it is necessary in the first place to go back to the causes that produced it and where necessary eliminate them. Where it is not necessary to eliminate them (as in the case of technico-scientific progress, prosperity), one should show that they do not lead necessarily to the elimination of God, but that, on the contrary, they may even promote man's meeting with his Creator.

In the first place some serious prejudices must be dispelled. For example, the prejudice of Scientism, Technicalism, Enlightenment; that is, the prejudice that human reason is omnipotent, that it can explain everything and that it is capable of excogitating techniques able to solve all problems (including the problem of pain, hatred, injustice, selfishness, death, etc.). As a matter of fact, this prejudice, so widespread and deep-rooted from the French Revolution to the first World War, has been struck a hard blow in recent times. In the last few decades man has realized the limited powers of science and the highly dangerous nature of some products of technique. Thus he has become aware, on the one hand, that he is unable to solve some great mysteries which surround him and, on the other hand, that his inventions can turn against him and against nature itself.

Secondly, it is necessary to reawaken the sense of wonder in those who have lost the sense of the sacred and have fallen into religious indifference. According to Aristotle, the former is the fundamental condition of all seeking and therefore of all knowledge; it is, therefore, the primary condition that disposes man to listen to the voice of the mystery of being and the mystery of God. In nature there is an infinity of things and phenomena which cause amazement, which arouse surprise, which fascinate. The sight of the Alps was enough to make even Voltaire exclaim: "God exists!" But how many other great things (the galaxies, for example) or little things (such as the cell of the living being or also the organ of sight), if observed attentively, arouse admiration and call upon us to glorify the one who produced them.

To hit at religious indifference, it is necessary to sharpen the sense of wonder in man once more. A.J. Heschel is right when he writes: "Most of us are like moles that hide, and any waterway we meet is underground. Few are capable of rising in rare moments above their

own level. But it is in these moments that we discover that the essence of human existence consists in its being suspended between heaven and earth...The sensation of being suspended between heaven and earth is just as necessary in order to be moved by God as a place to stand was for Archimedes to move the earth. Absolute marvel is for understanding of the reality of God what clarity and distinction are for the understanding of mathematical ideas. Deprived of wonder, we remain deaf to the sublime" (A.J. Heschel, Dionella ricerca dell'uomo, Turin 1969, pp. 273-274).

To free the spirit again for the sense of wonder, contemporary man must be shaken out of the state of self-sufficiency, superficiality and torpor into which he let himself be swept during the period of secularization. A great many obtuse and sluggish consciences can be disturbed and awakened by appealing to the sense of dissatisfaction and disappointment that many people feel in the presence of the injustice, disorder, obsession and violence that are spreading in our society. Starting from these experiences, the question can be raised of the ultimate meaning of human life and of the ultimate meaning of the world and of history; it is at this point, perhaps, that the horizon of Transcendence may open up again.

Another way, recommended by many scholars, to break down religious indifference is that of the reproposal and rehabilitation of some fundamental values which the secularized culture of our time has set aside, or even stifled and eliminated; values such as love, sacrifice, generosity, justice, freedom, brotherhood, etc.; values which Jesus Christ realized better than any other character in history, and which the Church has the task of keeping alive throughout the centuries. Man obsessed with money, entertainment, pleasure, comfort, "having", must be brought to realize that these are not values; they are not ultimate purposes, but instruments, means, intermediate purposes.

Task of Church

If religious indifference is successfully broken down by means of the reawakening of the sense of wonder and by means of a renewed appreciation of fundamental values, the Christian can then go further and urge the person who was indifferent to give new attention to Christ's message. But for the presentation of this message to be effective, it must be expressed in a new language, a living language, a language that reflects the cultural form of our society. The language that the Church continues to use, has become incomprehensible, at least for many environments: it is a language of other times and other cultures. This renewal of religious language is recommended also by Evangelii Nuntiandi (n. 63): "The individual churches... have the task of assimilating the essence of the Gospel message and of transposing it, without the slightest betrayal of its essential truth, into the language that these particular people understand, then of proclaiming it in this language".

Power of example

There is, however, mother way, which is not added to the others in a subsequent phase; it must be present from the beginning and alone can amply replace most of them. It is the way of witness. The latter can shake religious indifference and arouse new interest in the things of God. Jesus himself shook the environment that surrounded him, an environment which was often cold and mistrustful; and he won over his disciples more with his works than with his words. The Saints too (St Francis, St Philip Neri, St John Bosco, etc.) vanquished religious indifference by becoming living and fascinating expressions of divine reality.

The most effective medicine against indifference is certainly this: holiness.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
27 July 1978, page 9

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