Are Christians Not Very Bright?

Sarah_Palin,_Queen_of_PorkI understand when political types attack their opponents by stating or implying they aren’t very bright. It’s a way of undermining public confidence in the person, a la Vice President Dan Quayle and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Hence, as a presidential candidate President Bush was vilified because he earned a C in college, or maybe had a C average at one point–I don’t recall the precise details. Never mind that the college happened to be Yale and most of the people in the US couldn’t even get into that school, never mind pass a single course.

The troubling thing is, that strategy seems to be spreading from politicians to evangelical Christians. And worse, evangelical Christians seem to be agreeing with the idea that evangelical Christians aren’t very bright. (Which begs the question: should we believe someone who isn’t very bright when he says he isn’t very bright? :roll: ) For example, in “Lots of Stupid Christians,” Dr. Coyle Neal says, “The example of Fundamentalism shows us one possible reason there are so few evangelical intellectuals.”

The distressing thing here is that “so few evangelical intellectuals” is treated as a given. But where are the data supporting such a statement?

And who defines “intellectual”? Are only PhD’s in philosophy considered intellectual?

What’s particularly galling to me is the complete dismissal of theologians as part of the intellectual community. I suspect atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, and the late Christopher Hitchens would be included on a list of intellectuals, but why not men like William Craig Lane, Ravi Zacharias, and Alister McGrath who debate those atheists?

Why not John Piper or R.C. Sproul, Kevin DeYoung or Francis Chan who study Scripture and look at culture through the lens of theology? Why wasn’t the late Professor Howard Hendricks or Dr. Clyde Cook considered an “intellectual”? Because they spent their time in seminaries and Christian universities?

And what about the likes of John MacArthur or Charles Swindoll, men who influenced evangelical Christianity a great deal these past forty years–are they not intellectual enough to be counted as intellectuals?

Then there are all the people living in towns and villages in Asia or Africa, speaking multiple languages, often translating from one to the other, understanding multiple cultures, and bringing a global view of God’s word to their work–are they not intellectuals because they don’t hob-nob with the rich and famous, they don’t lunch with politicians and media types?

If intellectuals must publish in a set of elite journals and expound on irrelevant arguments which the Apostle Paul saw as worthless, then sure, I’ll agree, there aren’t very many evangelical intellectuals. But really, if we’re talking about people who can speak to the cosmic issues of life, who know and understand how to frame an apologetic for the Christian faith, then thankfully, all these naysayers are wrong. The evangelical Christian intelligentsia is alive and well, thank you very much.

Published in: on March 12, 2013 at 6:36 pm  Comments (15)  
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  1. Well spoken, Becky! I wholeheartedly agree! :-)

  2. anti-intellectualism was covered at length at the 2012 Ligonier conference in FL, “The Christian Mind” with speakers such as Sinclair Feguson, Joel Beeke, Steven Lawsome, Robert Godfrey. It would be worth your time to try to listen to the talks.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Krysti. And JKS, I appreciate the info. Your mention of this conference shows that I merely skimmed the surface of those who are indeed evangelical and concerned with intellectual pursuits. I’d love to be able to track town those talks.


  3. You know what’s not very bright? Conflating “fundamentalist” Christianity with “evangelical” Christianity. That’s like, Western Christianity 101, and Neal just failed the first class.

    • Point well made, Jay. I didn’t think twice about it because I’m not “afraid” of the word “fundamentalism” as some are because I don’t think of it as Fundamentalism–meaning, I think of fundamentals of the faith, not a church some have experienced, with patriarchal legalism.

      Given that Dr. Neal capitalized it and tied his thoughts to the time period when Fundamentalism was coming into its own, I suspect you’re right–he’s crediting Fundamentalism with a greater degree of influence upon the entire body evangelical Christianity than is probably true.


  4. Becky,
    I must say my first thought was that you only mentioned a few intellectuals, although that was a nice list. Then I went to the articles referenced and found a surprise or two. Apparently Paul Miller sees himself as a Christian, if I read him right, and he makes this statement, in “Stupid Christians,” a Review of the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, by Mark Noll:

    “But I have to say that I think Noll is basically right—or, at least, he was right when he wrote this twenty years ago. I say that with some trepidation for fear of offending our vast readership. I fear that in agreeing with Noll it will sound like an accusation that every evangelical friend and family member in my life is stupid. So, dear reader, I want to be clear: no, I don’t think you’re stupid. (Besides, if you take time to read blogs like Schaeffer’s Ghost, you are certainly among the smartest and most intellectually sophisticated people out there).
    But I confess that I have sometimes wondered if there is something in the culture of evangelicalism that undervalues the life of the mind . . . ”

    And it is to Mark Noll’s and Paul Miller’s concerns about the “democratization” of Christianity that I would like to speak; their concern that this “stupidity” is because, as a group emerging from the Second Great Awakening, we have largely distrusted organized and hierarchical entities, and trusted our untrained minds. Paul does seem to trust the concept of the mind of Christ and of Christianity. Even Noll respected the fundamentals for standing their ground to defend supernatural incidents in the Bible and other important facts of the Bible.

    Yes, i would have to agree that evangelicals, myself included, at times. have not listened well to others with greater scholarship. I think we stand corrected, there. Where I would take issue is that, sometimes, the “intellectuals” either become obsessed with peripheral ideas, as he mentioned, on the other side of the coin, or impose a sort of academic strait jacket, which will not fit those who are sincerely caught up with the Presence of God and accomplishing His work throughout the world. Immediately, I think of the Small Woman, Gladys Aylward, who was called by God to missions, but summarily dismissed, by would-be mentors, until she brought about 100 children over the mountains in the winter with almost no food, during the Communist Revolution in China! The truth is that, when God inhabits a heart so completely, man’s devices are generally unprepared for His plans!

    So this is a call for us, as the tent preachers before us did, to return to New Testament Christianity, each of us mining the rocky gold of Scripture, and comparing what we are told with what God Says, so we may be wise, and not worldly so–so we may be wise with the Mind of Christ.

    • Good thoughts, Peggy. What I failed to catch when I read the article and when I wrote this post was the idea that Dr. Neal thinks us thinking for ourselves is less intellectual than us accepting someone else’s thinking. Hmmm. Somehow, bowing to a schooled mind seems less intellectual to me, not more, than reasoning things out.


    • Thank you Peggy for putting the thoughts that were in my head down –and so eloquently — I think we may be misinterpreting Miller’s or Noll’s intent here. I would applaud their attempt to rally the doctrinally fuzzy Christian soldiers to “sharpen their SWORDs–
      Bless you again Becca for this wonderful blog that causes us to pause and re-examine God’s Holy Word. To Him be the Glory

  5. Hi Becky, I don’t know much about the intellectual credentials of evangelical Christians, but I don’t think you give your argument any credence by suggesting that George W Bush was regarded as ‘not very bright’ only because of his college grades. This is the man who thought Africa is a country, who asked the Brazilian president if they ‘have blacks too’ and who didn’t want to be ‘misunderestimated’. I could go on, but I hope I’ve made my point. The man is a total idiot.

    Regardless of how many years evangelical Christians study or how many letters they get after their name, many people will still consider them to be ‘not very bright’ because they attempt to reconcile a deity who kills children, commits genocide, curses and punishes people and their descendants, endorses slavery and any number of other horrendous acts, with the idea of benevolence and a universal morality. It makes no sense.

    • Violetwisp, you make my point about the political arena very well. No matter that President Bush graduated from Yale, a school with some of the highest academic standards in the world, those opposed to his views will take whatever they hear in the media and label him as stupid. How often do we hear Vice President Biden, who clearly as as many or more egregious bumbling speaking errors, categorized as stupid?

      It’s a tactic–this berating of someone’s intellect.

      As far as evangelicals are concerned, I suppose we’re at an impasse. You believe we aren’t bright because we believe things that require spiritual awareness. And yet, if you’d take time to read some of the material written by Christian who once were atheists, I think you’d discover they have fine minds, that they are conversant on many subjects, knowledgeable in many fields, rational, logical, and they believe in the God revealed in the Bible.

      I don’t see that adding a dimension of understanding should be considered a negative.


  6. LOVE IT!

  7. […] absolutely are intellectual Christians who celebrate the life of the mind. But it doesn't matter how brilliant you are if someone […]

  8. Well, we were warned…. I think it’s in Corinthians, where we’re reminded that to be wise in pursuit of God is to be considered foolish by the world. There aren’t a lot of evangelical intellectuals, that’s true, because most evangelical Christians know that a person’s soul is more valuable than the random number credited to their mental acuity. Most people who take the Bible seriously know that competing to be smarter than other people will get them no where, and rightly head off to find a way to make their faith real to others. Faith is never going to be considered “smart” by the world. But the things God values–such as faith, hope, and love–don’t require cleverness. Just sincerity, humility, and perseverance.

    • Great point about Paul’s warning, Lex. Yes, those outside of Christianity will consider spiritual things foolish. I guess I got my dander up because these are Christians, as Peggy pointed out, echoing these thoughts.

      While I agree with you about evangelicals not competing to be smarter, I don’t think that’s what genuine intellectual pursuit is about. It’s really nothing more than understanding how things work. The fact is, evangelicals who believe what the Bible says ought to be farther along in the intellectual pursuit because we have the key piece that makes all else make sense–the fear of the Lord. Take that out and people are floundering.


  9. A friend of mine once said, “Tell people you’re a Christian, and add that you’re from the South, and your IQ drops ten points in their minds,”

    That, I think, is the crux of the problem. Too often it’s not that there are somehow fewer IQ points on this side of the fence, but rather that no matter what level of objective intellectualism we hold it’s dismissed because we hold certain beliefs as well.

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