Bonhoeffer's Theory of Stupidity

Can ignorant people sometimes be more dangerous than evil ones? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian murdered by Nazism, proposed an interesting theory in this respect. Find out more here.
Bonhoeffer's Theory of Stupidity
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 22 May, 2023

Bonhoeffer’s theory of stupidity acts as a reflection of past and present events. We all know how to identify evil, so we shouldn’t hesitate in acting against it. However, in the face of ignorance, often lies defenselessness. As such, we don’t attend to reason and evil tends to spread silently.

Stupidity gives truth to the most unlikely ideas, ridiculous conspiracy theories, and dangerous proclamations. It frequently occurs on social media.

The problem is that irrational voices are contagious. In fact, they spread and go viral in our society. And, we discover that ignorance can be actually more threatening than malice. But, how is this unique phenomenon orchestrated? You can find out here.

“Against stupidity we have no defense. Neither protests nor force can touch it. Reasoning is of no use. Facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved -indeed, the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be brushed aside as trivial exceptions.”

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer-

Bonhoeffer’s theory of stupidity

There are some figures lost in the mists of time who deserve to be recovered and honored. One of them is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Christian leader who joined the resistance movement against Nazism. Not only that, but he also rose to prominence as a result of his opposition to Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies.

However, he was jailed and accused of conspiracy, after it was discovered that he’d been helping Jews flee to Switzerland. And, in 1945, he was taken to the Flossenbürg concentration camp, where he was hanged. But, his legacy remains in the form of his reflections on totalitarianism along with a timeless theory. It reminds us that ignorant people, with their passivity and poor judgment, leave the door open to disaster.

“Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice”, Bonhoeffer wrote in a text published in the Journal of Church and State which collated many of his thoughts. Undoubtedly, he was a brave man who bequeathed us some timeless ideas. Let’s explore them.

Image of a man sawing a circle he is standing on, to represent Bonhoeffer's theory of stupidity
The stupidity of one section of society could lead to disaster for all.

Stupidity has a dark side

Bonhoeffer’s theory of stupidity reveals that minds without judgment and lacking in logic and the capacity for self-reflection can be more dangerous than those endowed with evil. It was during his days in the concentration camps that this Lutheran theologian delved into the dark reality that dominated Germany at the time. He tried to describe it in his letters.

When Bonhoeffer referred to stupidity, he didn’t mean the kinds of figures with limited cognitive potential. He was referring to those who don’t question what they’re told and who follow orders without thinking. This lack of judgment means they don’t pay attention to other ideas.

In a way, Bonhoeffer’s ideas have a certain similarity to those of the philosopher, Edmund Burke, in the 17th century. He claimed that “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph in the world is that good men do nothing”.

In the case of the Second World War, as well as many other social and humanitarian crises of great magnitude, there’s a particularly disturbing truth. It’s the fact that, when stupidity acts as a group and herd behavior occurs, it’s tremendously threatening. In fact, evil enters through the front door. Indeed, to impose itself, evil requires a herd mentality that’s governed by ignorance.

“The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other.”

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer on stupidity-

The problem: we tolerate stupidity more than evil

According to Bonhoeffer’s theory, we don’t tend to fight stupidity in the same way we do evil. The two are really different in nature. Moreover, we often smile at naive behavior, simplistic reasoning, and thoughtless commentary, considering it not even worth debating.

We frequently see this kind of behavior on social media. Stupid tweets are tolerated and swarm everywhere, even though we might try not to give them any importance. Then, suddenly, fake news goes viral, and a conspiracy theory is fueled. Consequently, ideas with no scientific or logical basis spread uncontrollably. It happened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

There’s another similar idea that’s been analyzed for years in the field of organizations. It’s known as functional stupidity. A study conducted by the University of Uppsala (Sweden) claims that, in many companies, employees no longer question the procedures or the prevailing rules. They simply accept them.

This dynamic is a problem because whenever individuals become passive agents without reacting or reformulating what governs and surrounds them, it results in totalitarianism and coercion. Normalizing and allowing stupid behavior to occur affects everyone, because it enables evil.

Evil leader reflecting a shadow of evil symbolizing Bonhoeffer's theory of stupidity
To achieve power, evil needs stupidity. This is a real risk.

The zombies of society and Bonhoeffer’s theory of stupidity

Authentic ‘zombies’ also inhabit the social environment. These are individuals who get carried away by slogans and banners that they don’t even question. In fact, the more striking, extreme, and illogical they are, the better. This is often evident in movements dominated by extreme ideologies.

Suddenly, leaders appear who provide simplistic solutions to complex problems. They’re threatening and populist characters who, in a short time, achieve a large following that gives them power. Bonhoeffer’s theory of stupidity warns us of how naive minds gobble up these nonsensical narratives and follow them at face value. They’re like souls devoid of rational brains.

Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil – incapable of seeing that it is evil.

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer-

When stupidity wins over reason, we all lose

Stupidity is the biggest disease in society because it acts as the best instrument for the evil mind to climb the ladder and reach power. There’s no greater danger than not reasoning or applying a critical look at the events surrounding us.

Bonhoeffer’s theory of stupidity is currently relevant because increasingly more ideas are automatically assumed to be true. There’s no critical thinking to question them.

In fact, in today’s reality, dominated by scrolling and clickbait, we hardly have any time left to doubt what we see and analyze what’s said. It’s easier to accept it and obey, imitate, or do the same as the others. It happened with Brexit and during the coronavirus lockdown.

Finally, it’s worth bearing in mind that if stupidity overcomes reason, nonsense advances and humanity goes backward. Not a good move.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.