Why Aren’t More Intellectuals Believers?


I came across an interesting article on Facebook recently entitled, “Why Aren’t More Intellectuals Believers?” (link to the original article), written by David Denison. His article is essentially a reaction to a study conducted by the University of Rochester entitled “Studies have shown that atheists tend to be smarter than Christians” (couldn’t find find a link to the study itself; this was the best I could do in a few minutes), which Denison took as the byline for the article I read.  Of course, I encourage you to read the original article, but here’s how I would sum it up…

The author argues that increasingly over time, fewer and fewer “intellectuals” are believing in Christ and playing an active role in the church. He cites a statistic originating with atheist Richard Dawkins that “7 percent of American scientists believe in a personal God”, in support of what is essentially a thesis that smart people tend not to be Christians. He then gives two basic explanations / reasons for his conclusion:

  1. There is an significant bias against theism within higher education
  2. The present Christian Church culture in America is unfriendly to intellectual scrutiny

I do not disagree with either of these claims. I’m quite sure Denison is right on both counts. And I have nowhere near the credentials to judge or the time to investigate the statistics / his basic conclusion that few intellectuals are Christians, and that even those numbers are shrinking. I will say that I’ve met and certainly read some monstrously intelligent men and women whose godliness I aspire to. Instead, my purpose in writing this response is to expand on Denison’s conclusions and perhaps to redirect the focus of the discussion a bit.

First, two additional reasons why I believe it’s difficult for highly educated people to trust Christ…

Knowledge Has a Moral Dimension

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truthFor what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. (Romans 1:18-19, my emphasis)

All knowledge comes from God (c.f. Job 12:13ff, Prov 2:1-15, Deut 29:29). He is the source of all things, created everything, sustains everything, and reveals Himself in and through and beyond His creation. God gives us the faculties to observe, record, and understand. He is not only the source of knowledge, but the means by which it is revealed to man. And God is clear that, in addition to being far weaker and smaller than we think we are, manking is singularly gifted at choosing not to see, not to understand, not to desire the truth. It is extremely common — I have encountered this countless times personally — for the human heart to demand a particular conclusion to a logical debate, because it is unwilling to face the implications of another conclusion.

judgmentA classic scenario…

Jill says, “Science proves that there is no God.”

But what is actually meant, deep in Jill’s heart (perhaps suppressed out of the reach of her conscious mind), “There cannot be a God, because if there were, then that God would, by definition, be someone more powerful and more knowledgeable than me, to whom I might have to give account of my life.”

In this way, men and women (by the billions) “suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness” (Rom 1:18). I refuse to believe, because I refuse to give up the autonomy that I both deserve and demand, and which my unbelief permits me.

Abundance Is Poisonous to Faith

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. (Matthew 19:24)

Speaking of anything except God Himself… The more we have, the more secure we (wrongly) believe we are, while, simultaneously, the more restless and demanding and insatiable we become.

First, the more we perceive ourselves to have, the more foreign the concept of dependence on God becomes. In our abundance, we grow up and become independent. Our money or intellect or connections take care of us, so we no longer need God to. Paul Miller says it well when he lamented how hard it is to understand praying for daily bread, when we have 3 days of bread in our fridge, 30 days in our checking account, and 3,000 in our 401(k). But Jesus was extremely clear that the Kingdom of Heaven is accessible only to those who, like little children, depend entirely on God to provide it. There will be no spiritually self-made men (or women) in heaven. The spiritual life knows no home-grown millionaires. Only the poor in spirit, who by God’s grace ultimately inherited the Kingdom of God. (Matthew 5:3)

Second, the abundance of possessions, wealth, human relationships, pleasure, even knowledge do not fill the heart. None of these can produce satisfaction. Anyone who works to fill themselves with worldly things stretches out their soul, and produces in themselves a lust for more, not less. The satisfaction they seek gets more elusive, not less. Instead of getting closer, the oasis is farther away with the crest of every desert hill.

This is satan’s great lie, “Take what belongs to God for yourself. It will satisfy you.”

CS LewisSo the more we fill ourselves with worldly things, the greater and deeper our lust for those things becomes, and the harder it is to see God … who is the only “thing” in all the universe who can fill the human soul. Augustine said it so well over 1,500 years ago, “Our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in [God].” I like CS Lewis‘ take (less than 100 years ago) on it ever better, “We are far too easily pleased.” We should reject the notion that one more achievement or acquisition will fulfill us in any way, and rest in God. Even acquiring theological knowledge is no better than collecting stamps or facebook friends, unless its goal is to know and love God more, not just know more about Him.

That’s not to say that anyone who’s rich or smart or beautiful or has some earthy possession in abundance is thin of soul, stretched out, idolatrous, or blind to the things of God. By no means. But it is to say that they more of any of these things one has, the closer one circles to a black hole. Many teeter on the edge of the event horizon (or have even swirled past it into the abyss) without knowing it, and then they wonder why it’s so very hard to hear God’s voice or see God’s truth. It’s because they have so much of what gets in the way, that they can’t see through it to what their hearts were designed to see in the first place.

black hole

A New Direction with the Discussion

But on top of these two points, at the core of it, I am somewhat concerned with the underlying implications of the article. Again, it’s not that I disagree with either point he makes, but I think the undercurrent of his argument might take us where we really shouldn’t want to go. Here’s what I mean…

From my perspective, the author is saying that we need to be more willing to engage “thinkers” on the hard questions. There are too many Christians giving pat answers to very difficult questions, and effectively adopting (and espousing) a blind faith. Too many Christians neither ask tough questions, nor think through complex issues, nor challenge rote answers. And what’s worse, when others DO ask tough questions or raise complex issues or challenge rote answers, many Christians discourage our even outright disparage them. And I agree with the author that this has to stop. We should be less lazy and more confident. God’s truths have stood up to unparalleled scrutiny for thousands of years, and not because the Hubble telescope or the quantum microscope weren’t invented yet. It’s because God is actually real, and is who He claims to be. There is no question that the most hardened skeptic could bring to God that He (or for that matter many Christians through the ages) would find intimidating. Go crazy. Ask away.

BUT… There are a few fundamental starting points — an essential orientation of perspective — that I believe Christians should adopt when wading into this much needed openness to intellectual scrutiny…

Adopt the motto, “Credo ut Intelligam”

Medieval ScholasticismThis is not the first time in Christian history that this argument has been made, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. One previous incarnation occurred about 1,000 years ago during the lifetime of a man named Anselm of Canterbury. In his day, as Europe emerged from the dark ages and science was soaring to amazing new heights — handily explaining away all the mysteries in the world (in the eyes of Anselm’s contemporaries) — “Medieval Scholasticism” sought to intellectualize Christianity. People were asking the tough questions. They worked hard to define God more succinctly. They wanted to better understand. All so that they could develop a better, deeper, more intellectually-grounded faith. But in response to this movement, which for sure had some positive sides, Anselm responded the same way I responded when I read Denison’s article, by saying, “I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but rather, I believe in order that I may understand”, or in the Latin, “Credo ut Intelligam.” Here, here!

It is right and good to approach God (and the church) with questions. God is not turned off or intimidated by honest skepticism. And neither should Christians be! But let us not come to believe that somehow we will understand our way into faith, or domesticate God in some way. God is too large for that. And the deepest truths about God and the universe He created are revealed by God. We will not find God in knowledge. We will find knowledge in God.

Reconsider the “pat” in “pat answers”

In his article, Denison makes quick dismissive work of a number of Christian platitudes, such as “His ways are higher than our ways” or “it’s a relationship, not a religion”. And I agree that these cannot be answers designed to shut down deep or even uncomfortable conversation. For that matter, let’s all work on getting uncomfortable far less quickly. Questions are good. Doubt shouldn’t scare us. Nor should not having all the answers. In all things, we go to God and His Word.

But I want to caution us not to swing the pendulum too far the other way. The truth is that God’s ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). It is a relationship, not just a set of truth claims (John 14:6, 11:25, and many others). And Christianity isn’t a religion at all; it’s completely different from every other form of faith for exactly that reason. Again, the danger of looking with disdain at the “pat” answers is that we would lose sight of the fact that these pat answers are some of the truth claims Denison is advocating we ferret out. There is simply no way to approach God, for instance, without the acknowledgement that we are never going to come close to fully understanding him. At the very heart of what’s “messier than the Sloppy Joes” (see his article) is the ability to live with the mystery and ambiguity and difficult balances between opposing forces that are at the heart of Christianity. mysteryIf you’re not prepared to do a lot of head scratching and looking at each other muttering, “Deep, brother! Deep!”, then you’re going to have a really tough time digging too deeply into theology (the “discourse about God”). If you approach God with a box you’re hoping to fit Him into, you’re going to be sorely disappointed, no matter your IQ or academic credentials.

Ask God for wisdom

Again, all knowledge comes from God. The cold hard truth is that, in the grand scheme of things, you are not wise. Neither am I. But God is, and He has clearly stated that He gives wisdom freely without reproach (James 1:5) … or one might say, without holding our weakness and smallness against us, or favoring one “asker” over another. If you want answers, ask the author of all knowledge. Every other plan is … um … inferior.

Summing it Up

In my opinion, Denison’s article is a really good one. Much needed, and important for the Church to hear. But we must also guard against losing ourselves in academic questions. God is not just a topic of study. Christianity is not just a set of truth claims. We only approach God on His terms, and His terms are far more about trust and dependence, than about knowledge and self-confidence. And when we strive to acquire data about God, let’s make sure we are striving to know God so that we might love Him more, not so that we can have Him all figured out.

The root cause is the same as in most cases of error in the Church — the intruding of rationalistic speculations, the passion for systematic consistency, a reluctance to recognize the existence of mystery and to let God be wiser than men, and a consequent subjecting of Scripture to the supposed demands of human logic.

— J. I. Packer

About Jeff Block

Lover and follower of Jesus, the long awaited King. Husband and father. Writer and seminary student. On a long, difficult, joyful adventure, learning to swim with the current of God's sovereign love and walk with Him in the garden in the cool of the day.
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6 Responses to Why Aren’t More Intellectuals Believers?

  1. Intriguing discussion post. Something worth calling attention to.


  2. Chris Miller says:

    Thanks for sharing your perspective on this issue that is near and dear to my heart, Jeff. As you know, I greatly value your thoughts on this and many other topics. There’s a lot to digest here, but I’d offer a couple of my very initial reactions on just a couple points. Here goes..

    With regard to the “Moral dimension of knowledge”, you made this statement to represent how some who doubt or disbelieve may come by that unbelief: “I refuse to believe, because I refuse to give up the autonomy that I both deserve and demand, and which my unbelief permits me.”

    That may very well be an accurate statement for some, but I’ll offer you a humble single data point that falls outside your bell curve, that single point being me. Again, this is just one guy’s experience to offer. For me, that statement doesn’t resonate. Having been raised in the church my entire life, surrounded by Christian friends and family, my reality is just the opposite. For me, the easy route is to just accept everything I’ve ever been told about God, including a lack of autonomy, and be content. That has been my reality. I can be lazy and accepting and non-boat-rocking and accept that picture. And there is great, great pressure built into modern church culture to accept certain “truths” at face value and build your life on them.

    Think of it in movie terms (and yes, I know you’re tracking with me when I switch to geeky movie references). Think, The Matrix. In the movie there’s a surface “reality” but under the surface there’s a much different reality. The vast majority of humans in the movie never question the surface reality and therefore, for better or for worse, never learn of the “truth”. For me, my “Matrix” (i.e. the reality that I’ve been presented since birth) is this surface-level Christianity. And the culture around that reality, much as it was in the Matrix, is constructed in a way that makes it very difficult to probe assumptions and search for a deeper, more satisfying truth. Those cultural obstructions to true exploration in the current church is one of the main points of Denison’s article and one I applaud him for calling out.

    So for me, believing in a God that is greater than I am is easy. It’s expected. But frankly, I’m not content with doing so. Something isn’t ringing true. God is either bigger or smaller than what I’ve come to understand. My hope and my fervent prayer is that I’ll come to learn He’s bigger (I very much follow your advice and ask God for wisdom). But either way, He’s not entirely fitting the image that has been painted of him for me. So if I am to figure out why that my soul can’t be seem to be content with that image, it will take courage and intentionality to tread a path explore why.

    Second thought. I agree with you that abundance is poisonous to faith. I’ve never heard it expressed so powerfully in those words, but you’re bang on. Wealth, security, friendship, comforts – they all make life so easy to lock into cruise control and never need to turn to God for anything. I agree with that assessment.

    But I find it interesting that you put knowledge in that group of “faith poisoners”. In recent times, I’ve become very aware of and sensitive toward references in the church culture that belittle “human understanding”. I agree with you logically that if God made the universe and ordered every atom of my being, then my own limited intellect is insufficient to obtain a full, accurate understanding of who He is and how his world works. Accepting the premise, that statement is logically sound and I’d have to agree. But if you dare to question the premise, the statement becomes another of those cultural weapons that discourages the digging. It becomes “you can’t fathom God so quit trying.” That doesn’t sit well with me. As Josh McDowell used to say, I believe in “Don’t check your brains at the door.”

    For where I am in my own journey through life right now, my highest virtue, the one that trumps them all, is fast becoming “truth”. It’s starting to matter less and less to me what the consequences of truths are or how pleasant truths may or may not be. What my soul yearns for is concrete immutable truths that I can examine from any angle, smack against the wall, and be completely unable to break. I want my faith in God to be rooted in such immovable concrete truths.

    In my observation of humanity, I believe it’s ingrained in our very nature to ask why until we are satisfied. Curiosity is part of our DNA. Anyone who’s been a parent can attest to that. Children will pepper you with “why” questions about their world incessantly. It’s how they learn. To me, it’s part of what makes us so wonderfully us and it should be encouraged. And not just when we’re 3. But also throughout our entire adult lives. I encourage that exploration in my own children and I wish to keep that curiosity alive in my own mind as well. I believe it’s a virtue, not a sin.

    But that curiosity and the church’s definition of “faith” are often at odds. And that conflict drives me bonkers. I’m just not satisfied with realities where my heart can’t make peace with my head. It doesn’t work for me. And a culture that’s a) happy with shallow understandings, and b) actively discouraging toward those who challenge that understanding, that culture makes me ill.

    That’s why I’m so attracted to Denison’s description of a faith that has roots in a series of facts and truths. That’s what I want. But to get there, the seeker needs to be given both room and support to grasp through the murkiness (and possibly make a mess of things in the process) to raise those concrete truths from the abyss.

    So anyway, that’s a bit of my perspective on the topic. Far from a cohesive thesis, but they are at least sincere, real thoughts for consideration in the mix.


    • Jeff Block says:

      Wow, Chris! Thank you for the *excellent* response. I love(!!!) it. Sorry the interface isn’t ideal for back-and-forth’s like this. But I really appreciate your time taken in responding so thoughtfully, and I wanted to try to answer a few questions and respond to a few of your thoughts on this…

      > You are a counter example to my Romans 1:18 discussion

      Fair enough. I get that. First, I think you may be more the exception than the rule on this. For every 1 Chris — open to belief; really wanting to follow evidence where it leads; asking in hope and faith, not in the desire to find a loophole that lets you say, “see I told you God was a sham”; not protecting sinful bents that you don’t want straightened; etc — there may be thousands of people who don’t really want answers to their “tough questions”, but rather want to avoid anything that would force them to loosen their grips on their idols. For anyone in the first camp, I applaud and agree with your assessment fully. For anyone in the second camp, I think it boils down more to repentance than to getting answers.

      I think It’s also about maintaining balance in the midst of knowing how you’re wired. If your natural tendancy is to refrain from asking tough questions or being too quick to accept simple answers, then cultivate what is a stretch for you — press into the intellectual side. But there are many out there whose natural tendancy is to always have another question. That person may be better off exercising their “I don’t fully understand this, but I trust God anyway” muscles. So much of the Christian life is balance between too easily accessible extremes. Anyone can slam up against an extreme and live there. But to honor God with our lives, I believe, is often to walk a bit of a balance beam.

      In other words, “more scrutiny” is not a universal prescription that will be healthy for all people seeking God any more than “accept the mystery” is. Life should be a healthy mix of the two. Denison offered two highway safety rails for that kind of balance, and I offered two more. I don’t think he is advocating a position of extremes, and I’m certainly not.

      > Abundance is poison, but knowledge too?

      Collecting data is no better than collecting dollars or cars or sex partners. If you’re “collecting” something to satisfy yourself (to gain power, for pleasure, for security, etc), then it’s an idol; it deeply offends a righteous God and wounds your soul. But to acquire one partner in order to share your life with them and build a family, that’s God’s design, you honor God and what you acquire is good. To acquire money in order to feed your family, have a warm place to sleep and live generously, or to built things that God sets before you to build — I know a man who once built a company for 10 years and sold it, all to fund a Kingdom project — then you honor God and what you acquire is good. To acquire knowledge so that you might worship the Lord in spirit and in truth, then you honor God and what you acquire is very good.

      See the difference? It’s not *that* you acquire knowledge, it’s *why* and *how* you acquire knowledge that matters.

      > “You can’t fathom God so quit trying”

      Rubbish! I would say, “You can’t fathom God, so know all you can about Him that you might love Him with all you are, and *be okay with mystery* … because there is no box that God fits into.”

      > “Don’t check your brains at the door”

      Amen! We should *never* do that. I’m absolutely *not* advocating a cessession of critical thinking. I’m advocating WAY MORE critical thinking, crouched in a posture of belief. Belief is, at the same time, a choice and being overwhelmingly drawn to God. The Christian analyzes to better see God’s glory, the unbeliever analyzes to poke holes. I’m also advocating that we are prepared to allow critical analysis to live on indefinitely in unresolved tension when it comes to “understanding God”, who is infinite and transcendent and ultimately incomprehendible.

      > Truth

      I love everything you say here. Just remember that ultimately (and this is not in any way a platitude designed to shut down your curiosity), truth is a person. So, no set of equations, no matter how complex, will ever define “truth”. You couldn’t even get a set of equations for defining me or your kids or your wife, let alone the God of the universe. So, it’s awesome to ask questions and grow in knowledge. To your point, God made you (and all of us to varying degrees) curious on purpose. But again, knowledge should lead you to a person like breadcrumbs. If knowledge leads you to your own indepdence or authority or power, then knowledge has become for you a poison that will destroy your soul. It is possible to get to heaven with very little knowledge, and it is possible to get to hell absolutely loaded with it. It just has to be kept in perspective. Of the infinitely transcendent God, at the end of the day you will have figured out very little, but figure away and worship Him because of what you find.

      > Your example of your kids asking questions

      GREAT example. Keep it going. A 3-year old asks “why”. You give her really simple answers, because she “can’t handle the truth” (had to get in my own movie reference). It’s hard for her to understand what’s really going on, her mind is simple by comparison, there’s no need for her to be burdened with the more difficult parts of what you know to be true about the “real” answer to your question, etc. She asks why over and over again, and when she stops (because you’re a good dad and took the time to answer her questions), she a) knows more than she did, b) knows comparatively little in absolute terms, and c) is satisfied (allbeit temporarily). Now, the question is WHY she’s satisfied. If it’s because she believes she knows everything and has become quite powerful now in her knowledge, making you as a parent unnecessary, then you have a problem. But if she believes she knows MORE and it has validated her trust in you, then good things have happened. She may even love you more because she knows that the knowledge she has came from you, that you gave her the gift of that knowledge (revelation) out of love, that you demonstrated your faithfulness to her, etc.

      > An additional thought about Anselm’s philosophy on knowledge and faith…

      If knowledge is a gateway to faith … if you have to know in order to believe, then you may never believe because you can never know fully. Our goal in knowing God is to know him *truly*, not to know him *fully* or exhaustively. We know God truly via our experience of Him. (“And he walks with me and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own…”) But we will never exhaustively know God. HOWEVER, neither can you “truly” know God without some kind of academic knowledge about the truth of God. But that academic knowledge *serves* the relational knowledge; it’s not an end to itself.

      > Faith and knowledge are “dialogical”…

      If there is a tension between faith and knowledge, it is because it’s a dialogue, a partnership, a dance. You can’t just have one. We do not fill up all the way on belief, and then are able to know. Nor do we fill up all the way on knowing, and then are able to believe. It’s an ongoing exchange. You have to know at least a little to believe, and you have to believe at least a little to know. There has to be some initial blend of faith and knowledge to begin the Christian journey. And even deeply committed long-time Christians should not stop asking tough questions to and about God. If we’re healthy, I think our knowledge and our faith grow together hand-in-hand.

      > Thanks!

      Anyway, thanks again for pushing back and for creating an opportunity for me to think and talk through this a little more! I hope this has been as helpful for you as it has been for me in thinking through complex issues.


  3. knenn11 says:

    Great points. One of my frequent prayers is, “God, help me love you more by knowing you more deeply, and help me know you more deeply by loving you more.”


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