Augustine’s Ghost

David Heddle has a post ripping into the goings-on at William Dembski’s “Uncommon Descent” weblog.

Uncommon Descent is again proving to be a major embarrassment. Or, more accurately, it has not yet ceased its never ending pursuit of making a fool of itself. The state of affairs is so bad that I really don’t know how other members of the ID community refrain from publically distancing themselves from the site’s absurdity. It would be amusing if it were not for the fact that, by extension and association, Christianity is impugned in the process.

There’s a good deal more. Check it out.

Now, you should understand that Heddle is a former non-nuanced advocate of “intelligent design”. Over the past year or so Heddle has repudiated element after element of the Discovery Institute’s version of “intelligent design” and has broken with the “big tent” strategy that mandates that young-earth creationism will not be criticized. His current position, IIRC, is that he still thinks that “intelligent design” can be cast as a valid scientific research program based upon cosmological arguments.

Myself, I think that attempts to rehabilitate the label “intelligent design” are simply wrong. “Intelligent design” as a purported field of human endeavor originated as a new label for “creation science”, and the whole of the intent behind its creation was to allow creation science advocates to evade the Edwards v. Aguillard Supreme Court decision and have their arguments taught in K-12 classes anyway. It is bad civics, and unquestionably morally corrosive.

But then, I’ve found antievolution as a whole to be a field where professional mendacity is rampant. The wholesale telling of falsehoods that underlies the body of argumentation that comprises antievolution has long elicited from me the same reaction that Heddle is having now with respect to the recent UD shenanigans.

I can’t claim any originality, though, in thinking that passing off rampant nonsense as truth harms Christian belief. That goes back at least 16 centuries.

Often a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other parts of the world, about the motions and orbits of the stars and even their sizes and distances,… and this knowledge he holds with certainty from reason and experience. It is thus offensive and disgraceful for an unbeliever to hear a Christian talk nonsense about such things, claiming that what he is saying is based in Scripture. We should do all that we can to avoid such an embarrassing situation, lest the unbeliever see only ignorance in the Christian and laugh to scorn.

(St. Augustine, “De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim” (The Literal Meaning of Genesis))

I have, by the way, been trying off and on for some time now to fill in the ellipses in the above quote, so far without success. If anyone can clear that up, please let me know.

Update: Glenn Branch sent me a link to a fuller quotation:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion. [1 Timothy 1.7]

Thanks. I feel better knowing that the ellipsis is harmless, if inexplicably pointless.

Update: The mainstream media is starting to notice the extremist cant at UD.

Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

4 thoughts on “Augustine’s Ghost

  • 2007/06/27 at 10:32 am
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    The version I have in my quotes file reads:

    Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although _they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.

    — Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram: 1.19.39 translated by J.H. Taylor, Ancient Christian Writers, Newman Press, 1982, volume 41

    I can’t vouch for this quotation’s truth or accuracy, since I got it off the Internet some years ago, but at least there’s enough of a reference that you can look it up.

  • 2007/06/29 at 5:02 pm
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    Michael F. Flynn has a good article (and an accompanying story) in the July/August 2007 issue of Analog. He discusses the considerable roots of the scientific revolution in the Middle Ages. Apparently a common religious perspective was that religious doctrine did not trump facts, but that facts might support religious doctrine.

    He quotes St. Augustine:

    “In the Gospel we do not read that the Lord said, ‘I send you the Holy Spirit so that he might teach you all about the course of the sun and the moon.’ The Lord wanted to make Christians, not astronomers. You learn at school all the useful things you need to know about nature.”
    Contra Faustum manichaeum

  • 2007/07/02 at 4:06 am
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    Very interesting to read the (unverified) full quote. This is part of the literal versus allegorical reading of Genesis, and creation science advocates have consistently lied about early Christians to claim them as sharing the literal interpretation that few other than 7th Day Adventists held before 1961, according to Reason Science and Faith by Forster and Marston, Chapter 7 – Genesis Through History, available online from http://www.ivycottage.org/group/group.aspx?id=6826 if you don’t mind using an evangelical Christian source. They note that Augustine’s argument was reiterated by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, An early example of reading Genesis literally came from Martin Luther after 1517, but John Calvin, like Augustine, criticised those who asserted that there are “waters above the heavens”, contradicting the contemporary understanding of nature.

  • 2007/09/11 at 4:02 pm
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    If I am not mistaken, Augustine is also credited with introducing the theological notion of “Original Sin” into the conversation.

    Nowadays, a more secular analyst might diagnose an “error” in some human endeavor, and seek to bring it to light.

    Interestingly enough, the event that Augustine labels “Original Sin” can also be analyzed as an error in mathematical reasoning or logic (were people of that era sufficiently schooled in mathematical analysis to render such an observation).

    So instead of adopting the theological label, “Original Sin,” I prefer to speak of “Hammurabi’s Original Logic Error” (or “Humankind’s Original Logic Error”).

    When examined from that point of view, one arrives at an essay such as this one…

    Disjunction Dysfunction and the Error Function

    http://underground.musenet.org:8080/utnebury/error.html

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