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Helping the New York Times Find Some Smart Christians
Are Christians Dumber Than Dumb? Not!

In 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.")

As 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 data.)

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.

Within 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.

To 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.

Charles Henderson

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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, 2005).
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.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.
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