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Priorities or Apatheism? – Bishop Martin, School Chaplain

Dear Parents, Guardians, Members of Staff and Friends,

A Jewish Rabbi was approached by a boy’s mother. She was so worried that he didn’t believe in God. ‘Rabbi. Please help me. How do I persuade my boy to believe in God? I’m really worried that he will suffer now and when he’s old and dies without belief.’ The Rabbi invited the mother to bring her boy to see him. The Rabbi asked the boy: ‘What’s this I hear about you that you don’t believe in God? Your mother is worried.” “I’m not really worried whether I believe or not,” replied the boy rather boldly.  The Rabbi smiled but didn’t respond, asking the boy to wait outside while he spoke to his mother. “Well, Rabbi, did you persuade him?” “I don’t really know, but I doubt it,” said the Rabbi rather casually and added, “The boy’s not worried about whether he believes or not. Frankly, neither is God worried about whether the boy believes or not! God’s too busy with acts of love throughout the world.”

Jewish stories about Rabbis abound, of course. What this story does is to highlight, for me at any rate, one of the problems that I worry about too much. Habits, some might describe them as disciplines, of ‘going to Church’ are slipping away, including in what are deeply religious cultures. Evangelical Churches, on the other hand, are undoubtedly attracting ‘followers’, including among the under 40s. If you go to Exeter Cathedral, often the youngest people present are our choristers followed closely by other singers and musicians, followed by the clergy. Congregations now consist largely of older people, with notable exceptions among a few young families who bring their children – and in term time, chorister-parents.

This fading habit may largely come down to life-style choices, where Sundays are busy times for friends and family, or indeed work. Further, if you attend a concert of classical music, again the performers will be among the youngest present, while the audiences are largely made of the retired or nearly retired, again with notable exceptions among relatives and friends of the performers. This picture may suggest that if belief is held by the majority of the population, attending a church, temple, synagogue, chapel, gurdwara or mosque, is no longer a priority. One of the effects of this might be that fewer are exposed to the ‘story’ of their religious culture. One such story [or ‘library’ of stories, poetry and history] that receives less and less attention is the Bible. There’s a diminishing understanding of how a particular religious discipline expresses its belief or worship. For Christianity, one of the consequences of this is that fewer assumptions can be made even among many of the Exeter Cathedral School pupils than used to be the case.

To describe these circumstances in terms of ‘ignorance’ doesn’t help, in my view. It seems to me, and you may disagree loudly, that it’s not a case of some believe and some don’t. Increasingly, whether there is belief of indeed atheism is no longer of much significance. After all, you have to believe a great deal to be an atheist! [Atheism is the considered belief that there is no ‘divine’ element, aspect, or presence…. Thus, it is a creed!]. The word used for being disinterested in both belief or non-belief is ‘apatheism’. As with ‘ignorance’ the word ‘apatheism’ seems to me to be judgemental and dismissive. ‘Agnosticism’ is different, resulting from an attitude of careful thinking and reflecting on religious belief or spirituality and living with uncertainties that arise from ‘not knowing’. Agnostics in these terms, I greatly admire. There is a huge amount of that uncertainty in myself! Then there’s a turning away from belief because of hurt, rejection and in far too many cases, abuse.

There are many people who would dissociate themselves from ‘belief’ in the Divine, but nevertheless attend Cathedral or other church liturgies, because of the music, literature, beauty or maybe habit. Indeed, they might even join in with the saying of The Creed, because of its language and its many layers of metaphors.

The gradual diminution of familiarity with the ‘story’ of Christianity that has been foundational in the U.K. is sad because it dilutes what values we can have in common and maintain. Yes, there is a massive market in spiritual self-development systems, many of which are useful and indeed important. However, many are uncoupled from the stories and cultures from where they sprung.

I have a suggestion for you. Many of you will have come across books published by Dorling Kindersley. One superb volume, created and edited by John Bowker is called ‘A Handbook of the Bible’. It’s beautifully illustrated and set out. What’s more, it is now available in paperback. Perhaps you might consider investing in the book and have it, if not by your deck chair in the garden, maybe in a place that you can dip into regularly. Values have roots.

You have my blessing and prayers,

Bishop Martin
School Chaplain

22 June 2022
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