Anti-intellectualism (Part 3)

November 10, 2020

In this post I want to pick back up on an idea i hinted at in the first post in this series. The metaphor of anti-intellectualism as poison. In this post we will look deeper at the effects of anti-intellectualism using poison as a guiding metaphor. we will conclude with some thoughts on how to begin to detox from this insidious poison.

A Untraceable Poison
In the world of deadly poisons, one substance stands out like LeBron James in a pick up game, it’s name thallium. In the 1800’s it became a smooth way to bump off someone. It gained the nickname, "Inheritance Powder." Saddam Hussein was in love with thallium. In the 1980’s Saddam, and his secret police, were fond of using Thallium to dispose of his enemies. They poisoned quite a few people in London with it, and he even poisoned some of his senior military men. It is all about the little things, like poison.

Why all the talk about poison? Because, thallium is much like anti-intellectualism, both are silent killers, both are highly toxic and both in there own way have changed the course of nations. Anti-intellectualism is a prevailing Bias in American culture and it is more than just stupid is as stupid does. It is a deadly poison killing the church today.

This poison has entered the vein of a church body when a group no longer values thinking for its own sake. In this way anti-intellectualism is not people just acting ignorant. It has an internal logic, that aims to promote a devaluing of the life of the mind often for the sake of more practical matters. Such poisoned institutions will produce learners and not very many thinkers. (1)

Os Guinness defines anti-intellectualism as, “a disposition to discount the importance of truth and the life of the mind.”(2)  The American church has a problem with anti-intellectualism. (3) Many scholars and cultural critics from within the church have written on the issue. One example is how Anti-intellectualism helps support the bad generalizations like what is good are the “simple people”, the “common people”, who are supposedly more honest and “real” than so-called “ivory tower” intellectuals. Yet biblically speaking, the good life is not found in some an simple life of the common people, a view of such a life with romantic and nostalgic blinders. Many in Christianity hold anti-Intellectualism as somewhat of a virtue. If truth be told it is a vice. “Anti-intellectualism is quite simply a sin. Evangelicals must address it as such, beyond all excuses, evasions, or rationalizations of false piety.”(4)

Dashboard Faith
Owen Barfield would say people given to this disposition have a “dashboard knowledge” (5) of the faith. By this he parallels the knowledge people have about their faith to the knowledge they have about their car. All they know is what the dials on the dashboard panel tell them. People with a dashboard knowledge of the Christian faith, have only a simple and superficial understanding, even though many may think it profound and deep because they are able to know when things are not running right, and when it is time to get a tune up (repent).  Biblical Knowledge is viewed by Christians as a means to “stay right with God” or “Know his love” but not as a knowledge system or worldview through which one views life and makes choices. The outcome is a church that does not value truth as much as the fleeting experience of truth.

Poison in the Body
The dashboard view of faith is just one sign we have been poisoned. The poison of anti-intellectualism has bent us towards the pragmatic, the immediate and the experiential.  The poison is pervasive slowly killing both church and culture. The greatest problem with the poison is how it opens people to manipulation by changing how they think. It changes what we value as persuasive. We can see this in how people today construct a persuasive argument as well as what actually persuades people in our culture. Consider, exclusive reliance on slogans and talking points, the stress placed on controlling the narrative, the confusion over equating volume and conviction with clarify and logic. The countless times people talk over and past one another with no active listening in-between. Such examples point to what Schaeffer called “the escape from reason.”(6) Schaeffer was describing the now well documented, move from trusting a classic western epistemology including evidence and objectivity and rational verification of facts to a more personal, subjective and emotive foundation for verification. Alasdair MacIntyre in his landmark work, After Virtue gives a detailed diagnosis of this social disposition. He described this shift towards the pragmatic, immediate and experiential as a disposition where ‘emotivism’ was the only mode of discourse. (7) MacIntyre comments:

…to a large degree people now think, talk and act as if emotivism were true, no matter what their avowed theoretical standpoint may be. Emotivism has become embodied in our culture. (8)

Lamenting this problem, David Wells points out how this has changed our view of truth.

Truth is now simply a matter of etiquette: it has no authority, no sense of rightness, because it is no longer anchored in anything absolute. If it persuades, it does so only because our experience has given it its persuasive power, but tomorrow our experience might be different. (9)

Experience is not the issue. (10) The lack of an absolute is the issue. For a person not tied to an absolute, can be easily swayed. I'm such a contacts often driven by look productive, the preacher becomes performer, and a worship service becomes entertainment (11). This is why a culture under the influence of emotivism does not stomach reasonable arguments. They demand to be catered to, not reasoned with. In this light it is easy to see how totalitarian regimes like Nazism came to power. When a culture chooses to be swayed by the power of the presentation rather than the strength of the argument, then such a culture is poised to follow its leaders even as far as Treblinka, Maidanek and even Auschwitz. In MacIntyre’s view, western culture has lost control of its mind in following its heart.

We're not the first culture to go down this path. Napoleon’s France had a similar issue with anti-intellectual. In his day, Napoleon use this social disposition masterfully as a way to maintain support and stir loyalty. A well known story makes this point. Napoleon was reported to tell a certain story to stir his soldier’s patriotism. Once, while visiting a province he came upon an old soldier in full uniform but with one sleeve hanging empty. He proudly wore the coveted Legion of Honor. Napoleon asked, "Where did you lose your arm?" The soldier answered, "At Austerlitz, sire." Napoleon asked, "And for that you received the Legion of Honor?" The man said, "Yes, sire. It is but a small token to pay for the decoration." Napoleon continued, "You must be the kind of man who regrets he did not lose both arms for his country." The one-armed man asked, "What then would have been my reward?" Napoleon answered, "I would have awarded you a double Legion of Honor." And with that, the proud old fighter drew his sword and immediately cut off his other arm.

What a weird story of patriotic duty! It was apparently effective in stirring up in Napoleon's men a desire to sacrifice for the cause of France! Yet there is one problem with the story. Maybe you have already noticed the inconsistency. Maybe you asked your self the question. "How did the soldier cut off his arm with only one arm to do it with?" It is a nice story, very stirring, moving, motivating, but it wasn't true. And it's possible for the same thing to happen to us in a religious sense. We can get all "fired up" without much thought as to the truth of what we're getting excited about. We may enjoy ‘Napoleon preaching’ (heat without light) but it does us little good. Paul said of those who were motivated in such a way: “They are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge” (Romans 10:2). Now, zeal is good. We all need more of it. But we need to make certain that our enthusiasm is firmly based on the Christian knowledge of God. Zeal without knowledge is at the heart of emotivism. This cultural disposition has shrunk the intellectual life of the church to such a degree that Mark Noll wrote, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”(12)

A Scandalous Example
In Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth,  Pearcey tells a story of a new convert named, Denzel(13). Denzel became a Christian as a young man. Driven by curiosity and the commands of his new found faith, he began to look for ways to grow in his faith. As Denzel sought to grow and understand his new found faith, He asked a lot of questions, as people do when they love the subject being discussed. Sadly, many of His questions fell on deaf ears; He was hindered by leaders who could not answer his questions. Others who saw it fruitless to help him seek out answers to questions they saw as just ‘heady’. He was told to just have faith in the plain truths of Scripture. Later, Denzel got a new job where he met those of other faiths. He was confused by the way they seemed to have answers for people's questions. Denzel felt cheated and did not understand why only the Christians choose not to defend themselves from cynics, skeptics and other faiths. Eventually, He changed jobs and found work at a Christian bookstore.  There he found some books that gave him the answers he was seeking. The church did not help Him in his search. The church, other Christians were actually a hindrance. Let us speak plainly, other Christians were a stumbling block to Denzel's faith. Denzel learned not only do most Christians not like to think, they don’t believe in thinking. No because everyone is stupid but because the pursuit of knowledge, particularly theological knowledge (formative worldview shaping knowledge), was not valued as important. Many Christians find themselves with two feet firmly planted in mid-air. It is no wonder, Paul described such groundless faith as one easily, “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting.” (Eph 4:14 NKJ). This is no little problem but a scandal and a sin. As Os Guinness reminds us:

At root, evangelical anti-intellectualism is both a scandal and a sin. It is a scandal in the sense of being an offense and a stumbling block that needlessly hinders serious people from considering the Christian faith and coming to Christ. It is a sin because it is a refusal, contrary to Jesus’ two great commandments, to love the Lord our God with our minds.(14)

A Detox for the Body
Os Guinness in his work, ‘Fit Bodies, Fat Minds’ gives us the antidote to this Evangelical anti-intellectualism. He calls this, “Thinking christianly.” He defines this way of thinking as “thinking by Christians about anything and everything in a consistently Christian way – in a manner that is shaped, directed and restrained by the truth of God’s Word and God’s Spirit.”

Guinness offers guidelines for Christians engaging their minds: (15)

1.) Count the cost – that is, be willing to endure ridicule, slander and abuse – for those in academic circles the cost of speaking against the “prevailing wisdom” may be damaging to one’s career.

2.) Commit to “thinking christianly” as an act of obedience, requiring concentrated, long-term effort. Thinking Christianly is an activity. It is a way of thinking not just memorizing certain propositions is true. It is a way of processing one’s lived experience thought a Christain view of the world. Thinking Christianly is seeing all of life in the light of Christian truth, and ordered all of life by the categories of Christian theology.

3.) Avoid certain pitfalls on the journey:

a.) It’s not a “head trip”, we are not promoting a new “intellectualism” – rather, it involves the whole self, mind, body and spirit. The self is an integrated whole: thinking, feeling and, doing operate in concert together. They are interconnected and intrinsically linked.
b.) It’s not a solitary trip – rather it requires the correction of other Christians
c.) It’s not a purely human activity – rather it is based on the ‘fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom’
d.) It’s not about uniformity - rather it reflects the diverse cultural backgrounds, personalities, and perspectives that we bring to the task.

4.) Acknowledge that Christian knowledge brings with it the responsibility for acting on that knowledge

Christianity is a matter of both doctrine and devotion. We are in a supernatural move of god that involves the whole person, head and heart. Faith and reason are not at odds. They are not at war, nether are complete in themselves. Both are needed, both help qualify and clarify the other. Christians should not take a side for it is not necessary to do so. To take a side would reduce and so distort, the very concept of biblical and doctrinal truth. Truth is holistic. Let no one put asunder what God has joined together. Far better to see the Christian life as a way where head and heart come together to get the feet moving.


  1. Because anti-intellectualism values the uncritical learner over and against being a logical thinkers. Yet this is a distractive pattern even when the knowledge conveyed is Christian truth, uncritical learning produces knowledge in the service of ideology (this is indoctrination) while logical thinking produces persons in the service of God.
  2. Os Guinness, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What to Do about It (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), p. 9.
  3. And while over-intellectualism is also a problem and just as much a dead end where the mind is given to becomes a slave to the Noetic affect of sin, American deals more with anti-intellectualism.
  4. Os Guinness, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What to Do about It (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), pp. 18-19
  5. Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances, A Study in Idolatry, (Barfield Press UK, 1988) 114
  6. Francis A. Schaeffer, Escapes from Reason (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1975). Schaeffer traces the history of ideas to show the worldview of modern western culture.
  7. “Emotivism is the doctrine that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character…Emotivism thus rests upon a claim that every attempt, whether past or present, to provide a rational justification for an objective morality has in fact failed.” Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3d ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007) 10-11, 19.
  8. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3d ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007) 22.
  9. David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland (Grand Rapid, Eerdmans, 1994) 148-149
  10. Experience itself, is not the problem. The problem is allowing our experience (or lack of) to carry absolute persuasive weight. As well as points out experience is a relative concept therefore it can lend credence to the reliability of a thing but it should not be given the persuasive weight of an absolute. Scripture and the worldview it reveals to be authoritative in that way. We securely fastening ourselves to unchanging, absolute truth, by deep study of Scripture, to learn the unique view of the world it reveals. We should not absolutize those things that are relativize that is make cultural tradition, personal experience, (any relative concept), into an absolutes, giving it absolute persuasive weight. Nor should we relativize those things that are absolute, and so reduce Scripture (our weightiest absolute) to one line of evidence among many of equal value.
  11. Presentation must always be personal appeal to self-interest, passionate in plea and with a sense of eloquence. In whole segments of the church the language of the “gift of preaching” has been exchanged for talk of technique gimmick and novelty dominate. Every preacher should be taught basic practical dynamics of public speaking. I acknowledge the need for skills training in public communication. Yet what sets preaching apart from a political speech is not just the subject matter but the dynamic of The Spirit’s work. When the word of God is faithful preached the Holy Spirit abides in and works through the sermon to grow the Church. This is why the Protestant church has considered preaching as a means of grace.
  12. Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), p. 3.  Here Noll’s investigates the modern intellectual lives of evangelicals and its origins.
  13. Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2004)
  14. Os Guinness, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What to Do about It (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), pp. 10-11.
  15. Os Guinness, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What to Do about It (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), whole last chapter
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