The State of Apatheism
Dr. James Emery White
- 2019 Jan 14
In the first ever “State of Theology” survey conducted in the UK, adults were asked what they believed about God, Jesus Christ and more. The headline? A third of all surveyed responded “I don’t know” to many of the questions.
For example, to the statement “There is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit,” 29% agreed, 39% disagreed and 32% replied “don’t know.”
Or consider this: “Biblical accounts of the physical (bodily) resurrection of Jesus are completely accurate. This event actually occurred.” Only 20% agreed, 46% disagreed and, again, 34% didn’t know.
Even more, 36%, didn’t know whether to agree or disagree with the statement “God counts a person as righteous not because of one’s own works, but only because of one’s faith in Jesus Christ.”
In fact, an article on the study concluded that “‘I don’t know’ was the top response to numerous questions about Jesus, sin, the Bible, salvation and other rudimentary theological concepts.”
“It’s actually tragic when you look at the survey and you see so many saying ‘I don’t know,’” Stephen Nichols, chief academic officer of Ligonier Ministries and president of Reformation Bible College, told Premier Christian Radio. “These aren’t just matters of life and death; these are matters of eternal life and eternal death. There can’t be any more consequential questions than the questions on this survey and so these ‘I don’t knows’ are really troubling.”
Yes, they are.
There are several responses that could be made to the seeming shrug of the shoulders toward theology. The most hopeful is, “Well, if they don’t know, let’s go tell them!” Yes, that would be the place to start. But it might be helpful to realize that there is more than mere ignorance at play. What if their “I don’t know” actually betrays a lack of interest, and not simply a lack of certainty? My sense is this would be the more accurate assessment.
There was an article in the Atlantic Monthly in which the author was describing his spiritual condition. Someone asked him about his religion. He was about to say “Atheist” when it dawned on him that this wasn’t quite accurate.
“I used to call myself an atheist,” he ended up responding, “and I still don’t believe in God, but the larger truth is that it has been years since I really cared one way or another. I’m (and this was when it hit him) an... apatheist!”
He then went on to describe his state as a “disinclination to care all that much about one’s own religion, and an even stronger disinclination to care about other people’s.”
But it’s what he wrote next that haunted me.
“I have Christian friends who organize their lives around an intense and personal relationship with God, but who betray no sign of caring that I am an unrepentantly atheistic Jewish homosexual. They are exponents, at least, of the second, more important part of apatheism: the part that doesn’t mind what other people think about God.”
And sadly, this seems an accurate reflection of our day. In a U.S. version of the same “State of Theology” study, to the statement, “It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior,” a mere 38% of American evangelicals strongly agreed.
So while there was widespread lament to the “I don’t know” headline of the survey, the greater lament should surround the greater headline, true of believers and non-believers alike:
“I don’t care.”
James Emery White
“The State of Theology,” TheStateofTheology.com, read online.
Griffin Paul Jackson, “Brits’ Top Response to Theology Questions? ‘Don’t Know.’” Christianity Today, November 23, 2018, read online.
Jonathan Rauch, “Let It Be,” The Atlantic Monthly, May 2003 Issue, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.