Reflections on Intellectual Orthodoxy

October 2012

Like a work of obscenity, an intellectual seems to be something we know when we see but cannot otherwise identify. If we’re not careful about our prejudices, though, we might not know it even when we see it. I discovered this when I tried to insult someone for doing something I had done myself.

I first attempted to define “intellectual” some forty years ago in an essay for a college sociology class. I failed, miserably. The instructor gave me a B for the paper, and all things considered it was not apparent why. Perhaps he gave me a break because it was mechanically well written, but he shredded my argument in his comments. (For one example, he noted that according to at least one of my criteria, William F. Buckley Jr. was not an intellectual.) In the years since, I have not managed to formulate any better definition than that botched effort. I still cannot say exactly what distinguishes intellectuals from non-intellectuals, but I now know one thing that does not distinguish them. If you say, “No intellectual can believe X,” then, for any X, you are probably wrong.

Several years after my academic fiasco, I was visiting my then-girlfriend, Susan, one evening at her home. Another friend of hers was also visiting. At one point in the conversation, Susan’s friend began updating her about a common acquaintance of theirs whom Susan had not seen in some time. This other person being unknown to me, I was paying just enough attention to avoid being impolite. Susan’s friend mentioned that their acquaintance had recently joined a fundamentalist church. A few minutes later, the friend remarked, “She is very intellectual.” Susan replied, “Yes, she is. I remember that about her.” I then said, almost with a sneer, “Hey, wait a minute. No one can be a fundamentalist and an intellectual.” Susan turned to me and said, “But, Doug, you used to be a fundamentalist, and you are an intellectual.”

I tried feebly to resolve the contradiction. I was converted to Christianity as an adolescent. In those days, I protested, “I wasn’t much of an intellectual.” Susan replied, in effect: “That’s nonsense.” I tried some more dodges, but Susan wasn’t letting me get away with any of it. I was wrong, and she knew it, and in due course I admitted it. I was guilty of a naïve inconsistency at best, rank hypocrisy at worst.

That conversation was a butterfly moment, a trivial incident that changes one’s personal history. As I thought about it over the new few days, I found implications far beyond the debate between Christian fundamentalists and their detractors, or between faith and reason, or between secularists and religionists. It was about any perceived variation of the protracted conflict between good and evil. I discovered the necessity of distinguishing between ideas and the characters of the people who espouse those ideas. This was not just a matter of hating the sin but loving the sinner—a notion with which I was already long familiar. This was about caring enough about one’s adversary to get inside his or her head far enough to understand how that person can, sincerely and in good conscience, deny being a sinner.

I mean “sinner” metaphorically, of course. As an atheist, I regard sin per se as a strictly theological concept, but in some contexts it remains a handy figure of speech for certain defects, both moral and intellectual, of human nature. As a metaphor, though, its own defect is the lack of an objective criterion by which to declare any aspect of human nature a defect. For every Christian who regards skepticism as symptomatic of a moral defect, there is an atheist who regards religious faith as symptomatic of an intellectual defect, and there seems to be no way that either side can claim a win in that debate without simply begging the question.

Many, probably most, Christians reject the notion that atheism is the result of any character defect. They understand that some people who are just as smart as they are, and just as good in every other way that matters, cannot make sense of the God hypothesis. And what I learned from Susan that evening is that this kind of charity is of universal applicability. We can judge people by the methods they employ to justify their beliefs, but not by those beliefs themselves. Some apologists really are intellectually incompetent, but not all of them, and this applies to apologists for any ideology, secular no less than religious. I may with good reason regard some religious belief as foolish, but I may not assume that only fools can hold that belief. I may likewise regard some political measure as tyrannical, but I may not assume that all who support that measure are supporters of tyranny. And I may regard racism as immoral, but I may not assume that everyone espousing racist ideas is a moral degenerate.

In our assessments of other people’s moral or intellectual competence, a limited kind of relativism is appropriate. To anyone who knew me as an adolescent, it would have been obvious that my intellectual abilities were not yet well developed, notwithstanding any precocity I might have exhibited. But, my primary handicap was simple ignorance: There was a world of facts of which I was still unaware. In time I became aware, and when I did, I was compelled to change my mind about certain things my church was telling me. What compelled me, though, does not compel everyone, and I dare not presume that I was compelled just because of some special virtue of mine, cognitive or otherwise. So it is with all my beliefs. Those who disagree with me, about anything at all, have their reasons; they can be my equals in every relevant respect, but yet they disagree. I may defend my disagreement with them by explaining, to the best of my own ability, why I find their reasons insufficient, but I may not impugn their characters, either intellectual or moral.

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