the New York Times Find Some Smart Christians
Are Christians Dumber Than Dumb? Not!
a recent New York times op-ed piece, Nicholas Kristof argues that the fundamental
divide in American culture today is between what he calls the "intellectual"
and the "religious." Further, he bemoans "the way the great intellectual
traditions of Catholic and Protestant churches alike are withering" even
as "mystical" forms of Christianity are on the rise. While Kristof insists
that he does not intend to denigrate anyone's faith, he clearly implies that the
forms of Christianity on the rise today are intellectually shallow, if not outright
dumb. As my mother used to say, "If you believe that, I've got some news
for you." (For the
full text of Kristof's editorial, "Believe It, or Not.")
proof to support his contention that the Christians of North America are not only
anti-intellectual, but also willing to believe almost anything, Kristof cites
recent poll data showing that three times as many Americans accept the doctrine
of the Virgin Birth (83%) as are ready the affirm evolution (28%). Note that the
poll covers a sample of Americans in general. And, as Kristof points out, nearly
a majority (47%) of non-Christians also state that they believe in the Virgin
Birth. In other words, Americans in general may be pretty dumb, but Christians
in particular are dumber than dumb.
As readers of this column will attest,
I am not one of those Christians who affirms the Virgin Birth while rejecting
the theory of evolution. (I happen to think that the doctrine of the Virgin
Birth is not only wrong headed, it actually contradicts the most basic creedal
affirmation that Christ was "fully human.") Still, I would not be ready
to follow Kristof in concluding that those Christians who do affirm the Virgin
Birth are necessarily lacking either intelligence or a capacity for critical thinking.
I know many Christians with very active minds who do believe that Jesus was "born
of a virgin." Kristof reasons that since there is a lack of "scientific
or historical" evidence to support this doctrine, smart Christians must reject
it. This line of reasoning totally misses the point that religious faith, for
most people, does not flow from science. Religion is not a house built on the
foundation of intellectual inquiry, but rather begins with inspiration. Or as
Christians more often refer to it: revelation. I would add that much of the work
of science begins with inspiration as well, but that is a debate for another day.
As for the poll results that lie at the heart of Kristof's argument. Don't
trust them. The results of public opinion polls on religion are as notoriously
inaccurate as polls on sex. There is ample research showing that the information
that people provide about their religious belief or practice is quite simply not
reliable. (For more on the unreliability of polling
Finally, and most important, Kristof is just plain wrong about
what he refers to as the withering of the great intellectual traditions of Catholic
and Protestant churches. ...
If Kristof would like to find some evidence
of an intellectually robust Christianity, I would suggest that he visit the annual
meeting of the American Academy of Religion. Here scholars from a variety of faith
traditions (or none) mix it up with each other in mind fest of thought, representing
the cutting edge of thinking that is taking place on university campuses and theological
schools of North America.
Or read the journal that I publish. CrossCurrents
has been referred to as the Scientific American of religious thought, covering
the best scholarship and writing in its field. Since 1950 this publication has
been documenting the intellectual vitality within the heart of Christianity and
other world religions. Each summer we sponsor a research colloquium for outstanding
scholars from around the world who spend one month together working on projects
of their own design in a collaborative learning community. Fellowship winners
are selected from a ever growing pool of people representing a wide range of religious
traditions as well as intellectual disciplines. I can tell you from personal experience
that the quality of work being done in the field of religion by researchers who
are intellectually engaged as well as relgiously committed is as strong as ever.
Further, such work is not limited to the academy. In countless churches,
synagogues and mosques across the U.S. people of faith and intelligence are wrestling
with the perennial questions of human existence as well as new problems such as
global warming or genetic engineering that make critical thinking essential. Since
World War II, larger and larger percentages of religiously active Americans have
benefited from a college education and therefore draw upon a knowledge base unknown
or inaccessible to prior generations. Meanwhile world events have forced people
to think about complex problems in new ways.
The real story of religion
in America today is not one of retreat to the superstitions of old, but rather
of a search for answers that make sense in an ever more complex world.
Christianity in particular, what I find among people who are attending our churches
is a willingness to think "outside the box" of traditional doctrine
and to draw upon both the Bible and modern science in the search for those answers.
Critical thinking, independant thought, a willingness to callenge traditional
notions of authority ... all of these qualities are in the ascendancy. So much
so that the official leaders of religious institutions have difficulty maintaining
control. These trends may present a serious problem for denominational leaders,
but at the same time are the vital signs of life in American religion.
measure the real vitality of intellectual life within American Christianity, I
would invite Kristof to check out the work being done within the membership of
the American Academy of Religion, to be sure, but as a final "reality check,"
I would suggest he visit a communicants class, such as is normally populated by
a group of 7th graders, in a typical Presbyterian church. Take these teenagers
off for a "focus group," and let them respond to the view that American
Christians cannot or will not think for themselves. Ask them whether
Amercian Christians are dumber than dumb. Be prepared to encounter some strong,
critical, independent thinking.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.