Monday, February 09, 2015

Chesterton struggles with the freethinkers

I read the scientific and sceptical literature of my time--all of it, at least, that I could find written in English and lying about; . . . .  I never read a line of Christian apologetics. I read as little as I can of them now. . . . Our grandmothers were quite right when they said that Tom Paine and the freethinkers unsettled the mind.  They do.  They unsettled mine horribly.  The rationalist made me question whether reason was of any use whatever; and when I had finished reading Herbert Spencer I had got as far as doubting (for the first time) whether evolution had occurred at all.  As I laid down the last of Colonel Ingersoll's atheistic lectures the dreadful thought  broke across my mind, "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian."  I was in a dreadful way.

....I felt that a strong case against Christianity lay in the charge that there is something timid, monkish, and unmanly about all that is called "Christian," especially in its attitude towards resistance and fighting.  The great sceptics of the nineteenth century were largely virile. . . . In comparison, it did seem tenable that there was something weak and over patient about Christian counsels.  The Gospel paradox about the other cheek, the fact that priests never fought, a hundred things made plausible the accusation that Christianity was an attempt to make a man too like a sheep.  I read it and believed it, and if I had read nothing different, I would have gone on believing it.  I turned the next page in my agnostic manual, and my brain turned upside down.  Now I found that I was to hate Christianity not for fighting too little, but for fighting too much.  Christianity, it seemed, was the mother of wars.  Christianity had deluged the world with blood.  I had got thoroughly angry with the Christian because he was never angry.  And now I was told to be angry with him because his anger had been the most huge and horrible thing in human history; because his anger had soaked the earth and smoked to the sun.  The very people who reproached Christianity with the meekness and non-resistance of the monasteries were the very people who reproached it also with the violence and valour of the Crusades. 

...But then I found an astonishing thing.  I found that the very people who said that mankind was one church from Plato to Emerson were the very people who said that morality had changed altogether, and that what was right in one age was wrong in another.  If I asked, say, for an altar, I was told that we needed none, for men our brothers gave us clear oracles and one creed in their universal customs and ideals. But if I mildly pointed out that one of men's universal customs was to have an altar, then my agnostic teachers turned clear round and told me that men had always been in darkness and the superstition of savages.  I found that it was their daily taunt against Christianity that it was the light of one people and had left all others to die in the dark.  But I also found that it was their special boast for themselves that science and progress were the discovery of one people [Western Europeans], and had left all others to die in the dark.  Their chief insult to Christianity was actually their chief compliment to themselves, and there seemed to be a strange unfairness about all their relative insistence on the two things. . . .

This began to be alarming. 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. 


G. K. Chesterton, "The Paradoxes of Christianity,"  Collected Works, Volume I. Quotes from pages 288-292 ff

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