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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