There is nothing wrong with mistrusting intellectuals. After all, intellectuals often mistrust each other, and even those they trust they often vehemently disagree with. Nor is there anything particularly wrong about a person not being interested in intellectual pursuits, nothing wrong even in a person actively disliking the practice of certain forms of inquiry. We are all “anti-intellectual” on some topics, those that we find uninteresting or that we think obvious humbug. I’ve never been interested enough to investigate claims that aliens built the pyramids or that the moon landing was faked. Life is short, and I must allocate my time accordingly. The phenomenon of anti-intellectualism involves something more: dislike of analysis of a topic one has made one’s own. If I were to write a book about the claim that aliens built the pyramids, it would be my job to give arguments for this view a careful hearing. If instead I maintained my aloofness to the topic–now my own topic–but instead made my book entirely ad hominem, say seeking out embarrassing personal facts about those who espouse the alien construction hypothesis or accusing them of being pawns of the oil industry, then I would be practicing anti-intellectualism. I would be engaging in a fundamentally dishonest practice, an abuse of the life of the mind, regardless of who built the pyramids.
Change “aliens built the pyramids” to “religion”, and one has a common new atheist attitude. I can respect an atheist who thinks that religion is bunk and has no time for the sophistries of the theologians because, hey, life is short. The moment he decides to devote energy to attacking religion, he makes it his business to work through the theologians and their sophistries, if he wishes to engage in an intellectual rather than an anti-intellectual pursuit. It would be unfair, though, to imply that anti-intellectualism is a distinctively atheistic vice. In fact, I think it is nowhere more prevalent today than among the clergy of the Catholic and Liberal Protestant Churches. If theology is the practice of teasing out true statements about God and our relationship to Him, then a large number of ordained practicing theologians clearly are not only uninterested in theology but are actively hostile to it.
Anti-intellectualism is found in every sect and every party. One sees its symptoms everywhere.
- Frequent appeal to epistemically irrelevant issues, such as whether a proposition is acceptable to modern man, whether it causes upset or offense, or the motives or psychological state of those who propose it. In general, an appeal to the social intelligence when analysis is called for. In theology, the irrelevant issue of choice is whether or not a given statement is “pastoral”, meaning agreeable to the higher-status segment of the laity. “Relevant” is also popular in both theology and education theory; it also is used to mean “agreeable”.
Inability to state contrary views in a form that proponents of those views would recognize as accurate. Indifference, even pride, in this inability. Lack of empathy is not a moral defect, but an intellectual one. Because it is not recognized as a vice, it is common whenever one faction dominates a conversation.
- Dislike of clarity, and regarding the desire for it as morally suspect. Related, a hostile or dismissive attitude toward discourses which aim at maximal clarity and rigor, such as mathematics. (...men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.)
- The rush to judgement and to “activism”. Prior confidence that the truth is simple, obvious, and known by the modern investigator from the start. Lack of suspicion that one’s own viewpoint might need to be altered. Lack of interest in bringing about any such alteration. A mark of the curious of whatever sect or party is that he is excited by the prospect of having his own understanding radically reworked and deepened. “You’ll never think about X the same way again” is his highest recommendation for a book.
Pope Francis and his clique exemplify the anti-intellectual strain in the modern Church, with their admitted hostility toward clarity and logical consistency, and their careless attribution of base motives in those who look for such things. This anti-intellectual attitude goes back to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s attack on integralism. The Catholic case for integralism is so simple and irrefutable–amounting basically to the claim that the state should base its actions on truth rather than falsehood–that clerics are forced to turn to irrationalism (a horror of “abstract, static, and immutable concepts”, i.e. to reason itself) to deny it.
Can we understand why post-conciliar Catholicism has become a hotbed of anti-intellectualism? Certainly some of it traces to the Church’s official position toward the changes initiated by the Council, a position which does not withstand honest scrutiny and which might be called “the hermeneutic of consistency by fiat”, whereby two contradictory statements are declared to be compatible just because the Pope says so.
There is also a sociological cause that the clergy are expected to be the guardians of doctrine, but that this is not what attracts men to the priesthood. Once, the priesthood was a natural place for a young man with intellectual interests. Now they have other options. Most often, men don’t become priests because they want to parse dogmas, but because they want to be pastors. This is all as it should be. But it’s not surprising that a bunch of non-intellectually inclined pastors should judge doctrines based on how pastorally useful they are. This will presumably be true for both liberal and conservative prelates, although the former are now far more influential. One can imagine an anti-intellectualism of the clerical Right that would be reflexively hostile to novelty and care less about theological precision than keeping the laity as far as possible from sins and heresies regarded as particularly dangerous. Of the possible anti-intellectualisms, this one is certainly less damaging, and is in fact probably the best maintainable attitude for the papacy, the errors to which it is prone being less destructive than the “openness (and surrender) to the world” attitude. (In a fully healthy state of affairs, the Church would have at her disposal a class of ambitious, intellectually passionate theologians looking to make names for themselves by defending orthodoxy rather than undermining it. How, though, to create the incentives for that?)
Anti-intellectualism in the university may have a similar cause. As the student body swells, we now have many students–probably most–who, regardless of their intelligence, have no real interest in the life of the mind, and who demand their lack of interest be accommodated. The arrogance of the student body is remarkable, when you think about it. They come in as freshmen ready to change the world without any need for prior study and meditation, as if it were obvious which changes would be beneficial, as if they had nothing to learn from their elders before condemning them. The one weakness they will admit to is not being very good at math. (I hear that a lot.) But this doesn’t seem to really bother them, as they have relegated mathematical truths to the category of uninteresting details. Remarkably, they would all claim to have a modern, scientific worldview while admitting illiteracy in the language in which scientific truths are expressed. We faculty are partly to blame. We made our classes too easy and nonthreatening, when what students need is a humbling confrontation with their own intellectual inadequacies. I have dealt with large classes of undergraduates, and it turns out that being bad at math is by no means the only weakness to be found among them. Many have difficulty writing in complete sentences. The basic rules of punctuation elude some. Many find logic even at the level of the simple syllogism difficult. But they all know how to fix the world.