Disengaged Students, Part 9: How Religion Can Discourage Rational Thought

In this 20-part series, I explore the root causes and effects of academic disengagement in K-12 learners and explore the factors driving American society ever closer to being a nation that lacks intellectualism, or the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

Americans with differing religious convictions disagree on the severity of the risk to intellectualism posed by religious control. For atheists, any person who believes in a non-tangible “god” and takes orders on how to live a life of faith from another mortal is simply being bamboozled. For those who choose to incorporate faith as part of a larger life, and abide by the widely socially acceptable characteristics of kindness, charity and concern for their fellow human beings, religion does not pose a negative threat and is not overtly labeled as “dangerous” to free thinking. But which is more intellectual – a carefully chosen belief system of “faith without seeing,” or one that is grounded in observing physical proof?

Is it all a Cult?

To explore those answers more fully, let’s start with extreme incidences of religious contributions to anti-intellectualism. There is the outright manipulation of people through fear or promise of reward, most often labeled as a “cult” in American culture. Some experts claim that those who use these brainwashing techniques do not simply cast a wide net, but that they target particularly vulnerable people. Malaysian professor and cult expert Dr. Ong Seng Huat has called these so-called cult religious leaders “charismatic” and talks about how their victims are often people dealing with failure or depression.

In other words, people with mental instability are often the very same people who are quick to cling to a pre-determined path when it comes to spiritual matters. Author Peggy Riley calls the impulse of charismatic leaders to build utopian empires, however selfish, a “uniquely American” one. While high profile cults in the U.S. like the Branch Davidians of Waco standoff notoriety and the Church of Bible Understanding prove that there is a market for religious anti-intellectualism, extreme groups claiming divinity date much further back than American settlement.

In ancient Greek and Roman mythology, believers in the gods took strange and often dangerous actions to prove their faithfulness. Followers of the Roman god Mithras were put through life-threatening initiation ceremonies, and women who adhered to the Bacchic cult proved their devotion by running wild in the countryside. The act of “hero worship” celebrated humans who had proven their worthiness.  A part of the body of the deceased hero, like the head, was often put on display in a common area, and believers felt that it led to greater prosperity, safety and fertility. To show appreciation to the hero-god, followers would sacrifice an animal (often a ram) and allow the blood to flow to the remaining piece of the hero’s body. It was believed that through contact with the blood, these heroes were momentarily revived and could pass down advice and decrees to the faithful.

The ancient Greek and Roman world’s sacrificial rituals are surprisingly similar to those of Old Testament Jews who placed their own sins on the backs of animals that were then led to slaughter, often called “sacrificial lambs.”  This act of worship was later interpreted by Christians as symbolic of the transgressions that the Jesus took upon his own body in death. The text of the Christian Old Testament, along with other supporting historical documents, records repeated offenses by the followers of Jehovah who often stepped outside the confines of their religion to seek out other gods. According to these writings, great turmoil and misfortune fell upon those who chose a life outside the belief system set forth by the accepted god of the Jewish people. Even today, teachings about the dangers of idol worship, or putting anything before the Heavenly Father, are used as cautionary tales in even the most mainstream Christian churches.

Notable members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, generally considered a non-cult religion in America, have spoken out about the discord between religion and rational thought. The Book of Mormon consistently criticizes people who seek answers outside the church, accusing such people of being prideful or elitist. Such people are seen as being tempted by Satan or adversarial forces, not simply seeking answers to normal questions of human nature. Therein lies the intellectual problem with religion in America, and not just with Christianity. If people are condemned for asking questions, how can they exercise their rationalism?

Is Atheism Intellectual?

Atheist thinkers like Richard Dawkins claim that a belief in any higher, unseen being is akin to faith in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. Theories of Creationism are no longer acceptable in public schools that teach Evolutionary science instead – much to the anger of parents and religious groups who feel Darwinian theory is far from proven. People are quick to categorize themselves and others based on opposing theories of world origins, or theism versus atheism, or even one religious group versus another one.

Susan Jacoby addresses this uniquely American approach to religion, and the ways in which it feeds anti-intellectualism, in her book The Age of American Unreason. She contends that the ability to create any religion with no outside government interference has led to numerous unsubstantiated sects whose followers display unquestioning enthusiasm and commitment. The government has no right to decide which spiritual philosophies are better than others, so long as their followers do not actually violate the law of the land, so religious beliefs run the gamut. Of course, Americans are free to see through any crackpot beliefs and point out their invalidity, but there are always at least a few who are duped. In this way, Jacoby says that intellectualism is not actually broadened by more religious choices but stunted.

Religion can be Well-Reasoned

Contemporary religion, therefore, is not inherently anti-intellectual. It is a choice, a lifestyle that has its place in millions of lives. A person who is informed about other belief systems, or has considered evidence from other perspectives, and who chooses to live in a particular faith is not a blind follower. That person is enlightened, and an argument could be made that he or she is more of an intellectual than another who denies all religious beliefs without investigating any.

It is when religion purports to trump new findings proven through scientific discovery – when it places itself as the end-all and be-all of human thought, despite evidence to the contrary– that it becomes a dangerous force against intellectual progress.


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