G. K. Chesterton on Atheism, Skepticism, Secularism, Etc.

G. K. Chesterton on Atheism, Skepticism, Secularism, Etc. November 24, 2015

GKC85(PD)

Caricature of G.K. Chesterton by David Low (1928) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons

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Quotations from my book, The Wisdom of Mr. Chesterton (2009)

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Agnosticism

When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined scepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass.

Trees have no dogmas. (H, ch. 20)

Many a magnanimous Moslem and chivalrous Crusader must have been nearer to each other, because they were both dogmatists, than any two homeless agnostics in a pew of Mr. Campbell’s chapel. (WWW, I-3)

It would be much truer to say that agnosticism is the origin of all religions.

That is true; the agnostic is at the beginning not the end of human progress. (AWD, “Something” [1910] )

The agnostics have been driven back on agnosticism; and are already recovering from the shock. (NJ, ch. 8)

It is the business of the agnostic to admit that he knows nothing; and he might the more gracefully admit it touching sciences about which he knows precious little. (ILN, “Mr Mencken and the New Physics,” 6-14-30)

We need not deny that modern doubt, like ancient doubt, does ask deep questions; we only deny that, as compared with our own philosophy, it gives any deeper answers. (WEL,“The Well and the Shallows” )

Atheism

But the materialist’s world is quite simple and solid, just as the madman is quite sure he is sane. (O, ch. 2)

An atheist and a theist only differ by a single letter; yet theologians are so subtle as to distinguish definitely between the two. (NJ, ch. 6)

The intellect exercises itself in discovering principles of design or pattern or proportion of some sort, and can find nothing to work on in the only really logical atheist cosmos – the fortuitous concourse of atoms of Lucretius. (ILN, “A Defense of Human Dignity,” 2-22-30)

Determinism

It is absurd to say that you are especially advancing freedom when you only use free thought to destroy free will.

The determinist makes the theory of causation quite clear, and then finds that he cannot say “if you please” to the housemaid. (O, ch. 2)

Intelligentsia, The; Scholars; The Learned

As I have pointed out elsewhere in this book, the expert is more aristocratic than the aristocrat, because the aristocrat is only the man who lives well, while the expert is the man who knows better. (H, ch. 16)

I think that you and I are quite justified in disagreeing with doctors, however extraordinary in their erudition, if they violate ordinary reason in their line of argument.

For I rebel against the man of learning when he suddenly, and in public, refuses to think.

But when learned men begin to use their reason, then I generally discover that they haven’t got any. (ILN, “Arguing With Erudition,” 10-31-08)

One does not need any learning to say that a man was killed or that a man was raised from the dead.

One does not need to be an astronomer to say that a star fell from heaven; or a botanist to say that a fig tree withered; or a chemist to say that one had seen water turned to wine; or a surgeon to say that one has seen wounds in the hands of St. Francis. (ILN, “Miracles and Scientific Method,” 4-17-09)

The third class is that of the Professors or Intellectuals; sometimes described as the thoughtful people; and these are a blight and a desolation both to their families and also to mankind.

The Prigs rise above the people by refusing to understand them: by saying that all their dim, strange preferences are prejudices and superstitions.

The Prigs make the people feel stupid; the Poets make the people feel wiser than they could have imagined that they were.

The Prigs who despise the people are often loaded with lands and crowned.

In the House of Commons, for instance, there are quite a number of prigs, but comparatively few poets.

He has not sufficient finesse and sensitiveness to sympathize with the mob.

His only notion is coarsely to contradict it, to cut across it, in accordance with some egotistical plan of his own; to tell himself that, whatever the ignorant say, they are probably wrong.

He forgets that ignorance often has the exquisite intuitions of innocence. (AD, ch. 23)

But the curious thing about the educated class is that exactly what it does not know is what it is talking about. (UTO, “The Empire of the Ignorant”)

Why is it that for the last two or three centuries the educated have been generally wrong and the uneducated relatively right?

What the educated man has generally done was to ram down everybody’s throat some premature and priggish theory which he himself afterwards discovered to be wrong; so wrong that he himself generally recoiled from it and went staggering to the opposite extreme. (ILN, “The Wisdom of the Ignorant,” 8-9-24)

The professor can preach any sectarian idea, not in the name of a sect, but in the name of a science. (ILN, “Compulsory Education

and the Monkey Trial,” 8-8-25)

And those who have been there will know what I mean when I say that, while there are stupid people everywhere, there is a particular minute and microcephalous idiocy which is only found in an intelligentsia.

I have sometimes fancied that, as chilly people like a warm room, silly people sometimes like a diffused atmosphere of intellectualism and long words. (ILN, “The Defense of the Unconventional,” 10-17-25)

So many people, especially learned people and even clever people, seem to be quite unable to see the upshot of a thing; or what the French call its reason of being. (ILN, “The Point – Getting It and Missing It,” 10-30-26)

I have frequently visited such societies, in the capacity of a common or normal fool, and I have almost always found there a few fools who were more foolish than I had imagined to be possible to man born of woman; people who had hardly enough brains to be called half-witted.

But it gave them a glow within to be in what they imagined to be the atmosphere of intellect; for they worshipped it like an unknown god.

Intelligence does exist even in the Intelligentsia.

Anyhow, it is in this intellectual world, with its many fools and few wits and fewer wise men, that there goes on perpetually a sort of ferment of fashionable revolt and negation. (TT, ch. 6)

But a large section of the Intelligentsia seemed wholly devoid of Intelligence.

As was perhaps natural, those who pontificated most pompously were often the most windy and hollow. (A, ch. 7)

Materialism (Scientific and Philosophical)

I have come into the country where men do definitely believe that the waving of the trees makes the wind.

That is to say, they believe that the material circumstances, however black and twisted, are more important than the spiritual realities, however powerful and pure.

By perpetually talking about environment and visible things, by perpetually talking about economics and physical necessity, painting and keeping repainted a perpetual picture of iron machinery and merciless engines, of rails of steel, and of towers of stone, modern materialism at last produces this tremendous impression in which the truth is stated upside down. (TRE, ch. 14)

It was the materialists who destroyed materialism, merely by studying matter.

We have been accused of hostility to the scientist, when we are merely hostile to the materialist.

The venerable Victorian materialist wanted the world to grow more and more scientific; but only on the strict condition that the science should grow more and more materialistic. (ILN, “Old Science and New Science,” 5-9-31)

If fifty years hence the electron is as entirely exploded as the atom, it will not affect us; for we have never founded our philosophy on the electron any more than on the atom. (WEL, “The Collapse of Materialism”)

Science, Scientists, and Popular Science

The telescope makes the world smaller; it is only the microscope that makes it larger. (H, ch. 3)

The only evil that science has ever attempted in our time has been that of dictating not only what should be known, but the spirit in which it should be regarded.

Science must not impose any philosophy, any more than the telephone must tell us what to say.

There is no objection to scientists splitting open the world like the uncle’s watch; in order to look at the works of it so long as those scientists feel like children. (ILN, “Science: Pro and Con,” 10-9-09)

The extreme doctrine of Science for Science’s Sake has proved just as impossible as Art for Art’s Sake. (ILN, “Evolution and Ethics,” 9-10-27)

They had no right to insist on men accepting the latest word of science as the last word of science.

Yet they were also insistently boasting that science had not concluded and would never conclude. (ILN, “The Bible and the Sceptics,” 4-20-29)

Quackery is false science; it is everywhere apparent in cheap and popular science; and the chief mark of it is that men who begin by boasting that they have cast away all dogma go on to be incessantly, impudently, and quite irrationally dogmatic. (ILN, “Quackery About the Family,” 7-12-30)

Science (and Religion)

The truths of religion are unprovable; the facts of science are unproved. (ILN, “Faith Healing and Medicine,” 11-5-10)

We in the West have “followed our reason as far as it would go,” and our reason has led us to things that nearly all the rationalists would have thought wildly irrational. (NJ, ch. 9)

The problem of Religion and Science is still presented in the narrow Victorian version of a quarrel between Darwin and Moses. (ILN, “The Younger Pagans,” 8-21-26)

But in the Victorian debates between Science and religion, about such a question as the Deluge, there was a double ignorance and an ambiguity on both sides. (ILN, “The Bible and the Sceptics,” 4-20-29)

The Electron, as now expounded, is much more of a mystery than the Trinity.

There were, indeed, venerable Victorians, of the agnostic sort, who would have been very much surprised to learn that science had not destroyed religion by A.D. 2030. (ILN, “Religion and the New Science,” 4-12-30)

It is amusing to think that even religious people may still be driven to abandon religion by a science which scientists have abandoned. (ILN, “The Place of Mysticism,” 5-24-30)

Secularism

The secularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them. (O, ch. 8)

Nearly all newspaper correspondences now revolve around religion, which we were told about fifty years ago had finally disappeared. (ILN, “Modern Doubts and Questioning,” 2-13-26)

Never until the nineteenth century was it supposed that the Church or Temple was a sort of side-show that had nothing to do with the State. (ILN, “The Guilt of the Churches,” 7-26-30)

For the word “secular” does not mean anything so sensible as “worldly.”

To be secular simply means to be of the age; that is, of the age which is passing; of the age which, in their case, is already passed.

There is one adequate equivalent of the word “secular”; and it is the word “dated.” (WEL, “The Well and the Shallows”)

What is totally intolerable is the idea that everybody must pretend, for the sake of peace and decorum, that moral inspiration only comes from secular things like Distributism, and cannot possibly come from spiritual things like Catholicism. (WEL, “The Don and the Cavalier”)

Skepticism (Religious); “Freethinkers”

Opponents of Christianity would believe anything except Christianity. (ILN, “The Neglect of Christmas,” 1-13-06)

For example, one can hardly count the number of times that Christianity has been destroyed or might have been destroyed if its enemies had known where it was or anything about it. (ILN, “Creed and Deed,” 2-2-07)

Nobody supposes that the best critic of music is the man who talks coldly about music.

But there is an idea that a man is a correct judge of religion because he looks down on religions. (ILN, “The History of Religions,” 10-10-08)

If you are merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, “Why should anything go right; even observation and deduction?

But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, “I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to think at all.”

But the new sceptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn.

As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is waste of time. (O, ch. 3)

One rationalist had hardly done calling Christianity a nightmare before another began to call it a fool’s paradise.

It looked not so much as if Christianity was bad enough to include any vices, but rather as if any stick was good enough to beat Christianity with.

But if this mass of mad contradictions really existed, quakerish and bloodthirsty, too gorgeous and too thread-bare, austere, yet pandering preposterously to the lust of the eye, the enemy of women and their foolish refuge, a solemn pessimist and a silly optimist, if this evil existed, then there was in this evil something quite supreme and unique.

Perhaps, after all, it is Christianity that is sane and all its critics that are mad — in various ways. (O, ch. 6)

Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church. (O, ch. 8)

The sceptic is too credulous; he believes in newspapers or even in encyclopedias.

The sceptic may truly be said to be topsy-turvy; for his feet are dancing upwards in idle ecstacies, while his brain is in the abyss. (O, ch. 9)

Instead of trying to break up new fields with its plough, it simply tries to break up the plough. (ILN, “Hangmen and Capital Punishment,” 2-6-09)

I will not engage in verbal controversy with the sceptic, because long experience has taught me that the sceptic’s ultimate skepticism is about the use of his own words and the reliability of his own intelligence. (ILN, “Objections to Spiritualism,” 10-30-09)

It is the decisive people who have become civilised; it is the indecisive, otherwise called the higher sceptics, or the idealistic doubters, who have remained barbarians. (ILN, “Civilization and Progress,” 11-30-12)

Moreover, while it is rare for a great legend to grow out of nothing, it is much easier for a sceptical theory to be woven out of nothing, or next to nothing. (ILN, “The Legends of Merlin,” 9-8-23)

But the people now calling themselves freethinkers are of all thinkers the least free.

In order to explain the opinion of their opponents, they have to deny them the right to hold any opinion at all; and explain away all opinions by servile necessities of the hereditary mentality or the sub-conscious mind. (ILN, “The Reason For Fear,” 2-27-26)

What is now called free thought is valued, not because it is free thought, but because it is freedom from thought; because it is free thoughtlessness. (CCC, ch. 4)

The person whose position is perpetually growing shaky, shifting, sliding, and breaking away from under him, is the advanced sceptic who is attacking the tradition of orthodoxy. (ILN, “The Crumbling of the Creeds,” 11-26-27)

To begin with, we can hardly be surprised if the Bible-Smasher had never read the Bible, because the Bible-Reader had never read the Bible either. (ILN, “The Bible and the Sceptics,” 4-20-29)

What I think has really happened, in the case of the more sophisticated youth of to-day, is that they have become skeptical of everything, including skepticism. (ILN, “The Sophistication – and Simplicity – of the Young,” 5-18-29)

The sceptic, like the schoolboy with a penknife, is always ready to start making a small crack in some of the planks of the platform of civilization; but he has not really the courage to split it from end to end. (ILN, “Mr. Darrow on Divorce,” 10-19-29)

For what strikes me most about the skeptics, who are praised as daring and audacious, is that they dare not carry out any of their own acts of audacity. (ILN, “The Modern Recoil From the Modern,” 11-9-29)

The truth is that the first questions asked by the sceptic sometimes have an air of intelligence; but if the sceptic has no answer, or only a negative answer, the silence that follows soon becomes the very negation of intelligence.

In short, there came to be an entirely false association between intelligence and skepticism. (ILN, “A Defense of Human Dignity,” 2-22-30)

How much longer are we expected to put up with people who have no arguments whatever, beyond the assertion that religion requires them to believe “what no intelligent man can accept,” or “what thinking people can non longer regard as rational”?

But what are we to say of the superior philosophical sceptic, who can only begin the controversy by calling the other controversialist a fool, and in the same moment end the controversy because he need not controvert with fools? (ILN, “The Creeds and the Modernist,” 5-17-30)

There are very few sceptics in history who cannot be proved to have been instantly swallowed by some swollen convention or some hungry humbug of the hour, so that all their utterances about contemporary things now look to us almost pathetically contemporary. (WEL, “The Well and the Shallows”)

What has troubled me about sceptics all my life has been their extraordinary slowness in coming to the point; even to the point of their own position.

I have heard them denounced, as well as admired, for their headlong haste and reckless rush of innovation; but my difficulty has always been to get them to move a few inches and finish their own argument. (A, ch. 16)

Utopias

The skeptical theorist is allowed to throw off Utopia after Utopia, and is never reproached when they are contradicted by the facts, or contradicted by each other. (ILN, “Buddhism and Christianity,” 3-2-29)

Abbreviations

A Autobiography (London: Hutchinson, 1936)

AD Alarms And Discursions (London: Methuen & Co., 1911)

AWD The Apostle and the Wild Ducks (London: Paul Elek, 1975)

CCC The Catholic Church and Conversion (London: Burns, Oates & Washbourne, 1926)

H Heretics (New York: John Lane Co., 1905)

ILN The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton: Volume XXVII: The Illustrated London News: 1905-1907 (edited by Lawrence J. Clipper; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986)

ILN The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton: Volume XXVIII: The Illustrated London News: 1908-1910 (edited by Lawrence J. Clipper; general editors: George J. Marlin, Richard P. Rabatin, and John L. Swan; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987)

ILN The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton: Volume XXIX: The Illustrated London News: 1911-1913 (edited by Lawrence J. Clipper; general editors: George J. Marlin, Richard P. Rabatin, and John L. Swan; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988)

ILN The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton: Volume XXX: The Illustrated London News: 1914-1916 (edited by Lawrence J. Clipper; general editors: George J. Marlin, Richard P. Rabatin, and John L. Swan; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988)

ILN The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton: Volume XXXIII: The Illustrated London News: 1923-1925 (edited by Lawrence J. Clipper; general editors: George J. Marlin, Richard P. Rabatin, and John L. Swan; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990)

ILN The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton: Volume XXXIV: The Illustrated London News: 1926-1928 (edited by Lawrence J. Clipper; general editors: George J. Marlin, Richard P. Rabatin, and John L. Swan; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991)

ILN The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton: Volume XXXV: The Illustrated London News: 1929-1931 (edited by Lawrence J. Clipper; general editors: George J. Marlin, Richard P. Rabatin, and John L. Swan; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991)

NJ The New Jerusalem (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1920)

Orthodoxy (New York: John Lane Co., 1908)

TRE Tremendous Trifles (London: Methuen & Co., 1909)

TT The Thing: Why I am a Catholic (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1929)

UTO Utopia of Usurers, and Other Essays (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1917)

WEL The Well and The Shallows (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1935)

WWW What’s Wrong With the World (London: Cassell, 1910)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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