Took me a long time to dig this up again. There’s an incomplete quote that’s been floating around the Internet which is only 1/3 of the full quote. I think the full quote is more useful though:
“It often happens that even a non-Christian knows a thing or two about the earth, the sky, the various elements of the world, about the movement and revolution of the stars and even their size and distance, about the nature of animals, shrubs, rocks, and the like, and maintains this knowledge with sure reason and experience. It is offensive and ruinous, something to be avoided at all cost, for a nonbeliever to hear a Christian talking about these things as though with Christian writings as his source, and yet so nonsensically and with such obvious error that the nonbeliever can hardly keep from laughing.
“The trouble is not so much that the erring fellow is laughed at but that our authors are believed by outsiders to have held those same opinions and so are despised and rejected as untutored men, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil…How are they going to believe our books concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven when they think they are filled with fallacious writing about things which they know from experience or sure calculation?
“There is no telling how much harm these rash and presumptuous people bring upon their more prudent brethren when they begin to be caught and argued down by those who are not bound by the authority of our Scriptures, and when they then try to defend their flippant, rash, and obviously erroneously statements by quoting a shower of words from those same Sacred Scriptures, even citing from memory those passages which they think support their case, ‘without understanding either what they are saying or things about which they make assertions’ (I Tim. 1:7)” – St. Augustine in The Literal Meaning of Genesis
I think it’s clear why the most commonly quoted version only has the first paragraph. It’s a warning to Christians to respect non-Christians because Christians do not hold a monopoly on knowledge. This is universally appealing, as the quote can be used by both Christians and non-Christians alike. The second paragraph though, explains directly to Christians why exactly we need to heed the warning. The third paragraph rebukes those who do not heed the warning as damaging the Christian faith, and provides some scriptural basis for the entire quote. Again, something that would really only matter to Christians. On the other hand, I am sure it is something a lot of non-Christians have personally experienced in their dealings with conservative Christians.
So what’s so important about this quote? Why do I have this tagged evolution and creationism? It is because of who said this. St. Augustine is considered one of the early church fathers, as such, his view of the Bible is closer to the original interpretations than all the new interpretations people have come up with. In particular, his quote is an uncannily accurate description of the debate between Evolution vs. modern-day Creationism and Intelligent Design. Just as he said over 1500 years ago, this is one of those times where non-Christians (and actually a good majority of Christians as well) know something about the way the universe works that these Creationist Christians do not. Instead of learning about these things, we have these Christians throwing the Book at them. How often do we have a Creationist quoting from Genesis as if that was somehow all the evidence they needed? It’s ridiculous.
Because the Creationists insist on such a literal (which is actually different from the how Augustine defined “literal”) interpretation of the Bible, non-Christians who buy into their fallacy have to make a choice. Reject the reality of the world around them, or accept an obviously false interpretation of the Bible. The choice is easy. They throw the baby out with the bathwater and dismiss the entire Bible (I can imagine some conservatives who don’t agree with me whining about me equating the Bible with bathwater here).
This causes quite a problem. Because they have already been misled into thinking that the Bible must indeed be literally true, or else be entirely false, it will be hard from them to see that it is indeed possible to accept both evolution and Christianity without conflict. I have seen firsthand the harm this has done, as they lash out against those who are actually on their side in this debate. This may be a little patronizing, but I have a mental image of a cornered animal that has been mercilessly beaten over the head with a thick, heavy book for years, and has become distrustful of any who approach, even those who mean it no harm. Thankfully, most of the non-Christians that I have encountered have also been in the debate long enough or managed to keep their wits about them and come to realize that there is indeed a middle ground in the Crevo debate. The middle ground allows is Theistic Evolution, which allows Christians to accept the world and remain a true Christian at the same time.