Reaching the Spiritually Indifferent: An Interview With Matt Nelson
In his new book Just Whatever, Catholic apologist and Word on Fire Blog contributor Matt Nelson says that religious indifference is the great spiritual sickness of our age—a product of the relativism that dominates modern culture. In its place he offers a compelling vision of a world in which it matters what you believe, who you worship, and where authentic truth and authority reside.
Jared Zimmerer recently interviewed Matt about his new book, his reversion to Catholicism, and the cause of religious indifference today.
1. Just Whatever is all about helping the spiritually indifferent find beliefs that really matter. What inspired you to write a book addressing the problem of indifference?
For starters, it was clear to me that this was a major issue in today’s society that needed to be addressed more pointedly. New, high quality studies on North America’s religious landscape were coming forth (by the Pew Forum, for instance) that were indicating a rise of the “religiously unaffiliated.” People no longer seemed to care about identifying (even nominally) with any religion whatsoever. Moreover, I could see for myself that religious (or spiritual) indifference was becoming ever more prevalent among my colleagues, friends, and family.
But aside from all of this “data” I was also acutely aware of my own struggle to make sense of religion as a young adult. I returned to the Catholic Church eight years ago, but before that I was an indifferentist myself. I just didn't see a lot to be desired in “organized religion.” Reflecting on my own experiences and the current state of our de-religionized culture, I felt a book offering some solutions needed to be written—so that’s what I tried to do!
2. You are a re-vert to Catholicism. Tell us a little bit about your personal experience with indifference.
Sure. Let me start by saying that I was raised in a good, loving Catholic family. Unfortunately, in university, Catholicism drifted off my radar as I succumbed to the pressures of the “live and let live” campus culture. I eventually began to question fundamental doctrines like the divinity of Christ and the personal nature of God. I essentially adopted a Godless life focused largely on pleasure and convenience.
Yet, I retained a stubborn sense of spirituality through all of this—although I was not altogether sure of what exactly I believed in. I had a “sense” of spirituality but no real convictions. On some days I found deism (believe in an impersonal creator) most attractive; on other days I was more inclined towards a pantheistic but providential, New Age spirituality. And once in a blue moon, I found myself re-intrigued by aspects of Catholicism.
On most days, however, I lived as though I was an atheist. Spiritually, none of my fleeting inclinations ever transformed into convictions deep enough to effect any significant religious commitment. I was “spiritual but not religious,” as they say.
3. You describe your experience as “spiritual but not religious” and your subsequent conversion in greater detail in the book. But Just Whatever is also a practical “manual of apologetics” for evangelizing the indifferent. Let’s talk a bit about that. First, what do you mean by religious indifference?
I think we can look at religious indifference as the failure to, first, think seriously about religion and, second, 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 should be a primary focus when evangelizing the indifferent. Just Whatever was written to help with this.
But in reality, religious indifference appears in varying degrees and forms, depending on individual circumstances. In the book, I zero in on three common sub-types of indifference seen in our modern culture. In the first section, I explore ways of evangelizing closed religious indifferentists, or people who have an extreme closed-mindedness towards religion. These are usually atheists or some kind of skeptic who believes that all religions are equally irrelevant or useless.
The second section focuses on strategies for evangelizing open indifferentists. Whereas closed indifferentists have a “nothing goes” attitude towards religions, open indifferentists hold an “anything goes” attitude. Relativism is usually the underlying philosophy here. Open indifferentists believe that all religions are equally good and acceptable. They deny that there is any one, true religion. Open indifferentists tend to exalt Jesus as a great moral teacher while reducing him to something less than God, putting him on par with spiritual masters like Buddha or the Dalai Lama.
The third major section of the book deals with denominational indifference. This involves a relativistic or “hand-waving” attitude towards doctrinal differences among Christian denominations. It essentially amounts to a non- or even anti-ecumenical spirit, characterized by a kind of suspicion towards the serious discussion of doctrinal disagreements among Christians.
4. What do you attribute as the cause of religious indifference in our modern times?
While there are many factors to consider, the one that I believe is at the heart of the matter is a radical sense of autonomy that is being bred so deeply by our modern secular culture.
Modern digital capabilities coupled with moral relativism have placed so much power (and so many choices) at the individual’s fingertips that many have developed a false sense of self-sufficiency. Extreme individualism is rampant. We rely on others—and the authority of others—less than ever before. Cardinal Sarah has been a voice against this modern issue. He writes in his book God or Nothing, “Man no longer wishes to reflect upon his relationship with God because he himself intends to become God.”
Unfortunately, human beings are easily tempted by an inordinate desire to make themselves like God. In other words, we want to save ourselves. As the esteemed author, artist, and cultural critic Michael O’Brien has assessed, far too many today have “succumbed to the belief that man will save himself when sufficient knowledge and energy are applied to the human condition.” O’Brien suggests that this “intrinsic perversity” has overtaken the Western world.
But this sort of temptation is nothing new, really. It has been nipping at our heels since the beginning, evident in Adam and Eve’s desire to eat from the tree of knowledge so they might “be like God” (Gen. 3:5). What is unique is how today’s post-Christian culture, more than any other before it, enables us to act on this primitive temptation.
5. The last section of Just Whatever is titled “Solutions.” Tell us about this section of your book.
Let me first say that I don’t claim to have the silver bullet when it comes to evangelizing the indifferent. I do, however, provide some potential approaches to fixing this problem. As I say in the book, the opposite of a religious indifferentist is not necessarily a believer. Many atheists are not indifferent towards religious questions and pursue religious truth with a sincere zeal. I myself have come to deeply respect many atheists as thinkers—philosophers like Antony Flew, J.L. Mackie, Graham Oppy, Thomas Nagel, Quentin Smith, and Jordan Howard Sobel. But in regards to indifferentists, our task as evangelists is “convert” indifferentists, not immediately to believers (although that would be nice), but to honest seekers of spiritual truth. That’s what the opposite of an indifferentist is: an honest seeker.
What solutions do I offer? I turn primarily to Pascal for that. No one, I think, has thought more deeply about religious indifference in our modern period of history than the seventeenth-century scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal. This is evident in his classic Pensées. I reference and discuss his thoughts throughout Just Whatever, and I explore his method for evangelizing the indifferent in the “Solutions” part of the book.
In short, Pascal offers a three-step approach that goes something like this:
1. Show that faith and reason are complimentary.
2. Make people wish Catholicism were true. Make it attractive.
3. Show them that it is true.
I think this plan makes a lot of sense, provided we understand the more preliminary importance of asking good questions and actively listening. Aside from using this strategy as an immediate solution, I also suggest that parents take a more active approach in preparing their children for the secular culture they have been born into. In fact, parents themselves would be wise to follow Pascal’s three steps in the formation of their children. To assist in this process, parents should be introducing their children to Catholic apologetics early, as well as the rich intellectual and artistic tradition of Christianity: to Augustine, Newman, Chesterton, Lewis, Palestrina, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Michaelangelo, Giotto, Dante, Hopkins, Donne, and so on. And more than that they should introduce their children to the entire Western tradition. They could start, perhaps, by considering John Senior’s The Thousand Good Books. And of course, parents should take their own continual formation seriously, staying close and connected to the Word on Fire movement and the likes.
Above all, we should not despair in these challenging times. Evangelization has never been easy in any age of the Church. I don’t think it is supposed to be. We all would do well to remember the optimistic words that have come to us from the fathers of the Second Vatican Council:
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 (Gaudium et Spes, 41).