Monday, October 24, 2011

The Intellectual Evangelical

Several friends forwarded me an article from Friday’s edition of the New York Times. The article, entitled “The Evangelical Rejection of Reason,” is a blistering attack on Evangelical Christians by self-identified Evangelicals. I’ve found it difficult to respond to because I don’t find it to be very well-written.

If you have a moment, check out the article before reading on:

The one point that comes through clearly is that Giberson and Stephens are really disdainful of other Christians. The article seems to be their opportunity to unload on conservative Christians—and they don’t hold back.

In fact, the article made me think of a poorly-argued high school debate match I once watched. One student laid out his argument and as you watched his opponent, you could tell he was getting more and more frustrated. He rolled his eyes, he condescendingly sighed, and tapped his pen impatiently. Only by sheer will power did he manage to wait until it was his turn to offer a rebuttal. And, boy, did he rebut!

A stream-of-consciousness attack on his opponent spewed out of his mouth. Some of his points were valid, but the general presentation of his argument was overshadowed by faulty logic and unhidden disdain for his opponent and his relevant points went unnoticed.

Like that debater, Giberson and Stephens have some valid arguments, but their contempt for Evangelicals has caused them to make those arguments ineffectively. They seem angry and guilty of several logical fallacies.

The Argument

The general complaint the authors are making is that Evangelicals are anti-intellectual. Evangelicals fail to hold beliefs viewed acceptable by the general scientific community, such as global warming and evolution. They do so in willful defiance of reason and the use of intellect. They also cling stubbornly to a literalistic understanding of Scripture. As illustrations of this phenomenon, the authors cite Ken Ham, David Barton, and James Dobson.

The answer to Evangelical’s assault on reason, they argue, is to integrate secular knowledge with faith. This means promoting social justice instead of opposing gay marriage, incorporating Darwinism with Christianity, and striving to flourish in a pluralistic society.

Areas of Agreement

Giberson and Stephens hit upon something that I have noticed as well. At times, Evangelicals are reactionary. There is such a distrust of secular culture that sometimes Evangelicals fail to really listen to what their opponents are saying.

In fact, I, too, have sometimes disagreed with approaches taken by the three Evangelical leaders the article cites. I’ve sometimes thought Ken Ham should interact more with some of the counter-arguments of secular scientists. David Barton, while rightly realizing the importance the Christian faith has played in our culture, tends to overly romanticize the degree to which our country was ever truly “Christian.” And I’ve differed with James Dobson sometimes as he’s blurred politically conservative opinions with truly biblical positions.

In short, the article is right when it argues that Evangelicals have sometimes been sloppy in their intellectual endeavors, in my opinion.

Poor Argumentation

These valid points are buried within an article that is poorly argued and developed. It’s hard to refute an article like this because so many different accusations are leveled and so many generalizations are made that it’s hard to tackle them all. It’s like a person who gets angry with you and begins to accuse you of so many things, their valid criticism is overshadowed by their frustration and it's hard to address all the issues they've raised. Let me just give a few examples of the faulty logic used.

1. Poor definition of a key term

According to Miriam-Webster, anti-intellectualism is “opposing or hostile to intellectuals or to an intellectual view or approach.” Intellectual refers to that which is “relating to the intellect and its use" or to be “developed or chiefly guided by the intellect rather than emotion or experience.”

But Giberson and Stephens have taken a hodge-podge of positions with which they disagree and labeled them “anti-intellectual.” In their view, not only is opposition to evolution “anti-intellectual” but so is the moral opposition to homosexuality. Those who disagree with climate change are anti-intellectual. Those who interpret the Bible literally are anti-intellectual. In short, those who disagree with them are guilty of “rejection of knowledge.”

To paraphrase Inigo Montoya, they keep using the phrase “anti-intellectual” but I do not think it means what they think it means. For instance, the authors argue that they “look to the Bible as our sacred book” but those who believe in approaching that book literally are “against reason.” But being literalistic isn’t the same as anti-intellectual. In fact, one could argue that it might be more intellectually honest to jettison Scripture than alter its meaning beyond recognition.

Just because someone disagrees with you is not evidence that they are against the use of the intellect or are simply being guided by emotion.

2. Ad hominem attacks

The article would have been far more convincing if the authors would have displayed a little charity toward those they claim are fellow-Christians. Ham, Barton, and Dobson aren’t just wrong. They are “self-appointed” leaders who are “orchestrators” of a parallel culture in which they are the “beneficiaries” of a “rejection of knowledge.”

3. Gross generalizations and Guilt by Association

The authors are also guilty of gross generalizations. Everyone with whom they seem to have some sort of beef is thrown together. The literalist is a David Barton apologist. The pro-life pastor is for one of three Republican presidential candidates.

Such generalizations, which occur in almost every paragraph of the piece, make it very difficult to respond to the substance of the article. Am I the one being attacked because I believe the Bible is literally true and I reject knowledge? Or does the article have a more narrow focus? Maybe there is some guy out there who is voting for Rick Perry, owns every book by Ken Ham/David Barton/James Dobson, believes in a vast secular conspiracy, is for prayer in schools, is angry about the removal of the nativity, against pornography, can’t read, and is against any sort of multi-culturalism. And that’s the guy they’re really ticked off at.

But in reality, they are committing the logical fallacy of guilt by association. If I believe that if the Bible says it I believe it and another guy who believes the Bible is true is a cultural isolationist, I must be a cultural isolationist as well.  And if I take a stand on a moral issue like homosexuality, then it means that I have the same opinions as others who are opposed to homosexuality.  This isn’t a well-thought piece and it betrays a lack of understanding of the diversity of conservative Evangelical thought.


1. Conservative Evangelical Christians are not the only group guilty of reactionary positions and poorly thought out positions.

This article is a great illustration of the truth that Evangelicals do not have a monopoly on poorly thought out positions. For instance, the Occupy Wall Street Crowd could surely give us some great examples of secular argumentation that fails to pass the mustard in terms of logical cohesiveness. There is nothing uniquely Evangelical about intellectual laziness.

2. The goal of Christianity is not to be found intellectually appealing to the lost.

Paul is very clear that Christianity’s worldview will not be accepted by the secular world.

18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

1 Corinthians 1:18-24
This was true in the first century and it remains true today. This doesn’t mean Christianity is anti-intellectual but rather that intellectuals are often anti-Christian.

There is a profound difference.

The understanding of reality as advocated by God has been actively resisted and rejected by many intellectuals.

3. A person doesn’t need to be intellectual to be right.

I say this somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but there’s a great deal of truth in this. David Stowe writes that John Stuart Mill called “Conservatives ‘the stupidest part,’ [and they were] but they were also right….”

Being intelligent doesn’t make you right. Being anti-intellectual doesn’t make you wrong—just ask your average financial advisor who has struggled to navigate the current economic crisis.  What makes you right--or wrong--is the degree to which your thinking aligns with how things truly are.  My prayer is for God to give us the grace to understand and rightly process reality.


Tina B said...

I'm just wondering how anyone can truly be an intellectual without a renewing of the mind to begin with. It's interesting to see how people define what is and isn't "intellectual".

jmbonnett1 said...

While I agree that parts of
Giberson's and Stephen's argument could have been better stated, I think the central thrust of their argument still contains considerable force: Evangelicals have displayed the bad habit of shutting themselves up into bubbles, creating sub-cultures and "experts" within them. I agree Dan with your argument that the Christian life and evangelism is not about being intelligent or intellectual. But surely it does involve extending ourselves and testing ourselves so we can speak intelligibly to those who aren't Christians. Paul himself says "Test all things." Scripture also presses us to stand ready to account for the hope that lies within us. I don't think Evangelicals have done a very good job in either department. At the least Giberson's and Stephen's op-ed suggests we need to do a better job.