“You’re just burying your head in the sand!”
Have you ever been accused of this? When a person of one belief can’t convince a person of a different belief to change his or her mind, the unsuccessful persuader might use this phrase to imply that the fault lies not in their incredible powers of argumentation but in the other person’s willful ignorance.
Ironically, we have been improperly using the analogy of head-burying for as long as I can remember. At one time, people believed ostriches buried their heads in the sand when they were threatened, showcasing their unwillingness to deal with the situation and their slow-wittedness (you know, the fight, flight, or stick-your-head-in-the-sand responses). However, it’s actually the case that if an ostrich knows it cannot run for safety, it will flop on the ground and try to blend in with the scenery. If you see an ostrich with its head close to the sand, it is probably eating, digging holes that will serve as nests for its eggs, or rotating the eggs in the nest.[i]
Humans often accuse anyone not in their particular in-crowd of being somehow less than them, saying that they are dumb, wicked, and so on. Every now and then, that other group will concede to the bullying group, admitting that what is said about them is true (and those are the fools).
In atheist novelist Ian McEwan’s essay, “End of the World Blues,” included in the Christopher Hitchens-edited The Portable Atheist, McEwan suggests that faith is “that luminous inner conviction that needs no resource to evidence” (363). To summarize McEwan—faith requires burying one’s head in the sand. For instance, he references the words of Augustine of Hippo, which many atheist authors and bloggers point out as Christian head-in-the-sand-ism par excellence:
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.[ii]
So are Christians supposed to live with their heads in the sand? If so, how so? Is Augustine saying that the hallmark true faith is stubborn ignorance?
The Genesis of the Problem
To those who have been influenced by the confident proclamations of New Atheists, hearing Augustine would say something so intellectually scandalous will come as no surprise at all. However, for the discerning historian well-versed in scripture, it may cause quite a shock. Does Augustine not serve the God who glories in concealing only so he might delight in our discovery (Prov 25:2)? How could Augustine get it so wrong?
Some suggest that Christianity’s alleged anti-knowledge stance started right at the beginning in Genesis 2. Here we find that God warned Adam and Eve against eating from the tree of knowledge. In a Q&A session once, Oxford mathematician John Lennox was challenged on why God would do such a thing. Why would he limit knowledge? Lennox responded that the restriction was on the knowledge of good and evil, not knowledge itself. But the challenger objected: those words good and evil are not in the original Hebrew! Clearly, those words were added later, by Jewish or Christian scribes or apologists, to appear less anti-intellectual. As it turns out, the challenger was wrong. He had shortened the quote, as there is no evidence of Jewish or Christian scribes lengthening it. The tree truly is, in the original Hebrew, the tree of the knowledge of ṭōḇ and wārā‘, good and evil.
The question might arise: Why would God restrict knowledge of any type, especially moral knowledge? Some theologians believe that they simply weren’t prepared for such knowledge yet. Their reasoning goes that God was not wishing to tempt them with the tree but was instead preparing them to be able to eat from the tree responsibly. Others suggest that eating the tree would make humanity think that they could take the place of God, not simply knowing good and evil but defining and re-creating it by their actions, something that the history of the world—with all manner of its self-justified brutality and bloodshed—has certainly shone forth. It could be some combination of these and other theories, of course. Whatever the case, they took the devil’s bait, ate the fruit, and from their disobedience was borne immorality.
There is a major difference between God restricting knowledge and God postponing or restricting devastating moral knowledge for the sake of humanity’s wellbeing. This is not unlike how parents rightly raise their own children today. For instance, while all people will eventually learn some version of human sexuality, it has been demonstrated that early exposure to pornography is devastating to a young child’s understanding of healthy sexuality. Likewise, children will one day learn of pain and suffering, but exposure to images of brutality at a young age can be detrimental to lifelong mental health.
What Was Augustine Thinking?
So if the problem isn’t Genesis, what was Augustine thinking? To find this out, I went searching for the original quote in context.
Tellingly, this Augustinian harbinger of “ignorance” is not cited by McEwan. But there is no shortage of places he could have gleaned it from. Perhaps he got it from Richard Dawkins, who used the quote in his best-selling book The God Delusion.[iii] (Uncoincidentally, this section from The God Delusion is excerpted in the aforementioned Portable Atheist, meaning Augustine’s quote shows up twice in that book of “essential readings for the nonbeliever.”)Yet, Dawkins did not cite Augustine himself. Rather, he and many other atheist authors cite a book by Charles Freeman entitled The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason (Vintage, 2005). For those unfamiliar, this is a polemical book, more ideological than historical, whose flaws are overlooked by the ironically zealous desire of skeptics to have faith in its conclusions. That said, Freeman also does not include the source of the Augustine quote. Another dead end.
With a little digging, however, I found the original quote. The reference is from Augustine’s Confessions in a passage about the “lust of the eyes.” A lot of Augustine’s testimony recorded in Confessions is about being enticed to misuse and abuse beautiful things to their detriment and to his own. In context, he has just spent some time discussing the misuse of beauty in the arts for one’s carnal pleasures. And then comes the infamous quote in question. As it turns out, Freeman treats Augustine’s quote like Lennox’s challenger treated Genesis 2:17, leaving out the most important bits of context. Here is the full quote with italics to show you how the quote was later abridged.
To this I may add another form of temptation, manifold in its dangers. Beside the lust of the flesh which inheres in the delight given by all pleasures of the senses (those who are enslaved to it perish by putting themselves far from you), there exists in the soul, through the medium of the same bodily senses, a cupidity which does not take delight in carnal pleasure but in perceptions acquired through the flesh. It is a vain inquisitiveness dignified with the title of knowledge and science. As this is rooted in the appetite for knowing, and as among the senses the eyes play a leading role in acquiring knowledge, the divine word calls it ‘lust of the eyes’ (1 John 2:16).
From this observation it becomes easier to distinguish the activity of the senses in relation to pleasure from their activity in relation to curiosity. Pleasure pursues beautiful objects—what is agreeable to look at, to hear, to smell, to taste, to touch. But curiosity pursues the contraries of these delights with the motive of seeing what the experiences are like, not with a wish to undergo discomfort, but out of a lust for experimenting and knowing. What pleasure is to be found in looking at a mangled corpse, an experience which evokes revulsion? Yet wherever one is lying, people crowd around to be made sad and to turn pale? They even dread seeing this in their dreams, as if someone had compelled them to look at it when awake or as if some report about the beauty of the sight had persuaded them to see it. … To satisfy this diseased craving, outrageous sights are staged in public shows. The same motive is at work when people study the operations of nature which lie beyond our grasp, when there is no advantage in knowing and the investigators simply desire knowledge for its own sake. … Even in religion itself the motive is seen when God is ‘tempted’ by demands for ‘signs and wonders’ (John 4:48) desired not for any salvific end but only for the thrill.[iv]
Freeman’s paraphrase is, it turns out, only a paraphrase in the most generous and uncritical use of the word. What one might call a paraphrase in this instance is instead a fabrication at worst or extremely poor reading comprehension at best. It is the flattening and misunderstanding of everything Augustine is warning against. Augustine is not attacking knowledge qua knowledge. He is warning against “gazing at knowledge” for sinister reasons. His is not a critique of critical scientific examination but of voyeurism.
For example, recall the death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter, Gianna, and seven other people made in God’s image in early 2020 in a tragic helicopter crash. Augustine has no issue with first responders arriving to look at and attend the scene, hoping to find survivors but prepared for the worst. He would have no issues with the development of medical science that, through experimentation, has prepared health professionals to assess and begin treating survivors, if they found any, immediately.
What Augustine would be concerned about was the multiple deputies who allegedly snapped photos at the crash site with their cellphones and may have also shared them with others who had no need to them—essentially anyone who wanted the pictures for the perverse purpose of gazing at a celebrity’s dead body and those of eight other people they did not fundamentally care about. It is not unlike Elton John’s concern in the aftermath of Marilyn Monroe’s death: “Even when you died / Oh, the press still hounded you / All the papers had to say / Was that Marilyn was found in the nude.”[v] There is a “lust of the eyes” that is not necessarily sexual but still dehumanizing and objectifying.
The Roman world that Augustine was born into liked to display the corpses of the deformed and other oddities for public spectacle.[vi] This was like a Ripley’s Believe It or Not, where life itself was mocked and people’s pain was put on display for others’ amusement, bemusement, or horror. Augustine is not anti-intellectual. He is anti-dehumanization and anti-cruelty.
Curiosity Characterized the Christian
A quick look into the history of the Western church and Augustine’s influence over it gives the lie to McEwan’s claim that Augustine’s alleged rejection of knowledge was a view that “prevailed for a long time” in Christianity.[vii] Christianity did not reject the search for knowledge, but rather accepted of all the best knowledge. The common Christian phrase all truth is God’s truth no doubt traces much of its lineage back to the North African bishop, who wrote in On Christian Doctrine, “let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master…”[viii]
Interestingly, the potential culprit of this whole debacle, the aforementioned Charles Freeman, actually notes the truer legacy of Christianity and the pursuit of knowledge in his book but seems to almost immediately forget it in service of making this other, more convenient assertion about Christianity hating knowledge. Freeman, though positioning this legacy of Christianity’s pursuit of knowledge as a bad faith (pardon the pun) effort to gain intellectual respectability, writes,
The Christian Justin Martyr (c. 100-c. 165), a Platonist by training, was among the first to argue that Christianity could draw on both scriptures and Greek philosophy and could even appropriate philosophy for its own ends. “Whatever good they [the philosophers] taught belongs to us Christians.” He was echoed by Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-c. 215), who claimed that God had given philosophy to the Greeks as “a schoolmaster” until the coming of the Lord as “… a preparation which paved the way towards perfection in Christ.” “If those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful [sic] use of it …,” added Augustine some 200 years later.[ix]
Atheist Tim O’Neill, who does not suffer ideologically-driven historical revisionists gladly, writes in his scathing review of Freeman’s book that,
In fact, Augustine’s championing Clement [of Rome]’s idea of utilising pagan learning to rationally examine a rational universe was vastly influential in the west. Both Cassiodorus and Boethius made this central to their program of preserving Greek learning, which is why Boethius gave a priority to the translation of Aristotle’s works on logic, since logic and dialectic were central to this way of examining all forms of truth. With the decline of literacy in Greek which began in the Third Century, Boethius realised that he needed to translate key works into Latin to preserve them for western scholars. The fact that he chose five of Aristotle’s logical works as well as similar works and commentaries by Porphyry, Cicero and Marius Victorinus was enormously significant.[x]
In other words, the Christian legacy of pursuit of knowledge is in many ways an Augustinian legacy and far from a bad faith effort. Those familiar with the Bible are well aware that the Scriptures themselves include appropriations from other wisdom traditions (such as in the Book of Proverbs[xi]), citations of other books not in the canon of any historic Christian tradition (such as the Book of Jashar in Joshua 10 or the Assumption of Moses in the Book of Jude), and even allusions to pagan authors and poets (such as in Acts 17:28).
Augustine wasn’t establishing a practice one way or the other but was encouraging the continued Christian tradition of not keeping one’s eyes or ears closed to useful knowledge wherever it be found. The early church didn’t need to awkwardly appropriate Greek learning as many of them came from Greek backgrounds and education. They were already thoroughly Greek and applying Christianity to themselves, not the other way around. They were making their Greek learning captive to Christ, not abandoning it, but building upon and improving it. They were, in a sense, baptizing it.
So, in one sense, yes, perhaps Augustine and the Christian tradition has had their heads in the sand. But they did so in the way that ostriches really perform this act, as creating and maintaining spaces for life to flourish, like the ostrich with her eggs. Curiosity did not kill the Christian, which is why so much of the historic scientific tradition is founded upon and populated by Christian men and women. If only others were as curious about the content of Christian texts as Christians have been about scientific truth, then they might discover their greatest ally in the beautiful human tradition of discovery.
[i] “Truth or Tail: Do ostriches really bury their head in the sand when scared or frightened?” Cleveland Zoological Society, March 11, 2020, https://www.clevelandzoosociety.org/z/2020/03/11/truth-or-tail-do-ostriches-really-bury-their-head-in-the-sand-when-scared-or-frightened.
[ii] Ian McEwan, “End of the World Blues,” in Christopher Hitchens (ed.), The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever (Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo, 2007), 363.
[iii] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston, New York: Mariner, 2006), 159.
[iv] Augustine, Confessions X.XXXV.54-55. Trans. By Henry Chadwick, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998). My gratitude to a former colleague, the brilliant Olivia Davis, for pointing out the misuse of this quote to me.
[v] Elton John and Bernie Taupin, “Candle in the Wind,” track 2 on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, DJM Records, 1973.
[vi] Chelsea Gardner, “The Display of Corpses in the City of Rome,” Spectacular Antiquity, accessed February 2, 2023,https://spectacularantiquity.wordpress.com/case-studies/private/the-display-of-corpses/.
[vii] McEwan, 363.
[viii] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine II.18. Trans. By Rev. Professor J. F. Shaw, in Philip Schaff (ed.), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II (Buffalo, NY: The Christian Literature Company, 1887).
[ix] Charles Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason (New York: Vintage, 2005), 142-43.
[x] Tim O’Neill, “The Closing of the Western Mind by Charles Freeman” (review), Armarium Magnum, June 18, 2009, http://armariummagnus.blogspot.com/2009/06/closing-of-western-mind-by-charles.html. Emphasis original. O’Neill gives the book a generous 2 out of 5, calling it “Fundamentally flawed.
[xi] Several sayings found in the Book of Proverbs have been discovered, through textual analysis, to be very similar to proverbs from the surrounding nations but edited for Jewish sensibilities. In other words, they took all thoughts captive to Yahweh! Along with that, Proverbs 31 is a collection of “the sayings of King Lemuel,” a non-Israelite king. Proverbs 31 is actually wisdom from King Lemuel’s mother, which he put in poetic form.