Anti-intellectualism: A Negative Aspect of the Great Awakenings

Unfortunately, many contemporary Americans regard faith as opposed to reason, choosing to believe that Christianity requires blind adherence to unfounded religious fairytales, rather than a calculated acceptance of reasonable proposition and historical events. Although competing worldviews may require and/or encourage such naivety or anti-intellectualism, Christianity stands in stark contrast by emphasizing the role of human cognition in worship and discipleship practices (cf. Mark 12:30; Romans 12:1-2), while establishing the basis of faith on the historical truthfulness of Jesus’ resurrection (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:13-19).1 Accordingly, the Scriptures actively encourage readers to pursue wisdom and knowledge (cf. Proverbs 1:29; 3:13; 4:6-7), critically analyze truth-claims (cf. Acts 17:11; Proverbs 18:17), and verify Christian propositions (cf. 1 John 4:1; Acts 1:2-3). Since Christianity unequivocally exhorts adherents to exercise mental faculties, it is unsurprising that evangelistic efforts necessarily incorporate an intellectual component, requiring believers to present evidence of the truthfulness of Christianity (cf. 1 Peter 3:15), while simultaneously offering responses to counter-arguments and critiquing opposing worldviews (cf. 2 Corinthians 10:5; Jude 1:3; Philippians 1:16).

Regrettably, the Great Awakenings in the United States propagated an anti-intellectual message which focused on emotional reactions toward the Christian message, instead of promoting rational examination of propositional truths, elucidation of theological principles, and the expositional teaching of Scripture; a pattern the American church has proven incapable of escaping. Highlighting the evangelistic and theological shifts occurring during the Great Awakenings, J.P. Moreland writes, “their overall effect was to overemphasize immediate personal conversion to Christ instead of a studied period of reflection and conviction; emotional, simple, popular preaching instead of intellectually careful and doctrinally precise sermons; and personal feelings and relationship to Christ instead of a deep grasp of the nature of Christian teaching and ideas.”2

Successfully permeating the American church, anti-intellectualism began rendering evangelistic and apologetic efforts impotent, leaving the population vulnerable to the philosophical assaults of David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and the like. Additionally, since worship and discipleship centered around subjective factors rather than objective truths, Christian faith became understood as characteristically blind and irrational.3  Moreover, evangelistic approaches sought to offer the gospel primarily “as a means of addressing felt needs,” rather than properly recognizing Christianity as the only coherent explanation of reality, while identifying Jesus the only means of satisfying authentic needs—even if the recipient currently unrecognizes those needs.4

Thoughtful readers will recognize these shortcomings persist within the contemporary church, as many people embrace an anti-intellectual, impotent, and often irrelevant faith, based on emotional reactions and social relationships, rather than of rational ascent of truthful propositions. Consequently, it is vital for the church to return to its intellectual heritage and for us to teach and encourage the next generation to seek wisdom, properly analyze information and critique ideas, and exegete the Scriptures. Continuing to embrace an anti-intellectual theology will continue to degrade the social impact of the church, undermine biblical apologetic, evangelistic, and discipleship efforts, while simultaneously rendering Christianity irrelevant to our contemporary culture. However, overcorrection is also detrimental, as evangelistic and discipleship efforts must actively seek to engage the whole person, without overemphasizing either intellectual or emotional facets. Accordingly, while we must seek to embrace the intellectual roots of Christianity, we cannot ignore the felt needs and emotional aspects of the people with whom we interact.

  1. All Scriptural references are from the English Standard Version (ESV) unless otherwise noted.
  2. J. P. Moreland, Love Your God with All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2012), 16.
  3. Ibid., 19.
  4. Ibid., 24; 25-29.
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