On Atheist Quote Mining

Is that really an accurate quote? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

I woke up this morning to find on my Facebook a request from a friend of mine concerning a debate she was in on the Unbelievable page asking if I would know the correct source for a quote an atheist had given. I’m going to use one as an example.

“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.”
— St. Augustine (354 – 430), one of the “great” church fathers, Confessions

Okay. Confessions is a big book. It has several chapters to it. It’s not feasible to just pick it up and start reading, so the best thing to do is to do a search for the quote, although one can go to google books and look for some quotes there. What I do in this case is to take the first sentence, go to google, put it in quotes, and search.

Interestingly, the search comes up with several atheist web sites that have that same quote along with several others. Even Richard Dawkins has it in his book “The God Delusion” on page 159 and his source is Freeman. This tells me that Richard Dawkins has not even bothered to check the original quote.

So is the quote accurate?

Not really, for not too long in our search we find this:


Keep in mind that was not found on the 23rd page of a search. That was on the very first page. How many atheists then have even bothered to check the original quote? Considering how Dawkins can complain about creationists taking him out of context, it seems he doesn’t mind checking to see if he’s doing the same thing to Christians.

So I thought I’d take the last part that had “great” in quotations as if to make fun of Augustine. Let’s put this through the google search. How did the search results start off?

With the exact same links that the other one started off with.

This little exercise provides us with two pieces of information. The first is that we get a better understanding of what Augustine said. The second is that we understand better that too many atheists don’t bother to do any checking and simply just puke out what their cohorts have told them. Sad that a technique meant to show how blind Christians are reveals that instead of atheists.

This is a simple exercise anyone can do when given a quote. Now you won’t find every quote, but you can find some and if you can’t find the quote, ask for a clear reference, and for that you will need book and page number. If they don’t have one, I wouldn’t take it seriously then as they haven’t bothered to look it up themselves.

There’s no need to be fooled by this and you don’t need to be a person who mindlessly repeats as it seems too many atheists online are.

In Christ,
Nick Peters


10 Responses to “On Atheist Quote Mining”

  1. peterseanesq Says:

    Augustine wrote in Book X of the Confessions:

    “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,148 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.”

    St. Augustine (2007-04-01). The Confessions, Revised (The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, Vol. 1) (Kindle Locations 6627-6633). New City Press. Kindle Edition.
    Confessions, Book X, 35, 54.

    Augustine is not talking about “curiosity” as that which impels us to know. He certainly wouldn’t disagree with Aristotle that “all men want to know,” and he certainly would agree that the final cause of reason is truth.

    Rather he’s referring to a kind of vice that seeks out the novel as novel – the kind of “curiosity” that sparks a person’s desire to see a dead rotting corpse just to see it.

    “55. 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.”

    St. Augustine (2007-04-01). The Confessions, Revised (The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, Vol. 1) (Kindle Locations 6639-6644). New City Press. Kindle Edition.

    Augustine also disdains under the heading of “curiosity” the desire to seek out astrologers. So, all the New Atheists can take that and smoke it.

  2. Ssemakula Says:

    //The second is that we understand better that too many atheists don’t bother to do any checking and simply just puke out what their cohorts have told them.//

    Is this really an atheist tendency or a human tendency? Too many humans don’t bother to do any checking and simply puke out what their cohorts have told them. It’s not only atheists who do that, but humans, and last I checked atheists are human too.

  3. apologianick Says:

    Hi SSem. I would have no problem with that, but I do also see that in Christian apologetics works vs. atheist apologetics, there is a greater tendency to make sure your opponent is quoted correctly.

  4. apologianick Says:

    Thanks for the comment Peter!

  5. Walt Says:

    In my experience, the ability and willingness of someone on either side of the aisle to correctly quote opponents with citations is tied to his or her formal training. Academics (atheists, scientists, theists, theologians, etc.) tend to be better because their professional reputations are on the line and because they tend to be more accustomed to citing sources. I’d be interested to know what sort of formal academic training vocal Christians and atheists have. I would expect that you would see better research and citations coming from trained proponents on either side and that the difference between trained Christians and atheists would be nil. Thoughts?

  6. apologianick Says:

    Walt. I think it would depend on the person. Of course, there are times we all misunderstand someone else’s views, but Dawkins has not even done basic checking and he does this regularly, such as his claim that a reasonable case can be made that Jesus never even existed. I’d recommend my earlier post on the shoddy research of the new atheism.

    • Walt Says:

      We could talk about specific individuals, but I was mainly addressing your claim about there being a tendency for Christian apologists to quote opponents more correctly than do atheists…I wouldn’t think there would be a difference if you sum or average apologists, but it would be cool to collect data on that notion.

      • peterseanesq Says:

        I can understand accidental or incidental misquoting, but this looks like a deliberate fabrication. I don’t understand why/how people do this.

        A fair amount of this goes on. It usually takes a bit of effort to disprove the bad quote, and, more importantly, we have to overcome our usual assumption that everyone is acting in good faith, such as when we have a particular axe to grind.

        Apparently, I have that kind of an axe when it comes to St. Augustine. I have uncovered an equally egregious example of quote fabrication in Protestant polemics against Catholics. See here – http://peterseanesq.blogspot.com/search?q=forgeries

  7. apologianick Says:

    If you want to, feel free. As long as new atheists consistently tout the Christ-myth as a valid idea, I just can’t take them seriously.

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