Monday, July 27, 2020

The Old “New Atheists”

Of the New Paganism (or neo-Paganism) …there is no necessity to take any very grave account, except as a thing which left behind it incomparable exercises in the English language.

Heretics, Gilbert K. Chesterton (eBook)

Chesterton wrote these words more than 100 years ago.  They are equally applicable to those known as new atheists today.  We no longer have to take them into account either.  The thing that is replacing Christianity is not a void – as the new atheists dream – but a new religion, one that includes original sin but without the possibility of forgiveness.

The term "pagan" is continually used in fiction and light literature as meaning a man without any religion, whereas a pagan was generally a man with about half a dozen.

The new version, the new atheists, are after a religion that is not a religion; they are after inventing “good,” although the best they can do is agree on what is bad (usually devolving into nothing more than pointing to Hitler; hence, everything short of Hitler is OK, or, at least, not to be condemned).  They want the Christian ethic, just without the Christianity.  They ignore Nietzsche’s warning.

He suggests that the Pagan ideal will be the ultimate good of man; but if that is so, we must at least ask with more curiosity than he allows for, why it was that man actually found his ultimate good on earth under the stars, and threw it away again.

In his magnum opus, From Dawn to Decadence, Jacques Barzun would write of G. K. Chesterton that he, along with Hilaire Belloc, was one of the few who understood what was happening while it was happening: Western man was throwing away his ultimate good.  Barzun would call this the Great Switch, when what we know as Classical Liberalism – with still some grounding in Christianity – transformed into its modern incarnation.

Chesterton notes that there is only one thing in our world that knows anything of paganism – and it isn’t the neo-pagans or the new atheists: it is Christianity.  The ancient hymns and dances of Europe, the festivals of Rome, a “festoon of flowers at Easter or a string of sausages at Christmas.”  All have their roots in ancient paganism.

Everything else in the modern world is of Christian origin, even everything that seems most anti-Christian. The French Revolution is of Christian origin. The newspaper is of Christian origin. The anarchists are of Christian origin. Physical science is of Christian origin. The attack on Christianity is of Christian origin.

We have been fighting a Christian civil war since the eighteenth century, if not the sixteenth.  At least in the sixteenth century, each of the combatants believed he was acting on a Christian basis; since the eighteenth, half of the combatants are too ignorant of history to realize this, while most of the other half are too secular to act on what they claim to believe.

Chesterton points to the Seven Virtues, and finding here the real difference between Paganism and Christianity; this difference is to be seen in the difference of the four Natural Virtues and the three Theological Virtues, or Virtues of Grace as he calls these:

The pagan, or rational, virtues are such things as justice and temperance, and Christianity has adopted them. The three mystical virtues which Christianity has not adopted, but invented, are faith, hope, and charity.

He notes, of these, two facts: first, the pagan virtues are sad virtues and the Christian virtues are gay and exuberant; second, the pagan virtues are reasonable, while the Christian virtues are as unreasonable as can be.  He clarifies “unreasonable” to mean that these offer a paradox.  To expand, he offers:

Justice consists in finding out a certain thing due to a certain man and giving it to him. Temperance consists in finding out the proper limit of a particular indulgence and adhering to that.

This is quite reasonable.

But charity means pardoning what is unpardonable, or it is no virtue at all. Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all. And faith means believing the incredible, or it is no virtue at all.

And this is all quite unreasonable to modern man.  But Chesterton offers that the development of these three virtues was necessary because, despite being paradoxical, they were practical:

The great psychological discovery of Paganism, which turned it into Christianity, can be expressed with some accuracy in one phrase. The pagan set out, with admirable sense, to enjoy himself. By the end of his civilization he had discovered that a man cannot enjoy himself and continue to enjoy anything else.

Which also describes the phase that we are passing through today.  We have the material means to satisfy virtually every lust; we are discovering that lust is an unquenchable desire.  Hence, we lose meaning:

Ecclesiastes 1: 2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!”

says the Teacher.

“Utterly meaningless!

Everything is meaningless.”

3 What do people gain from all their labors

at which they toil under the sun?

To find the cure for this, Chesterton returns to the necessity of humility:

Civilization discovered Christian humility for the same urgent reason that it discovered faith and charity—that is, because Christian civilization had to discover it or die.

Why is this so?  It is humility that renews the earth and stars, that makes the heavens again and again fresh and strong.  Humility preserves our sense of wonder.  Humility allows us to find meaning in all around us.  Only when we grasp the dark, where we have no sight or expectation, can we enjoy the fullness and beauty of life:

If we saw the sun for the first time it would be the most fearful and beautiful of meteors. Now that we see it for the hundredth time we call it, in the hideous and blasphemous phrase of Wordsworth, "the light of common day."

Further, humility is necessary for self-examination.  Imagine a world where self-examination is lost.  Wait, you don’t have to imagine it; we live in it.  And it is here where Chesterton extends the point, writing of Thomas Carlyle’s “Great Man”:

Carlyle said that men were mostly fools. Christianity, with a surer and more reverent realism, says that they are all fools. This doctrine is sometimes called the doctrine of original sin. It may also be described as the doctrine of the equality of men.

And with this, he previews that which Solzhenitsyn would so famously articulate decades later:

All men can be criminals, if tempted; all men can be heroes, if inspired. And this doctrine does away altogether with Carlyle's pathetic belief (or any one else's pathetic belief) in "the wise few." There are no wise few.

And this is where humility comes in: instead of extending our ego to infinity, we do better to reduce our ego to zero; instead of thinking more of ourselves, we should think less.  Chesterton’s accusation of the neo-paganists and their pagan ideal of reason is quite simple:

I accuse them of ignoring definite human discoveries in the moral world, discoveries as definite, though not as material, as the discovery of the circulation of the blood. We cannot go back to an ideal of reason and sanity.

But this is what we have been told in the West since the Enlightenment.

For mankind has discovered that reason does not lead to sanity. We cannot go back to an ideal of pride and enjoyment. For mankind has discovered that pride does not lead to enjoyment.

After the insanity of the French Revolution, the rapid failure of the American Revolution, the half-century of World War, the murderous reasonableness of communism and fascism, and the insanity of today’s ideal of “pride” and “enjoyment,” isn’t it time we learn this lesson?

I do not know by what extraordinary mental accident modern writers so constantly connect the idea of progress with the idea of independent thinking. Progress is obviously the antithesis of independent thinking. For under independent or individualistic thinking, every man starts at the beginning, and goes, in all probability, just as far as his father before him.

This is stunning in its simplicity.

But if there really be anything of the nature of progress, it must mean, above all things, the careful study and assumption of the whole of the past.

We can stand on the shoulders of giants, or be stomped on by the puny ants of modernity.

I accuse Mr. Lowes Dickinson and his school of reaction in the only real sense. If he likes, let him ignore these great historic mysteries—the mystery of charity, the mystery of chivalry, the mystery of faith. If he likes, let him ignore the plough or the printing-press.

Do we really believe we have one without the other?  Not that technological advancement did not occur in pagan times, or outside of Christendom (and its remnants).  But, for goodness’ sakes, man; check the weight of the evidence.


I asked the following, at the conclusion of this post:

I am wondering if this means we have come full circle; I am also wondering if it means the cycle might repeat.  Will the cycle start with Christ, or with an anti-Christ?  I don’t mean in an apocalyptic, Armageddon sort of way.  I mean in terms of the direction our culture might take.

Chesterton answers my question, with hope:

But if we do revive and pursue the pagan ideal of a simple and rational self-completion we shall end—where Paganism ended. I do not mean that we shall end in destruction.  I mean that we shall end in Christianity.

We will, because we must.  It just is a question of how much pain we must pass through in the meantime.


  1. Well, this certainly applies to me.

    "For under independent or individualistic thinking, every man starts at the beginning, and goes, in all probability, just as far as his father before him."

    I have lived a life of fierce independent individualism and now find myself circling back to a place which my father visited before me--better educated perhaps, more wealthy materially, but no further ahead.

    Does this mean that I haven't learned from the 'lessons of history'? Not necessarily, if anything, it means that I had to go through an incredible amount of personal pain to find my way back. Funny, in all those years, especially the early ones, reality only meant groping in the dark, not really living but learning the hard lessons of life. Now, I find myself back at the starting point, ready to begin again--this time able to see my way and my destination clearly.

    Probably I should give my father more credit than what I did. Certainly, I owe him an apology.

    "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."--T. S. Eliot

    1. When I was young, I was explaining libertarianism to my dad: primarily focused on no laws against drugs, prostitution, etc. His response: "what, are you a communist?" I said, no - just the opposite. As I got older, I came to understand why he said what he said.

      He also grew up in a high-inflation world. He would always tell me: "the wealth is in the bricks." Something tangible. I have also grown to understand this.

      I should have just believed him on both points in the first place.

    2. If you had simply believed, though, your breadth and depth of understanding would be nowhere near what it is today.

      There really is no good substitute for experience. If we learn enough of human nature (through experience) and study history, it's close enough to avoid some of the worst mistakes - or at least anticipate them, since realistically they will be made anyway.

      Also, if your father had really wanted to impart wisdom so you could believe it, he probably could have elaborated some more... maybe he thought you had to learn for yourself because you wouldn't listen anyway? :)

      I hope my own children will one day be willing to listen to me, and that I'll find a way to get through to them.

    3. "...maybe he thought you had to learn for yourself because you wouldn't listen anyway?"

      I think this might capture it. I need not have blindly believed, but could have taken it more seriously at the time - exploring as to why he said such things. Seeing that I did not, perhaps he decided I had to figure these things out on my own.

    4. My father was never very political and didn't care much for philosophy or history; he'd basically vote for whoever he thought would preserve our gun, hunting, and fishing rights. But I remember that when he did talk about it, he always had complaints against the people he termed the "do-gooders" of the world. By this he meant people who couldn't help but stick their nose in everyone's business, taking all the fun, freedom, and profit out of everything in order that their version of the "good" should be done.

      I think he was onto something. Most of the political evils in the world have been justified by some such ideal of "do-gooding", whether it was "doing good" to the poor by giving them a right to endless handouts, or "doing good" to irresponsible and vulnerable young women by killing their unwanted babies, or "doing good" to the jihadists fighting for democracy in foreign countries by arming and training them to commit atrocities.

      Most often these "goods" were divorced from association with the Author of good, and this probably explains why they were so often twisted and perverted into what has traditional been known as evils.

      I'm absolutely certain my dad never heard of Isabel Paterson or her essay "Humanitarian with the Guillotine" or C.S. Lewis's description of a "tyranny exercised for the good of its victims", but I think he would have agreed with them more or less.

      Cheers to the wisdom of our fathers!

    5. "...he'd basically vote for whoever he thought would preserve our gun, hunting, and fishing rights."

      Works for me.

    6. Cosmic Dwarf,

      I concur. Experience is the best teacher. If we could learn from the experiences of others, it would save us an incredible amount of pain. It seems, though, that this is not human nature. It seems that we all have to learn from our own experiences and simply refuse to learn from those who have gone before us.

      Perhaps I am thinking more of myself than I ought to, but this is my own experience. And the lessons are exceedingly painful.

  2. . . ."instead of thinking more of ourselves, we should think less."

    Instead of thinking less of ourselves, we should think of ourselves less. Peg

    1. For completeness, maybe I could have phrased it "we should think less of ourselves relative to the wisdom of the many generations that came before us."

      Something like this.

    2. Rom 12:3

      For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.

    3. Is that an original aphorism Peg? If so, it's pretty good. But I think in doing the latter we necessarily do a little of the former. In order to do more for others you must sacrifice part of yourself; you must put the importance of others before your own.

      Don't get me wrong, I think highly of our place in the cosmos. We are the most complex thing we can see and scientifically study. Mountains, stars, black holes, oceans full of life - none of it compares to the complexity of a human mind.

      But before we go fluffing our egos over it, we should do our best to pay homage to the One who made us. Science shouldn't make us feel small and insignificant; I worry that it makes us feel too big and important. Most often I feel it makes the practitioner or partisan of science feel as though he is a god above the rest, observing the behaviors of lesser beings and their insignificant place in the cosmos only he can appreciate from his exalted location.

      “When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” - G.K. Chesterton

    4. No, ATM, not original. I read it somewhere months ago and liked it. One could make a case that putting our loved ones first, which I hope most of us do, is in the end putting ourselves first. P.S. to Bionic: I enjoyed this post very much. Peg

  3. Wow. This is so powerful. Thanks for sharing BM. I particularly agree with the quote below.

    "But if we do revive and pursue the pagan ideal of a simple and rational self-completion we shall end—where Paganism ended. I do not mean that we shall end in destruction. I mean that we shall end in Christianity."

    I too believe this and have thought the same thing. I think it makes sense because the pain and suffering of the pagan highlights the presence of sin in the world, a person's participation in it, and sees the hopelessness it brings. That attitude is fertile soil for Jesus. It is in fact the first beatitude, Blessed are the poor in spirit.

    I think the general principle for me is this. If logic or some body of knowledge says something that clearly contradicts the Bible, I follow the Bible. Even if the worldly logic makes sense and has the approval of all the "right" people. God knows more and I need to learn from Him.

    1. "...and sees the hopelessness it brings. That attitude is fertile soil for Jesus."

      Sad to say, but this "fertile soil" was seeded by Jordan Peterson, and not by any major Christian figures (I am sure many unknown Christian figures have been doing similar work).

      Peterson began a conversation that has caused many to search for the meaning missing from their lives, and in that search, some good subset of these are turning to Christianity.