Dawkins and His Poor Scholarship

St. Augustine as imagined by Sandro Botticelli in the late 15th century. (Public Domain Image)

I was speaking to a group of people in Portland, Indiana last night. As always, I took questions from the audience, and after the session, people came up and asked me more questions. In this individual question/answer session, one man said that he had read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, and he was wondering if I had any insight into something Dawkins claimed in the fourth chapter, “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God.” The man didn’t have the book with him, but he said that Dawkins claimed that St. Augustine (properly pronounced uh gus’ tin) encouraged people to avoid learning about the natural world, as gaps in our knowledge of the natural world glorify God. In other words, if we were to understand everything about the natural world, there would be nothing left to attribute to the Hand of God.

I read The God Delusion a few years ago, and I didn’t remember Dawkins making such a statement. I told the man that I am neither a philosopher nor a historian, but I can’t imagine St. Augustine saying any such thing. Augustine was very concerned about all manner of learning, and although he rarely wrote about anything related to science, I couldn’t imagine him saying that we shouldn’t learn about the natural world. I promised the man that I would look into it and write him back.

This morning, I looked around in Chapter 4 of my paperback edition of The God Delusion and found the portion to which the man was referring. In a subsection of the chapter entitled, “The Worship of Gaps,” Dawkins discusses Intelligent Design. He says that it basically promotes scientific laziness, because as soon as you attribute something to the Hand of God, there is nothing more you can learn about it. He then goes even further and says that an advocate of Intelligent Design would actually tell scientists to stop learning about something that is amazingly complex, so it can always be attributed to God. He then says:1

St Augustine said it quite openly: ‘There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity. It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.’ (quoted in Freeman 2002)

The reference he gives (Freeman 2002) is The Closing of the Western Mind by Charles Freeman. Like his discussion of Intelligent Design before it, this quote is 100% false.

Once again, I am neither a philosopher nor a historian, but I know how to do a bit of digging, so I decided to look into this quote. I found it in many places, all attributed to Freeman. This bothered me, because if it were a real quote from St. Augustine, you would expect to find references to one of Augustine’s work. Eventually, I ran across an article entitled “Outright Lies, illiteracy, or just bad scholarship?” from Athanatos Christian Ministries. The author of the article, Anthony Horvath (a Facebook friend of mine), had already done the heavy lifting for me. He has some other very good articles about The God Delusion (here, here, and here), but in this specific article, he shows that Dawkins simply accepted Freeman’s quote blindly, not bothering to check to see if it was accurate.

In the article, Horvath gives the actual quote, which comes from Confessions, Book X, section 35. You can go to Horvath’s article if you want to read the entire quote, but suffice it to say that there are 447 words between the phrase that is equivalent to “fraught with danger” and the one that is equivalent to “This is the disease of curiosity.” Note that the quote as given by Freeman and unquestionably reproduced by Dawkins has no ellipsis or anything. Thus, there is nothing to tell you that 447 words have been omitted. Furthermore, if you read the entire passage, you will see that Augustine is talking about the kind of curiosity that leads people to gawk at mangled corpses “simply for the sensation of sorrow and horror that it gives them.” This has nothing to do with scientific curiosity.

So clearly Augustine isn’t saying anything close to what Dawkins (and Freeman) claim he is saying. Because Dawkins relied on Freeman’s quote without doing even a modicum of checking to see if it was accurate, you have to wonder what other mangled quotes you can find in Dawkins’s works. This situation is very interesting, because creationists are often accused of quote mining, but here is a clear case where one of the greatest evolutionary evangelists of our time is doing it.

I also want to spend a moment addressing Dawkins’s claim that attributing something to the Hand of God immediately stops all scientific investigation on the subject. This is, of course, nonsense. Newton attributed the amazing design of our Solar System to the Hand of God, and he went on to give us the Universal Law of Gravitation, which explains exactly how the planets stay in orbit around the sun. Carolus Linnaeus attributed all plants and animals to the Hand of God, and he was the father of modern taxonomy. Attributing things to the hand of God didn’t stop their scientific inquiry!

In fact, many scientists (past and present) study the secrets of nature specifically because they think that nature was made by God. For example, Dr. Henry F. Schaefer III is the Graham Perdue Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Center for Computational Chemistry at the University of Georgia. He is among the most cited chemists in the world. He has earned a bevy of major awards, and both The Journal of Physical Chemistry and the Journal Molecular Physics have published issues in honor of him. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, and was among the inaugural class of Fellows of the American Chemical Society. Clearly, he has advanced our understanding of chemistry significantly. Here is what he says about his scientific endeavors:2

The significance and joy in my science comes in the occasional moments of discovering something new and saying to myself, “So that’s how God did it!” My goal is to understand a little corner of God’s plan.

Those of us who attribute the natural world to the Hand of God do not stop investigating just because we believe that God did it. That wasn’t the case for Newton, Linnaeus, or the other great scientists of the past who were Christians, and it isn’t the case for Dr. Henry F. Schaefer III or the other great scientists of the present who are Christians. Instead, the fact that we want to know how God did it encourages us to investigate nature’s mysteries even more.


1. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2006, p. 159
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2. Henry F. Schaefer, Science and Christianity: Conflict Or Coherence?, The Apollos Trust 2010, p. 42
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  1. Mrs. Mokris May 17, 2012 5:38 am

    I recently reread St. Augustine’s Confessions. I was surprised that he wrote a good bit about “time” and about the “matter” that God first made to create with. It was definitely philosophical science thinking, over my head; I could see physicists discussing those topics today (not necessarily the same thoughts/direction). Also, I’m sure I’m incorrect in what St. Augustine meant, but some of his thoughts reminded me of dark matter, dark energy.

    • jlwile May 17, 2012 7:04 am

      I agree, Mrs. Mokris. I think that many ancient thinkers had some of the same ideas that modern scientists have now. Gerald Schroeder talks about this a lot in his book, Genesis and the Big Bang. I am not familiar enough with Augustine’s writings to know whether or not he refers to concepts related to dark matter and dark energy. I’ll have to say it wouldn’t surprise me if he did.


  2. josiah May 17, 2012 6:49 pm

    Apparently in another case of bad scholarship in that book, Dawkins cites a claim by Michael Behe about ID taken from the Dover Judgement, even though it was clearly misquoted in the judgement according the publicly available transcript of the same trial!
    I can’t remember exactly what the quote was though, and I can’t really be bothered to dredge through the God Delusion again to find it.

    • jlwile May 18, 2012 9:50 am

      Josiah, I think you are referring to the quote that Dawkins gives on page 160 of the paperback version of his book:

      He [referring to Behe] was presented with fifty-eight peer-reviewed publications, nine books, and several immunology textbook chapters about the evolution of the immune system; however, he simply insisted that this was still not sufficient evidence of evolution, and that it was not “good enough.”

      In fact, what he said according to page 19 of the transcript for that portion of the trial was:

      These articles are excellent articles I assume. However, they do not address the question that I am posing. So it’s not that they aren’t good enough. It’s simply that they are addressed to a different subject.

      So what Behe correctly pointed out was that all those articles and books did not address his argument. They discuss the evolution of the immune system assuming the basic parts were in place. They don’t discuss how the basic parts were selected without providing benefit until enough were in place to start the first rudimentary system.

      Once again, Dawkins simply copied from Judge Jones rather than looking at the transcript itself. Of course, this is an issue of secondary copying, since Judge Jones copied it from the ACLU’s proposed findings of fact.


  3. W. Brown May 26, 2012 6:58 am

    I would wonder if Dawkins can actually read if he hadn’t written those books.. then again, they do have dictation software. =D But really, if he was actually trying to be deceptive, one would think he would think twice about deliberately misquoting something that’s readily available to the public. It’s probably just a result of not reading the book he’s discussing. But then again, who can fathom the great mind of Richard Dawkins?

    • jlwile May 26, 2012 11:15 am

      W. Brown, I would not even want to attempt fathoming such an odd mind!


  4. Amy May 27, 2012 5:21 pm

    Interestingly enough, St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, writes about Newtons first law of motion, 400 or so years before Newton lived. I challenge Dawkins to argue the existence of God against any of these great Scholars,but then again I doubt he could even understand Aquinas. I’m going to put Confessions on my summer reading list, I think.


    (under Whether God Exist)

    • jlwile May 28, 2012 9:41 am

      Amy, I am virtually certain Dawkins would not understand Aquinas. I had an entire semester course on him, and I still don’t completely understand him. Not only is he incredibly intellectual, you really need to have a good grasp on Aristotle to understand Aquinas, and that’s a chore in and of itself!