When Man Ceases to Worship God

| QUESTION

When Man ceases to worship God he does not worship nothing but worships everything.

What is the correct quote and where (which GKC work) does it come from?

ANSWER
This maxim may be the single most quoted line from Chesterton’s prolific pen. It has also been the source of a protracted search by curious fans of Chesterton all over the world. It usually appears in one of these two forms:

A man who won’t believe in God will believe in anything.

or

When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.

The facts of the case from the perspective of The Quotemeister and associates are as follows. Aidan Mackey, of England’s Chesterton Study Centre, first brought the problem of this puzzling “sourceless” quotation to our attention in 1992. A few months later, Geir Hasnes (a bibliographer and editor of Chesterton residing in Norway) sent us a copy of an interview Umberto Eco gave to a Norwegian magazine in which the novelist stated that he had based his novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, on this very Chesterton epigram.

Subsequent sightings (or citings?) have included the use of the epigram by Bob Dylan, Paul Johnson, Michael Novak, Vittorio Messori, Rawley Meyers, and numberless other writers. However, following up on these sources has led to a blind alley in each separate case.

The Quotemeister found the fugitive epigram attributed to Chesterton in a dictionary of quotations called The Wit and Wisdom of the 20th Century. Dale Ahlquist, the President of the American Chesterton Society, found it quoted in Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos (1983). An English Chestertonian, Barry Warmisham found the quote in Christopher Hollis’s The Mind of Chesterton (1970). Finally, Dr. Pasquale Accardo of New York tracked the quote back to its earliest known appearance thus far, in the 1937 study of Chesterton by Emile Cammaerts, The Laughing Prophet, in this form:

The first effect of not believing in God is to believe in anything.

Attempts to track the epigram in Chesterton’s own writings can only be described as incomplete at best. For example, an Illinoisian, John Peterson, claimed that the quote was actually an amalgamation of three passages:

There may have been a time when people found it easy to believe in anything. But we are finding it vastly easier to disbelieve anything. [Illustrated London News, March 21, 1914]

The nineteenth century decided to have no religious authority. The twentieth century seems disposed to have any religious authority. [Illustrated London News, April 26, 1924]

A man who refuses to have his own philosophy will only have the used-up scraps of somebody else’s philosophy. [“The Revival of Philosophy,” The Common Man (1930)]

More plausibly, Robin Rader of Zambia argued that the epigram can be found divided between two adjacent Father Brown stories:

It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense. [“The Oracle of the Dog” (1923)]

You hard-shelled materialists were all balanced on the very edge of belief — of belief in almost anything. [“The Miracle of Moon Crescent” (1924)]

In the light of the implausibility of everyone’s utter failure thus far to find the source elsewhere in Chesterton’s writings, Robin Rader’s theory deserves careful consideration. Please notice the coincidence of wording between Cammaerts’ version and the wording cited by Ms. Rader from “The Oracle of the Dog.” Both contain the words, “…the first effect of not believing in God…”

Indeed, Cammaerts was discussing this very story, “The Oracle of the Dog,” when he wrote down our sourceless quotation in the passage cited by Dr. Accardo. Here is the context of this discussion in The Laughing Prophet. Cammaerts is quoting Father Brown:

“It’s drowning all your old rationalism and scepticism, it’s coming in like a sea; and the name of it is superstition.” The first effect of not believing in God is to believe in anything: “And a dog is an omen and a cat is a mystery.” [p. 211]

Note that our epigram is not presented as a quotation, but rather as a paraphrase. It is set between two quotations. The switch is very easy to miss in the original printed text.

Cut to 1970 and The Mind of Chesterton. The Hollis version of the epigram is as follows:

As Chesterton said, “He who does not believe in God will believe in anything.”

Hollis lists but 13 books in his bibliography of secondary sources. The Laughing Prophet is among them.

The Quotemeister has become convinced that the source of the fugitive quotation is Emile Cammaerts, whose ambiguous typography misled Christopher Hollis and through him others (including, at last, all of the rest of us) into the mistaken conviction that a thought repeated over and over by Chesterton had a specific epigrammatic form that Chesterton never precisely gave it.

The Quotemeister confidently asserts to all future inquirers that the source of the fugitive epigram is “The Oracle of the Dog” as codified by Emile Cammaerts. We note also that Nigel Rees, of the authoritative Quote-Unquote newsletter, accepts the Rader-Accardo conjecture (as presented above) in its entirety.

We cannot adequately thank Robin Rader and Pasquale Accardo for their diligence in tracking this tough one down. But we must point out the irony that critics have chastised Chesterton for misquoting other writers, while he is the most misquoted writer of all. No one would be more pleased than G.K. Chesterton.

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