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What is anti-intellectualism? Is Christianity anti-intellectual?


The term anti-intellectual was popularized by historian Richard Hofstadter in the 1960s. The concept has since been broadly applied, often well beyond its initial meaning. Describing something as “anti-intellectual” is always negative. This makes misuse of the term even more confusing. All people, of all spiritual and political persuasions, can engage in anti-intellectualism. However, neither the Bible nor Christianity encourage an anti-intellectual view.

Hofstadter’s original sense of anti-intellectual had nothing to do with assuming a person was stupid or broadly uneducated. Rather, anti-intellectualism denoted a belief that common sense and personal experience were more reliable than academic theory or expertise. In his 1963 book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, he associated it with

resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life (Vintage Books, p. 7).

Hofstadter’s personal politics were obvious in his examples, but the theory is still useful. For an attitude to be truly anti-intellectual, it must dismiss education or expertise outright. Or a person must reject those as irrelevant against his own experience. To question conclusions or applications is not anti-intellectual. Neither is cautious skepticism about ideas and information. At its core, anti-intellectualism implies that academia is at best useless and at worst a dangerous grab for power. Often, it becomes a mistrust of education because such knowledge opposes a preferred idea.

Scripture applauds education and knowledge (Proverbs 18:15) and commends those who seek wisdom (2 Chronicles 1:10–12). It encourages cautious skepticism (1 John 4:1), careful thought (John 7:24), and fact-checking (Act 17:11). Paul’s evangelism was dismissed by calling him too educated for his own good (Acts 26:24). The opening lines of the book of Proverbs directly refute anti-intellectualism:

To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth—Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction (Proverbs 1:2–7, ESV).

At the same time, Scripture warns against the “pseudo-intellectual” approach. This mindset relies on deceptive thinking (Colossians 2:8) or stubbornness (John 5:39–40). Neither does Scripture endorse trust in experts and academics merely because they are well-educated. It’s possible to put undue trust in those who tell us what we want to hear (2 Timothy 4:3; Proverbs 18:17). It’s especially dangerous to take spiritual advice from those who have no relationship with Christ (1 Corinthians 2:14).

Anti-intellectualism can be applied to defend any view. It simply requires insistence that personal perspective is “obviously” more correct than academia or theory. For example, a person may believe the sun orbits the earth: he doesn’t feel the earth turn, and he sees the sun “rise” and “set.” When empirical data showing that the earth orbits the sun is ignored because “anyone can tell that’s not true,” then a line has been crossed into anti-intellectualism.

Of course, the charge of “anti-intellectual” is often wielded against anyone who fails to immediately accept a conclusion. This type of name-calling is unfair, as even experts need to use good reasoning and solid evidence. Academia can, in fact, make a person detached from practical applications. An expert in topic A is not automatically an authority in fields B, C, D, and so forth. “Because I said so” is not a valid justification to accept an academic’s idea. It’s possible for an “expert” to be in error or to promote an unreasonable application for his or her facts. It’s also possible for people to defend a preferred idea that they, themselves, don’t fully understand; such individuals might simply dismiss those who disagree with them as uneducated.

In its own way, anti-intellectualism follows a form of logic. When something seems obvious—either due to personal perspective, culture, or tradition—reasons to change that view may be obscure. Specialized knowledge may be needed to understand exactly why the original idea is false. But if something seems obvious, and the counter-explanation makes no sense, the argument won’t be convincing. What’s required, then, is trust in the “expert,” and this is where the breakdown most often occurs. Whether trust or mistrust is warranted is, itself, what separates anti-intellectualism, reasonable skepticism, and blind faith in academia.

Politics is a rich source of examples of anti-intellectualism. Politics, by its nature, seeks the approval of as many people as possible—mostly non-academics and non-experts. A cynical politician finds this fertile ground for anti-intellectual tactics. People of any political persuasion are pressured to set aside reason, evidence, or qualified expertise in favor of feelings, preferences, tradition, tribalism, or other concerns.

As a final note, the anti-intellectual attitude is sometimes ridiculed by referring to people as “philistines.” This has only an obscure connection to the people group mentioned in the Bible. The Bible does not portray Philistines as uneducated but as the enemies of God’s people, the Israelites. Through the years, the English word philistine has developed the sense of “a culturally deficient person” or “an enemy of intellectualism.”

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This page last updated: July 26, 2023