Indifferentism is a philosophical position that all other philosophical opinions, religious systems, ethical systems, and political ideologies are essentially equal in truth or falsehood and thus are all equally valuable — or useless. This definition of indifferentism is general and applies to ideologies of all sorts, but in practice indifferentism is often restricted to just religious matters. Religious indifferentism has at times been common at various time and in different places in the West.
Indifferentism & Tolerance
Indifferentism is distinct from mere tolerance which allows for differences of opinion even if they are deemed untrue by those in power. Religious indifferentism is distinct from irreligious atheism because the latter typically rejects religion as untrue and even harmful. Religious indifferentism also isn't the same as religious neutrality where the state is committed to not taking sides in theological disputes.
Religious indifferentism has become a powerful element in America today, though that particular label isn't used. We find it whenever people argue, explicitly or implicitly, that it doesn't matter what religion, church, or sect you belong to so long as you are religious and do have religious structure in your life.
Viewed critically, the position is that it doesn't matter what you believe so long as you believe in something. Those who advocate this are said by critics to "believe in belief" — they themselves don't always even believe, but want others to believe.
We can see this idea of indifferentism at work in other ages as well. Michael J. Baxter writes in The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology
In the Catholic theology of the time, indifferentism was the notion that it does not make any dif- ference which church one belongs to so long as one lives a good life, the assumption being that there is no true church, in the sense of an organized body founded by God for the salvation of humanity.
Indifferentism & Catholicism
Indifferentism has been a subject of concern with all Christian churches, though the Catholic Church as invested the most time criticizing it. In 1832, Pope Gregory XVI wrote the encyclical Mirari Vos, to condemn freedom of worship:
This shameful font of indifferentism gives rise to that absurd and erroneous proposition which claims that liberty of conscience must be maintained for everyone. It spreads ruin in sacred and civil affairs, though some repeat over and over again with the greatest impudence that some advantage accrues to religion from it. ‘But the death of the soul is worse than freedom of error,’ as Augustine was wont to say.
When all restraints are removed by which men are kept on the narrow path of truth, their nature, which is already inclined to evil, propels them to ruin. Then truly ‘the bottomless pit’ is open from which John saw smoke ascending which obscured the sun, and out of which locusts flew forth to devastate the earth.
Thence comes transformation of minds, corruption of youths, contempt of sacred things and holy laws – in other words, a pestilence more deadly to the state than any other. Experience shows, even from earliest times, that cities renowned for wealth, dominion, and glory perished as a result of this single evil, namely immoderate freedom of opinion, license of free speech, and desire for novelty.
Indifferentism and the Syllabus of Errors
On December 2, 1864, Pope Pius IX issued his encyclical Quanta Cura which included one of the most infamous papal documents of all time, the Syllabus of Errors. In the Syllabus Pius IX condemned 80 errors. John W. O’Malley writes in A History of the Popes: From Peter to the Present:
Condemned were rationalism, religious indifferentism, atheism, socialism, communism, Protestant Bible societies, secret societies, divorce, separation of church and state, the idea that the church ought not have temporal power, and many other aberrations. The final condemnation of the Syllabus brought it to a resounding and famous conclusion: “That the Roman Pontiff can and should reconcile himself and make peace with progress, with Liberalism, and with modern culture.”
Catholic condemnation of indifferentism continues today. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Agnosticism can sometimes include a certain search for God, but it can equally express indifferentism, a flight from the ultimate question of existence, and a sluggish moral conscience. Agnosticism is all too often equivalent to practical atheism.
According to the Encyclopedia of Catholicism, the Code of Canon Law permits Catholics to receive Communion in non-Catholic churches under the following conditions:
- when there is necessity or genuine spiritual advantage (e.g., intermarriage between a Catholic and a Syrian Orthodox);
- when the danger of error or indifferentism is avoided;
- when it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister (e.g., when traveling); and
- at a church that has valid sacraments.
Indifferentism and Modern America
It's ironic that whereas Indifferentism was once specifically condemned by Christian theologians, it has become a matter of political faith for so many Christians in America. Part of the irony is that secular atheists today are probably closer in their perspective to Gregory than to many liberal Christians.
Secular atheists would agree that truth is vitally important and that we shouldn't regard a person's beliefs or ideology as irrelevant. Few atheists would agree with suppressing views they consider false, but they would agree that philosophical indifference is absurd.