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Faith and Intellect

The atheist’s complaint against religion is frequently rooted in charges of anti-intellectualism. This is evident in Nicholas Baker’s article in this quarter’s Skeptic (Volk. 20 No. 4), Christianity’s Negative Impact on Modern American Education.

I must admit to being befuddled by these charges. Upon encountering atheists decrying intellectual incoherence in the faithful, I often invite the critic to come out and respond to the writings under the New Physics page of this blog. I have also offered the material to scientists through various forums. So far, I have received no response.

A colleague at work invited me down to the atheist Sunday Service in Santa Monica. In the event, a couple of sarcastic remarks regarding faith rankled, but for the most part I found a group of well-meaning people that seemed to have no interest in their spirituality. I confirmed this with my friend later, saying that I didn’t think that I would fit in to the community. When I offered that my experience was that my very presence forced people to confront their spirituality, he confirmed my decision.

It is the anti-spirituality of atheism that concerns me most. Until it is recognized, I am afraid that it is going to be impossible to reconcile the two communities.

An anti-spiritual emphasis is not entirely unique to atheism – I had a Kabbalist tell me that men were not to enter spiritual experience until they were forty. The violence outbursts of nationalism that rocked the world in the 20th century may be symptomatic: where once European politics was dominated by the egos of kings, public education may have facilitated the formation of gestalts that were driven by the masculine urge to power. Jung’s work on the collective unconscious may have been an attempt to understand the dynamics, and he writes in his biography of looking up at the mountains before World War II and seeing a tide of blood pouring over them. I sometimes suspect that, in the aftermath of the war, psychologists settled on denial of spiritual experience as a necessary practice of quarantine to prevent future epidemics. I have encountered some that say they diagnose schizophrenia only if the voices create fear in the patient. And when I sought counseling to deal with family-related stress, once the therapist determined that I was stable, she began asking me questions about reincarnation and process theology, with a focus on understanding why so many of us are immature spirits.

Unfortunately, any policy of denial creates a context of conspiracy that feeds a revolutionary counter-reaction. I believe that this is probably the basis of the anti-intellectualism that Mr. Baker confronts.

The illustration for Mr. Baker’s article shows Jesus whispering a test answer into the ear of a struggling student. This is a point made explicitly in the article: “When it comes to academic achievement, helping a student solve a math problem, using math and the student’s actual brain, displays better family values than does teaching the student to distrust intellect while pleading for an answer to fall from the sky.”

Mr. Baker’s attitude is rooted in the conflation of the brain and mind. While I did not force my children to read the Bible, I struggled against this prejudice with making them aware of the nature of intellect. As I perceive the operation of my mind, the brain is not a logic circuit, it is an interface that ideas use to become invested in the world, and an anchor that they use to create new forms of association. Ideas are spiritual constructs. As possessors of brains, we are their dance partners.

The most painful part of parenting my children through the prejudice of scientific materialism was when my younger son, struggling with his studies, attempted to engage me in discussion only to have his older brother come downstairs and tell him how wrong he was. For years I had attempted to open Greg’s mind to the world of ideas that Kevin had gained access to as an infant. Before Kevin’s intervention, I had felt the door finally opening, and it broke my heart to have him slam it shut. I dealt with the matter pretty harshly, telling him “If you don’t stop abusing your brother, I am not putting a single cent into your college education.” In later conversation, I told Kevin that “ideas are strongest when they are shared.”

This is known among mature scientists. Edward Teller’s office at LLNL had pictures of all the great scientists of his era, and I could feel their personalities reaching out through them. In another incident, I saw a divorced father at dinner with his son, the beautiful mother, and the wealthy man she had married. The son had asked a technical question, which the father answered after a pause. The child challenged him “How do you know that?” To which the father could only answer “I was informed.”

Personally, I had the experience in high school AP Biology of working in a classroom of collaborative students. During the AP exam, I became stuck on a couple of questions and found the answers arriving during final review. The teacher reported that to her surprise – given the brilliance of students in prior years – we had achieved the highest average score on the test in all her years of teaching. And in discussing morality at work, I have shared that when I reach a road block, I frequently open my mind and  an answer comes to me. At times that has been as explicit as having a person’s voice come into my head and say “Do it this way…”

Baker does not articulate this experience, and given his reaction to Christian values, I think that he may not be conscious of the operation of his own mind. If he was, he would understand the preconditions for sustaining such exchanges. It requires surrender of the ego (something that nature often forces upon scientists) and a genuine concern for others. This is the teaching we find in the Bible. In denigrating the value of the book’s moral teaching, Baker and his colleagues are undermining the attempts by Christian parents to open the door to the gestalt of civilized ideas known to the faithful as “The Holy Spirit.” That is no small matter.

Until they arrive at an alternative technology, Baker and others might do well to be more gentle with their public pronouncements. The emotion they attach to their crusade is going to make it extremely difficult for them to reconcile themselves to Christ when those investigations force them to confront his existence.

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