Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Being and Nothingness

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.


Anonymous said...

They just go shopping, or watch television or their kids playing football, or they sleep off hangovers.

Well, that sure puts a spin on the great existential courage you
materialists like to boast you show in facing the terrors of the abyss of meaninglessness.

Chesterton was not a superficial thinker and he was not a clinical psychologist. Whatever he was saying, surely he was not talking about general principles of individual psychology. He was referring to our collective political and social life and making the point that, when religion and tradition are rejected, something else will grab the zeitgeist and there is no telling how wacky or dangerous it may prove. There is lots of evidence of that in the last century, but in all those cases there were lots of folks just wanting to be left alone and trying to get along and muddle through. So what, exactly? I agree with you that society is healthier when it is not in the grip of some wild new ideology, but Chesterton's point in that waves of such grips are inevitable in a non-religious society.

And when they do come, as with eugenics, Nazism, intolerant atheism, marxism, environmentalism or the dictatorship of the caring bureaucracy, I'll think you will find the blokes watching football and sleeping off hangovers aren't much use in standing up to them. Do you imagine you can build a just, resilient and cohesive society exclusively out of "I'm all right, Jack" types watching television and supporting the local pub?

Brit said...

Well, the 'Chesterton' associated with this quote is mythical, as he didn't say it.

If you follow the First Things link, one of the genuine quotes seems to say the opposite: There may have been a time when people found it easy to believe in anything. But we are finding it vastly easier to disbelieve anything.

Now that rings much truer, to my mind.

Brit said...

Do you imagine you can build a just, resilient and cohesive society exclusively out of "I'm all right, Jack" types watching television and supporting the local pub?

Yes, 100%. Absolutely. Furthermore, I wouldn't trust anybody else.

Anonymous said...

Now that rings much truer, to my mind.

Yes, with me too, although only up to a selective point. Did you notice how on Brian Appleyard's post on evil, several commenters rushed in to assure us definitively that there was no such thing, it was all relative, blah, blah, but seemed hesitant to conclude the same thing about good. Strange, but very in keeping with the spirit of guys like Dawkins who delight in deconstructing and destroying religion and then bequeathing us all their personal ten commandments.

BTW, did you see that our pal Duck is now dabbling in platonism? One for Chesterton, I'd say.

Duck said...

Well said, Brit. I always thought that quote came from The Brothers Karamazov.

Peter, you'll be glad to hear that I'm now reading a history of the Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch. That rich, complex, nuanced view of the medieval period that you blame Duckians for their ignorance of is coming to life in this book. I agree that the medieval world cannot be neatly summed up and dismissed. But I am reading about some of those wacky waves of misplaced enthusiasm that you so fear. Like the apocalyptic friar Savnoarola and his uprising against the secular republic of Florence. Or the Reformation itself. Outside of the wars of the Twentieth Century there were no other events as turbulent and destructive to Europe as the Reformation. The Reformation was a continent-wide revolution over theology. Here's a quote from the book:

"Plenty of explanationshave been offered for the cataclysm of the sixteenth century: the corruption of the old spirit of humanism, the greed of monarchs for church wealth, the questing individualist spirit of humanism, vague forces of 'modernity'. None of these suggestions get to the heart of what happened, even if there might be some truth to all of them. We have seen enough of the medieval western Church now to know that it was not in terminal decay - obviously it suited Protestants afterwards to portray it in that light...The old Church was immensely strong, and that strength could only have been overcome by the explosive power of an idea. The idea proved to be a new statement of Augustine's ideas on salvation."

This reinforces my idea that Christianity is an unstable particle. The faux Chesterton quote is an example of someone accusing another of the faults they themselves have. Believing in anything describes Christianity. It is a faith so rich in contradictions that new, competing versions of itself are constantly arising.

I'll take the football watching yobs over the medieval theologians anyday.

Anonymous said...

Unstable particle, eh? I guess that's better that a genetic parasite. Gotta remember to give thanks for small mercies.

Duck, you really must stop with this notion that your adversaries are trying to eradicate science and rationalism and impose medieval orthodoxy. Heard a lot of calls for sectarian war or coups in Washington recently? We know all about religous intolerance and the merging of temporal and spiritual authority. And besides, no one believes in "religion". It's not a creed.

The book is great, but not an easy read. What amazed me was his epilogue, where he basically disavows everything his life-work was about.

martpol said...


When a Man stops believing in God, he really does just believe in nothing, for the most part.

Hmmm...but is there an important difference between the thought-through atheism of those who believe strongly in nothing (Dawkins, say), and the (arguably less interested) agnosticism of those who have just stopped believing in a conventional notion of God?

If, as Peter says, "something else will grab the zeitgeist and there is no telling how wacky or dangerous it may prove", which of these two groups ends up in the most danger?

Oroborous said...

The disinterested agnostics are in the most danger, and are the most dangerous, for it is they who are most likely to form a mob.

David said...

This reminds me of a discussion I once had about "There are no atheists in foxholes," in which an atheist took umbrage because he thought it a slur on the patriotism or physical courage of atheists, an interpretation that have never occurred to me. (I think that, if anything, it is a slur on belief.)

Likewise, it never occurred to me that "Chesterton" was being snobbish. I always assumed that this was an anti-communist, anti-fascist statement that applied, not to the mob, but to the intellectual elite. There's a crowd that, unless firmly grounded, will believe anything no matter how awful.

Which reminds me: anyone want to bet how long it'll be before serious population decline moves from the fringes of the Green movement to the mainstream?

Duck said...

You are making a lot of unfounded assumptions to get to that conclusions. I really don't see how you can make any generalizations about susceptibility toward mob behavior by such a generalized indicator as that. I could counter your conclusion by saying that someone who is indifferent to theological questions is so because he is of a more practical bent, and therefore has a much more attenuated bullcrap detector than someone who is more ideologically inclined.

Duck said...

I meant attuned, not attenuated.

Ali said...

I don't see how abolishing religion would make the human race any happier.

Yeah, it's been used as a tool to spread misery and hate but it's also responsible for innumerable acts of kindness, charity, forgiveness and consolation in harsh times. Probably easy to forget that now that we have social security and less chance of dying at forty from some unknown disease.

Brit said...


We'll leave Dawkins aside for now, but there is a difference between a thought-through atheist (generally the lapsed) and the don't-really-think-about-it-much atheist (the majority).

The former are incredibly unlikely to decide to become pagans etc, on the grounds that they are incorrigible sceptics.

But the latter are not really likely to either, in my opinion.

When making predictions about the behaviour of the British masses, intellectuals tend to vastly underestimate the fact that we are "sensible, down-to-earth people".

The Great British Agnostic is protected by two formidable shields: common sense; and a sense of humour.

His long and heroic resistance to French intellectualism, Marxism, Fascism and Nazism has eveything to do with these qualities, and sweet FA to do with his belief in the Almighty.

Oroborous said...

...someone who is indifferent to theological questions is so because he is of a more practical bent, and therefore has a much more attenuated bullcrap detector than someone who is more ideologically inclined.

As to the first, I agree that it is often so, but as to the second, "practical" people who are uninterested in theology are sometimes that way due to analytical decisions - Harry, for instance - but they're usually that way just due to personality. Their "rubbish detectors" are no more sensitive than the average person's, they just don't care to take up the question.

Further, one could also claim, (as I do), that mature people who aren't at least spiritual, if not religious, have broken "paranormal detectors", not extra-fine "rubbish detectors". The extraordinary and inexplicable is literally all around us.

Neil Forsyth said...

...he really does just believe in nothing, for the most part." Define "for the most part", Brit, so that I may have a better understanding of what is vacuous and shallow about my existence. Or have I misread the last paragraph?

Brit said...

You've misunderstood Neil. I said it might be a better target - I don't think it's true since I don't think my own existence is vacuous or shallow.

Your umbrage-taking illustrates the difficulty some of us have in taking a subtle, midway position on religion vs materialism, since so many want to turn it into a dichotomy.

David said...

While scouting around for something else in the BrothersJudd attic, I found this comment restating the "Chesterton" point:

What I think atheists don't fathom is that, even on their own terms, the concept of G-d is crucial to human civilization as it has developed and that that niche must be filled with something. When it is not filled by G-d, it can only be filled by the atheist himself -- he becomes his own final arbiter. Mostly, the atheist believes that he is filling this niche with Reason, but Reason is harder to find than G-d.

That strikes me as being about right.

Brit said...

Given that God can only ever be what the individual chooses to think of as God, there really is no difference between the believer and the atheist in terms of behaviour.

Few people have more stupid views than Fred Phelps, for example.

David said...

Phelps is a nutter, but he is the exception that proves the rule. He has a "church" that consists entirely of his family, and not even all of his family. He is not answerable to either a hierarchy or a tradition. He, too, has replaced G-d with himself.

Brit said...

So it's religion or conformity or rule-abiding that count, not belief.

Neil Forsyth said...

Fair enough, Brit. I'll take back my umbrage and keep it for later, as supplies are dwindling.

David said...


Brit said...

How did you like the Marmite?

David said...

It's sitting unopened on Donna's bedside table. Why? Did you seriously expect us to try it?

Brit said...

I will take it as a grave personal insult if you don't between you eat the entire jar.

Anonymous said...

No, no, no, David. It has nothing to do with rules or observance. It all comes down to whether you believe the lions literally were quietened divinely to save Daniel. If so, you can call yourself religious, but if you have any suspicion that the tale might be mythical or allegorical, you're just a prevaricating dunnoist, even if you spend every waking hour in the synogogue praying and studying Torah.

Duck said...

You can conform with rules of behavior without believing in God.

Is marmite anything like vegemite? I've tried that once. Nasty stuff.

David said...

I would gladly eat the jar, so long as I don't have to eat the Marmite.

monix said...

What's with all this anti-Marmite-ism? Take a cracker or slice of toast, spread with cream cheese then top with the merest hint of Marmite and you have perfection. The common error is to spread too thick a layer. Marmite is, like English humour, at its best when used with subtlety.

Anonymous said...

The common error is to spread too thick a layer.

No, the common error is to be too polite to your British friends and allow them to persuade you there is actually a way you can enjoy the vile stuff.

David said...

monix: That's irony, right?

Brit said...


Vegemite is to Marmite as Bud Light is to beer.

monix said...

I've been looking for a connection between Chesterton and Marmite and I can't make one, but here is a great connection between Marmite and Guinness.

Duck said...

It sounds like a military explosive.

"Commandos destroyed the bridge with a few well-placed marmite charges."

Anonymous said...

The only good thing I can say about marmite is that it can help you learn to appreciate spam.

Didn't Chesterton argue it was proof of the objective existence of evil?