My Open Letter to the Apologetics Community drew a predictable reaction from some who doubt that evangelical Christianity could ever stand on intellectual high ground. Nick Matzke in particular said in comments there,
It’s gonna be tough to overcome Christian anti-intellectualism as long as you think that things like Noah’s Flood and humans descending from a single specially created pair are reasonable ideas….
Gee, I thought intellectualism had something to do with following the truth wherever it leads. But you are just unwilling to do it in the cases I mentioned, and similar issues, as is much of conservative evangelicalism. Not only do they disagree with the overwhelming and basically simple physical evidence, they often make a huge public stink about it, and try and get their pseudoscience into the public schools. If you want to know why many think that conservative evangelicals are anti-intellectual, there’s one huge reason, and no one will have any good reason to think otherwise until evangelicals change their tune on this.
Nick is doing advanced work in biology at an excellent university. He’s an intelligent man. Nevertheless he is wrong to say that the question of intellectual presence revolves around one belief on one point. Now, I would not call him anti-intellectual just for that. One ill-advised position does not make a person globally “anti-intellectual.” Yet on that very point we seem to disagree, for he makes it clear that anti-intellectualism can indeed be an all-or-nothing thing, based on how one issue: how views origins. “You think YEC is credible?” he asks. “Bam. There goes your credibility with the wider intellectual culture.”
What does it mean to be anti-intellectual, anyway? It’s not the same as not intellectual, as in the case of those who lack capacity for scholarly pursuits. It’s also not about whether one knows a lot. Less apt or educated persons could be pro-intellectual, just as I’m in favor of excellent architecture or baseball-playing, neither of which are my strengths. It’s not just about being wrong; all the greatest thinkers have been wrong about some things—especially the scientists. No, to be anti-intellectual is to be opposed to things such as learning, study, and knowledge, taken broadly and deeply. (I’m intentionally avoiding the term intellectualism, by the way. It’s not a simple antonym to anti-intellectualism, it’s freighted with other connotations, and it’s not the topic here.)
So suppose there’s a Christian believer who thinks it credible to thing there was an original created couple (Adam and Eve). What is it about that position that signals opposition to study or to knowledge? Nick seems to think that just to consider anything outside the evolutionary party line a “reasonable idea” is to reject all reason. But that translates to, “If I’m to be a thinking person then I must think only what the authorities tell me to think.” That won’t fly.
Nick uses the phrase “they disagree with … the evidence.” It sounds as if thinks the evidence could speak without thoughtful persons interpreting it. I wonder if that was a matter of careless wording, or if he really thinks that. To consider God’s specially creating an original pair isn’t disagreeing with evidence, because this evidence isn’t of the class of thing that one could disagree with. It’s not necessarily rejecting evidence, either. It is (or at least it could be) holding a different view on that evidence, such as,
- I’m not a specialist in this field, so it would be irresponsible for me to take a firm position on what the evidence means, or
- I see the evidence and the force of it, but I also see conflicting evidence in philosophy, nature, and/or God’s word, which I don’t think “the authorities” have fully accounted for. Therefore I cannot accept their word as final.
Which of those is opposed to study or knowledge?
Nick also says “Gee, I thought intellectualism had something to do with following the truth wherever it leads.” That definition is far too loose (“something to do with”). Better to turn it over: “Refusal to follow the truth wherever it leads is a sign of anti-intellectualism.” But it’s only a sign, it’s not the whole story. I’m not committed to following every single truth to its ultimate destination. I’m not worried about chasing down the Bacon-Marlowe controversy until it’s been settled. For reasons already stated, I’m also not committed to taking the authorities’ word that science (whatever that is) has landed upon the final truth on origins. That would be a counter-intellectual move.
What then about “conservative evangelicalism” making “a huge public stink about it” in the public schools? Apparently for Nick, conservative evangelicalism is defined as those Christians who are making a huge public stink about this. Actually, most conservative believers pay evolution no attention whatever, and of those who do, only a few are trying to influence public policy. Of that group, even fewer are being stinky about it. So it’s not “conservative evangelicalism” making the stink he thinks he smells. Or if it is, then by his definition I’m not a member of conservative evangelicalism. Some Christians do raise a stink, admittedly, but though they are very visible they are also relatively few. Even if they were bastions of blithe stupidity (which would be true for an even smaller subset), that would not make the real body of conservative evangelicalism anti-intellectual. (NIck says later in that paragraph that evangelicals “need to change their tune on this.” If those evangelicals to whom he is referring did that, I doubt he would notice any more than he has taken notice that the Discovery Institute isn’t trying to get evolution removed from school curricula.)
Later in the discussion Nick tries to moderate his position:
People who believe in YEC deliberately (rather than being raised in it) have decided to ignore the physical evidence and believe their particular reading of Genesis, evidence be damned. And that’s anti-intellectualism.
It might be instead the ability to consider contrary evidence, coupled with an informed decision to weight it differently. I’m not a specialist in this field, so maybe I’m wrong, but I think that might be healthy openness—even if it’s wrong; for wrong ≠ anti-intellectual.
This I do know. Nick has chosen (he was presumably not raised in it) to make one issue an absolute arbiter of anti-intellectualism. If all it takes is clinging stubbornly to an indefensible position to qualify as anti-intellectual, well, feel free to regard this tu quoque as intentional. Nick, you’re doing exactly the kind of thing you say makes a person anti-intellectual. But that’s Nick’s approach, not mine. I wouldn’t apply the term “anti-intellectual” to him globally, as if it were true of his whole person—even though he thinks it can be applied globally not only to individuals but to all of evangelical Christianity. I do not say that Nick is anti-intellectual. I do say, however, that this particular erroneous position of Nick’s is anti-intellectual, in that it is narrow, scientistic, parochial, and wrong—on the very topic of anti-intellectualism.
What difference does this make in the end? Does it matter that Nick Matzke thinks evangelical Christianity is tarred with anti-intellectualism on his narrow basis? Only in that it represents part of the problem of Christian anti-intellectualism, with which I started this whole discussion in the open letter. You can find real scholarship in the church. If you look elsewhere among Christians you can find anti-intellectualism. Somewhere off on a tangent you can also find a distorted picture of alleged Christian anti-intellectualism, such as Nick’s version here, which is a problem of an entirely different sort. Christians won’t regain the high ground by acquiescing thoughtlessly to the ruling authorities. Our intellectual future is bound up in much, much more than the creation/ID/evolution question. The last thing we want to do is accept intellectual rules like Nick’s, because the game they define is at best a tiny piece of what matters. We have much larger work to do than that.