George Carlin, 1937-2008 RIP
Saving the Suicide Hotline

Anti-intellectualism

Radicalmoi Jen's hubby Sean the Cosmologist has started an interesting discussion over on Cosmic Variance about "why so many academics are hostile to some religions rather than others." For me, this is a very interesting twist on the opposite question, why so many (particularly American) religions are hostile to learning and education. According to a recent study (PDF) by The Institute of Jewish and Community Research, "Faculty feel most unfavorably about Evangelical Christians." Big surprise. Having grown up in a religion that considered going to college about equivalent to choosing to live in a combination brothel and crack house, I find the question of why academics are more hostile to evangelicals not at all puzzling. It's a mutual hostility club caused not just by opposing world views, but opposing value systems.

Some of the things that academics value most are freedom of inquiry and freedom of speech. By contrast, evangelicals value unquestioning faith. Each intellectual challenge to that faith is seen as a test in loyalty and one's ability to bear the burden of ridicule for the sake of one's faith. The dogma of faith is unchanging—except when revealed by God—while, thanks to the spirit of inquiry, secular knowledge, with the exception of basic laws of nature, changes all the time. Even those basic laws are often refined, the way Newtonian physics was refined (or surpassed) by quantum mechanics. Evangelicals often view the effort to understand the wonders of our universe, both macro and micro, as a quest for forbidden knowledge. There are some things that we were just not meant to know, they often assert, usually in stentorian voices with much Bible thumping.

I've never understood that, though I do often despair of the way in which the knowledge we gain is used, e.g. splitting the atom. I think this is one reason science needs the counterbalance of some kind of spirituality. But not one that puts actual restrictions on what we're "supposed" to know. If you believe in some kind of creative deity, why would that deity not just freeze the brain power of its creation instead of giving it the capacity to become more intelligent, and understand more of the universe? Deities can do that, right?

No, that's because it's a test, the faithful say. But it's one the intelligent are going to fail. Intelligent people by nature can't stop questioning without real effort. And making that effort kills a part of them, their essential nature. That's some sacrifice.

What this claim of mystery means usually means, unfortunately, is that you, the little people, are not supposed to know these things. It's okay for the priesthood (literal or political) to know them, but not you. Because knowledge is power. That's one of the reasons that early education should be compulsory and advanced education should be free, for as far as you want to go. Otherwise, you are crippling your populace, and leaving them open to the manipulation of superstitious or just plain power-hungry nutcases. Jim Jones, anyone? Of course, it's far easier to control people who aren't that well-informed. Marking off certain areas as forbidden knowledge is one way to cement that control. The real problem with this, of course, is that if you don't understand your world, you can't make smart decisions about how to live your life. And if only a certain group understand the world, they get to make the decisions. As a rule, academics are in the business of spreading knowledge around to anyone who wants it. That can be a subversive activity in some cases.

It's no wonder academics are hostile right back to people who are hostile to their entire reason for being.

Like so many other prejudices, anti-intellectualism has its origin in fear, mostly of having your entire worldview dismantled, and the more petty but no less real fear of being made to look foolish. I can attest to the fact that it's a little scary to not have any sense of sureness about what the future will bring, either while you're living or dead. It was a relief to know we'd never have an all-out nuclear war because God would never let us totally destroy the earth. On the other hand, it's a little exhilarating, too, a bit like skydiving, I suspect.

But that fear is very real. My mother, not an ignorant or anti-intellectual woman by any means, found the idea of alternate dimensions really frightening. The idea that there might be someone else just like her somewhere else who had made different choices than she had was I think what she found so scary. Somehow, that would invalidate her life in her mind, though it did no such thing. The concept of alternate universes is a little more complex than that, but it does raise interesting "road not taken" possibilities. By contrast, I love the idea that our lives fork and branch at every moment, at ever choice we make, perhaps at every breath, not just for us but for every event. The number of universes is mind-boggling, but that may only attest to our lack of brain capacity to comprehend it. It's not by any means fully accepted in the physics community, but it raises some very interesting questions.

And that's what it's all about, isn't it: the questions.

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Emily

Would just like to point out that all too often the "forbidden knowledge" reserved for the privileged by reactionaries is not theories on atom-splitting or alternative universes, but instead information about contraceptives or even a clear understanding of what's in that Happy Meal.
Anyway, interesting post on a big topic.

Lee Kottner

All too true. Sometimes its as little as just the secret of how to get the right forms, fill them out correctly, and get them to the right people. Or as we've seen in the last couple of elections, how to register to vote, and who is eligible for that right.

Then there's that forbidden knowledge you're not supposed to keep from the government, like your phone calls and email correspondence. Oh, wait, that's called "privacy."

The comments to this entry are closed.