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The Materialist in the Mask

The modern world is a walking lie. But it’s not a bold-faced lie. It’s a shame-faced lie.

(Image: Adam Nieścioruk/Unsplash.com)

In 1908, two of G.K. Chesterton’s most famous books were published, almost back-to-back. The first was the novel The Man Who Was Thursday, about a group of anarchists who are actively trying to undermine everything normal thing in civilization, driven by a philosophy that hates property, hates marriage, and hates life itself. What makes the book such a great read is that every character is someone else in disguise, and the suspense and tension and mystery build as each one of them is unexpectedly unmasked.

A few months later came another book about revelation, that is, revealing the truth. It was Orthodoxy. In this classic of apologetics, Chesterton tries to explain how he had found the truth and how he knew it was the truth. But his challenge in making his case is that, in former times, the standard approach to defending the faith was to begin with the fact of sin, which Chesterton describes as the only Christian doctrine that can be proved. However, in the modern world, where we deny everything, we even deny sin. So we can’t talk about sin.

Chesterton takes a different tact: if we can’t talk about sin, let’s talk about sanity. Let’s show that every modern philosophy is in insane or leads to insanity, and that the only sane one is Christianity.

That would seem to be a good approach still.

But maybe not in 2020, which is the year that the world went insane. And even worse than the obvious insanity is the strange and stubborn and even deliberate hesitancy to admit that the world is insane. That would mean having to face it, maybe even doing something about it. Instead we are simply putting up with it. We can’t call evil things evil anymore, and now we can’t call insane things insane.

And so it is fitting that we are all being told to wear masks. We are trying to cover up the truth about ourselves. The modern world is a walking lie. But it’s not a bold-faced lie. It’s a shame-faced lie.

Masks. Chesterton is amazingly prophetic about masks:

“In a world where everything is ridiculous, nothing can be ridiculed. You cannot unmask a mask.” (Illustrated London News, July 10, 1927)

“A mob does not wear a mask.” (The Illustrated Review, Oct. 1923)

“In what religious age was a man allowed to thunder from the pulpit with a mask on his face?”(Illustrated London News, July 25, 1908)

And I recently stumbled across an uncollected essay by Chesterton (re-stumbled, actually, since I had read it before) called “The Materialist in the Mask,” (New Witness, June 30, 1922)

“Hmm…” I thought to myself, “Sounds like GKC is going to say something prophetic once again. And about masks!”

I was right. But it was nothing what I expected.

In this essay he begins by writing about anti-clericalism, which may be motivated by an objection to priests having too much power, but is more widely simply an objection to the priesthood. “A priesthood is a powerful thing and a man is entitled to think it too powerful.” But Chesterton has more sympathy with old-fashioned anti-clericals who were willing to be known as atheists, than with a certain sort of new anti-clericals who would be referred to as secularists, though they would never call themselves that.

People don’t want to be called secularists. They may prefer to be grouped with “non-sectarians,” but really they don’t want to be called that either. They want to be known as something positive and potent and positioned above and apart from the practitioners of religion. They want to be known only by the recognizable and respectful title of, say, governor or mayor or magistrate. Or judge. Or journalist. Or doctor. Or scientist. Or health official. They profess only to pursue some secular aim in a productive and constructive manner, and if their decisions affect religion in a negative way, it is merely by accident. Nothing intentional. Nothing personal.

Chesterton says, “There are some people of whom this is true, and they are worthy of all respect.” But for the most part and for most people, the so-called “secular” pose is only a pose. It is a pretense. It is a mask.

Most secularists really have a “destructive enthusiasm” for the Church, and Chesterton says he doesn’t blame them. What?! He doesn’t blame them?! Why not?

“If Christianity is a lie, it is certainly a great thundering lie. No man is to be blamed for denouncing what he thinks a thundering lie.”

Okay, good point. If people hate Christianity, we can’t blame them for attacking it. But can we blame them for … anything?

Yes. “No man is to be blamed for denouncing what he thinks a thundering lie, but a man is to be blamed for telling small and sniveling lies in defense of his own denunciation.”

Ah. This indeed is what the battleground looks like. We are fighting against “the small and sniveling lies” that are being told to justify the attacks on the Church. Here is a call to stand up for the truth, and tell the truth about the lies against us. We don’t have to apologize for what we believe, and for believing it wholeheartedly. And we have to point out that those who oppose us – or who would restrict our worship, close our churches, interfere with our religious education – are wearing a mask, a mask of impartiality.

“A man who professes a creed,” says Chesterton, “confesses a partiality for the creed; when he loves it he is necessarily partial. But when he hates it he generally professes to be impartial. He pretends that the thing he hates is obstructing his way to other things; such as education or hygiene or science or social reform.” But he cares more about the obstacle than the object. He cares more about his hatred for the Church than for objective truth. “No man is less likely to forget the religious question than the irreligious man.”

A month after he wrote those words, G.K. Chesterton was received into the Catholic Church.


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About Dale Ahlquist 44 Articles
Dale Ahlquist is president of the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, creator and host of the EWTN series "G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense," and publisher of Gilbert Magazine. He is the author and editor of several books on Chesterton, including The Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind of G.K. Chesterton.

17 Comments

  1. ““In what religious age was a man allowed to thunder from the pulpit with a mask on his face?”(Illustrated London News, July 25, 1908)”

    Alexander Peden, the Scottish Covenanter, wore a weird-looking mask, and was quite the celebrity. The Covenanters were Presbyterians in the 1600’s, and their character can be seen by the fact that they objected to swearing an oath that stated that they rejected a declaration that it was lawful for them to kill those who served the king in church, state, army, or country, or those who acted against the people who wrote the statement; and that they wouldn’t help anybody to do such killing.

    Basically, the Taliban of 17th-century Scotland.

  2. We wear masks during this pandemic because they are an integral part in limiting transmission of a deadly disease. That’s all. If you want to read more into it, that’s your problem.

    PS: Am I the only orthodox Catholic who finds Chesterton’s paradoxical writing tedious?

    • No, masks are completely & utterly useless in preventing transmission of any disease. The failure of lockdowns/forced mask-wearing are proof of this. If these implements of population control worked the first time, why are we now trying it again? Follow the science – good research ability is hard to learn – you would do well to learn it.

    • Highly debatable whether mask wearing is “an integral part in limiting transmission of a deadly disease”. Packaging for the most common masks contain a disclaimer affirming the simple truth that their efficacy in fighting disease is unproven. Given the lack of verifiable scientific proof for effectiveness in preventing the spread of the disease, its likely more about imposing social control than anything else. Anyone who disagrees is encouraged to examine the packaging for their own supply of masks.

  3. I fully understand your position. I hesitate to say that you are in the minority regarding COVID protection masks. Every scientist who is a scientist tell us that federal CDC rules that protect both wearer and a person without a mask. Even Pope Francis said he would follow the instructions from scientists. The Pope angushies as he reads of the COVID massacre in the US of more than 260,000 souls For sure the Pope acknowledges the failure of the US Government that relinquished responsibility and passed the needed help to of administration leadership, to the governors. That decision caused mayhem in the states, particularly with competition for PPEs for medical professional’s protection.

    The CDC says “until we have a vaccine our best hope of not getting infected includes wearing of a mask”.

    • We are a federal republic, so it was appropriate to defer to individual states and local authorities to best address covid related issues. That was not relinquishing responsibility, it was actually honoring the Constitution. And a recent study clearly indicated that mask wearing is useless in terms of protection. You view that as a minority position only because it challenges the talking points you constantly parrot in your posts.

      • No. It’s a “minority position” because there is an ocean of research that says the contrary. Wear a mask for the same reason you cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. Your attitude might explain why the USA is one of the leading countries in terms of both COVID cases and deaths in the developed world. As for Chesterton, I refuse to take health advice from an 19th century chain smoking obese essayist.

        • I’m not sure which countries you consider to be in “the developed world,” but you might take a look at the per-capita statistics about deaths from Wuhan coronavirus; here’s the analysis from Johns Hopkins: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/data/mortality The US deaths per capita are far below the rate in Belgium, and below the rates in Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom,

          Of course, the statistics can be skewed by inaccurate reporting. I’m not sure, for example, that I would take China’s word for the number of deaths in China. And of course countries have different ways of reporting deaths – some record the death of anybody who had the coronavirus at the time of death even if the death was not directly from that; some don’t.

          As far as masks go, the experts insisting that they should be worn are the same experts who originally said there was no reason to wear them because they wouldn’t help, so you can hardly blame people for being skeptical.

          • Odd that you would take solace in the fact that the USA is in the top 20 of covid deaths. I thought the USA was the best and exceptional and blah, blah blah. Surely, the USA can do better than that!

            Yes, there was contradicting info at first. That’s how science works. Info changes as more is learned.

            If you’re skeptical about masks, ask yourself why your doctor or dentists wears one. It’s not because they don’t protect.

        • No, there is no “ocean” of research supporting the efficacy of mask wearing. In fact, the so-called experts have flip-flopped so many times it’s difficult to know what to believe anymore. But it is obvious that this is much more about power and politics than any delusion about “keeping people safe” You are simply trafficking in fear and superstition and parroting the media’s narrative.

  4. I wish someone would address the mask issue which is causing division. I am torn. I wear one to try to prevent others from getting sick. The hospitals are filling up. Staffing shortages are occurring. If someone can answer what their plan is to resolve these serious issues, then I will stop wearing the masks. Needless deaths occur when hospitals cannot provide the needed care if they are overrun. If the mask slows the virus 20%, then that’s 20%. And what are our obligations to being obedient to civil authorities? Did not God permit them to be in charge? “You would have no authority over me, unless it were given to you by my Father.” Are we called to listen to the “internet” experts or the civil authorities? Does one study prove something? Is that how science works? Do we have an obligation to try to keep others safe? These are questions I struggle with, but no one will give answers. They just want to listen to those who tickle their ears, and say what they want to believe. It’s crazy. Those who wear masks are told not to judge. But those who don’t are okay to judge. This entire pandemic has revealed a lot about the conditions of the human race on all sides. And all the while the hospitals are filling more and more with COVID yet a few “experts” on the internet claim the pandemic is over!?? And people believe it! Sorry for the ramble.

    • I think you make a great point, especially when wearing a mask costs us nothing. It’s no different than wearing a scarf in the winter. Big deal?!

      Let’s do everything we possibly can…mask, wash hands and keep distance.

      Americans have an odd, almost teenager-like view of freedom. It’s the feet stomping “no one can tell me what to do” attitude. We should remember what Pope St. John Paul II said: “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”

      When a deadly virus kills more than a quarter of a million people in the USA (and that’s with health measures) we ought to do all we can to stop it. A mask, keeping distance and washing hands is a very small inconvenience. If you don’t like it, then offer it up.

  5. Thanks so much Dale;

    I took the 1957 G. K. Chesteron anthology with me to hospital and it was invaluable; what insight, what humour, what prescience.. this little book has become a treasure,

    warmest regards,

    Karen in Cambridge

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