The man who was Thursday


When I was a teenager I used to love Gilbert Keith Chesterton. His novels (“The man who was Thursday”, “The Club of Queer Trades”, the Father Brown series) seemed to me so unique as to be works of a quirky genius; his essays revealed a smart and well-read man. But I grew out of him in adulthood, eventually finding his picture of Merrie Olde England sickly and cloying, and his constant defence of Christianity (he was High Anglican before converting to Catholicism) vastly irritating. [although, doing research for this piece, I came across more quotes from him which made me rethink a bit. Try: "Journalism is popular, but it is popular mainly as fiction". "Life is one world, and life seen in the newspapers is another." "'My country, right or wrong' is a thing no patriot would ever think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying 'My mother, drunk or sober.'" "The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all." "The only defensible war is a war of defense. "]

Anyway, I thought about him the other day because of Mars (bear with me, we’ll get to it). The Mars story made me think of what is perhaps Chesterton’s most famous aphorism: “When a Man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.”

Curiosity led me to check on where this quote came from, and I was in for a surprise. Chesterton never said it, never wrote it. Instead it seems to have come from a writer who inadvertently combined two other quotes – “It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense.” and
“You hard-shelled materialists were all balanced on the very edge of belief–of belief in almost anything.”

There, that’s a surprise eh, somebody misquoted to produce a widely known but wrong quote (play it again Sam). But to be fair the mangled quote does give the essence of Chesterton’s belief – if you don’t have an imaginary friend in the sky then you start believing in other imaginary things.

Utter nonsense of course. Chesterton was a very smart man with a huge blind spot of fundamentalist christian belief. Atheists are people who become skeptical about religious claims, then, examining all the evidence, find that there is none supporting the existence of a god. Do you seriously suggest, GK, that they suddenly abandon this skeptical approach in relation to other extraordinary claims? Christians (and members of other religions) have this covered – the less evidence the more faith, so a total lack of evidence requires absolute faith and therefore being perfectly at one with the religion concerned. Do you reckon, Gilbert, that they abandon this trusting belief system when faced with claims about events no more plausible than those in the Bible?

If you believe in religious relics, communion, saints, miracles, life after death, Noah’s Ark, creationism, then I submit, Gilbert, you have been primed to believe anything. Take this, for example, happening right now in 2012, in the sophisticated capital of one of the most advanced countries in the world. Note this little gem of rational thought:
“The saint died in 1552, but his forearm was not removed from his body until 1614, chosen as an object of devotion because he used it to bless and baptise thousands of people in Asia.”

Incidentally, one of the disturbing things about the story is the matter-of-fact way it is reported. As if such a loony tunes procedure was the most natural thing in the world. Would have been nice to have the reporter say “you batshit crazy loons WTF are you on about?” and return to the newsroom, story unwritten.

But, to reiterate, if you can believe that a 500-year-old pickled arm has mysterious powers, you can believe anything. Possibly you might believe, as some did recently that a small, vaguely pyramidal-shaped rock seen by Curiosity on Mars had been carved by Martians (or, as a few years ago, that an outcrop of rocks on Mars, illuminated at one time of day, was a giant carved face. Bit reminiscent really of finding the face of Jesus on a piece of burnt toast, or visions of the “virgin Mary” in a row of fence posts or stains on a wall). What do you think, GK, it was atheists who believed such rubbish?

Or, in your own beloved England, just the other day, were they atheists who thought that bright lights in the sky was a UFO, not space junk re-entering the atmosphere or a large meteorite? Is it atheists who believe in homeopathy, aliens, ghosts (when was that “exorcism” I read about?), telepathy, naturopathy,  paranormal, mediums who talk to the dead? Or is it the people who believe water turned into wine, a virgin gave birth, a burning bush spoke, the Red Sea parted, or some chap returned to life after dying and spoke to a couple of people?

Well, Mr Chesterton, your extraordinary evidence for the claim?