Jo | Reconciling Christianity with intellectual curiosity

Some people have put it bluntly: If you follow organized religion, you must be deluding yourself, living with severe cognitive dissonance or cherry picking to only accept ideas that make you feel comfortable. You are either not really intellectual or not really religious — you must be lacking in one or both of those areas. 

“As for what little religious belief remains among their colleagues, most professional philosophers regard it as a strange aberration among otherwise intelligent people,” wrote John Messerly for the Richard Dawkins Foundation.

Of course, I’m not saying all atheists think this. There have been many prominent atheist thinkers like the “four horsemen” of New Atheism who debated religious thinkers while showing respect for the latter’s intellectual engagement and capacity to make arguments, even if they disagreed on the validity of those arguments. 

However, it’s not surprising why some nonreligious people think that religious people are anti-intellectual. There is a clear trend of anti-intellectualism, especially in the last decade, among some subsets of American Christians. Many Christians embrace QAnon conspiracy theories. Many refused to get COVID vaccines. They vehemently attack leading U.S. universities for “spreading the woke agenda” and say universities serve a net negative for society. 

Not only does this behavior lead many nonreligious people to believe that Christianity is incompatible with intellectualism, but many Christians also seem to believe that. They cite Christian faith as a leading motivator behind anti-intellectual actions like why they believe in conspiracy theories and despise universities. 

A vocal minority 

There’s a dissonance between the behavior of extreme, anti-intellectual Christians in the news versus what I and many Christians who live quiet lives outside national news coverage believe. 

It is unacceptable for church leaders and members to use a Christian rationale to justify actions like the U.S. Capitol attack on Jan. 6, 2021. I would describe QAnon conspiracy theories as a “Pseudo-Christian Extremist Movement,” to borrow the words from the Global Network on Extremism & Technology. 

This brand of anti-intellectualism is a manifestation of some Christians’ arrogance and complacency of thought, which contradict values taught in the Bible. I think many of these extremist Christians are a product of “cultural Christianity.” While people use this term to mean a wide range of ideas, I am using it to describe individuals (usually a subset of people raised Christian from birth), who have not rigorously examined their faith but identify as “Christian” because they identify with the aesthetic and cultural practices of Christianity, rather than holding genuine faith.

I feel that extreme, anti-intellectual Christians uplift cultural homogeneity and a desire to feel superior to others above genuine, introspective belief in God and Jesus. They seem unwilling to grapple with the relationship between knowledge and living a Christian life. They seem to choose the comfort of culturally and spiritually stagnant environments over deep inquiry.

I have always known Christians of all ages and nationalities who love intellectual curiosity and thrive both in the classroom and in church. But the older I became, the more disparities I noticed between the Christians I know and the angry, radical believers portrayed in attention-grabbing news. 

I also felt that I had to turn to the Internet to ask questions about Bible and Christian life. Before I came to college, it was rare to come across pastors who proactively dove deep into Christian theology topics during their sermons.

I worry that Christians, especially young Christians living in homogenous environments, will feel pressured to give up their curious mind because of anti-intellectual Christians’ rejection of contemporary thought and well-established science.

I also worry that nonreligious people will stop conversing with Christian people (and perhaps religious people at large, by extension) because they deem religious people to be incapable of intellectual curiosity.

Many Christians couple faith with intellectual inquiry

It is a myth that religious belief entails flimsy intellectual inquiry. Much has already been written about how earlier eras in Christian history featured a robust intellectual tradition. Martin Luther, Thomas Aquinas, Søren Kierkegaard and Saint Augustine are among the Christian pioneers whose scholarship has earned them respect in nonreligious and Christian domains alike.

Many prominent US research universities have divinity schools offering graduate degrees, including Yale, Duke, Harvard, and University of Chicago. These programs of study often require courses on Biblical language, systematic theology and Christian ethics.

There are already many Christians in the Stanford community who have brilliant scholarly achievements and also publicly discuss their faith. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was raised as Muslim then became a prominent atheist intellectual and Dutch parliament member, converted to Christianity publicly in 2023. She is now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. Donald Knuth, a professor emeritus of computer science, creator of the TeX typesetting system, and winner of the A. M. Turing award, has written multiple books about his Christian belief and gave a lecture series in MIT about faith and science. 

The above scholars all characterize their personal faith on different terms, and they sometimes make competing claims about how to interpret and apply Christianity to life. Countless scholars throughout history have applied their intellectual curiosity not just to their academic pursuits, but also to their Christian faith.

How I approach my Christian faith from an intellectual perspective

In the last few years, using my intellectual curiosity to dive deep into my Christian beliefs has given me an expanded sense of faith with greater fulfillment than ever before. My endeavor of studying Christian theology and practicing Christianity will be a work in progress for the rest of my life. By no means is this the “ideal” or “comprehensive” way. 

However, I believe there is value in sharing about the efforts I and other curious Christians make to rigorously examine our faith. My approach and habits evolve over time to reflect new ideas I get from conversing with believers and nonbelievers.

First, I study history and context beyond the words written in the Bible. I ask pastors and discuss with other churchgoers about which editions of the Bible include helpful, robust supplementary research and commentary about who wrote each book of the Bible, how the manuscript was discovered, and what language it was written in. I read essays comparing various English translations of the Bible and the unique methods and motivations behind each. Some Bibles feature extensive annotations diving into the grammar of the original languages (Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic) and the variety of interpretations that can arise from alternate translations. 

There is also a rich offering of Christian books which have resonated with non-Christians and Christians alike. Writers like C.S. Lewis, Tim Keller, and John Piper have published extensive essays and books advising how to wrestle with and how to apply Biblical lessons to life, spanning topics as diverse as suffering, grief after death of family, marriage and forgiveness.

Scholars and pastors are also adapting to contemporary media. I watch YouTube videos and podcasts explaining the Bible and Christian life. 

I also enjoy exploring how Christianity intersects with modern American politics, art, media, and interpersonal relationships. I’ve watched movies like Martin Scorsese’s “Silence,” Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” and Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed — all acclaimed by Christians and non-Christians alike. There has been a surge of Substack newsletters writing about Christianity. 

Finally, I talk to other Christians, atheists and people who follow different religions. 

One of the values Jesus emphasized most is humility, and I strive to implement that value in my intellectual life in addition to my personal life. My ethos of intellectual curiosity involves curiosity, challenging and wrestling with claims and lines of reasoning, flexible thinking and respect for people who put in the same effort. 

I hope that my nonreligious peers can come to understand and appreciate Christianity’s deep intellectual tradition, even if they don’t agree with its conclusions. And, I encourage more Christians to live up to that tradition and examine their own belief. You’ll probably find it more rewarding than you expect.

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