Mar 30, 2015

Campus, Reach

Apatheism: The New Religion on Campus

Tim Casteel writes about “apatheism,” the new religion on campus, and what that means for collegiate ministry leaders.

On our campus we are finding an increasing number of students who are apatheistic, some even labeling themselves as such.

According to, an apatheist is “a person who regards the question of the existence or non-existence of a god or gods to be essentially meaningless and irrelevant.”

The term was first coined by Jonathan Rauch in an article for The Atlantic. He described apatheists in this way: “Most of these people believe in God (professed atheists are very rare in the United States); they just don’t care much about him.”

This apatheism is particularly prevalent among college students. Thom Rainer in his book The Millennials found that “Non-Christian Millennials are neither antagonistic nor receptive toward Christianity, they are largely indifferent.”

Why is this apathetic view towards God so prevalent among college students?

In his book Souls in Transition, Christian Smith provides careful research that presents a fascinating view into the minds of college students and what drives their lives.

So what drives college students, what do they organize their life around?

The short answer: Themselves. 

The fuller answer reveals that they have:

  • A driving focus
  • A long term goal
  • And thus the (perceived) irrelevance of religion/God:

Driving Focus = Standing on One’s Own

Smith describes this focus as central and fundamental for nearly all emerging adults. They want to “stand on their own two feet.” He writes, “Life’s major challenge for them is transitioning from dependence to independence, from reliance on others to self-sufficiency, from being under others’ authority and eye to living on their own.”

Long Term Goal = Materially Comfortable Life

A majority of emerging adults, including the students on your campus, have a long-term goal of obtaining a materially comfortable life. According to Smith, when asked about their life goals and dreams, “Nearly all of them replied with some version of the same essential answer: finish education, get a good job, marry, have children, buy a nice house with a yard, raise a family, become financially secure, drive reliable cars, enjoy family vacations, enjoy good relationships, maybe have a dog.” Very few talked about making an impact on the world around them.

Unfortunate, all too common by-product of those two: Religion is irrelevent to life right now

Most college students are not antagonistic to Christianity, just uninterested, seeing it as something that is rather irrelevant to their life right now. One student summed it up well: “I’m not really involved with that type of thinking [religion] right now. I’m really involved in my life and where I’m heading right now,” (Souls in Transition).

This quote from Smith explains where the rubber meets the road for apatheists:

“Emerging adults are primarily dedicated in this phase of their lives to achieving their own financial, identity and household independence from their parents. Serious religious faith and practice do not necessarily directly conflict with that mission, but they are not crucial or intrinsic to it either.

Those three things – two things they organize their life around, and one (religion) that they don’t – HAVE to affect how we do ministry. A student’s focus has to be transferred from self to God. They are not “captain of my ship, master of my soul.” They have to be shown a greater purpose.

But the third point is what it all rests on – how do you even get your foot in the door (to talk about 1&2) when Joe Freshmen you’re talking to dismisses you out of hand because he’s not buying what you’re selling? Your message is irrelevant to him.

Next week, I’ll tackle more of the “how to” in getting past the perceived irrelevance of God on campus. Stay tuned for “Apatheism: Getting Past Irrelevance.”

I would LOVE to hear any thoughts you have. How do you overcome this perceived irrelevance?


about the author

Tim Casteel