Thursday, 6 October 2011

Chesterton on atheism

To quote Chesterton: 'we are tempted to rank our three friends, Mr Atheist, Mr Anglican and Mr Puritan in ascending order of intensity of religious belief. This is quite the wrong way around. Prayer, contemplation and chapel attendance are indeed one way of worship, but they are as small, in comparison with the other ways, as the church is in comparison to the world as a whole. Verily (as preachers are fond of saying) the Puritan's worship is the smallest, for it seeks to shrink God, and pen Him in a narrow mind made of plaited commandments, rules, obligations and repressions. The Anglican, though perfectly conventional in his piety and assiduous in his church-attendance, is the next smallest in terms of the magnitude of his worship: for although the box in which he seeks to confine God is bigger than Mr Puritain's oligocephalic skull, yet it is a red-brick, steepled and coloured-glass box for all that. No, of the three, the Atheist has the largest mode of worship, although he himself doubtless does not realise it. He alone instinctively understands that God fits into no box at all, not even the capacious container marked "belief" (for we bestow belief on a swarm of things). The atheist worships God with the holy innocence of the fool and the animal, unwittingly, by being the creature God made, moving through the world God made and filling his heart with all the human emotions in which God delights. Of all the three, Mr Atheist is the only one who does not consider himself in some manner superior to his maker, a feat he manages by not believing in him at all. The other two, however much they might deny it, and however genuine those denials might be, cannot boast as much: for they worship a boxed God, and might as well pray to stocks and stones.' He goes on: 'God is both the principle of creation and of restriction, of heaven-and-Earth in seven days, and the list of ten thou-shalt-nots. But the former so dwarfs the latter, the possibilities and thou-maysts so vastly outnumber the prohibitions, that it is mere perversity to concentrate one's worship upon the latter. And the atheist instinctively knows this. Christ took Moses's ten commandments and replaced them with two, to love God and one another. The atheist is bolder still: he replaces all twelve with one, thou shalt not attempt to fit God inside thy mortal mind, and thereby frees the creatively possibilities from their bonds.'

I should add, of course: this isn't Chesterton. Chesterton wrote no such thing.

4 comments:

Richard Simpkins said...

I might replace "atheist" with "agnostic" there.

Giles said...

Of course he didn't, but I think you've got the argumentative style. This made me wonder if Chesterton and Olaf Stapledon had ever encountered one another. A quick google doesn't uncover anything, but that's not much to go on. Star Maker was published the year after Chesterton died, unfortunately.

Adam Roberts Project said...

Richard: I'm not sure pesudo-Chesteron's argument works for 'agnostic', though.

Giles: yes -- sometimes we underestimate how out of the way Stapledon was in his own lifetime, in terms of the London Literary scene for instance.

Frank Petrucci said...

i was wondering why it sounded so idiotic