Skip to main content

Dogmatism and Anti-intellectualism in Christianity

By Paul So ~

When I remember my former years when I use to be a Christian there was always this latent fear of the intellect that sneaks behind the scenes of the religious mind. It never really manifested itself until I reached the age of 16. At the time I was interested in studying philosophy ever since I first tried to read about it in the World Book Encyclopedia in the P section, so I asked other church members (both inside and outside my community) about philosophy. I received variety of opinions all of which are negative. I would hear erroneous statements such as “Philosophy teaches evolution”, “Philosophy breeds atheism”, “Philosophers are too abstract, no spiritual life”, “Philosophy denies God”, or “Be careful when you study philosophy” “the devil is out there to deceive you, and it doesn‘t matter if you don‘t believe!”. Even my closest church member who tutored me a little on philosophy warned me about it since it can lead to atheism or disbelief. I would continue to get these similar comments from religious believers. It baffles me because as I begin to study philosophy I would find some prominent philosophers who are religious (e.g. Augustine, Aquinas, Scotus, Locke, Rousseau, Peter van Inwagen, Saul Kripke, Wittgenstein, Alvin Plantinga, etc.) and that philosophy is not biology thus it does not teach evolution, although most philosophers have reached the point that creationism no longer seems rational option to choose (the theistic ones believe evolution is compatible with their faith).

As I grew older I begin to recognize anti-intellectualism manifesting itself in Christianity during my stay in church and after I left church for good. I have had a comment from someone who said “Stop being to technical, just accept things by faith” (this was when I start to doubt the theology of atonement since it made little sense to me). After I left church I begin to see more Christians expressing disdain and fear of reason, and insisting that reason is so severely limited that we can no longer trust it thus we must lean on God rather than our own understanding. Even some Christians who say that we should think for ourselves are hypocritical since they act like most Christians who flatly deny evolution and the big bang.

My personal experience has lead me to the conclusion that anti-intellectualism is latent within conventional Christianity. I think there is an obvious reason why this is the case: anything that resembles philosophy or is philosophy often promotes the values of free-thinking, which is to ask questions and examine beliefs to find out if they are true. This is potentially dangerous to Christianity since religious beliefs can be gradually abandoned once people realize that those beliefs have become untenable. It is often the norm in Christianity that those beliefs cannot be abandoned but rather we must have a unconditional commitment to those beliefs. This unconditional commitment runs very deep in Christianity including the sense of identity among many Christians. This is what most of us would call “Dogmatism” or “Narrow thinking”. Dogmatism is reinforced by our sense of solidarity with the authority and tradition of the churches.

I personally think that there is a connection between dogmatism and low level of critical thinking. Perhaps the connection is that once you have an unconditional commitment to a belief, then you unconditionally believe them to be unconditionally true. If that’s the case, then there doesn’t seem to be any need for critical thinking since the purpose and function of critical thinking is to provide reasons and arguments for why we should accept any conclusions. This makes it sound like the soundness of the conclusion depends on the soundness of the supporting reasons, which makes the whole process of believing a conditional process, rather than an unconditional one, that can change it’s conclusions once the reasons provided are shown to be false. This is unacceptable among many conventional Christians. Also, this seems unnecessary in religion like Christianity. But even worse, there is a hostility to critical thinking in Christianity since critical thinking is a double edge weapon that can be used to undermine the belief system of Christianity. It can support Christianity as well to some extent (which apologists are trying to do) but it can also undermine it, which is why there is a suspicion on critical thinking just as we would be suspicious of the secret double agent who has no allegiance.

But the problem runs deeper: critical thinking requires not only arguments but also evidence which runs contrary to how people think about faith. Of course many Christian set up a double standard in which Christianity does not require evidence while scientific theories do, but even from the perspective of critical thinking this is an unwarranted double standard. Precisely because there is an inevitable lack of evidence and a destitution of reasons to accept Christianity and that the norm of reasons (which is pervasive in philosophy and science) demands that in such circumstances the belief should be abandoned, many Christians would reject the norms of reason (or would reject that it applies to them) in order to preserve their beliefs. The norm of reason is a threat to Christianity. (by norms of reason, I simply mean the general rule of rationality that any reasonable person would accept in order to improve their understanding of reality).

There are Christians who insist that the norm of reason need not be a threat to Christianity since there are available evidence and arguments in favor for Christianity, but this is missing the point: by accepting the norm of reason you are also accepting the risks that comes along with it in a package. That risk is what most of us know to be the risk of being wrong. Nobody likes to be wrong, hell even I don’t like to be wrong (though I must admit it). But the general rule is that every beliefs that we posses always have the risk of being wrong. Such risks are inversely proportional to the quality of evidence or arguments that supports the belief: if the quality is good and sufficient then the risk is low, but conversely if it is insufficient and bad then the risk is high. We can certainly try to minimize that risk by actually supporting our beliefs as much as possible, but in many cases there comes a time when it becomes apparent that some of those beliefs are untenable. When that becomes apparent then we are obligated to abandon it.

Risks that are not successfully minimized by reasons become doubt, which is the very thing that is a sensitive issue to many Christians. While Christians like to pretend that it’s ok to doubt and have uncertainty, they often insist that doubt and uncertainty must be controlled because there is something inherently dangerous about it (very similar to sex…just saying), since it has the power to subvert beliefs. But in the norm of reason the perspective is different: doubt is reasonable when beliefs lack reason, so we should doubt a belief if it lacks reason. That’s a smack to the face to many devote Christians since it’s not ok to doubt something that lacks reason. The norms of reason permits doubt to play a role to undermine beliefs when the risks are unacceptable whereas in Christianity doubt is not permitted but rather prohibited to undermine beliefs; doubt’s only role is to be controlled.

If the norm of reason does exist in Christianity it is a very domesticated version of it. People would allow our cognitive biases distort their arguments and evidences to the point that that becomes the norm of Christianity. They pretend that they provided sound arguments and reasons, hence they must be the “rational Christians”, but I often find that they are as dogmatic as ever. In academic disciplines like philosophy there is always the risk of being wrong, there is always uncertainty: one has to accept those risks and ultimately allow those risks to play their part to undermine our beliefs so we can move on to other beliefs that may seem more promising. This is also true in the natural sciences where the risk would either be the lack of evidence or contrary evidence.

While Christians like to pretend that it’s ok to doubt and have uncertainty, they often insist that doubt and uncertainty must be controlled because there is something inherently dangerous about it In principle there is no exception, in practice it requires discretion to figure out when it’s appropriate to decide when the risks call for abandonment of beliefs, reformation of beliefs, or defense of the beliefs. Of course, such discretion varies in context but ultimately all forms of discretions respond to risk as a way to show respect to the norm of reason. On the other hand dogmatism is the negligence of risk which is essentially violating the norms of reason. Such negligence is based on the assumption that a specific belief is “risk-free”, hence exempted from the norms of reason. However, we know from experience that no beliefs are free from risk, all beliefs are under the constraints and threat of risks. To use somewhat of a caricaturized Darwinian metaphor, beliefs are forced to survive in the wild environment full of risks and constraints: some beliefs survive, others do not; the ones that survive adapt better to risks while others do not. Dogmatism is like being in denial that your beliefs are at risk, it is this grandeur and unrealistic optimism that your belief is very special because it has absolute immunity from risk. When people show you that your beliefs are wrong with evidence and arguments, you ignore them because you act under the assumption that your beliefs are immune to them, as if it has some magical properties that protects it from risk. To sum it all up: “I CANNOT BE WRONG” is what it is.

We all know that this is plainly wrong headed: we cannot take any beliefs for granted. True, there are many benign and trivial beliefs that are less of a suspect but this only means that the risks varies among beliefs: some beliefs are more risky than others, we usually focus on the ones that are riskier. Some of us are intelligent enough to see the risks where most of us had not suspected. But in general no belief is absolutely safe, some are just more safer than others. But we know from our experience that the beliefs we thought were safe were actually not free from risks, and when we explored more ourselves we realize that the risks actually exist for the beliefs we held to be important to us. We all accepted those risks and eventually abandoned those beliefs, but there are other people who are either oblivious to such risks or deliberately ignore it. Instead, people say there is something wrong with the norm of reason itself rather than the belief just like a criminal would insist that there is something wrong with the law rather than his illegal behavior in order to be free from the law. That is the essence of anti-intellectualism in Christianity: it denies that it’s at risk and it criticizes the general norm that informs that the belief is at risk in order to vindicate itself. It also establishes a double standard that the norm of reason applies to all positions except itself. That, to me, is not only anti-intellectual but arrogant because it suggest that there is something exceptional about your belief such that it requires exemption.

Ex-Christians (and other secularists) such as myself reject Christianity because we became aware of those risks. We realize that the risks are unacceptable because they surpassed the threshold but we were initially surprised when our Christian contemporaries denied those risks, it left us disillusioned with Christianity. We found those risks by reading the bible; We found those risks when we studied science, comparative religion, philosophy, psychology and others. We found those risks in our personal experience with abuse from friends and families. We found those risks in many places in life and we all came to the same conclusion. We should be proud of ourselves because we realize one thing: We know that we don’t know, but let’s try to know better without presuming too much.