Modern Doubt and Questioning

I HAVE often been rebuked for not treating a question seriously, and have tried to consider very seriously what is the nature of this lack of seriousness. It seems to be largely a matter of imagery. Apparently it is true to say that two pairs of horses make four, but not true to say that two pairs of donkeys make four. But there is another distinction which I found illustrated recently in a newspaper correspondence. Nearly all newspaper correspondences now revolve around religion, which were told about fifty years ago had finally disappeared. I was asked to contribute an article under the general title of “Have We Lost Faith?” I answered the question, as it seems to me quite seriously, by saying that we have lost faith in the Darwinian theory, in the Higher Criticism, in the cruder conception of progress, and so on. Nearly all the correspondents flew into a passion against my flippancy. They had expected me to say, as they all said, that we were gradually losing faith in various parts of Christianity, and liked describing the sensation. Apparently it is not cheek to say you have lost faith in Deity of immortality, but it is cheek to say you have lost faith in Darwin. If you assert that you have outgrown St. John the Evangelist, you are not only a reverent person, but a person to be reverenced. But if you say you do not agree with a German professor named Harnack, you must be joking. It is impudent to question Progress, but not impudent to question Providence. Anyhow, among these critics there was one who specially interested me, for he said that no Christian apologist could possibly deny a certain historical identification of faith with ignorance; and a number of other things which I, for one, am ready as an apologist to deny, and to deny quite without apology.

When such a critic says, for instance, that faith kept the world in darkness until doubt led to enlightenment, he himself is taking things on faith, things that he has never been sufficiently enlightened to doubt. That exceedingly crude simplification of human history is what he has been taught, and he believes it because he has been taught. I do not blame him for that; I merely remark that he is an unconscious example of everything that he reviles. Certainly there were Dark Ages following on the decline of the old pagan civilisation; but it is quite the reverse of self-evident that it was through religion that civilisation declined. It is quite the reverse of the truth that it was by religion that the ages were darkened. It was by religion alone that they were illuminated, as far as they were illuminated at all. It is as if a riot were to wreck all the lamp-posts because street-lamps brought on the fog. It is as if a man were to blow out all the candles with one blast of fury, on the ground that they had encouraged the sun to set.

Thus, to hear these people talk, one would suppose that but for what they call superstition, there would always have been progress. The truth is that, but for what they call superstition, there would simply have been savagery. They assume that Danish pirated would have all wanted to join Ethical Societies and attend University Extension lectures, but for deplorable examples like St. Dunstan. They assume that if the Huns had not been Christians, or Arians, there would have been no theological squabbles to0 divert them from scientific culture and social form. In short, if the Huns had been heathens, they would have been humanitarians. In fact, however, if they had been heathens, they simply would have been Huns. It is implied that feudal barons would all have become Progressive County Councillors if they have been left entirely to themselves. It is suggested that Border chieftains would all have been arguing in debating clubs about evolution and ethics, but for the blighting influence of theology. Rufus[1] would have been a democratic idealist but for the narrowing influence of Anselm. Fulk of Anjou would have been a charming person for a small tea-party, but for the priests who induced him to do penance. In short, it is suggested that the cloud which darkened these dark ages was superstition or religion. But the truth is that the clouds that rolled up over the end of the Roman Empire came from all quarters of the sky and all causes in the nature of the things: from Asia, from Africa, from the hungry North, from the economic breakdown and the failure of communications, from half-a-hundred other historic causes; and that the clouds were so dark that religion, even if it had really been superstition, would still by comparison have been enlightenment. One may like or dislike that candle, but it is quite certain that it was the only light in that gloom.

Nor is it true to say that doubt and question have led to greater enlightenment. That also is a simplification so simple as to be false. Doubt and question have led to a great many things, including a great many mad and miserable things. If, at any given moment, we take the régime against which people are grumbling, we shall almost always find that it was exactly that régime that was set up quite recently as something enlightened and enterprising. The thing called Capitalism which all Socialists are now denouncing is practically the very thing that all Radicals were once demanding. People who denounce vivisection or vaccination as tyrannies are obviously denouncing very new and modern tyrannies. People who lament war from the air or the submarine campaign, or the use of poison gases in battle, are obviously lamenting what is in one sense the growth of enlightenment. It is, at any rate, the growth of knowledge. But most certainly it is a relatively recent growth. Most certainly it is the result of what the critics quoted would call doubt and question. It is not true that these discoveries have merely been openings or enlargements; it is often quite as true to say that in the discoveries we have given birth to a brood of monsters that have devoured us.

Now when we say this, there are many who entirely mistake what we say. They accuse us of looking back to a golden age, of merely praising some past period such as the mediaeval period, of merely condemning or despising the modern period. But that is altogether a mistake. What we wish to point out is that all these crude simplifications are wrong, and that one sort of simplification is as crude as the other. True history should not be divided into periods, but into principles and influences. A man cannot think the number nineteen bad or good, but he can think the commercial power of nineteenth-century England bad or good. But he must admit that other things mingled with it to make up that historical phase—Ruskin and the Oxford Movement, the coming of Socialism, and so on. So a man may like the religion of the ninth century without liking the barbarism of the ninth century; and he may believe that the religion was on the whole resisting barbarism. He will certainly deny, if he knows anything about it, that the barbarism was produced by the religion.

There were a great many other things in the dark ages besides the darkness; and even the darkness, like the light, had a good many subtle shades of twilight. For instance, though the Roman Empire sank, we may say that it spread even while it sank. The Christendom that emerged out of the barbarian wars had won many provinces as well as lost some. Or again, while there was plenty of superstition, it was not always Christian; it was not always even barbaric. The prodigious prestige of the old pagan civilisation remained throughout the Christian ages. But even that old civilisation bequeathed superstitions of its own, as when there always seemed to be a sort of authority about astrology. But it was the authority of the pagan philosophers and was opposed to the authority of the Christian priests. Nor did men always invoke that civilisation on behalf of citizenship. There was more of the civic idea in the guilds that had sprung up spontaneously in the rabble of a rude age than there was in many of the lawyers who were reconstructing the Roman Law—including the institution of slavery. When we say that all these living complexities and even contradictions are more true than a crude conception of progress, such as I quoted at the beginning, we are accused of a romantic reaction which we should think equally crude. But all we say is that a particular vulgar version of mediaeval superstition is itself only a modern superstition.

~G.K. Chesterton: Illustrated London News, Feb. 13, 1926.

1. Chesterton is probably referring to Publius Sulpicius Rufus (c. 124-88 B.C.), a Roman orator and politician who supported citizenship for Italians. His attempts to enact reforms against the wishes of the Senate led to his downfall and to restriction of the powers of the tribunes.