Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

George Santayana’s quote (often misquoted and mis-ascribed) in the title of this post is as relevant today as when the great philosopher first wrote it more than a century ago.

In an illuminating and eloquently-written commentary in the Huffington Post, Southern Louisiana University Professor Matt Rossano highlights the folly of today’s anti-intellectual approach to religious faith [Rossano2010]: “Creationists, ‘intelligent-designers,’ and Biblical literalists seem hell-bent on wearing ignorance as a badge of piety.” And, he adds, “History repeats itself.”

Rossano notes that the “tug of war” between religion and science should have been settled 1600 years ago by Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE), who even today is held in high regard both by religious theologians and by secular philosophers. British philosopher Bertrand Russell did not think much of Aquinas or Anselm, but he had deep respect for Augustine.

The background of Augustine’s writings was, like today, an increasing tension between the early Christian Church on one hand, and the world of classical secular learning on the other. Some theologians had been arguing that it was pointless to ground faith in reason. Tertullian, for example, had declared “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem, the Academy with the Church? … We have no need for curiosity since Jesus Christ, nor for inquiry since the Evangel.” Bishop Consentius, a contemporary of Augustine, wrote, “God is not to be sought after by reason but followed through authority.” Augustine countered Consentius by writing:

You say that truth is to be grasped more by faith than by reason … Heaven forbid that God should hate in us that by which he made us superior to the animals! Heaven forbid that we should believe in such a way as not to accept or seek reasons, since we could not believe if we did not have rational souls.

In the specific arena of science and religion, Augustine was just as direct, often anticipating science-religion debates of the 20th and 21st centuries. With regards to the question of whether Noah’s ark could have held specimens of each and every species on earth (which after the flood quickly repopulated all corners of the globe, even distant islands), Augustine wrote (in The City of God):

[I]t is asked how they [various wild animals] could be found in the islands after the deluge … It might, indeed, be said that they crossed to the islands by swimming, but this could only be true of those very near the mainland; whereas there are some so distant that we fancy no animal could swim to them … they were produced out of the earth as at their first creation. … [T]his makes it more evident that all kinds of animals were preserved in the ark, not so much for the sake of renewing the stock, as of prefiguring the various nations that were to be saved in the Church.

In other words, Augustine is saying “let’s be reasonable” — the story of Noah’s flood has great symbolic value (e.g., to represent the universal saving of mankind from the grasp of evil), but it was never intended as a technically precise historical account of the literal rescue of all life on earth from a global deluge.

In The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Augustine comments more directly about foolish Christians who believe that, armed only with a few verses of scripture, they can overturn the work of knowledgable scientists on questions of the creation and the natural world:

Now, it is a disgraceful and a dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics [of the natural world]; 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. …

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?

Rossano’s article concludes his analysis by saying that “the best of the Christian intellectual tradition offers no comfort or cover to today’s foolish Christians who ignore science and reason in a misguided effort to guard the faith. Their timidity and intellectual cowardice soil the proud edifice great Christian thinkers of the past toiled so hard to erect.” Amen.


  1. Matt J. Rossano, “Augustine of Hippo: A Role Model for Intelligent Faith,” Huffington Post, 28 Jul 2010, available at Online article.

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