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Joseph Pearce

Joseph Pearce is Senior Editor at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review and the author of books on Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton and other Christian literary figures.


Writing for Faith & Culture

We welcome the submission of articles of between 600 and 1,500 words on topics related to Catholic faith and culture. Articles should be emailed as Word attachments to Joseph Pearce.

Believing in Anything

Believing in Anything

Perhaps G.K. Chesterton’s most famous quotation is, “When a man stops believing in God, he doesn’t believe in nothing, he believes in anything.” You see and hear that great line repeated all the time. And for good reason. It rings with truth, and like most Chesterton quotations, it sounds like a Chesterton quotation. The only problem is that he didn’t say it. But no matter. I’m always happy to see the quote ascribed to him. No such thing as bad publicity.

Interestingly enough, another Chesterton quotation that is almost as famous is almost as good: “Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions.” And Chesterton also didn’t say it. More good publicity.

There is no question that both ideas can be attributed to Chesterton even if the exact quotations cannot. Both quotations not only reflect Chesterton’s thinking, but they reflect the same basic idea. We can better understand that idea if we look at the original and actual quotations that gave birth to their more famous offspring.

In The Incredulity of Father Brown, Chesterton’s third collection of mystery stories featuring the priest-detective, there are back-to-back stories that seem to provide the source of the famous quotation about not believing in God. In “The Oracle of the Dog,” Father Brown says, “It's the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense.” In the very next story, “The Miracle of Moon Crescent,” the little priest encounters a group of skeptics and agnostics who encounter a crime for which they can find no natural explanation. They are immediately ready to swear that some sort of black magic was involved. When the priest presents the real solution, which involves no magic at all, he tells them, “You hard-shelled materialists were all balanced on the very edge of belief - of belief in almost anything.” So, you put the two quotations together, and you have the idea that when a man stops believing in God, he will believe in anything.

As Chesterton says in an uncollected essay, when things decay, they “die at both ends”: “Thus in the same way religion generally breaks up into skepticism and superstition simultaneously.” In other words, when people start believing in nothing they will believe in anything. Or as Chesterton says in an Illustrated London News column written for Christmas in 1905: “The opponents of Christianity would believe anything except Christianity.”

When a man stops believing in God, is he generally intolerant of those who do believe in God? We have seen the aggressive militant atheists who actively attack religious faith, but what about the man who says he doesn’t believe in God because he just can’t be sure? The skeptic. The agnostic. He is generally portrayed as open-minded, amenable, tolerant.

But that leads us to the other oft-quoted non-quote: “Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions.” This one also seems to come from two different Chesterton quotations that appear in the same book. The book is Heretics. In the final chapter, Chesterton says, “In real life, people who are most bigoted are the people who have no convictions at all,” and a few sentences later: “Bigotry may be roughly defined as the anger of men who have no opinions.”

Now wait a minute. How did the “tolerance” quote come from the “bigotry” quotes? Because it is the people for whom tolerance is the supreme virtue who are in fact the most intolerant.

The world generally associates religious fanaticism with intolerance. And fanatics generally are intolerant. But they are also the exception. Most believers are not fanatics. They are well-balanced, reasonable, normal people. The problem is that in an unbelieving world, any religious belief at all is regarded as fanaticism. The intolerance, or as Chesterton calls it, the bigotry, is on the part of those who don’t believe anything. Agnosticism is indifference, but it is not tolerance. As Chesterton points out, “It is a remarkable fact that the early Christians were persecuted by an entirely indifferent civilization.” And in the 20th and 21st centuries we have seen the return of the persecution of Christians. The worst perpetrators have been the overtly Godless regimes: Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and its satellite states, such as Albania and Romania, Communist China, Communist Cuba. Millions and millions of Christians were oppressed, tortured, and even executed by leaders who didn’t believe in God – but they didn’t believe in nothing, they fell for materialism and racism and social and economic determinism.

As America grows more secular, we can expect to see that the indifference which is preached as tolerance will become more and more intolerant of religion. And we can expect to see more persecution of Christianity.

The two famous non-quotations are also tied together in this actual Chesterton quotation: “The man who cannot believe his senses, and the man who cannot believe anything else, are both insane.” In other words, it is normal to believe in our senses. It also normal to believe that there is more to reality than what our immediate senses can detect. It is abnormal to distrust our senses, just as it is abnormal to trust nothing else. It is true that a religious fanatic is narrow-minded, substituting his own small truth for truth itself, but it is the same with the irreligious fanatic who is unwilling to believe that there is any truth larger than himself.

Normal people believe in God. Normal people have convictions, strong ideas about ultimate matters, by which they live their lives and in which they place their hopes. Normal people have things they tolerate and things they do not tolerate. Generally, they tolerate good and do not tolerate evil. Every time they tolerate evil they feel their consciences pricked. These normal actions and reactions are what is known as common sense. It is common sense that is lost when belief in God is lost.

On Wasting Time and Taking It

On Wasting Time and Taking It

Spiritual Blindness and the Problem of Spiritual Individualism

Spiritual Blindness and the Problem of Spiritual Individualism