Anti-intellectualism (Part 1)
Do Ideas Have Consequences?
“Ideas are overrated,” a young friend once said to me. After a moment I asked him, “So you’re telling me that you hold to the idea that ideas are overrated.” Now a little puzzled and a little unsure he responded “Yes?” “So ideas are not overrated but important, for your idea about ideas is important, well at least to you.” NO!… Yes?? He squinted his eyes and his lips became thin. “You may be right but I think ideas are overrated.” “Just as long as we agree that ideas can be dangerous,” I told him. With a shrug he muttered “I guess so.”
The story highlights a common error about ideas: ideas are overrated. This is a common notion in today’s culture. People often do not believe that ideas have power. They say, ‘Beliefs don’t affect human choice. Only what I do really matters. This is how a person can be smart and anti-intellectual. You don’t have to be stupid to be an anti-intellectual. You just have to believe a few bad ideas about the nature and value of knowledge.
If you don’t believe ideas have power consider the witness of history. Historian Richard Weikart, in his book From Darwin to Hitler, shows the dynamic impact the idea of evolution had on the morality of the great thinkers of Germany, particularly Nazi thinkers. (1) Weikart concludes that “Darwinism played a strategic role not only in the rise of eugenics but also in the rise of euthanasia, infanticide, abortion and racial extermination – all ultimately embraced by the Nazis.”(2) Victor Frankl, a psychologist and Auschwitz survivor, echoed the same sentiment when he wrote.
The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment – or, as the Nazis liked to say, ‘of blood and soil.’ I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers. (3)
Consider a personal anecdote from R. C. Sproul. After graduating college with a philosophy degree Sproul needed to get a job. Apparently, the job market was flooded in philosophy, Sproul could only find work as a janitor in a hospital. One night, while talking with a fellow janitor, he found out his coworker had a PhD in philosophy. The coworker was from Germany and had seen Hitler rise to power. Hitler understood the power of ideas. As Hitler rose to power, he soon began pushing all professors that did not “toe the party line” out of the universities. When Sproul’s coworker protested and spoke against the Nazis, they imprisoned him and murdered his wife and children. However, the coworker managed to escape with his youngest daughter. When Sproul asked why he did not teach, the man replied that teaching philosophy had destroyed his life and the lives of those he loved. He could not go back because the pain was too deep. Reflecting on that experience, Sproul writes:
I was pushing a broom because I lived in a culture that sees little value in philosophy and gives scant esteem to those who pursue it. My friend was pushing a broom, on the other hand, because he came from a culture that gave great weight to philosophy. His family was destroyed because Hitler understood that ideas are dangerous. Hitler so feared the consequences of my friend’s ideas that he did everything possible to eliminate him– and his ideas. (4)
Anti-intellectualism begins with the assumption that ideas don’t matter. Such an assumption is poison both for people and for Nations and even for the church.
- Richard Weikart, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics and Racism in Germany New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). Also see William Dembski and Benjamin Wiker, Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002).
- James Emery White, A Mind for God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006) 25.
- Viktor Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul: Introduction to Logotherapy (New York: Knopf, 1982) xxi.
- R C Sproul, Consequences of Ideas: Understanding the Concepts That Shape our World (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2000) 8-9.
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