‘Don’ts for Dogmatists’

I should very much like to write one last roaring, raging book telling all the rationalists not to be so utterly irrational. The book would be simply a string of violent vetoes, like the Ten Commandments. I would call it ‘Don’ts for Dogmatists; or Things I Am Tired Of’.

 

. . . . . . . . . .

Don’t say, ‘There is no true creed; for each creed believes itself right and the others wrong.’ Probably one of the creeds is right and the others are wrong. Diversity does show that most of the views must be wrong. It does not by the faintest logic show that they all must be wrong.

I suppose there is no subject on which opinions differ with more desperate sincerity than about which horse will win the Derby. These are certainly solemn convictions; men risk ruin for them. The man who puts his shirt on Potosi must believe in that animal, and each of the other men putting their last garments upon other quadrupeds must believe in them quite as sincerely. They are all serious, and most of them are wrong. But one of them is right. One of the faiths is justified; one of the horses does win; not always even the dark horse which might stand for Agnosticism, but often the obvious and popular horse of Orthodoxy. Democracy has its occasional victories; and even the Favourite has been known to come in first. But the point here is that something comes in first. That there were many beliefs does not destroy the fact that there was one well-founded belief.

I believe (merely upon authority) that the world is round. That there may be tribes who believe it to be triangular or oblong does not alter the fact that it is certainly some shape, and therefore not any other shape. Therefore I repeat, with the wail of imprecation, don’t say that the variety of creeds prevents you from accepting any creed. It is an unintelligent remark.

—G. K. Chesterton, A Miscellany of Men

Comments

  1. Thank you.

    Well put, Mr. Chesterton.

    It rarely occurs that no horse wins the race, though it is possible – and the winner may be disqualified even if thee is one.

    But we do expect one to win.

  2. Tom R says:

    Well, that’s Chesterton on odd-numbered days. On even-numbered days, he’s back to “The Protestant’s religion, he says, is dictated by the Bible. But Protestants disagree about what the Bible dictates. Therefore they must ALL be wrong.”
    This is Chesterton, remember… heads, Catholicism wins; tails, Catholicism’s chief rival of the day loses. I don’t think I ever recall GKC saying “Of course the Church is infallible on all the major issues, and is right on more issues than any rival institution or system of thought; but nonetheless, on this particular question, its rival has the better case.”

    • If you mean to say that Chesterton is being inconsistent or hypocritical, I don’t think you have substantiated such a claim. He knew which horse he had bet on, and anyone who had bet on another horse was, in his view, mistaken. It also bears remembering that Chesterton was himself a Protestant for many years, including the first half of his career as a polemical journalist; he only converted to Catholicism when he was about fifty. It is fashionable for sectarian Protestants, and still more fashionable for atheists, to claim that Chesterton’s views are tainted ab initio because he eventually converted to Catholicism; but I find that the charge will not lie.

      • James Asher says:

        An objection, if I may. Chesterton was never very Protestant – he spent many years as an Anglo-Catholic, and commented later that this was on the understanding that Anglo-Catholicism was a form of Catholicism. (I can’t find the quote right now, unfortunately.) He tended to take the Catholic side of any argument, considered himself a Catholic rather than a Protestant, and had little good to say about Luther, Calvin or the Protestant Reformation. (I was gobsmacked to find that he was an Anglican when he wrote The Ball and the Crossand Orthodoxy) Eventually he decided that being properly Catholic required communion with Rome, and acted accordingly. Whether he retroactively considered himself to have been a Protestant, I don’t know.

        (In past centuries, Anglicans insisting they were a kind of Catholic was rather common than it is today. I’m not sure how many Anglo-Catholics are still around these days. I visited a church once in Brighton that was trying hard to be Catholic but turned out not to be, but I don’t think I’ve ever met an Anglo-Catholic in the flesh.)

        • The Anglo-Catholics are a weird lot. They claim to be the only true Catholics under the canopy, but they reject transubstantiation, ‘Mariolatry’, and the papacy, and adhere to as many of the Thirty-Nine Articles as one can well do without gross self-contradiction. There are not many of them left, I believe, but one still encounters them here and there. The fact remains that they are not, or were not, Catholic as the word is understood by anyone but themselves. Their attitude can be neatly summed up in the (in)famous description of the Reformation in 1066 and All That: ‘The Pope, however, refused, and seceded with all his followers from the Church of England.’

          • James Asher says:

            1066 & All That is a grand book. I read it at a young age and a large part of my subsequent historical education consisted of realising, “oh, that’s what Seller and Yeatman were on about.”

            I found the quote, from The Catholic Church and Conversion (ch. 2, “The Obvious Blunders”) (link):

            “The Church is a house with a hundred gates; and no two men enter
            at exactly the same angle… I accepted for a time the borderland of
            Anglicanism; but only on the assumption that it could really be
            Anglo-Catholicism. There is a distinction of ultimate intention
            there which in the vague English atmosphere is often missed. It is
            not a difference of degree but of definite aim. There are High
            Churchmen as much as Low Churchmen who are concerned first
            and last to save the Church of England. Some of them think it can
            be saved by calling it Catholic, or making it Catholic, or believing
            that it is Catholic; but that is what they want to save. But I did not
            start out with the idea of saving the English Church, but of finding
            the Catholic Church. If the two were one, so much the better; but I
            had never conceived of Catholicism as a sort of showy attribute or
            attraction to be tacked on to my own national body, but as the
            inmost soul of the true body, wherever it might be. It might be said
            that Anglo-Catholicism was simply my own uncompleted
            conversion to Catholicism.”

            He then follows this up by going through various Protestant objections to Catholicism and explaining why he never took them remotely seriously even when he was an Anglican.

            These days, “Anglo-Catholicism” can also apply to Anglican-rite Catholicism, it should be noted. I was never an Anglican (except by the default standard of being English and willing to step inside a church), but I was glad when Benedict XVI launched the Anglican Ordinariate.

            “The fact remains that they are not, or were not, Catholic as the word is understood by anyone but themselves.”

            Aye; but not all non-Catholic Christians are Protestants. The term “Protestant” means the great Heresiarchs of the 16th century and their heirs, and Chesterton seems to have accepted as little of that heritage as he could get away with, so counting him as having been “Protestant” is a bit dubious. Anglo-Catholics are more “schismatic”, or “separated brethren”, I’d say.

          • James Asher says:

            (Also, wikipedia browsing turned up an article on Anglican Papalism – apparently some Anglo-Catholics were, in fact, keen on transsubstantiation and veneration of the Blessed Virgin. Since Benedict XVI established the Anglican Ordinariat, I suspect a lot of them are now actual Catholics.)

            (And I didn’t know that anyone even tried to believe in the 39 Articles anymore. Goodness.)

      • Matt Osterndorf says:

        If you mean to say that Chesterton is being inconsistent or hypocritical, I don’t think you have substantiated such a claim.

        I don’t think he has either, but I’m willing to take a shot at it myself:

        Chesterton argues, in your quote, that the abundance of different religions, each claiming to be true, does nothing to rule out the possibility that one of them is, in fact, true.

        Similarly, one could make the point that the abundance of different biblical interpretations among Protestant churches has no direct bearing on whether any given one of them is, in fact, correct or not. Assuming that Tom R. is quoting Chesterton or at least paraphrasing his position on this subject accurately, I think it’s fair to ask why he makes precisely the same sort of argument as the “irrational rationalists” he castigates, simply because it happens to be a convenient stick with which to beat Protestants over the head.

        • Matt Osterndorf says:

          If you mean to say that Chesterton is being inconsistent or hypocritical, I don’t think you have substantiated such a claim.

          I don’t think he has either, but I’m willing to take a shot at it myself:

          Chesterton argues, in your quote, that the abundance of different religions, each claiming to be true, does nothing to rule out the possibility that one of them is, in fact, true.

          Similarly, one could make the point that the abundance of different biblical interpretations among Protestant churches has no direct bearing on whether any given one of them is, in fact, correct or not. Assuming that Tom R. is quoting Chesterton or at least paraphrasing his position on this subject accurately, I think it’s fair to ask why he makes precisely the same sort of argument as the “irrational rationalists” he castigates, simply because it happens to be a convenient stick with which to beat Protestants over the head.

        • James Asher says:

          “Assuming that Tom R. is quoting Chesterton or at least paraphrasing his position on this subject accurately…”

          I’d like to see some quotes on the matter before discussing Chesterton’s inconsistency. However, please note that whether the two positions are inconsistent depends on what exactly the two positions are. The fragmentation of Protestantism can be considered a problem from within a Christian frame of reference, in a way that the existence of a thousand other religions is not. “There are too many religions – they must all be wrong!” is not a problem from a religious frame of reference – it’s not even an argument, but an assertion. Many different truth claims means there is no truth? Says who? Why should any religious believer accept this? Why should any unbeliever accept this, for that matter? What principle of logic is there to compel us, or what authority that we recognise do you appeal to?

          “Our Lord prayed that we should be one. Protestantism has given us endless theological anarchy and sectarian fragmentation. Anarchy and fragmentation are not unity.” – this is an argument that posits a contradiction between the multiplicity of Protestantisms and an authority that Protestantism actually recognises. Why should any Protestant accept this? Well, because Protestantism (mostly) believes in the Bible and assumes that Jesus Christ knew what He was talking about.

          Of course, Protestants might quibble with this argument. When I was a Protestant it held little force to me. But it is actually an argument, and is asserted as a problem within Protestantism’s own frame of reference, in the way that “many religions disprove religion” is not.

          (It occurs to me that that someone could possibly cast “many religions disprove religion” in some form which is actually logical, but I have to go to lunch and then do a load of work right now.)

      • Tom R says:

        Tom S: Oh, wait, people have made that criticism of GKC before me? Even whole he was still alive? Then logically it must be false.
        And when exactly was GKC ever a “Protestant” in any meaningful sense? I understand he was raised a Unitarian of some sort and then became a very high church Anglo-Catholic before deciding that he might as well go the whole way. He despised Protestantism when he was an Anglican: he continued to despise it when he was a Catholic. The doctrine of predestination, for example, he found particularly offensive, so there was no chance he was ever going to find “Sola Scriptura” congenial.
        James: “There are too many different sects” might be a problem. “Therefore I’ll join the largest and/or the oldest one, regardless of what it actually teaches” doesn’t necessarily solve the problem.
        Nor does Catholicism stand apart from the “multiplicity of sects” problem. The existence of Eastern Orthodoxy is as much a theoretical problem for honest Catholics as the existence of Calvinism or Anabaptism is for honest Lutherans. And anyone who’s spent ten minutes in the Catholic blogosphere will find it hard to maintain with a straight face that Catholicism is any real sense one single denomination. It would be like someone who, after noting that officially China is unitary while Austria is a federation, assumed from that that Austria must therefore be a far more diverse and disunited country than China. Grave error.
        To the extent that “Catholic” originally meant “universal,” plenty of Protestants are happy to say that they belong to “the universal Christian church” (understanding “church” as the term is used in the New Testament, as opposed to “church” as the term is used in “Dominus Iesus”). However, these days “Catholic” is understand as meaning not “over and above any one Christian sect” but “adhering to one particularly large Christian sect, centred around the Pope at Rome.”
        So eventually, at some point, original meaning must yield to currently usage. Presbyterians in the 19th century used the term “Jehovah” at lot more often than they do these days: I suspect the emergence of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is the reason. Just as if someone asks a Protestant “are you a saint?” (Again, in the New Testament sense, not the Roman Catholic sense) and “Do you live in the latter days?” they would again answer yes: but if you put that together to say “Tom said he is a latter-day saint,” that would be misleading if it implied Tom is a practising Mormon.

        • James Asher says:

          ‘James: “There are too many different sects” might be a problem. “Therefore I’ll join the largest and/or the oldest one, regardless of what it actually teaches” doesn’t necessarily solve the problem.’

          If “there are too many different sects” might be a problem, why complain about Chesterton pointing it out? Whether there’s any solution to the problem at all is another matter, though I think there’s something to the “largest and oldest” solution myself (minus the “regardless of what it actually teaches” bit), and have acted accordingly (with some influence from Chesterton).

          “Tom S: Oh, wait, people have made that criticism of GKC before me? Even while he was still alive? Then logically it must be false.”

          Note that our host is bundling your criticism together with those along the lines of “he thought Catholicism was right so he was biased towards Catholicism” – a self-evidently silly point of view.

          The quotes you cite do not give a clear example of Chesterton making a “multiplicity of sects means it is impossible for any to be right” argument; rather, the second is “multiplicity of sects all claim the same text as evidence for very different things, this is a bit silly” rhetoric – you are right about the weakness of this, but he’s choosing dubious examples of a real problem (a better example would be e.g. classic Sola Fide vs. the New Perspective on Paul, but I don’t think the latter was around in GKC’s day). In GKC’s defence, (a) much of the work of the teaching authority you mention, or any Christian teaching authority, consists of pointing things out in the Scriptures, (b) viewed genealogically, Mormons and Christian Scientists are Protestants by lineage, so have a family resemblance (Mormons even follow Luther in throwing a couple of books out of the Old Testament. Not sure about the Christian Scientists) – though that’s like calling Protestantism a form of Latin Catholicism, which no-one does. (Some of the Eastern Orthodox, maybe.)

        • Michael Brazier says:

          The diversity of Protestant sects is a theoretical problem because it impeaches Sola Scriptura, which is a distinctive doctrine of Protestants. The whole point of the claim that Scripture’s meaning is obvious to any honest reader is to deny the need for any living authority to conserve, transmit and interpret the Faith, and to which everyone owes obedience. So the fact that Lutherans, Calvinist and Anabaptists all affirm Sola Scriptura, yet mutually disagree about what Scripture actually means, is strong evidence that Scripture’s meaning isn’t obvious enough that a living authority can be dispensed with.

          The Eastern Orthodox don’t pose a theoretical problem to Catholics in that way, because no Catholic doctrine is contradicted by their existence. Schism between otherwise orthodox churches has been possible from the beginning, and the Catholic Church has no protection from it.

    • Do you have a quote saying something to that effect?

      In any case, the problem seems to be something closer to the idea that it’s impossible to interpret the Bible correctly without an authority resolving disputes, which is a different argument entirely.

      • Craig says:

        I don’t actually recall Chesterton making a point about the multiplicity of Protestant sects or, if he did, the point he was making.

        If e.g. you were to rephrase as “The Protestant’s religion, he says, is dictated by the clear meaning of the Bible. But Protestants disagree about what the Bible clearly dictates. Therefore they must ALL be wrong about how clear it is.” you would end up with a cogent criticism of the doctrine of the perspicuity of scripture.

        • Tom R says:

          Here’s GKC in his essay “On Liberties and Lotteries” (1936):
          There is no doubt that Italy has restrained the liberty of the Press; it can easily be argued that it has restrained the liberty of the people. But it is quite certain that the people enjoy, and take for granted, quite definite forms of liberty that do not exist in England at all. The Italians would think Mussolini was mad if he forbade Lotteries, as the English law forbids Lotteries. It would seem to them very much what forbidding Lawn Tennis would seem to us. The whole Latin world regards the notion of not being allowed to drink beer between three and six very much as we should regard the idea of not being allowed to eat buns on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It is quite inadequate to call it tyranny; because they would call it lunacy. Now I have argued often enough upon these points elsewhere, and I am not going to dwell on these particular points now. I am merely using them to point out that, even where we imagine there is a clear-cut issue against liberty, there is a considerable complexity when we come to argue about liberties. If the costume of the Sandwich Islander is an argument against abstract decency, then certainly the liberty of the lottery is an argument against abstract liberty. If the thousand and one religions make a case against religion, then the thousand and one liberties make a case against liberty.
          And here’s GKC speaking through Father Brown in “The Sign of the Broken Sword” (1911):
          “Sir Arthur St Clare, as I have already said, was a man who read his Bible. That was what was the matter with him. When will people understand that it is useless for a man to read his Bible unless he also reads everybody else’s Bible? A printer reads a Bible for misprints. A Mormon reads his Bible, and finds polygamy; a Christian Scientist reads his, and finds we have no arms and legs. St Clare was an old Anglo-Indian Protestant soldier. Now, just think what that might mean; and, for Heaven’s sake, don’t cant about it. It might mean a man physically formidable living under a tropic sun in an Oriental society, and soaking himself without sense or guidance in an Oriental Book. Of course, he read the Old Testament rather than the New. Of course, he found in the Old Testament anything that he wanted — lust, tyranny, treason. Oh, I dare say he was honest, as you call it. But what is the good of a man being honest in his worship of dishonesty? In each of the hot and secret countries to which the man went he kept a harem, he tortured witnesses, he amassed shameful gold; but certainly he would have said with steady eyes that he did it to the glory of the Lord…”
          (From my extensive reading of Chesterton’s vast oeuvre, I’m sure other examples could be found: those are just two I could locate quickly from memory.)
          The high quality of GKC’s writing might cause the reader to miss the objection that neither Mormons nor Christian Scientists are “Protestants” in the sense that they adhere to the Reformation principles of “sola Scriptura” and “sola Dei Gratia”. They don’t “read their Bibles” to discover the doctrines Fr Brown cites here: instead, they have a – what’s that term? – living teaching authority to tell them what to believe in.

          • Craig says:

            I don’t think either of those quotes says what you want them to say. The first is not about Protestantism or reading scripture. The second it is obviously compatible with the essay quote in Tom’s original post: it says that it’s possible to read the Bible wrongly (which any Protestant would agree with) but doesn’t remotely say that variable readings of the Bible mean that they are all wrong.

            • Right. His point is that there are so many ways to read the Bible that actually are compatible with what the Bible says that without an authority to settle disputes just reading the Bible won’t solve your problems.

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