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Outright Lies, illiteracy, or just bad scholarship?

If you read my last blog entry, you saw that I went after Dawkins for unquestioningly accepting information he has been handed without investigating to see if the information is legit. One can wonder if his whole worldview is based on information handed to him pre-biased, and one can wonder further whether or not we should trust his judgment. In the course of that post I pointed out that just as we may be skeptical of his use of Judge Jones, we can and should be skeptical of his other material, and I included as an example his citation of Augustine through a source (almost certainly biased)- that is, Freeman.

Now, I have not read Freeman’s book, “The Closing of the Western Mind,”*** so I don’t know if Dawkins even managed to quote Freeman’s quoting of Augustine correctly. We’ll have to hope Dawkins’s scholarship was good enough to represent his own fellows. Here is the quote alleged to Augustine via Freeman:

“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.”

Well, my curiosity was aroused to see if Dawkins had been willingly hoodwinked again by a source, so I went looking for this reference. Naturally, Dawkins does not cite where Augustine said it, but we can hope Freeman did. I went through three Google search results pages, scanning through one quoting of this same passage after another by skeptics, none of whom gave where Augustine said it (assuring, therefore, that they all got it from Freeman and he’s on their side, so he wouldn’t lead them wrong, right?!?), until finally I found one. One. I pray to God more atheists had the integrity to try to get to the bottom of the source, but I admit I stopped after the one.

Here is Mr. Pine’s page [Wayback machine link], and here is the quote:

There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity. . . .[emphasis added] It is this which drives us on to try to discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which men should not wish to learn. . . . In this immense forest, full of pitfalls and perils, I have drawn myself back, and pulled myself away from these thorns. In the midst of all these things which float unceasingly around me in everyday life, I am never surprised at any of them, and never captivated by my genuine desire to study them. . . . I no longer dream of the stars.

That’s a lot of … in there. This gentlemen tells us that it is in his Confessions, which I commend him for, but I can certainly understand why he had so many periods and failed to give more precise information. As soon as you look at what Augustine did say, you can see that there is little hope of making the point that Dawkins and this gent wants to make from what Augustine actually did say. It comes from chapter 10, section 35. Here is a link. Unfortunately, the old English KJV style of translating makes it a bit awkward, so I dug out my R.S. Pine-Coffin translation of Confessions and I’m going to fill in the blanks for you in a better reading English. This will be a bit of typing, and I do hope it is appreciated.

The first thing I’d like to point out before I do so is what I should hope is painfully obvious- whatever translation preserved Augustine saying he is not interested in the ‘stars’ is not in agreement with Pine-Coffin who translates that as ‘astrology.’ I’m not going to dig out the Greek or Latin here, myself, but I’m willing to bet, given the context of the passage in question and the context of the time, that ‘astrology’ really is what Augustine is responding to and objecting to. What do you think?- do you think Dawkins thinks Augustine stupid for rejecting astrology, or is that the sort of ‘curiosity’ that Dawkins construes as science? Ah well, we’ll never know. Here comes the passage, all manually typed.

I must now speak of a different kind of temptation, more dangerous than these because it is more complicated. For in addition to our bodily appetites, which make us long to gratify all our senses and our pleasures and lead to our ruin if we stay away from you by becoming their slaves, the mind is also subject to a certain propensity to use the sense of the body, not for self-indulgence of a physical kind, but for the satisfaction of its own inquisitiveness. This futile curiosity masquerades under the name of science and learning, and since it derives from our thirst for knowledge and sight is the principal sense by which knowledge is acquired, in the Scriptures it is called gratification of the eye. For although, correctly speaking, to see is the proper function of the eyes, we used the word of the other senses too, when we employ them to acquire knowledge. We do not say, ‘Hear how it glows’, ‘Smell how bright it is’, ‘Taste how it shines’ , or ‘Feel how it glitters’, because these are all things which we say that we see. Yet we not only say ‘see how it shines’ when we are speaking of something which only the eyes can perceive, but we also say ‘See how loud it is’, ‘See how it smells’, ‘See how it tastes’, and ‘See how hard it is’. So, as I said, sense-experience in general is called the lust of the eyes because, although the function of sight belongs primarily to the eyes, we apply it to the other organs of sense as well, by analogy, when they are used to discover any item of knowledge.

We can easily distinguish between the motives of pleasure and curiosity. When the senses demand pleasure, they look for objects of visual beauty, harmonious sounds, fragrant perfumes, and things that are pleasant to the taste or soft to the touch. But when their motive is curiosity, they may look for just the reverse of these things, simply to put it to the proof, not for the sake of an unpleasant experience, but from a relish for investigation and discovery. What pleasure can there be in the sight of a mangled corpse, which can only horrify? Yet people will flock to see one lying on the ground, simply for the sensation of sorrow and horror that it gives them. They are even afraid that it may bring them nightmares, as though it were something that they had been forced to look at while they were awake or something to which they had been attracted by rumours of its beauty. The same is true of the other senses, although it would be tedious to give further examples. It is to satisfy this unhealthy curiosity that freaks and prodigies are put on show in the theatre, and for the same reason men are led to investigate the secrets of nature, which are irrelevant to our lives, although such knolwedge is of no value to them and they wish to gain it merely for the sake of knowing. It is curiosity, too, which causes men to turn to sorcery in the effort to obtain knowledge for the same perverted purpose. And it even invades our religion, for we put God to the test when we demand signs and wonders from him, not in the hope of salvation, but simply for the love of the experience.

In this immense forest, so full of snares and dangers, I have pared away many sins and thrust them from my heart, for you have given me the grace to do this, O God, my Saviour. But as long as my daily life is passed in the midst of the clamour raised by so many temptations of this sort, when can I presume to say that nothing of this kind can hold my attention or tempt me into idle speculation? It is true that the theaters no longer attract me; the study of astrology does not interest me; I have never dealt in necromancy; and I detest all sacrilegious rites.

Yet who can tell how many times each day our curiosity is tempted by the most trivial and insignificant matters? Who can tell how often we give way? So often it happens that, when others tell foolish tales, we at first bear with them for fear of offending the weak, and then little by little we begin to listen willingly.

I put my only little section of … in there, because after that point ends the section covered by Dawkins and the other atheistic scientist who cited Augustine. I included that last statement, which was several lines afterwards, because I thought it captured the general idea of ‘curiosity’ that Augustine was working on- and it is a far cry from whatever Dawkins and Freeman were trying to say.

Let’s spend a little time in analysis. You will note that I have bolded the sections covered in Dawkins and Ronald Pine. Now that you can see them in context, we discover a couple of things. One may wish to consult yet a third translation, here, to see that something is truly amiss.

Did you notice how in both Dawkins’s and Mr. Pines (not to be confused with the translator, Pine-Coffin) citation, presumably all derived from Freeman, or some other strange translation, there are like 50 sentences between Augustine’s assessment that he needs to speak of something more dangerous and the assertion, as put by Dawkins, Pine, and Freeman, that Augustine says “this is the disease of curiosity”? This is nonsense. This is dishonest.

When Augustine does begin to talk about the unhealthy curiosity, the ‘malady of curiosity’ the ‘disease of curiosity,’ the example he gives is of having freak shows. He gives an example of how people will gawk at a mangled body. If Dawkins is mocking Christianity, with Augustine as the one taking the hit, as rejecting curiosity, shall we then presume that the curiosity that Dawkins supports are traveling freak shows and gazing at mangled bodies? Is that the sort of curiosity he has in mind? Or does he perhaps join Augustine in rejecting curiosity in this sense? Hmmmmm? Hmmmmm?

Now, I did a quick look at the use of ‘stars’ in these translations, and the idea of ‘astrology’ seems to really be what Augustine is going after. I’m willing to venture out on that assumption, open to correction if it comes, but let me just put the question to Mr. Dawkins and Mr. Pines: If you mock Augustine for turning aside from a ‘study of the stars’/’astrology’ is it then your position that you support astrology? Eh?

Finally, the only part of this passage that seems to fit within their caricature is the bit that says, “and for the same reason men are led to investigate the secrets of nature, which are irrelevant to our lives, although such knowledge is of no value to them and they wish to gain it merely for the sake of knowing.” (note that this is much different than what Dawkins, Pine, and Freeman put in Augustine’s mouth). This may very well be embarrasing for the Christian that does not believe that faith is the end of investigation, but it is not by any means certain that this is what Augustine means, here.

For one thing, in context with the rest of the material about ‘curiosity,’ it may very well be that he is attacking ‘gnosticism,’ here. Good scholarship would show- but don’t expect that out of Dawkins. What is evident, above and beyond the overall context, is the caveat “the knowledge is of no value, and they wish to gain it merely for the sake of knowing.” Ie, to use Augustine’s analogy, to gawk at a dead body merely for the sake of the experience, rather than to gain anything meaningful out of it. This passage leaves open the possibility that Augustine would support an investigation into the secrets of nature that would be relevant to our lives. And the context supports it.

This is all just one more example of why we should be immensely skeptical of the skeptics- especially when they think they are competent to describe the positions they are trying to dismantle.

One walks away from such a study thinking that someone ought to just fact-check the heck out of the lot of them and then we might be able to make some progress- some real meeting of the minds- in the theism and atheism debate. Don’t hold your breath. No one has the time and energy to research every citation and source the way I’ve done with this passage, and even this wasn’t as extensive as it could or should have been. So: readers of Dawkins and other ‘free-thinkers’ and ‘skeptics’… I am not saying don’t be skeptical about things… I’m just saying be skeptical of everything.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to go derive clever quotes from various authors, taking a phrase here and there, skipping whole lines, etc, and see if anyone thinks that that is good scholarship. Wish me luck. 😉

***NOTE: I have since acquired the book and verified that Dawkins did quote Freeman correctly. So, Dawkins borrowed an accusation directly from Freeman without fact-checking it. The dishonesty is Freeman’s, the intellectual laziness and shoddy scholarship is Dawkins’s.  Here is a pic from page viii of the book:



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    • on January 6, 2007 at 3:05 am

    To be honest, I don’t know what your name is, and I apologize. I was recommended by a former Lutheran High School student to read your blog because she thought I would find it interesting. I eagerly await a fuller critique of Dawkins, because so far I haven’t seen much against his main arguments. I agree that Dawkins takes a dangerously aggressive approach towards people of faith, but he feels he needs to, and I don’t think that repeating how angry and unhappy and rude he is serves as a fair response to his book. He has put forth a rational (although you may disagree) argument, and he deserves a solid one in return. The problem is that we live in a world in which a man with a college degree can believe that he will be rewarded with 72 virgins by flying a plane into one of our buildings, and to aggressively, publicly criticize his beliefs is taboo. The correct response to these men is not that “Our Holy Book is written by God, and yours isn’t, and you’re going to burn in Hell,” because they believe they can truthfully counter that claim with an identical one. It appears that a war of rationality against irrationality has begun, and with the near ubiquitousness of nuclear weapons, irrational behaviors like those above threaten the entirety of human civilization. How to respond? Although Dawkins does indeed seem to be angry, one can look past and see that he is incredibly intelligent, and that he provides some powerful arguments. If you disagree, then please challenge them. I urge you to visit http://www.samharris.org and view the videos (especially those from the Beyond Belief “think tank” at the Salk Institute), or to read “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation.” Harris argues in a much calmer way, and focuses more on religious dogmatism, but seems to be motivated by a fear similar to that held by Dawkins.

    • Anthony on January 6, 2007 at 4:21 am

    Thanks for your comment. It is tempting to write a lengthy response, but I try to keep my longer discussions confined to my forum, just for the sake of my own sanity. http://www.sntjohnny.com/smf has a place to respond to my Dawkins’s review.

    I will say just a few things. In the first place, in my review of (only) the introduction, I made it clear that I think the man deserves worse but I wasn’t going to dish it out. I thought it was ironic that you pointed out the dangers of not being able to ‘publically criticize’ ideologies aggressively promoted by chastizing me for calling Dawkins’s out for being rude and belligerent. More people should be doing this. You mention Sam Harris as a calmer voice but he has gone on the record as calling the God Delusion ‘marvelous.’ That sounds like an endorsement. Aren’t you in the slightest nervous about what a man like Dawkins might actually DO if he had power and believed certain religious beliefs were actual child abuse? Sam Harris ought to have repudiated Dawkins on the spot. A fine set of responses to Sam Harris has been generated by a member of my forum here: http://sntjohnny.com/smf/index.php/topic,2252.0.html

    In conclusion, I definately do disagree with Dawkins, and I also disagree that his arguments are powerful. But I did make it clear that my review thus far only covers the introduction, so you can certainly expect more.

    I’d like to point out that you have made a comment on a post covering Dawkins’s bad scholarship rather than generally speaking, his book. Let me warn you that Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins and many other spokesmen for the atheistic position are guilty of bad scholarship in many, many areas. I see that you are a college student, so let me just suggest that you apply the skepticism that skeptics and free thinkers applaud themselves for also to the works produced by skeptics.

    I must add a final point. You said, “I eagerly await a fuller critique of Dawkins, because so far I haven’t seen much against his main arguments.”

    This really raised a red flag for me because his main arguments have been around for centuries- so too have the Christian responses. Make sure you don’t get your information about theism from atheists.

    And here is a review of the God Delusion from another person that I thought captures many of my own sentiments. You may find it interesting:


  1. Augustine still comes off as an ostrich no matter which quote you use.

    • Anthony on January 6, 2011 at 9:45 pm

    Which quotes are there to choose from? What Augustine actually said and what was spliced together to have him say? I suppose that someone felt the need to splice because he didn’t ‘come off as an ostrich’ well enough without a little ‘help.’ The real issue here is not what Augustine may have said on the matter, but the integrity of those who used the ‘quote.’ I would hope that you are not suggesting that you condone this kind of quote-mangling? Or, are you one of those ‘anything for the cause’ persons?

    • Mike on February 23, 2011 at 5:48 pm

    I was brought to this blog by the awful set of stories you wrote and as I am on sick leave, I am reading a few more posts. This one follows the pattern set in your other posts. It is shallow and simply incorrect. The takeaway point from the abridged quite is that curiosity is bad (a vile and inhuman idea) and the takeaway from the longer quote is that curiosity is bad. It was a fair and effective abridgment and I can only assume that you can’t reply to the actual criticism involved and must instead resort to meaningless and false nit picking.

    • End Bringer on February 23, 2011 at 6:02 pm

    Funny, the takeaway point actually seems to be ‘curiosity is both good and bad depending’. And simply logicly asks – why didn’t Dawkins have the curiosity to make sure what someone spoon-fed him is correct?

    You know, the way so many of your fellow “critics” don’t have the curiosity to actually read the stories and just lets themselves be spoon-fed by PZ Meyers.

    • Mike on February 23, 2011 at 7:16 pm

    End Bringer,

    In typical fashion for a theist, you speak when you are ignorant. I have read the one story I talked about. It was terrible. It is amusing that this blogger wrote a bad story and feels that he can somehow make it better by telling readers how they should read. It is just bad in intent and execution and reveals some pretty contemptible ideas on the part of the writer.

    As to the Aquinas quote, I can only marvel at your misreading and withdraw in wonder. Arrogant ignorance is not something I care to fight with now.

    Oh, on a personal note “End Bringer” is a really stupid name.

    • End Bringer on February 23, 2011 at 7:56 pm

    And in typical atheistic fashion you lack basic reading skills as I didn’t say you specificly didn’t read the stories. As such if you have such trouble reading a simple sentence, one can be doubtful on your comprehension of everything else that’s been written from the stories to this blog.

    You are of course entitled to your opinion, but as the level you express your opinion is of no greater quality than those who didn’t read anything at all, all it needs to be met with is a simple counter assertion.

    • Ermine on February 28, 2011 at 6:31 pm

    EB, Mike never claimed that you said that he specifically didn’t read the stor(y/ies). He merely said that you speak from ignorance. Do you lack basic reading skills? Of course, that sort of thing seems to be far more prevalent among the religious, so I’m not terribly surprised.

    Having read your words over the last few days, your ignorance has become all-too obvious, so it appears that everything Mike said in his previous post was absolutely true.

    “You are of course entitled to your opinion, but as the level you express your opinion is of no greater quality than those who didn’t read anything at all, all it needs to be met with is a simple counter assertion.”


    • Charles Freeman on May 28, 2019 at 6:59 am

    Anthony, twelve years on you are probably not going to respond to this. I would suggest that you read the entry on ‘curiosity’ by N Joseph Torchia in the big Encylopedia on Augustine edited by Allan Fitzgerald, 1999. As I am sure you are aware Augustine was a Platonist and his distrust of the natural world stems from Plato rather than from Christianity ( his Platonism tends to be forgotten ) . Basically he is saying that curiosity about the natural world is not worth it because the natural world is pretty volatile and has little value compared to the heavens above. Obviously my Closing of the Western Mind discusses this all in more detail.
    I would hope that I am not dishonest but I cannot control Dawkins if he takes the quotation and does not realise that it is Platonic rather than Christian in origina.

    • Anthony on June 10, 2019 at 4:00 pm

    Hi Charles, thanks for dropping in.

    Certainly, you cannot control how Dawkins uses a quotation. On the other hand, there is still the fact that he quoted your quotation accurately, and your quote did slice and dice what Augustine said.

    I took the liberty of picking up your book again and taking a picture of the quote and updating my entry with the picture. Looking at it anew, it appears that the Augustine quote seems to be set in contrast to the Euripides quote, which speaks of ‘inquiry’ in laudable terms. It seems to me that a person like Dawkins would feel entirely warranted to believe he was representing you (and Augustine) fairly, especially as these pair of quotes come together at the very beginning of the book, as if to set the stage for all that is to come.

    Perhaps you also were victim of someone else’s creative splicing, and Dawkins then was just the next domino to fall. Nonetheless, regardless of whatever context the rest of your book provided, and regardless of how Dawkins employed it, Augustine’s words are thoroughly mangled.

    Perhaps you can shed light on your own source for the quote, if in fact you relied on someone else. It has been a very long time, so I would understand if you weren’t quite sure or couldn’t recollect.

    You will be glad to know that I have received numerous visitors to this blog entry over the years. I have seen people of Dawkins’ bent using the quote as presented in Dawkin’s “Delusion” only to be answered by a link to this entry, which ends the matter conclusively. So, even if people never went further to get your book to check for the greater context, at least they never again use the quote as part of their argument.

  1. […] at all, and the book itself is riddled with all kinds of errors, some of which I document here. (note, I have since acquired the book Dawkins quoted from, and verified that he at least got his […]

  2. […] 1.  Richard Dawkins. Not long after Dawkins released his Delusion, I tracked down a quote that he employed to further his argument that Christianity was against knowledge and stifled curiosity.   The quote was from Augustine’s Confessions but the 45ish word quote was actually spliced selectively out of a longer section 750ish words in length.   See my evidence. […]

  3. […] also is confused about the spirit of curiosity that is condemned, but that is not intellectual learning being condemned. It is looking into matters we have no business looking into for they serve no […]

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