Why Progressives Must Oppose Anti-Intellectualism December 16, 2014

Why Progressives Must Oppose Anti-Intellectualism

A couple of years ago, David Niose, a past President of both the American Humanist Association and the Secular Coalition for America, wrote a wonderful book called Nonbeliever Nation. It was all about the growing demographic of “Nones” and what that meant for the country.

His latest book is all about how to harness those numbers to achieve political and social gains. It’s called Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

In the excerpt below, Niose talks about how the Religious Right powerfully blended together faith and politics, and why progressives must oppose anti-intellectualism:


Few would deny that [Rick] Perry’s rally is a reflection of the increased influence of conservative religion in modern American politics. But less obvious is how the event reflects the convergence of conservative religion and anti-egalitarianism mentioned in chapter 1. As Perry and others cite scripture and praise Jesus, they also sprinkle rhetoric that validates their harsh, anti-egalitarian political and economic views. “Father, our heart breaks for America,” Perry proclaimed at the rally. “We see discord at home. We see fear in the marketplace. We see anger in the halls of government, and as a nation we have forgotten who made us, who protects us, who blesses us, and for that we cry out for your forgiveness.”

Tellingly, as Perry surveys all the problems confronting America, he notes “fear in the marketplace” — not poverty, not health, not the environment, not even jobs — as being worthy of a call-out for divine intervention. Financial markets, not real human problems, need God’s attention, as if the divinity is some sort of stockbroker in chief. Of course, the performance of securities and commodities markets ultimately can have a ripple effect that reaches the lives of ordinary people, but it is revealing that Perry and many others like him would place these markets so near the center of their worldview and their public prayers. This alarming combination of fundamentalist religion and conservative economics has driven America away from human-centered policy.

To understand this, just imagine if conservative religion had become a trendy social phenomenon in America without also becoming a powerful political force. After all, people can be deeply religious without also engaging politically; in fact, some (if not most) major religious movements are completely apolitical. If, for example, rather than launching the highly politicized Moral Majority in the late 1970s, Jerry Falwell had instead called for a purely religious uprising of fundamentalist believers, it is doubtful that American public policy would have been much affected. We might still have a large portion of the population with biblical literalist beliefs, but few of those adherents would have infiltrated local, regional, and national party machines; instead, they likely would have focused their energies on pure evangelism and worship. While such a trend might have had some negative social impact (because widespread biblical literalism is unlikely to lead to a highly enlightened population), its repercussions would be relatively mild compared to what we have seen with the rise of the politically mobilized Religious Right.

The path of intense political engagement has allowed conservative religion to have a devastating anti-egalitarian impact in America. In modern times, a voter’s religiosity is among the most accurate predictors of behavior at the polls, with regular churchgoers and self-described born-again Christians showing a devotion to conservative candidates that is unmatched by other demographic categories. By giving reliable numbers to anti-egalitarian interests, religious conservatives allow those interests to claim mass support that otherwise would not exist.

This is true both in the area of social anti-egalitarianism, where religious fundamentalists frequently back policies that obstruct equality for women, gays, racial minorities, and religious minorities, as well as in economic anti-egalitarianism, where the support of religious conservatives enables policies favoring corporate interests and the wealthy and disfavoring the poor and middle class. The resulting irony is millions of devout Christians, often of modest economic means, actively supporting candidates who pander to their socially conservative views on abortion, gay rights, creationism, and other culture war issues, even as those same candidates push economic policies — such as tax cuts for upper income brackets and deregulation of industries — that cater to the rich and to large corporate interests.


Though Rick Perry provides an easy example of what progressives don’t want in a candidate, he also highlights one of the vulnerabilities of the progressive position. If we criticize Perry as a religious fanatic and a sort of simpleton, conservatives fire back that we are intellectual snobs. This accusation is a potent weapon in the conservative political arsenal, one that immediately puts progressives on the defensive. After all, at a glance it seems to make sense. If the country’s rightward tilt has been achieved through the manipulation of ordinary citizens, often by exploiting fundamentalist religious views and other anti-intellectual tendencies, one might assume that those on the other side are the highly educated intellectuals.

But this is not necessarily the case. More accurately, the typical progressive is not so much an intellectual but simply not anti-intellectual. This distinction often gets lost, since conservatives are astonishingly effective at painting their opponents as “elites,” academics, or otherwise out of touch with the problems of average people. In reality, of course, human-centered public policy is beneficial to — and sought by — ordinary people, most of whom have no advanced degrees or other intellectual credentials. Those opposed to anti-intellectualism in politics are not necessarily fluent in complex scientific ideas or sophisticated art and culture, but they do recognize the value of critical thinking. Put another way, while an aversion to anti-intellectualism is a common denominator among progressives and freethinkers, it would be just as accurate to say that the embrace of anti-intellectualism is a defining characteristic of their opponents.

Consider, for example, the baffling belief — held by many Americans — that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, even though irrefutable evidence has been produced showing that he was born in Hawaii in 1961. Even years after Obama was elected, one in four Americans surveyed — and almost half of Republicans and Tea Party supporters — stated that they believed he was foreign born. This is the kind of senseless thinking that can proliferate only in a society that has not learned to extrapolate facts, that doesn’t value honest analysis of widely accessible data. A slightly lower number of Americans (17 percent) believed Obama was a Muslim, according to a Pew survey conducted almost four years into his presidency, another absurd belief given the available facts. Obama was raised a freethinker by a secular humanist mother and was nonreligious well into adulthood; when he finally joined a church, it was a Protestant congregation in Chicago. Whether one supports Obama or not, there is simply no factual basis for a belief that he is a Muslim. Yet the conviction persists.

When more rational Americans criticize or ridicule blatant public ignorance, they run the risk of being called elitist, which is a right-wing code word for those opposed to anti-intellectualism. This is another example of the contrast between the anti-intellectualism of conservatives and the freethinking of progressives. The typical progressive is not an elitist but merely one whose habits of thought are sufficiently independent. Of course, all humans are susceptible to lazy thinking, groupthink, and emotional appeals, but the freethinker is at least mindful of such tendencies and, therefore, more likely to be on guard against them. No individual is always rational, and few would want a world without emotional impulses and spontaneity, but an appreciation of rational and critical thinking, especially on the subject of politics and public policy, is hardly in itself elitist. In fact, accusations of such are surely a sign of affirmative anti-intellectualism.

Rational debate becomes impossible when anti-intellectualism has taken root, because the anti-intellectual position is usually based on fear, unsupported prejudices, or some other irrational impulse, making it immune to the influence of facts and data. One could try to reason with the enraged citizen who screams, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” — but it probably won’t work. Even if one gently points out that Medicare is itself a government program, the mind-set of the angry citizen rarely changes. Similarly, the panic-stricken belief that Obama’s Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, will eventually result in some kind of quasi-Stalinist “death panels” — an idea that gained currency as the bill was being debated — is usually unmoved by pesky facts.

To be sure, there are many sensible arguments in opposition to the Affordable Care Act: that it forces individuals to purchase health insurance, to the great benefit of profit-driven corporate entities; that it’s a cash cow for the pharmaceutical industry and other medical businesses; and certainly that universal, single-payer health care could deliver quality health care more efficiently and affordably. But these objections get less airtime than positions that stoke irrational fear. Even after the law was implemented, Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) warned that “it will be very unpleasant if the death panels go into effect,” describing them, baselessly, as “the greatest fear that Americans have.”

Now, factual inaccuracies, stupid arguments, and fear-based manipulation are nothing new in politics, nor are they uniquely American, but the heights of idiocy reached in the modern American dialogue are downright embarrassing. Anti-intellectualism is not just a reality but a point of pride for many officeholders and candidates. Examples of this are abundant, but the poster boy for American anti-intellectualism is, of course, George W. Bush, who scorned analytical thinking and instead made decisions from his “gut,” regularly mispronounced common words, and relied on fundamentalist religious leaders for policy advice. Such traits would be less troublesome if we were discussing the leader of an obscure backwater republic, but Bush of course was commander in chief of the world’s most powerful military, a fact that became clear as he defied world opinion and stormed into Iraq in 2003, with horrific consequences.

Under Bush, America and the rest of the world saw the disastrous results of the rise of the Religious Right. Bush did not just pander to religious conservatives, he was one of them; and despite his rhetoric of “compassionate conservatism,” his hard-right policies made clear that he saw egalitarianism — in either its social or economic form — as anathema. And not surprisingly, after eight years of his presidency, the country was absolutely devastated, in complete financial collapse at home and grossly over- extended overseas.

Fighting Back the Right is available online and in bookstores starting today.

Excerpted with permission, Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason by David Niose. Available from Palgrave Macmillan Trade. Copyright © 2014.

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