Asher ’15: Faith and anti-intellectualism

Opinions Columnist
Monday, February 11, 2013

Googling “religion anti-intellectual” returns about 3.6 million hits, most of them on the anti-religion side of the argument. In fact, the only article on the first page countering the assertion that religion is inherently anti-intellectual is from The Gospel Coalition, which, though a fine site, is not exactly the Brookings Institution. Combing through the results reveals further anti-religious sentiment. One eye-catching headline even reads, “GOP Insider: Religion destroyed my party.”

Naturally, the groups with the most vested interest in a positive public perception of religion would be religious groups. Nevertheless, it’s a shame that religion seems to have lost almost all backing from mainstream intelligentsia. Even the word “religion” conjures images of old books and dusty seminaries with arthritic priests standing watch.

It’s not surprising there has been such a shift in perception. A cursory glance at your Facebook news feed or the BBC home page on any given day will provide enough examples of religious hatred and its effects that I don’t need to list them here, but suffice it to say that many religious leaders have declared a war on any ideas that don’t fit their particular narratives and might threaten their hold on power.

We’re at Brown — we know and understand this phenomenon. But we have to be careful not to let a healthy skepticism about religious authority become a fear and hatred of religion itself. I’ll be the first to admit religion can bring out many of humanity’s worst traits, among them a blind adherence to authority, intolerance and even hatred for those who think differently or are simply different, as well as a pathological fear of anything that upsets the social order.

But we can’t let religion’s shortcomings eclipse the enormous good it facilitates, good that extends beyond the considerable charity and social action initiatives in which religious organizations have always participated. To use a personal example, what speaks most to me about my faith — Reform Judaism — is the premium it places on finding one’s own personal truth. The word “Yisrael” itself literally means “He who wrestles with God.” Even the strictest Orthodox Jews are encouraged not to study by themselves in case their opinions about and interpretations of the law go unchecked — a positively Socratic precept.

The problems of religion don’t stem from the abstract idea of believing in a higher power and a universal truth. The evils of religion continue to be carried out by people — both those in positions of authority and those on the ground who carry out their commands. The Muslim Brotherhood terrifies me. I have considerable problems with the Vatican. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel is backward and corrupt. Yet, when practiced with the intention of seeking answers for the unanswerable, Islam, Christianity and Judaism are beautiful faiths that can engender human connection and empathy. God isn’t the problem — human beings are the problem. If we, as educated people, continue to turn up our noses at any sort of organized religion, we will only push its practitioners farther away from centers of learning and into the waiting arms of the very institutions we wish to change. After all, 73 percent of Americans identify as Christian — you can’t simply wish them away. If we want their views to change, we have to start with acceptance and understanding, as distasteful as that may seem.

I’m not asking you to accept God or Jesus or Satan or any other being into your heart. What I am asking is that you honestly assess the assumptions you make about people when they profess any sort of belief in a higher power, vague as it may be. It does not mean they believe the planet is 6,000 years old, or women should be subordinate to their husbands at all times or homosexuality is immoral. I’m talking about a simple belief in God. Turning to religion as part of one’s internal struggle for meaning is not a sign of mental weakness.

Author and essayist David Foster Wallace was undeniably a man of extraordinary brainpower — he even received a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a “genius grant.” He also frequently attended church services. Not everyone wants or needs religion to be a part of their life. But if someone as brilliant as Wallace felt that he benefited from it, it’s worth considering that religion isn’t solely the pastime of the ignorant and faith does not have to be the enemy of reason.



Adam Asher ’15 is concentrating in Classics. He can be reached at, and followed on Twitter (@asheradams).

  • not an atheist

    This is excellent. Thank you.

    – a theist

  • Arafat

    Yours is a watered-cown, half-baked article.
    Mohammed was unique as a prophet and the example he set – as clearly illustrated in the hadiths – set a role model for Muslims that is different from any other religion is as night is from day.
    Let me suggest you read some books by ex-Muslims like Ibn Warraq, or by scholars like Andrew Bostom or Robert Spencer on Islam. Assuming you are open to new information these books will open your eyes to just how profoundly mistaken your views are.

  • an atheist

    Except, you know, David Foster Wallace was of questionable morals and judgment, Infinite Jest was written to get into a woman’s pants, and he killed himself.

    Church must have helped so much.

    • DFW incarnate

      Thanks for the constructive criticism jagoff! What the hell do you mean by ‘of questionable morals and judgement’?

  • another atheist

    You make a good point that many atheists sometimes lose sight of. I applaude you for being in the extreme (good) minority of religious people – as half of the United States does believe that the planet is 6,000 years old, for example. I do, however, take some issue with the ease with which you attribute the problems of religion to people while implying you have religion to thank for your special internal reflection/meditation/etc. It just sounds a bit hypocritical. Both the bad and the good of religion are carried out by people, obviously. Better yet, you don’t need any superstition to do such charity work, or to have “spiritual experiences.” You’re right that “a simple belief in god” is relatively harmless, a far cry from the rest of the fundamentalist dogma that exists. At the end of the day, though, it’s still technically superstition (i.e. bullshit unsupported by reality). It’s still irrational thought that’s kind of weird. It would be much more helpful if you elaborated on your own faith, your “internal struggle for meaning,” because right now the few words and phrases you’ve used are very generic and abstract. I mean, let’s be real, what the hell does “finding one’s own personal truth” actually mean? Don’t get me wrong, I am totally supportive of any kind of “spiritual experience” that in your mind gets you from point A to point B (that another kind of thought process wouldn’t allow you to do as easily), but do I think even a shred of it has anything to do with some supernatural deity? Absolutely not. You already have the power.