Anti-Intellectual Populism and Relgious Self-Understanding

There is a new book out The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age that shows the intense anti-expert populism of contemporary religion. Evangelicals today (and many Orthodox Jews) reject experts in history, education, philosophy,literature, psychology, and sociology. They think that each person can decide for themselves based on their religious education and common sense. Hence, they demonize the experts as subjective and not needed. They create religious versions of psychology, philosophy, or history that have little to do with the actual fields. Ministers and Rabbis are credited with the ability to decide science, philosophy or history.

There is a general distrust of university credentials, academic study, or expertise. They do not even grasp basic vocabulary or method. Some do not even understanding what they read, willfully misreading, or not realizing that their feeble attempt at intellectualism is really populist anti-intellectualism.Evangelicals (and Orthodox) have a post modern spin on truth as personal or to be decided based on faith. Whereas the issue in the 1950’s was pro-college or anti-college, now the issue is how to get the needed college degree without attaining a higher education or just enough of a higher education to pretend that one can be the expert.

The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, by Randall J. Stephens and Karl W. Giberson. The book is an exploration of intellectual authority within evangelicalism, a seemingly insular world in which, according to Stephens and Giberson, the teachings of dubiously credentialed leaders are favored over the word of secular experts in the arts and sciences. We invited Stephens and Giberson, who each have roots in evangelicalism, to answer a few questions about evangelical truth and its place in American life.

Q: Recent observers, including Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker, regard statements like Michele Bachmann’s endorsement of evangelical historian and philosopher Francis Schaeffer as anomalous or bizarre. But you argue that huge numbers of Americans embrace ideas like these. Can you explain how beliefs that appear extreme to outside observers can seem mainstream to their Evangelical adherents?
Many of the extreme and puzzling beliefs of evangelicals—like dinosaurs being contemporary with humans—are beliefs that they are raised with. Trusted but uninformed authorities in evangelical churches and religious schools present these ideas to laypeople and ministers so often and so convincingly that many grow up accepting them as obviously true.

Q: In The Anointed, you discuss knowledge authorities in diverse fields—history, evolutionary science, and psychology, among other domains. What threads connect these figures?
There are two threads that run through our Anointed authorities. The first is an appealing “Christianizing” of the ideas. David Barton “Christianizes” American history; Ken Ham “Christianizes” the science of our origins; James Dobson “Christianizes” social science, including the definition of the family. The “Christianizing” of these ideas, by default, undermines the credibility of secular ideas that might challenge the positions promoted by the Anointed leaders.
The second thread is old-fashioned American anti-intellectual populism. Barton, Ham, Dobson, and other Anointed leaders tend to make no effort to engage the fields they claim to represent. Barton never subjects his claims about American history to peer review in a journal. Ken Ham and James Dobson do no scientific research. In the secular world ideas get vetted in the academy through peer review in technical journals; then they appear in serious but more popular outlets; and then finally they might get discussed on the radio. The ideas of the Anointed cut out all these middlemen and appear immediately on the radio or television.

Q: What does the embrace of figures like the ones you describe in The Anointed mean for America?
The resulting widespread distrust of the scientific community—often portrayed as atheistic, anti-religious, ideological—undermines the credibility of everything the scientific community says, including its conclusions about climate change, the dangers of fracking, the importance of ecosystems, the need for vaccinating children, and so on. Read the Rest Here.

Here is a promo video for a guide to help one make sure one remains above the experts.

6 responses to “Anti-Intellectual Populism and Relgious Self-Understanding

  1. Rav Avigdor Miller comes to mind.

  2. I would like a fuller description of the utility of each view and relative epistemological advantages and disadvantages. In as adversarial and charged an ideological climate as we seem to operate in, eschewing expert opinion could conceivably lead a person do to very intelligent things, like not assume most articles in NEJM are scientific or replicable. On the other hand, it could render a person, as you ably point out, denuded of facts and other perspectives and susceptible to any marketing guru clever enough to package a product to appeal to homespun skeptics. Still, in an environment where the autonomy of the sciences is not exactly sacrosanct and their politicization is kind of inevitable, you need to do some kind of discounting for all the crap. What’s fascinating to me is the relative unsophistication of the homegrown experts, who have had a generation or two to perfect their craft, vis a vis academic experts. If politicization is anecdotaly so high, why is the payoff for shorting expert knowledge so low? Leads me to believe we are at some kind of false dichotomy.

  3. (Prof. Emer.) Alan Jay Weisbard, Univ. Of Wisconsin

    Willful misreading would seem to have a substantial history in many faith traditions, certainly not least the rabbinic. Is the issue one of elite vs populist misreading? One specific to our living in a world of highly credentialed expertise?
    To what degree are rulings of the ancient rabbis subject to revision based on subsequent expert knowledge inconsistent with the quasi- scientific (I.e., incorrect) underpinnings of their rulings?
    For that matter, to what degree is the mass return to fundamentalist or orthodox forms of religion (and a corresponding assertiveness in the public domain) largely a response to a loss of prior felt certainties and claims of “common” sense in the face of the ever-expanding role of expert knowledge in many domains of modern life?

  4. (Professor Emeritus) Alan Jay Weisbard, Madison, WI

    Having now watched the video:
    This video reflects a degree of anti-intellectualism that I have not often encountered among Jews, including highly observant Jews, at leading American universities, both private and public. Whether it is more typical of Jews raised in hareidi/yeshivish environments is beyond my experience and, you should forgive the expression, my expertise. In my world, college years are precisely when students should be challenged to think through their own commitments and test them against other perspectives and other life experiences. Insularity and unreflective indoctrination in any single belief system are not conducive to intellectual growth and development, or to a fully meaningful acceptance of any set of commitments, including religious commitments. While such assertions are usually targeted at faith-based institutions, it is an interesting question –and one rarely raised internally–whether secular institutions practice their own form of such indoctrination.

    • I was once among a group of dept heads and assistant deans that went to an out-of town AAUP conference on introducing new ideas and diversity. From the criteria offered by the presenters on how to evaluate your student body, we found that our Orthodox students were just as hostile as the Evangelicals toward intellectual life and that our students actually demonized and dismiss knowledge and academia more than the Christian schools.

  5. Like Josh I was thinking about the applicability to medical expertise. While there is definitely an anti-establishment-medicine strain in some frum cultures (and i think also some evangelical subcultures) – i mean not vaccinating, homeopathy, etc – it seems to me that the dominant strain in orthodoxy is to be extremely deferential to doctors and their expertise. Certainly in rabbinic litarature my feeling (I keep meaning to look into this seirously and haven’t yet) is that frequently rabbis use “but the doctors say he HAS to” as a convenient crutch. They rely on doctors to determine certain predicate facts based on which they can, for example, be lenient about something like shabbat or kashrut. When the rabbis don’t want to follow expert opinion (a simple case is pregnant women fasting, a less simple one is brain death) they know how to discount medical expert opinion, but usually in a local way – not by discounting the whole project of medical expertise. I suspect medicine is privileged in part for social reasons (too many my-son-the-doctors), but that there is something else as well, which may have to do with people thinking of medicine as technology rather than akin to “theoretical” science, and perhaps also with a general american love of consuming more healthcare. it’s probably not because medicine is inherently less threatening.

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