Anti-intellectualism has a long and grotesque history in religious tradition. Although many theologians have shown that faith and reason can live in perfect harmony (see my essay on Compatibilism), history and our lived experience illustrate that anti-intellectualism is a constant thread through our cultural and political life and remains stubbornly persistent in the church.
Many inquisitive Christians I talk to have stories about their own Galileo or Scopes Monkey Trial experience, where a family member or minister instructed them to refrain from asking critical questions about their faith on the pain of eternal damnation. Quite dramatic, I know.
It’s important to name anti-intellectualism for what it is: personal anxiety. It is a psychological disposition with only superficial theological support. Some adults struggle admitting they don’t know something to children. Insecure leaders have issues confessing their ignorance or confusion. Some of us are so inordinately competitive and self-righteous that we can’t stand not being the smartest person in the room or the centre of attention. But when ignorance finds means to sustain itself with theology, it hurts us all.
Insecure Christians feel threatened by tough questions, and they will cast aspersions on inquisitive Christians for simply speaking up. This kind of anti-intellectualism has driven too many good people away from church permanently.
In my conversations with bright believers, I hear of the scriptures that are often cited to justify the anti-intellectual impulse. Christians ought not to lean on their own understanding (Proverbs 3:5) or think of themselves more highly than others (Romans 12:3). Peter states that humility is a virtue and that younger Christians should submit to their elders (1 Peter 5:5). Jesus says that we should not seek to lord over other people, but to serve them (Matthew 20:25–28). Other commonly alluded verses include the mind of humans makes plans, but the Lord directs the steps (Proverbs 16:9), and God chose what was foolish to shame the wise (1 Corinthians 1:27). Intellectualism, which is prized by “the secular world” generates pride in people, which is typically considered the apex of the deadly sins.
In my experience, bright Christians are also some of the most epistemically humble. They’re the first to admit gaps in their knowledge and they view their lives as a constant journey of exploration and evolution. They are smart because they admit the limits of their knowledge and they’re diligent enough to improve their character, faith and intellect through rigorous study, careful analysis and experiential learning.
In “The Screwtape Letters,” C.S. Lewis observed that humility is not about beautiful people imagining they’re ugly or clever people convincing themselves they are fools. Were we not created in God’s image? And why on Earth would Jesus die for us if we were in fact intrinsically worthless? Humility is celebrating the beauty and imperfection that exists in everyone and learning to rejoice in ALL people’s gifts, which includes the gifts of knowledge and wisdom (1 Corinthians 12:8; 13:2). Intellectual Christians are in love with life and its many perplexing mysteries and many want to learn all they can about God’s masterfully designed creation and to share that joy of discovery with others. Wasn’t Sir Isaac Newton – one of the most influential scientists of all time – also an erudite Christian and theologian?
Of course, some smart people are utter jerks. A high IQ (abstract reasoning) doesn’t always correlate with a high EQ (emotional intelligence). And, of course, there is a difference between being book smart and being wise. The latter requires an effective and ethical application of all that knowledge. But I find that too many smart people in church speak up too little – not too much. It’s no wonder why the Bible says that members of the “secular world” are often more “shrewd” than believers (Luke 16:8), that is, they exercise sharper powers of judgment as they’re less inclined towards a slavish adherence to orthodoxy and empty appeals to authority.
Indeed, when Jesus tells His followers not to be like salt that loses its flavour (Matthew 5:13), the Greek translation (μωρανθῇ, mōranthē) means to become dull or foolish. It’s where we derive the word “moron”. Such salt is not even fit for the manure pile (Luke 14:35). In other words, dear salty believers, don’t lose your unique intellectual edge – don’t become fools! The Bible calls us to be in the world but not of the world. That is, we must reconcile our obligations to God and our obligations to our neighbour (Matthew 22:39). We ought to pursue peace with everyone (Hebrews 12:14) without becoming “unequally yoked” (2 Corinthians 6:14) with those who seek to corrupt our good habits (1 Corinthians 15:33). It’s a delicate balancing act. And one that necessarily requires a holistic understanding of the human condition, which comes from interacting with people, views and literature which don’t agree with you.
I have to say that Christians (or anyone else who purports to hold the ultimate worldview) who resist challenges to their claims absolutely baffle me. Instead of resenting these objections, welcome them. It gives you the perfect opportunity to show how your view is able to stand up against an onslaught of scrutiny.
Furthermore, I’m certain Jesus would instruct His followers to skilfully object to morally indefensible ideas and policies both within and outside the church context. There is a plethora of Biblical scenes that depict Jesus as a radical figure flipping tables to highlight the economic injustices of His time (Matthew 21:12–13; Mark 11:15–18) and rebuking religious leaders and followers for their hypocrisy and their indecent treatment of social outcasts like lepers and prostitutes (John 8:7; Matthew 23:1–12; Mark 12:35–40; Luke 20:45–47). He sought to upend corrupt social hierarchies and injustice of all forms and He wasn’t afraid to challenge orthodoxy and tradition in robust and imaginative ways. For example, the doctrine of the separation of church and state can be traced to Jesus’ pithy statement that we ought to render to Caesar (the state) what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s (Matthew 22:21). Since we were called to do the same works as Jesus and even greater (John 14:12), it is patently obvious that God is NOT glorified when we hide our gifts, or when we silence others or allow them to be silenced for anti-intellectual motivations.
Jesus does advise Christians on when to disengage: “Don’t throw your pearls before swine, or they will turn and maul you” (Matthew 7:6). Similarly, Paul instructs us to avoid “profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge” (I Timothy 6:20). The idea here is that you should not waste your time and energy with folks who won’t give your voice a sympathetic hearing. You can offer something of considerable value to some people and earn only their anger, resentment and contempt.
But we mustn’t forget Peter’s instruction to always be ready “to give a defence to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15).” At first blush, this seems at odds with Paul’s earlier statement. But the apparent inconsistency can be easily reconciled through the additional layer of understanding that we shouldn’t prematurely foreclose the opportunity for a reasoned discussion of the more puzzling aspects of Christianity. We can’t assume a priori where the discussion will go so at the very least give your critic the benefit of the doubt. We only get to “shake the dust off our feet” (Matthew 10:14), that is, depart from a conversation with a critic, once we’ve actually done the work of providing a defence, and any good defence will naturally engage with objections.
The advice for intellectual Christians is clear. If you’ve been given the gift of knowledge or wisdom, do NOT hide your light (Matthew 5:16). And recall that if the whole body were an eye where would be the hearing (1 Corinthians 12:17)? In other words, if we all had the same function, the same thought patterns, how could we possibly respond to circumstances that require adaptation and novelty? Don’t let anyone cause you to doubt your calling. There are diversities of gifts but the same Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:4–6). We all share a common objective: to further the gospel. But unity doesn’t equal uniformity. Recall the incident at Antioch, which was an apostolic dispute between Paul and Peter. There’s strength in diversity of thought.
Finally, don’t expend your time and effort where you are not appreciated, and don’t apologise for being you. If after many attempts your earnest endeavours to ‘seeking justice’ and ‘correcting oppression’ (Isaiah 1:17) are proving fruitless and you’ve heeded the bible’s advice to take one or two people who can ‘bear witness’ of your plea (Matthew 18:16), do yourself a favour and find a community where your gifts are embraced and where you can use your gifts to benefit the gospel. Don’t put yourself through the needless suffering of intellectual suppression. Recall that ‘the beginning of wisdom is the fear (reverence) of God’ (Proverbs 9:10) — not of men — and while religious and secular authorities alike serve crucial functions and ought to be conferred a reasonable level of respect (1 Peter 5:5), there are higher-order principles of justice, righteousness and fairness that are incapable of abrogation by even the highest authorities on the earth. As Peter and other apostles neatly stated, it is right and proper to obey God than men (Acts 5:29).
For church leaders reading this, create the conditions for your congregation to feel less like a tyranny and more like the Lord’s house. Set up independent committees that challenge internal processes. Implement robust complaint procedures. Build trust and confidence in your people by listening to them. And engage with the issues of the day so you can adequately fulfil your ministerial duties. Christianity does NOT operate in a vacuum. The Lord’s house is a place where Jesus, not any mere mortal, reigns supreme — a place where justice, truth, brotherly love and respect for individual autonomy should be the norm rather than the exception.
“My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being priest for Me” (Hosea 4:6)
“Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, and plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:17)
“And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
“Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” (2 Corinthians 3:17–18)