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.