Ever meet someone who became visibly flustered when a conversation got too intellectual? It happens all the time in my world. Folks get uneasy when they run into complex arguments, and often try to relieve their anxiety by dismissing intellectual questions as being too abstract or irrelevant to help with concrete living. This is a particularly common reaction when folks start debating religious questions. For this reason, people often object to apologetics because it is too intellectual; instead, they appeal to a sort of faith that is independent of evidence.
Such anti-intellectualism is called fideism, an approach to religious knowledge that refuses to consider rational or empirical evidence. Fideists come in both liberal and conservative varieties. The former might experience God in the beauty of a rainbow. The latter might experience God in the third stanza of a rousing praise song. In each case, fideists enjoy mystical, religious experiences of the divine but react negatively when anyone attempts to assemble a cognitive defense of religious beliefs.
Anti-intellectualism goes straight out the window when a topic truly matters to us. I can’t recall how many times I’ve noticed the same folks who disdain academic jargon start using bigger, more technical words than I in one of three circumstances.
Life Is Threatened
The first circumstance in which an otherwise anti-intellectual person will seek out advanced intellectual resources is when they discover that they have a life-threatening illness. There’s nothing like bad news from a doctor to get us reading advanced medical literature, consulting with multiple experts, and researching experimental treatments. Why? Because the questions one asks in such cases have life-and-death consequences.
It seems that anti-intellectualism in the realm of faith stems from an implicit sense that the questions of religion are fanciful rather than urgent. Nonetheless, just as we seek physical health, we ought to care for our spiritual health. Thus, we need to use critical thinking skills and theological discernment to avoid the various brands of religious Kool-Aid on the market and find the good medicine.
Better Living Through Modern Chemistry
The second circumstance in which an otherwise anti-intellectual person will seek out advanced scholarly resources is when they want a mind-altering experience. More than once, I’ve run into old acquaintances that earned Ds or Fs in their high school science classes only to become masters of botany in their quest to cultivate a potent cannabis plant. Likewise, I’ve run into old acquaintances who were struggling in chemistry but now know how to turn common household cleaners into illicit street drugs. When they talk about their work, they sound like PhDs.
What got them motivated to use big words and sophisticated instruments?
They needed something. Real bad. They were desperate for the medicine, or the money the medicine could produce. And the tools they required to meet this need were intellectual.
Financially Prepared For The Future?
The third circumstance in which an otherwise anti-intellectual person will investigate complex material is when they are investing large amounts of money. When one’s lifestyle in retirement is on the line, students who earned a C or D in economics suddenly become fluent in the language of finance, equity trading, and mutual fund management.
Even if an individual relies on the expertise of a financial planner, the selected planner is rarely the one who ignores complex terms and concepts. We want the man or woman helping us invest our money to be smarter than average, even if they aren’t the sort of the down-to-earth people we invite to Super Bowl parties.
The ultimate questions of life—questions addressed by theologians and philosophers—should at least be as important to address as the question of how to live a few years longer, retire with more cash, or manufacture illegal drugs. Why then is it so common for people to take medicine and drug manufacturing seriously, but shrug off apologetics as irrelevant? I think it’s not because people are actually anti-intellectual in general.
I suggest it’s because they don’t think religious belief in particular can save us as effectively as modern medicine can, or because they don’t think religious belief is as thrilling and transformative as recreational drug use.
But then again, how can we know if we don’t investigate the claims? If I knew of an experimental treatment for a rare disease from which you suffered, would I not be obliged to at least share my information with you? Would I ignore emerging evidence that might save your life simply because government agencies had not yet approved the treatment? Of course not.
Likewise, if I knew how you could find true fulfillment, and I knew you were lacking fulfillment, would I not be morally compelled to share that source of joy? Of course I would. Need I use big words? Not usually. Sometimes we can simplify our scientific language for lay folks. But at other times the problem is serious enough that we need to dig deeper and speak with a bit more nuance.
To be sure, Christians should know their audience, and articulate their ideas accordingly. There’s no reason to beat non-believers over the head with both a Bible and big theological words. But we ought to be wary of those within and outside the church who balk at all intellectual conversations concerning belief. To be anti-intellectual with regard to questions of ultimate meaning in such contexts fails to recognize that what we are after in Christian apologetics provides a stronger medicine than any pharmaceutical research team can concoct and a greater joy than any artificial high can induce.
Go ahead and dismiss those who want to sound intelligent by speaking in strange jargon. Reject the esoteric writings of high-falutin’ modern theologians all you like. Ignore those pompous and pedantic folks who like people to think they are brilliant and thus substitute difficult sentences for profound wisdom.
Nonetheless, always ask yourself whether what you are resisting isn’t actually your own mortality. Ask yourself whether you aren’t dismissing arguments related to religious belief because you lack the mental energy to consider the astounding claims presented. Moreover, if you are a Christian, ask yourself whether your tendency toward anti-intellectualism isn’t really just an excuse to avoid uncomfortable conversations with non-Christians.
There are times when we need to engage in heavy intellectual lifting. Which times? When the questions are momentous. The question of whether Jesus and his promises can be believed is just such a question. It is best to set the case out as clearly as possible, but if the issues get complicated or technical, we need to roll up our sleeves and produce thoughtful answers when neighbors ask why we believe what we believe.