Anti-Intellectualism

I noticed a posting by my fellow priest Fr Jonathan Munn – Biblical Balderdash on the question of Christians who call themselves “Bible-believing”. I have tended to beat a drum about fundamentalism and other “diseased” forms of religion, and was tempted to make a comparison with certain twentieth-century political ideologies. That idea usually goes down like a lead balloon, because the reference points of comparison I use are usually not understood by others. Fr Jonathan rightly laments the tendency towards an anti-intellectual Christianity that seeks infallibility in the Pope, the Bible or any other perceived authority. The Leader is always right, as the slogan ran in Italian and German. He is a mathematician, which I am not (my difficulty with some categories of abstracts), and someone who reasons logically and has a keen sense of the rational. He relates to numbers and abstract logical concepts, and I more with language and words.

The theme is the old one – faith and reason, fides et ratio, a balance between our belief in revealed mysteries and the transcendent, on one hand, and using our intelligence as we relate to the things we know and discover. We do not have the right to abdicate our intelligence in order to submit to some of the most moronic ideas that pass for Christianity.

I read Fr Jonathan’s article, and did not comment here, because I thought he had just about said all there was to say. Then I found this: The cult of ignorance in the United States: Anti-intellectualism and the “dumbing down” of America. I assume the author of this article is himself an American. People are “airheads”, not because they are Americans but because there are big problems in the notion of education and the upbringing of children. Europeans are deeply sceptical about the claims of Christianity, be it Protestant or Catholic. Americans cultivate their naiveness, which I might have been tempted to perceive as entering the Kingdom of Heaven “as a child”. There is a real problem. Naturally, there are many excellent American scholars who study all the disciplines of science, art, literature, philosophy, history and every other. Where can the generalisations fit?

I don’t know anything about the American educational system, so I won’t comment on that front. We English often unkindly joke about the thinnest books in the world, for example: Italian Heroes, American Culture, English Cooking, German Humour, French Hospitality, etc. The article, if I can believe it, gives me some idea about the shocking reality. Here are some astounding facts:

77% didn’t know that George Washington was the first President; couldn’t name Thomas Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence; and only 2.8% of the students actually passed the citizenship test.

18% of Americans still believe that the sun revolves around the earth, according to a Gallup poll.

68% of public school children in the U.S. do not read proficiently by the time they finish third grade. And the U.S. News & World reported that barely 50% of students are ready for college level reading when they graduate.

Nearly half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 do not think it necessary to know the location of other countries in which important news is being made.

More than 40% of Americans under 44 did not read a single book–fiction or nonfiction–over the course of a year. The proportion of 17 year olds who read nothing (unless required by school ) has doubled between 1984-2004.

Some of the observation relate to the debate between creationism and evolutionism, which are really questions of religious ideology rather than a problem of education. This is one of the significant faults of this article. On the other hand, “diseased” religion can be a cause of people abdicating their intelligence to allow themselves to be taken over and controlled.

Why does the education system fail in its duty of teaching children to reason? Why do American people want to be anti-intellectual? Do they? Really, we would need a study of this phenomenon from a sociological point of view. Does this problem cross the boundaries of class, culture and race? If the ability to reason is no longer socially acceptable, what is? Perhaps there is a notion comparable to Nietzsche’s Ubermensch in terms of physical condition, competitiveness and blind obedience to authority. If this is so, the implication for any European with knowledge of twentieth-century history goes a long way!

Certainly, fundamentalist Christianity is more widespread in America. Many Evangelical groups have imported themselves into Europe and use American methods of “marketing”. The one whose judgement I would most trust on this subject is Jean-François Mayer (see List of new religious movement and cult researchers).

Again, I am sceptical about some of the less moderate claims in this article, and I notice that “culture” is waning here in Europe. The main difference is that Christianity as the “backbone” of mainstream society also has evaporated. If the idea according to which there might be a parallel between the notion of the “alpha male” in America and the Ubermensch in Germany in the 1930’s, there is cause for concern – should it become a generalised and mainstream tendency.

Also, again, I am aware that most of my readers are Americans. It is not my tendency or intention to insult Americans or display a chauvinistic attitude from a European point of view. I am well aware that we have big problems too. We are forgetting our history, and the collective memory of Americans goes back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but in practice more more recently than that. What I will say is that I suspect that Americans could be more vulnerable to a transition from democracy to totalitarianism than Europe. This, surely, would be a matter of concern for thinking Americans as well as those of us from other countries and continents.

The real issue here seems to be the very question of the Enlightenment and the cold rationalism of the eighteenth century. I have discussed this when considering the Romantic reaction after the French Revolution. Rationalism played a major role in moderating the undue influence of religious institutions over society. People had to learn to be critical. The problem of the 1780’s and thereabouts was not one of critical thinking but the excessively cerebral nature of that culture. The issue in Romanticism was the use of the heart and the imagination in addition to critical thinking, and not the return to superstition and obscurantism.

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12 Responses to Anti-Intellectualism

  1. I believe in the verbal inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, but I do think passages need to be understood in their own cultural context. That means we need to be careful about treating every passage as a scientific or historical textbook when that may not have been the intention of the author.

    • It’s absolutely that. Remember Origen and his three levels of meaning: literal, moral and spiritual.

      The literal meaning is usually useful, but sometimes needs to be set aside. Christ could not have seen “all the kingdoms of the world”. What would “Let the dead bury their dead” mean if understood literally? There are many moral teachings as in Aesop’s Fables and many other stories from oral tradition. Origen was a Platonist and a Gnostic (less “extreme” than Valentinus). As such, he saw a spiritual and “universal” world beyond the world we know. Many words and names would be allegorical of spiritual truths. For example the word Jerusalem meaning something higher than the earthly city of that name.

      We also need to see contexts and whole books of Scripture, rather than cherry-pick the “proof texts” to illustrate a pre-formed idea.

  2. J.D. says:

    I’m not sure, I think that orthodox Christianity is in general largely unreasonable. I admit I’m pretty much fideistic in outlook, seeing the placing of Reason and Logic on pedestals as being part of why Europe lost their Faith in the first place. Once you put Reason to the task of exploring what are meant to be mysteries of Faith, you lose the Faith altogether because some things are simply not reasonable nor rational.

    Call me crazy but I much prefer holding to a simple faith, and allowing myself to be touched by folk customs, mythology, hagiography and the miraculous over that of Reason, Logic and Science. No wonder I am at home amongst the simple Bible thumpers here in the American South, or with my simple pious Fillipina and her family from rural Mindanao than I am with intellectuals and scientists from here or Europe.

    Fundamentalism has its problems, especially when you use it to beat people over the head with, but than again reason, logic and science tend to problems too. They are inherently skeptical, tend towards atheism or agnosticism, and they put mans thinking mind above that of God. I think Ivan Kirevesky was right in seeing that Europe started to lose the faith with the dawn of scholasticism and when Theology left the monasteries for the hothouse of the university.

    What are the answers to this whole dilemma? All I know is I’d rather live in a peasant village in the Phillipines or amongst Priestless old believers in Estonia than in a major european or American city with university culture and it’s deification of skepticism and science.

    Honestly, life is short, I’d rather pray about and ponder the utterly unreasonable mysteries of the Trinity or the Incarnation, or imagine the saints really talked to animals or that the Adam and Eve story really happened than learn about astrophysics or study continental philosophy or scholasticism.

    The way I see it Father, embrace the unreasonableness of Christianity. You are already a kind hearted man with a dash of the Romantic. Don’t try to reconcile what cannot be reconciled. Keep standing as a witness with your prayer and priestly life, and keep being a sign of contradiction in a world and a culture that wants to put everything into neat formula and categories.

  3. J.D. says:

    I guess I just don’t understand why in the Western mind there is this near obsession with Reason, and finding mind numbingly complex philosophical answers to everything. It seems like it’s peculiar to the Western European mind, and the cultures that take their cues from it.

    I confess the obsession with Fides et Ratio is one of the most repulsive aspects of Catholicism to me. I guess I just don’t have a mind for philosophy, I’m more the romantic poetic type who sees things in terms of signs, symbols and images and mystery than logical abstractions that seem to signify nothing but our fallen minds paltry attempt to categorize the world around us.

    To me at least, Christianity is eschatological, mysterious and above reason. It’s a worldview that one either accepts or rejects, not by force of reason and argument but by grace. We enter the mystery through prayer and keeping the cycle of services. We learn to accept things we do not or cannot hope to understand this side of a heaven that no logical argument or syllogism can ever come close to ” proving”.

    Maybe I’m too much of a romantic, but I long for the day when the village church and the cycle of services, folk customs, blessings and superstitions sustain small communities of Christians, when the constellations in our spiritual skies are the saints and feasts and mysteries of the ever revolving wheel of the liturgical year. I also long for when theology is once again primarily monastic and mysterious and filled with symbolic exuberance in the vein of St Bernard’s sermons on the Canticles.

    It seems to me that many modern Christians are busying themselves looking for ” motives of credibility” and complex convoluted philosophical arguments to justify their Faith rather than simply taking up a breviary, a prayer rope or rosary and some lives of saints and entering into the mystery.

    Of course I mean no harm by what I say, and do not mean to ruffle your feathers or anyone else’s. I’m only saying what I feel about all this because I feel very strongly about this topic.

    What has sustained me over the years is following my own advice. I don’t beat anyone over the head with my religion nor do I claim to be able to ” prove ” it’s veracity through philosophy. I only know that I do experience much grace by being a Christian, and it has been based more on living the mystery than anything else.

    • You are certainly right. Christianity will become (has become) socially unacceptable and will be rejected or simply forgotten by mainstream society. We are free to believe or do what we want in private. However, we will find that the oases will become increasingly rare, and we will be increasingly alone. That is something I have got used to.

      I admire your naivety, and I hope your home circumstances allow you to live your way unhindered. However, it is human nature to abhor the death of what Christianity gave to western culture. What we are crying about is spilt milk, and the horse has bolted out of the stable. In time, anyone who is not an atheist or a Sunnite Muslim will be deemed to be psychotic. We can be thankful to spend only a short time on this earth.

      Whatever, thank you for your precious reflections and may God bless you…

    • ed pacht says:

      I’m finding this to be a very stimulating discussion, and I relate very much to what JD has to say. His mind seems much like my own. In the old days I would have said that I really groove on his post. I hope it’s not out of place to insert a poem here – one that I wrote today as a result of reading this:

      Inside, In the Dark

      Inside,
      in the dark,
      In the great yawning cavern,
      where there’s not a thing to see,
      not a sound to be heard
      but the echo of my own voice,
      the sounds I myself have made,
      complaints not acted upon,
      wishes never granted,
      thoughts I cannot understand,
      distorted as they ricochet
      from the unseen walls beyond,
      garbled as they mix with one another,
      a sound and fury signifying nothing,
      and there,
      inside my own head,
      in the confusion of so small a mind,
      I shout and cry with all my strength,
      immersed in such self-created noise
      that, if there were another voice,
      I would not hear it;
      I shout and cry until I lose all hope,
      and lose the strength behind my voice,
      and fall silent,
      and speak no more,
      and all the echoes die away,
      and in the darkness of the place
      a blessed silence falls;
      and in the silence soon I think I hear
      a whispering quiet voice that calls to me,
      a voice that has within it not an answer,
      but a question different from the ones I cried:
      “Will you, will you come and follow me?”
      and with fear and trepidation I now take a step,
      for there is nothing else that I can do,
      and step by step I follows where the voice is leading,
      and I walk into the darkness of my mind,
      and there the voice reveals the light,
      and in the light of cross and throne and altar
      no more need the answers I have sought.

      —–ed pacht

    • Your using reason in your arguments against reason.
      Reason is fundamental to communication, and thus to divine revelation.

      • ed pacht says:

        of course! But reason, though essential, is a limited tool. The finite mind, when confronted with the infinite, will prove inadequate to the task, and reason will prove unable to unravel the mysteries thus encountered. God simply does not have to confine His activities and being to what humans are capable of comprehending, and His revelation, though reason is essential for what understanding we can achieve, will often (I am tempted to say, “always:) be clothed in mystery we cannot quite grasp.

        (BTW, you’re weakening the strength of your argument in defense of reason when your use of language is imprecise – i.e. ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ – I had to read it twice to make sense out of your statement.)

  4. J.D. says:

    Ed thanks for sharing that poem, it’s quite nice.

    Father-

    I think I’m willfully naive in some ways. I have been sustained by praying the hours, the Jesus prayer and going for weekday Mass and confession. More than anything by the hours and the various prayers associated with the cycle of services. I use the Old Orthodox Prayerbook and Old Rite Horologion primarily. I’m more a prayer than a thinker. I’m definitely a total outsuder in modern Roman Catholic circles, especially amongst intellectuals and the trad set!

    • Fr Jonathan has just written a new article Rationalising Reason in which he gives the balancing side to his article (and mine) on anti-intellectualism.

      The Gnostics distinguished three kinds of people: materialists, “psychics” which means in this context those who go by pure intellect and law, and spirituals – those who go by what transcends both materialism and intellectualism. Actually, we all have all three within us, and we go from one to another throughout our life.

      Scientists have identified three brains in humans. The first is a “reptilian” brain similar to that of many species of animals and it deals with our fundamental animal instincts of eating, reproducing, self-defence and defending one’s territory. The second is the intellectual faculty and the third is the “housing” of the spirit. Triune brain theory.

      The physical brain is only the “interface” between our soul and spirit and the body and the world we know. We need our animal and intellectual existence and we cannot avoid them, though the most important is the spirit and our “interface” with what is beyond our material and intellectual world.

      It seems an odd way of expressing things, but I find it plausible.

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