Writing in The Guardian earlier this week about the once-fashionable pseudoscience of eugenics, David Aaronovitch commented:
[The effect of public debate] was in good measure that Catholic intellectuals such as G K Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, together with Labour MPs, blocked the attempt to bring in such appalling legislation.
This is right. Chesterton – no liberal but an economic populist, agrarian reactionary and muscular Christian apologist – wrote a powerful essay called “The Fallacy of Eugenics” in one of his last books, Avowals and Desires, in 1934, as well as an earlier book called Eugenics and Other Evils. From his religious premises, Chesterton protested that eugenics was a device of social control that would oppress the poor – as indeed it was.
Writing in The Sunday Times on Easter Sunday, Brian Appleyard lamented the secularisation of our culture with an appropriate quotation:
“When people stop believing in God,” said GK Chesterton, “they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything.”
Except it wasn't an appropriate quotation, but a spurious one. Chesterton no more wrote it than Edmund Burke made his famous supposed remark about the conditions for the triumph of evil. It was definitively traced a few years ago by the American Chesterton Society to a secondary source on the author by Emile Cammaerts, The Laughing Prophet, 1937. The 'quotation' is a paraphrase of Cammaert's own paraphrase of what he took to be an idea within Chesterton's Father Brown stories. You’re likely to come across this fake Chesterton quotation with monotonous regularity in the work of jobbing journalists who don’t check their sources and in religious apologetic, so I'm doing my bit to try to get it banished from public debate.
UPDATE: A correspondent rightly faults me for not giving the direct quotation. Chesterton has Father Brown say, in the story "The Oracle of the Dog":
It's the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense.
It is this story that Cammaerts is discussing when his paraphrase occurs:
"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."
Note the position of the quotation marks. The remarks inside them are Father Brown's. The remark not so enclosed is Cammaerts's own. The full, and to my mind incontrovertible, evidence is set out here on the web site of the American Chesterton Society, to which I am indebted. I have read about 50 of Chesterton's books since my teens, and a signed (and I believe unpublished) photograph of the man hangs in my study; I had become convinced that this most celebrated of his quotations must be apocryphal, but mistakenly assumed that it dated only from the 1960s or so, when he began to be rediscovered.