Probably since the very beginning of American life, there has been something of an anti-intellectual streak running through our culture. There has long been a distrust of people who are considered experts in any particular field, and a kind of suspicion of the highly educated. The heroes of American culture are almost never people with advanced degrees. America has a bit of a love affair with the idea of the “common” person and the “self-made” man, and we have a tendency to think that the average Joe or Jane really knows just as much about things as someone who has studied them for years academically.
On the one hand, there is something attractive in this. It is connected to the idea of America as a land of opportunity, in which anyone can make something of themselves regardless of education or background. Of course, it’s never as simple as all that, but I have heard a number of people from foreign places affirm that this country allows for a mobility that their places of origin did not — and so there is, I think, something to it.
On the other hand, the anti-intellectualism that dominates American culture has created a great deal of havoc, as people and institutions, including governmental and religious institutions, put themselves in a place of denial about dangers that experts in various fields seek to point out with absolute clarity but which are frightening or unsettling. The ability to occupy that space of denial is enabled in large part by a deep conviction that experts in any given field don’t really know what they are talking about, and their opinion shouldn’t really carry any greater weight than anyone else’s.
I am particularly aware of this, of course, in the area of religion. At one time, in the Western world, Christianity helped to preserve the intellectual heritage of earlier generations. The most educated people in society were quite often to be found in various ecclesiastical offices. And while doctrinal commitments sometimes were allowed to trump studiously arrived at conclusions, particularly in the areas of biology and cosmology, on the whole these were the exceptions rather than the rule.
Today, however, religion in general — and Christianity in particular — has an increasing reputation of being the bastion of anti-intellectualism. Large numbers of Christians believe that their literal reading of the Bible trumps studied scientific conclusions. Many people have erected a wall between science and religion, seeing them as enemies that offer competing truths. Some Christians go so far as to home school their children in order to prevent them from being taught anything that disagrees with their parents’ interpretation of the Bible and their faith. Materials produced for these people, and for many “Christian” schools, even go so far as rewriting American history so that the founders of the country are depicted as understanding Christianity in the same way that modern evangelicals understand it.
We sometimes fail to realize that this is a relatively new development. There is nothing inherent in Christianity that is opposed to intellectual inquiry, nothing inherent in Christianity that pits religious truth against complementary truths discovered in other fields. The fact that so many Americans don’t experience Christianity in this way is testament to the degree to which the anti-intellectual bias of American culture has insinuated itself into our religious life.
Of course, there are many Christians who don’t subscribe to this anti-intellectual version of our faith. There are plenty of faithful people out there who don’t see any opposition between science and religion, understanding that (at a basic level) science is about discovering the way things work and religion is about meaning. In terms of biology and cosmology — the two places where science and Christianity most frequently are made to clash in our culture — science is able to tell us about the “how” of creation, while the religious traditions are interested in the “why” of creation.
There is such a thing as intelligent religion. Faith can and should be informed by other fields of human endeavor and inquiry — that is one of the ways that faith is deepened and matured. Too often in our culture we carry with us this idea that faith means to believe something regardless or despite any information to the contrary. Such a view would say that we should cling to the idea that the earth is flat, even though we know that is not the case. But faith is not meant to be a belief system that ignores everything else. Rather, faith is meant to be a path for integrating all that we know into a meaningful whole. Sometimes, that integration can be challenging, to be sure. But that challenge is part and parcel of the journey of faith, and is, for me, part of what makes life exciting and wonder-filled.