When a Man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes in anything, said (my great-great-uncle-in-law – beat that as a claim to fame) GK Chesterton. Except he didn’t say it. But lots of people do say it, and wrongly attribute it to him.
Indeed, it is one of the most frequently-quoted misquotations in this corner of the blogosphere. It is also one of those things that immediately sounds clever and true, but which, when considered more carefully, is quite obviously false.
The argument that this quotation is supposed to encapsulate goes as follows: in the absence of the benign rule of the Christian (or Judeo-Christian if you will) belief system, we will not have a world of harmless, secular, rational atheists going about their business, but rather a mad free-for-all of paganism, superstition, mumbo-jumbo, Sun-worship, and, more dangerously, a complete lack of checks on such things as Marxism, Nazism and so forth.
There are two problems with this line. Firstly, it reeks of snobbery. The implication is not that the wise speaker, above the fray and observing all things, would fall into this trap without his faith, but that the plebs would. The great unwashed need the guiding hand of the Church to keep them on the path.
But the bigger problem is that the facts just don’t support it. At the one end, it’s quite obvious that believing in God does not stop you also believing all manner of other rubbish. People thank God when they come second in the Little Miss Iowa Under-6s Beauty Pageant. The Phelps family thinks God kills US soldiers to punish the nation for tolerating gays. In England, we live in both a less Christian age and a less superstitious age. Our God-fearing forbears also feared witches and werewolves, and believed in lucky heather, relics and the protective power of amputated rabbit’s feet.
At the other end, it’s clear that when people stop going to Church on a Sunday morning, they don’t instead sign up with the local pagan tribe. They just go shopping, or watch television or their kids playing football, or they sleep off hangovers.
We put up candidates all the time: the current favourite is Environmentalism, which does have a healthy number of screeching acolytes. But plenty of crunchy Christians are also Environmentalists. Most people just pay it lip service, as they used to pay lip service to God.
When a Man stops believing in God, he really does just believe in nothing, for the most part. The arguable vacuity and shallowness of this kind of existence might be a better target for the defenders of the faith, since the Chesterton quote is clearly nonsense.
Luckily, Chesterton didn’t say it, so his reputation remains intact.