GKC – Logi-cally Speaking… Orthodoxy Chapter 3a   Leave a comment


Trigger Warning: The Holocaust

That’s a Monty Python reference in the title, in case what I wrote doesn’t automatically get The Quest for the Holy Grail Running through your head.

Chesterton begins the third chapter with an idea that almost becomes a theme throughout his work. Essentially, he views all incorrect views about the world to be views that take something true or good and then put it out of proportion. So, his opinion about the Protestant Reformation runs like this:

When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose.  The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage.  But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage.  The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad.

He brings up this view in order to talk about humility. Namely, he thinks that modern humility has reversed the right relationship of the old humility. In the past, Chesterton says, people were certain of their ideals but uncertain of themselves. Today people are uncertain about their opinions but sure of themselves.

The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.

We’ve already talked about Chesterton’s views of humility. He is a person who has to work to really doubt himself, and thus doesn’t seem to realize that there are people out there for whom encouragement was in short supply. But it’s worth stopping for a moment to look at Chesterton’s views of modern humility.

In a sense, I agree with Chesterton here. If people aren’t willing to act on their convictions, then there’s little point in having them. But failure to act on convictions and not holding those convictions firmly enough are two very different things.

In another much more fundamental sense, though, I completely disagree with Chesterton. I don’t mind people with strong convictions, but I think far more people have them than really should. For example, I used to believe that Good Catholics™ could not vote for Pro-Choice candidates. I believed this was an official teaching: Catholics should not vote for politicians with these policies. So you can imagine my surprise last fall when I read the voter guide put out by the USCCB, and it said that Catholics were not to vote for Pro-Choice Politicians because they were Pro-Choice. Even Good Catholics™ can vote for politicians who happened to be Pro-Choice. I had a strong belief that I hadn’t taken five seconds to actually verify, and I don’t think I’m alone in that position. So yes, Chesterton, people should act on their beliefs more often. But people believing harder would mostly just lead to more commitment to patently false ideas, and that is bad.

It’s going to take more than one post to sort through all the things I disagree with in this chapter, but I’m going to lay out one category of things I disagree with all at once right now. Chesterton keeps writing things that simply aren’t true. Here’s a run through of most of the obvious wrongnesses:

We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own.  Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced. The meek do inherit the earth; but the modern sceptics are too meek even to claim their inheritance.  It is exactly this intellectual helplessness which is our second problem.

For there is a great and possible peril to the human mind:  a peril as practical as burglary. Against it religious authority was reared, rightly or wrongly, as a barrier.  And against it something certainly must be reared as a barrier, if our race is to avoid ruin. That peril is that the human intellect is free to destroy itself.

There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped. That is the ultimate evil against which all religious authority was aimed.

The authority of priests to absolve, the authority of popes to define the authority, even of inquisitors to terrify:  these were all only dark defences erected round one central authority, more undemonstrable, more supernatural than all– the authority of a man to think.

All of these lines of thought are simply wrong. We know about the development of confession. We know about the history of the Papacy.  We know that no civilization ever died because individuals within that society questioned their capacity to think. There was no great movement to doubt gravity. Religious authority was supported and developed for many different reasons, but the self destruction of the human intellect wasn’t one of them. I’m a history major, and I’ve been interested in Church history since high school anyway, so you can trust me on that.

That last thing I want to talk about is something that takes place continually throughout Christian apologetics (and elsewhere, I’m sure), and it makes me role my eyes every time it happens. Here’s an example:

That, indeed, was simpleminded enough; for Nietzsche denied egoism simply by preaching it.  To preach anything is to give it away.  First, the egoist calls life a war without mercy, and then he takes the greatest possible trouble to drill his enemies in war.  To preach egoism is to practise altruism.

What we’re seeing here is someone taking a few bits of an ideology and then saying where those few bits must obviously lead. That’s what happens when people argue that atheism leads to immorality, or that not being a self proclaimed “Biblical literalist” leads to absolute moral relativism, or that Darwin leads directly to the Holocaust.

Essentially what happens is someone says, “Hmm… I see a logical connection between these two things, therefore they MUST be logically connected.” Sure, Nazi ideology borrows a few themes from Darwin. That doesn’t mean accepting any part of Darwinism will lead to militaristic state organized anti-Semitism. State organized anti-Semitism is complicated. It takes a little bit more than the phrase “survival of the fittest” to get a genocide off the ground. Likewise, people’s choices are complicated. People behave morally for many different reasons. Morality doesn’t go out the window just because there’s no longer somebody up in heaven keeping score. Likewise, there’s a difference between nuance in interpreting a text and tossing the text in the trash. But somebody annoying decided there was a possible connection between two ideas, and the fact that there are moral atheists (in my extended family, the one atheist is hard working, a devoted father, and a faithful spouse, besides being really cool) or Christians who take the Bible seriously without taking absolutely every word at face value doesn’t seem to stop people from arguing the immorality of atheism or the necessity of Biblical literalism.

So yeah, the next time someone tells you that a group of people must act a certain way based on their beliefs, just ask that person if the group actually does act that way. They’ll probably say yes without having any idea of what they’re talking about, but it can’t hurt to give it a shot.

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Posted 07/22/2012 by reluctantliberal in GKC

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