W hen I was in elementary school, my literature class charged us with an interesting project. We had just finished reading a book collectively – what the book was, I cannot remember, but I remember the topic. It was a fiction novel following the life of a slave captured in Africa and brought to the States, where he was sold. It chronicled his journey under the horribly oppressive hand of a slaver, and then the further brutality experienced under the lash of his purchaser. The book bore a semblence of ending well; the lead character managed to escape his servitude through use of the Underground Railroad. He was never to return to Africa, however, or see his family again.
The novel painted a stark picture of the realities of a life enslaved. To help drive the point home, our teacher followed the book up with a mock courtroom. The captain of the slave ship was to be brought up on charges, and we were play this out. I had the delightful task of being charged with his defense, a monumental task to be sure. Scouring the pages of that book, I could only arrive at one conclusion: there was nothing redeeming about this man. Any possible positive attribute I could dredge up about him was found coinciding with character flaws of even greater repugnance. So, I did what any good defense attorney would do: I invented a new character.
The next few days were spent poring through the book again, only this time I was extracting a sentence here, a story there, and piecing them back together to form a far more positive image of the character I was supposed to defend. In the process, I was informed by my mother (who worked for Child Protective Services at the time) that to concoct such a fabrication in an actual courtroom would not only be dishonest, it would be illegal. I ignored her. I lost my case.
It is one thing to extract and piece together a blatantly false image as an elementary school student charged with the impossible task of defending a brutal slaver. It is an entirely different manner when a scholar writes a book and employs the same sort of creative license in formulating citations to use as evidence supporting his thesis. Yet, this is precisely what Dawkins does in The God Delusion.
Take, for example, his quote of Augustine. In chapter 4, he lays out an argument for why he believes that religion has (and will) always impede scientific progress. At one point, he suggests that faith makes the rejection of reason and discovery a central value. To support his case, he cites one of the most influential theologians of all time, St Augustine:
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’
When I first read this quote, it struck me as a decidedly odd thing for Augustine to say. After all, Augustine was a Manichaean before converting to Christianity. He adored philosophy, relished the study of the natural sciences in his day, and eagerly thirsted for knowledge. After becoming a Christian, Augustine argued vigorously for the use of forms of philosophy and reason that existed outside the Christian faith in addition to the prevailing exegetical methods of scripture, a practice he referred to as “plundering the Egyptians” in his writ ‘On Christian Doctrine’. He further worked as a professor, teaching his students to question and seek knowledge, before eventually becoming a bishop. Augustine adored the pursuit of learning, and found curiosity to be a noble attribute. So, recognizing the oddity of the quote, I did some digging.
As it turns out, the quote is legitimately attributed to Augustine. At least, the various elements of it are. In order to arrive at its finished form, Dawkins (and Freeman before him) had to edit out nearly 500 words. Take a look at the quote in its original form:
Note: The following is quite long. I have bolded the passages making up Dawkins’ quotation, but if you wish to read my discussion of the passage rather than the entire pasage itself, simply scroll down.
There is still another temptation, one more fraught with danger. In addition to the concupiscence of the flesh, which lures us to indulge in the pleasures of all the senses, and brings disaster on its slaves who flee far from you, there is also concupiscence of the mind, a frivolous, avid curiosity. Though it works through these same senses it is a craving not for gratification of the flesh but for experience through the flesh. It masquerades as a zeal for knowledge and learning. Since it is rooted in a thirst for firsthand information about everything, and since the eyes are paramount among the senses in acquiring information, this inquisitive tendency is called in holy scripture concupiscence of the eyes. Sight is, properly speaking, the eyes’ business, but we use the word also of our other senses in their cognitive function. Thus we do not say, “Listen for anything red,” or “Smell how shiny!” or “Taste how brilliant this is!” or “Feel the brightness of that!” For all such objects we speak of seeing. Yet we do say not only, “See how it shines,” which the eyes alone can report; we also say, “Let’s see how this sounds … See how fragrant … See what this tastes like … Just look how hard that is!” So, as I have pointed out, general sense-experience is called lust of the eyes, because when the other senses explore an object in an effort to collect knowledge, they claim for themselves, by a certain analogy, the office of seeing, in which the eyes unquestionably hold the primacy.
From this consideration the distinction more clearly emerges between two kinds of activity on the part of the senses: pleasure-seeking and curiosity; for sensuality pursues the beautiful, the melodious, the fragrant, the tasty and the silky, whereas curiosity seeks the opposite to all these, not because it wants to undergo discomfort but from lust to experience and find out. What sensual pleasure is to be had in viewing a mangled corpse which sickens you? Yet if there is one lying anywhere, people congregate in order to experience ashen-faced horror. At the same time they are frightened that it may give them nightmares! Anyone would think they had been forced to look at the thing while awake, or had been persuaded to do so by some rumor of its beauty. The same holds for the other senses, but it would be tedious to pursue the point through them all. To satisfy this morbid craving monstrous sights are exhibited at shows. From the same motive efforts are made to scrutinize the secrets of the natural world that lie beyond our sight; knowledge of these is of no profit, yet people want to know them simply for the sake of knowing.
This is some serious editing. Augustine is not arguing against curiosity itself, as Dawkins contends. Rather, he is pointing out the very astute observance that even curiosity can become perverse. By way of example, he refers to a strange aspect of the human condition which drives us to look upon the horror of a mangled body, or the disturbing images of a freak show. He points to the things which give us nightmares, yet we still feel compelled to sear into our psyche. Curiosity of the perverse is a temptation implicit in our humanity, yet it is not a beneficial attribute.
This, of course, bears little resemblence to the curiosity of which Dawkins speaks. The quest for knowledge, for scientific discovery, for the betterment of humanity… these attributes Augustine wholeheartedly defends. It is the quest for the perverse, under the guise of a zeal for knowledge, that he summarily rejects as harmful.
Now, to be fair… it is entirely possible that Dawkins conveyed such a deceptive rendering on accident. In his book, he cites Freeman as his source. Yet, for a man who lambasts religionists for apparently accepting what they are told unquestioningly, it would serve him well not to do the same. In particular, when publishing what is presented as a scholarly work, it is fair to expect him to fact check what he offers. Failure to do so not only brings his scholarship into question, it undermines his credibility and his honesty.
The result is painfully clear. The combination of factual dishonesty and already questionable scholarship leaves very little room for credible conclusions. Without these, The God Delusion is little more than an entertaining venture in futility.
What do you think? Is this summary manner of quotation in any way reconcilable with honest scholarship?
Image Credit: El Gecko Negro