Anti-Intellectualism in Christian, Jewish and Atheist communities

Statements about the eternal or the infinite are at best approximations or metaphors. It is impossible in any human language to articulate absolute truth about such issues. So theological issues should be stated with humility - a bit like this and a bit like that - but in fact being really like something else; something we don’t know about or couldn’t understand. Theologians often lack such humility. Herb…

1 Like

This is why I’m no fan of debates. I find it on both sides of the God debates. Many apologists and angry online atheists come off as presumptuous know-it-alls. If you want me to consider something new, put it out there plain. If you share why you’re persuaded in the direction you are, be sure also to tell me what you think are your position’s weakest points too. That approach will always receive the most receptive reading.

3 Likes

An interesting discussion. I think @Laura really gets to the core of things with her honesty about the emotions involved in anti-intellectualism. We get focused on the words and ideas and ideologies when we have these debates, but underneath the ideas, it’s about the way we relate to ourselves and God.

Jesus talked about entering the Kingdom of the Heavens, and long centuries of interpretation and commentary have created the impression among us that Jesus was talking about a place or a state of salvation that’s external to us. But I don’t think Jesus meant this. I think he was saying that if you want to know God and be in relationship with God while you’re living here as a human being (“entering the Kingdom”), you have to abandon the destructive habits of anti-intellectualism (choosing “closed eyes and closed ears” over transformation, forgiveness, and healing) and open your Heart to God, to your neighbour, and to yourself as a child of God.

The Heart is the great enemy of the human desire to be right. So intense is this desire that it’s considered by many individuals to be a God-given universal right: “the right to be right.”

People will do almost anything to preserve this right. It’s the basis of anti-intellectualism. On the surface, anti-intellectualism looks like a debate about ideas and Truth. But it’s not. It’s a struggle to cling to a perceived right – a universally decreed law of order imposed on chaos, if you will – that’s believed to be the one and only portal to status. The status then leads to more of the things you think you want (e.g. power, authority, perfection). Facts aren’t important. Science isn’t important. Learning isn’t important. Only status is important in the anti-intellectual paradigm. But if you go around loving your neighbour and admitting your own mistakes and trying to be humble, well . . . you can just kiss your big fat pot of status points goodbye.

To enter the Kingdom as Jesus understood it, you have to accept “the burden of interpretation and wrestling” (well put, @Laura). It’s hard work. You have to recognize your own status demons and ask God to help you set them aside. Parts of your biological brain will fight you (as the brain initially fights any attempt to restrain the urges of addiction) but eventually the freedom you feel – the incredible burden that lifts from your frail human shoulders as you abandon the siren call of status – will help you open your Heart to the true portal of peace: God’s love.

Blessings,
Jen

4 Likes

Isn’t that the truth, leastwise if you want any of it to mean something to you in your own life. If you’re content to know that you’re doing and saying what you should in the manner you’ve been taught there would be no need to bother.

I have only one precious chapter more to go in Elaine Pagels’ memoir “Why Religion?” I find I have to read very slowly to allow all the echoes and connections she stirs up to play out. I always suspected there was something important about religion and reading this confirms that for me. What you’ve written here fits very well with what I’m reading in Pagels.

Of course as with so many important human dimensions, there are two ways to miss the mark where intellectualism is concerned. Trying to avoid it altogether, anti-intellectualism, misses the ideal in one direction. Always holding what is also inherently experiential with an important feeling component at an intellectual arm’s distance, over-intellectualization, misses it in the other direction. You need to have some skin in the game; it can’t all be cerebral.

1 Like

Yes, I greatly admire the depth and complexity of Elaine Pagels’ writing, though I’ve not yet had the pleasure of reading her memoir.

As human beings, we struggle so hard to find the pathway to peace – not just political or military peace, but personal peace. A sense of connection to God and the universe. A sense of meaning and purpose. A sense of having done the best you can despite your mistakes and your suffering. Our poets and artists and musicians dedicate themselves to this pathway and try to show us the fleeting images of peace they sense in the world around us. They offer us glimpses of the Divine so we can find the courage to keep going on a journey that’s admittedly difficult.

A number of years ago, I was reading In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom by John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004). Near the beginning, Crossan and Reed wrote this:

“Paul’s essential challenge is how to embody communally that radical vision of a new creation in a way far beyond even our present best hopes for freedom, democracy, and human rights. The Roman Empire was based on the common principle of peace through victory or, more fully, on a faith in the sequence of piety, war, victory, and peace . Paul was a Jewish visionary following in Jesus’ footsteps, and they both claimed that the Kingdom of God was already present and operative in this world. He opposed the mantras of Roman normalcy with a vision of peace through justice or, more fully, with a faith in the sequence of covenant, nonviolence, justice, and peace . A subtext of In Search of Paul is, therefore: To what extent can America be Christian? (page xi)”

I can still remember how strongly I reacted to this paragraph. I sensed it was wrong, but at the time, all I had to go on was an insight that if Jesus could describe the pathway he was teaching, it would read like this:

Peace through personal responsibility in the sequence of education, mentorship, personal responsibility, then peace.

To approach peace through anti-intellectualism would mean you’d have to ignore the needs of the first step, education. But to approach peace only through the intellect, without the guidance and care of an experienced mentor, would quickly drive you off the pathway and onto the shards of intellectual hubris and status addiction.

The role of religion, when done well (and so often it’s not done well), is to be a mentor – to help individuals parse their knowledge and experience (“education”) so they can make it to the all-important stage of personal responsibility. From a purely intellectual point of view, personal responsibility looks easy and straightforward (just be obedient and follow all the laws, right?). But this a flawed understanding of personal responsibility. Personal responsibility, from a Divine point of view, is expressed well in Mark 12, where there are only two commandments. Just two. Yet figuring out how to balance your heart and mind and your soul and your strength and understanding with love is no easy task, as we all know from personal experience.

The skin in the game you mention? It’s with you all the time when you choose the path Jesus taught. So you make mistakes. And you get hurt. And things don’t work out the way your happy little head thought they should work out. But if you stick with it, and allow not only your human teachers but your beloved God to become your mentor, you’ll eventually discover you’re not so bad after all from God’s point of view.

1 Like

I think the Scriptures do privilege spiritual over physical knowledge. “Not many wise according to the flesh” are called, “but God has called the foolish things of the world to shame the wise” (1 Cor 1:26-27). “I praise you, Father . . . that you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants” (Luke 10:21).

To privilege a knowledge of Jesus over a knowledge of calculus or theoretical physics is not to disparage math and physics. Nevertheless, I don’t read the NT for a knowledge of science–as valuable as that knowledge is in its own way–but for how to cultivate a relationship with God through Christ and grow in love, joy, peace, etc.

Anti-intellectualism is a ditch on one side and on the other is intellectual elitism. We have to navigate between them without falling into either.

I would agree, however, that truth with a capital “T” can never be served by trampling upon truth with a lower case “t.” Going that route led some in the post-apostolic centuries to fabricate documents like the Epistle of Ignatius to the VIrgin Mary and the Third Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, which were intended to buttress orthodox faith by counterfeit means.

1 Like

I don’t think the Corinthians passage is making a distinction between knowledge of the spiritual world and knowledge of the physical world, if that is what you are saying. I actually was just looking at this passage for an article that is with the BioLogos editors now. I think “Human wisdom” in the passage was referring to the prevailing philosophy, metaphysics, ideals, and all the concepts the wise and educated people had of how humans were supposed to relate to God and each other, and it had nothing to do with science or math.

What is the difference in your mind between capital T truth and lower case t truth?

When I looked up Mark 12 several parables were mentioned but I think you probably had in mind the one that includes:

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.[e] 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[f] 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[g] There is no commandment greater than these.”

Or do the other parables also factor into your point?

1 Like

Ohhhh! Ohhhh! I know this one! Capital ‘T’ Truth is any proposition that can attract at least ten replies on a public internet forum and ten times that many views. Small ‘t’ truth is everything else.

Okay. More seriously, though; (and having used these turns of phrase myself), I feel obliged to at least make an attempt here. I propose loosely that the former might roughly fit those philosophical propositions that defy empirical verification, but nonetheless are pretty important factors in how we run our lives (e.g. ‘human beings have inherent dignity and worth that cannot be taken away.’). Small ‘t’ truths - while no less important in their own way as part of the whole corpus of ‘Truth’ - is all the stuff that nobody would spend much time (or books) trying to convince others of because it is probably already widely accepted, and nothing much [in our ethical or behavioral lives] is riding on it in any case.

That’s my unofficial distinction.

[okay - that falls apart almost right away, since many people have written volumes trying to persuade others of the most banal sorts of things I suppose. But … you all know what I mean. And whatever it was I meant (please share it with me as soon as you do - really - I wanna know), you can be sure it was a capital proposition.]

2 Likes

I don’t believe that in the Greco-Roman world there was a sharp distinction between what we now call philosophy and science. Pythagoras with math, Aristotle with classification of plants and animals come to mind. Until a couple of centuries ago, what we would call scientists were called natural philosophers.

Upper case T truth would be knowledge of God as Creator, Jesus as Lord and Savior, and the will of God for believers as expressed in the teachings of Jesus and the apostles (2 Pet 1:2-3). Lower case t truth would be general human knowledge: math, geography, biology, astronomy, current events and public personalities, etc.

If you are saying that the Bible would rate knowing algebra is as important as knowing Jesus as Lord and Savior, I respectfully disagree. That said, I am not arguing that physics, chemistry, evolutionary biology, etc. are unworthy of attention. Far from it. Even a little knowlege of philosophy is not altogether poisonous.

Grasshopper, both Truth and truth is that which is true. That which is true will not conflict with Truth or truth. Big “T” Truth is significant, truth can be trivial. Small “t” truth may derive from Truth. Back to my cave to the sound of one hand clapping.

No, I’m not saying that at all, I’m saying the 1 Corinthians passage is not at all referring to algebra when it talks about human wisdom. It’s saying that human philosophical “truths” and “ideals” and assumptions about how human and divine relationships and societal structures are supposed to work are inverted by the cross and the gospel.

1 Like

The claim in the title that anti-intellectualism is to be found in atheism was puzzling. I would tend to think that claim is absurd. I don’t know if I buy it in the case of Judaism either. But Christianity? Yeah! That has been around for a long time and it is still pretty strong in some areas. The OP is not identifying this correctly at all. The next thing he will be doing is saying that my dislike for reality-tv is an example of anti-intellectualism just because some academic somewhere chooses to study it and I have no interest whatsoever in such a thing. Being selective regarding what one finds interesting or worthwhile is NOT anti-intellectualism.

Sola-scriptura has been talked about elsewhere so it is this idea of sufficiency of scripture which interests me. This biggest problem with the idea is Jesus’ words in John 5:39-40… 39 You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; 40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. The meaning of this is quite clear. Eternal life is NOT to be found in scripture. Sufficient in bearing witness to Jesus, OK. But it is in a relationship with Jesus that we have life and not by searching the scriptures. And I certainly reject the Gnostic gospel of salvation by believing the right things as we see in the Belgic Confession ArticleVII and Westminster Confession 1.7.

But this does not mean that the idea of “sufficiency of scripture” is without any merit whatsoever. Here are meanings which I can support…

  1. We cannot think that we can improve upon scripture in order to better accomplish God’s purpose. In that way at least, the Bible is sufficient.
  2. We can trust the Bible to communicate what God needs people to hear. This does not mean that we cannot help SOME people to understand SOME things better, for we may indeed do so. But our help is not as trustworthy in general compare to the Bible itself, because people are different and think in very different ways. The Bible, however, is for everybody.
    a. Notice this is “what God needs people to hear” and not “what is needed to make people become Christian.” We cannot assume these are the same thing.

Yes, Mark 12:28-35 is the passage I had in mind.

There are some parables in the Synoptics, along with sayings in the Gospel of Thomas and the Letter of James, that expand on the teachings of Mark 12:28-35 by giving more examples. But the heart of Jesus’ own teaching lies, I believe, in the Markan teaching on the two great laws about love.

Most people assume that Mark 12 is quoting the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4. But if you look carefully, you’ll see that the Shema references heart, soul, and might. Mark, meanwhile, lists heart, soul, mind, and strength.

The addition of “mind” in Mark is generally ignored, but I think it’s an intentional addition, since it’s basically repeated with the use of the word “understanding” instead of “mind” in Mark 12:33.

Adding an extra word (and an extra concept) to an important and beloved Second Temple prayer would have been as obvious and startling to its Jewish audience as as addition to the Lord’s Prayer would be to Christians today.

The author of Mark was a careful, erudite scholar, and I doubt he’d make a “mistake” like this out of ignorance or carelessness. He knew what he was doing.

1 Like

Well, it can’t be referring to algebra because that didn’t come along for a few more centuries. True enough. If your point is that when Paul said “not many wise” he meant nothing more than “not many of those who subscribe to ungodly, false philosophical beliefs” I think you’re arguing uphill.

As is the case to some extent today, even true information and useful skills in the ancient world were acquired in a certain cultural context. They were–and often still are–part of a package that can include, explicitly or implicitly, certain societal attitudes and tendencies that run counter to the gospel.

For example, Paul wrote back in 1 Cor 1:20, “Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age.” Scribes learned to write and became familiar with ancient literature to an extent that ordinary people did not (cf. Acts 4:13). Knowledge of letters was not bad in itself, but it was acquired in setting that included some beliefs and assumptions that led away from spiritual truth rather than towards it. Not to mention it could lead to a proud and dismissive attitude toward others of lesser formal skill.

I would still argue that it takes effort to keep expert or scientific knowledge in its place as a tool and not let it become a deity.

No I think he was talking about people who had formally studied, either in the Jewish system or in the Greek system and had status in the eyes of the community. Paul was a Pharisee and was wise by human standards. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law and the Greek scholars did not grasp the inversion of the gospel; that the first will be last, that the humiliated will be exalted, that losing one’s life is finding it. All that stuff was crazy talk. And the cross was the ultimate backwards thing. How does a god give up all claim to power and die a criminal’s death? And how does that result in completely unearned favor that reconciles sinners to God, no matter what they lack in their own righteousness or heritage? And then the gospel goes around subverting all the “natural” order of things, making slaves and their masters brothers, elevating the testimony and ministry of women, asking the wealthy to share what they own and sit at the table with the poor, bringing uncircumcised Gentiles into the family of God, etc, etc. That was all counter to the “human wisdom” about how God and society functions. It still is.

Yes, though I would say the NT counters the human tendency to ascribe status and worth to people based on learning and intellectual prowess or to take pride in one’s academic accomplishments, (because the gospel inverts the status structures of the world), and it is not criticizing the actual content of the education that led to the status or the pride.

4 Likes

I’ve always thought philosophy as an approach was much more important than the history of what has been thought and written about in the past. To be able to say just precisely what you mean and to hear just precisely what others are saying … that is what is useful about philosophy.

In another thread I was recently introduced to “biblicism” which I understand to be a cousin to “scientism” but inversely related. Those entranced with the power of science are sometimes inclined to dismiss knowledge vouchsafed in any other manner. Similarly a biblicist is going to try to rely on the bible to answer questions for which it was not intended. I think we are all better served to know where and when to apply each, or something else altogether (like Christy’s knowledge of language and emotional intelligence). I don’t think it behooves anyone to specialize in any one thing to the exclusion of all else. Sentiment without intellect is no better than intellect uninformed by the heart.

3 Likes

wish everyone were more like that!

Still think that most “debates” aren’t even… Secularist worldly POV presumes “no consequences”, they’re just in “attack mode”, not caring what you say but only listening with at most half an ear, cherry picking words they zero in on to mock & jeer & deride

It’s just (verbal) assault couched I guess to fool “the ignorant unthinking masses” and appear to “justified” intellectually

I can’t myself imagine being that way, by there is no open mind, no curiosity for what is actually true, just presumed authority (based on equally presumed “knowledge”) which the “weight they throw around” to “justify” their dominance

Frank Turek says most people aren’t on truth quests, but happiness quests
And evidently many strident atheists are “happy” when they mock, jeer, deride, presumptuously claim omniscience (over all time & space, claiming to know what could & couldn’t have / did & didn’t happen throughout human history) and (somehow) get everyone else to accept their dominance & authority

but no actual genuine discussion or debate worthy of the word

1 Like

Dr. John Barnett recently published a video about aliens and “Are We Alone?” in which he made the interesting assertion to the effect, that the OT & Church claims of “Geocentrism” are actually completely correct…

just describing a spiritual reality, that God in heaven has sovereignly chosen earth as the center of His Creation

"Geocentrism" is spiritually true (even if we’re not physically the exact geometric center of mass of the universe)

I’ve witnessed that hostility a lot while hanging out on atheist sites. It never made sense to me and was very unpleasant to witness. I have spoken up about it on those venues. Called out gratuitous meanness. Suggested that whatever they experienced in their own exit from religious experience didn’t justify treating others as targets. Forget it. For many that is why they are there.

The old saying that there really isn’t anything that unites atheists apart from the dismissal of God belief is true. In the absence of any core positive belief, sneering at religion and its ambassadors seems to be what unites. That is part of what makes conditions for missionaries and apologists so bad at those sites. They show up to advocate for what is most near and dear to their hearts but on the other side, no one is risking anything. No one should attempt a heart to heart under those conditions. It just isn’t an even playing field.

I’ve also argued that you have to be a little bit curious about why religion has been central in the lives of so many for so long. To dismiss it all as superstitious hooey or a sign of stupidity is glib as well as mean.

I ended up leaving the site I was at the longest over this. Definitely some individuals I liked and respected there but the moderation was aligned with the many who enjoy a lord of the flies experience. I am constantly amazed at how good the moderation is here. Not just fair but intelligent and diplomatic. It’s almost as though having a shared set of positive values makes a difference.

My advice is to avoid toxic forums.

4 Likes