Orthodoxy (book)

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Orthodoxy is a 1908 book by the Catholic commentator G. K. Chesterton in which he attempts to defend the Christian faith against its opponents, primarily members of the rationalist movement.[1] Many Christians, including James Parker[2] and Benjamin Wiker[3] consider it among the greatest theological works ever written.

Erecting strawmen[edit]

A strawman argument is defined as "a weak or imaginary opposition (such as an argument or adversary) set up only to be easily confuted,"[4] and it is, without any doubt, Chesterton's favorite tactic to use throughout this entire book, as he constantly attacks his opponents through saying it would be silly of them to hold positions that none of them actually hold. For example, Chesterton begins the sixth chapter of the book by asking the reader to imagine this situation:

Suppose some mathematical creature from the moon were to reckon up the human body; he would at once see that the essential thing about it was that it was duplicate. A man is two men, he on the right exactly resembling him on the left. Having noted that there was an arm on the right and one on the left, a leg on the right and one on the left, he might go further and still find on each side the same number of fingers, the same number of toes, twin eyes, twin ears, twin nostrils, and even twin lobes of the brain. At last he would take it as a law ; and then, where he found a heart on one side, would deduce that there was another heart on the other. And just then, where he most felt he was right, he would be wrong.[1]:146-147

First off, this analogy fails to make any sense because humans do not have "a heart on one side" of the chest, the heart is actually centered in the chest.[5] In the same regard, it is also a massive reach to say humans have "twin lobes" in the brain given the left brain and the right brain have rather different functions.[6] In the same regard, one has to hope these aliens don't accidentally stumble upon, among other groups, any of the one in two hundred people who are missing an arm,[7] one of the similarly sized population lacking a leg,[8] or one of the thousands of people missing a finger in some way.[9]

However, it is also important to note who exactly Chesterton needed to have made this mistake. Alan Handscare, who wrote a book responding to Orthodoxy in 1921,[10] specifically wrote in response to this hypothetical:

The mistake of the "mathematical creature from the moon" is supposed to be the mistake of the Rationalist. But it is the weakness of Mr. Chesterton's argument that he had to "suppose" the creature from the moon in order to make his accusation against Rationalism appear rational. He could not have begun the argument right away by saying: "Suppose a Rationalist from Manchester were to reckon up the human body," etc., because there is no Rationalist in Manchester or anywhere else who would make the mistake upon which his argument depends.[10]:80-81

Handscare makes note of multiple examples of Chesterton creating cartoonish characters to represent his ideological opponents throughout the entire book. On another occasion, he writes that if Chesterton "were offered the wealth of the world" he would be able to "produce the Rationalist of whom he writes."[10]:48

The specific claim of Chesterton's that Handscare was responding to involved him declaring, "A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth ; this has been exactly reversed."[10]:46 The implication being that the rationalists fail to believe in truth, a statement which fails to make sense even on the most basic levels. Obviously rationalists believe in truth, otherwise they would have no way of calling their ideology true, and the same can be said about materialists. Instead, as Handscare writes, these groups merely "do doubt is that Mr. Chesterton and his friends have got hold of it all."[10]:46

Made up paradoxes[edit]

Chesterton also attempts to act like those who are critical of Christianity are inconsistent in their rhetoric for one reason or another. While talking about critics of the Christian religion, Chesterton writes:

I felt that a strong case against Christianity lay in the charge that there is something timid, monkish, and unmanly about all that is called "Christian," especially in its attitude towards resistance and fighting. The great sceptics of the nineteenth century were largely virile. Bradlaugh in an expansive way, Huxley in a reticent way, were decidedly men. In comparison. It did seem tenable that there was something weak and over patient about Christian counsels. The Gospel paradox about the other cheek, the fact that priests never fought, a hundred things made plausible the accusation that Christianity was an attempt to make a man too like a sheep. I read it and believed it, and if I had read nothing different, I should have gone on believing it. But I read something very different. I turned the next page in my agnostic manual, and my brain turned up-side down. Now I found that I was to hate Christianity not for fighting too little, but for fighting too much. Christianity, it seemed, was the mother of wars, Christianity had deluged the world with blood. I had got thoroughly angry with the Christian, because he never was angry. And now I was told to be angry with him because his anger had been the most huge and horrible thing in human history; because his anger had soaked the earth and smoked to the sun. The very people who reproached Christianity with the meekness and non-resistance of the monastries were the very people who reproached it also with the violence and valour of the Crusades. It was the fault of poor old Christianity (somehow or other) both that Edward the Confessor did not fight and that Richard Coeur de Lion did. The Quakers (we were told) were the only characteristic Christians; and yet the massacres of Cromwell and Alva were characteristic Christian crimes. What could it all mean? What was this Christianity which always forbade war and always produced wars? What could be the nature of the thing which one could abuse first because it would not fight, and second because it was always fighting? In what world of riddles was born this monstrous murder and this monstrous meekness? The shape of Christianity grew a queerer shape every instant.[1]:156-158

Of course, some Christians could be overly violent while some are not violent enough because Christianity is a massive religion. Chesterton wrote this book at the very start of the twentieth century, when over half a billion people were followers of the Christian religion.[11] The idea that some of them had contradictory flaws because of their faith, especially given they were following a book with over five hundred contradictions,[12] in no way sounds unbelievable.

Handscare has another response to the claims of Chesterton; he starts by pointing out that although Christianity teaches non-violence, the vast majority of Christians have never made an attempt to carry it out:

If Christ taught one thing clearly that thing was nonresistance. . . The Church has never attempted to carry this teaching out, but it has pretended to be carrying it out in the very repudiation of it.[10]:85

He then goes on to argue that Christianity says "The Christian must be meek, so that the Church may inherit the earth,"[10]:86 basically making the point that the Christian is supposed to not resist the calls of the religious organization they belong to, even when it calls for violence. Although this might sound contradictory on a surface level, when you dig even slightly deeper, you find nuance, not a paradox.

Of course, even if we give Chesterton that these claims are contradictory, he still did nothing to debunk either of these arguments. The only point he made was that some unnamed critic of Christianity made both of these points despite them sounding mutually exclusive. Again, even giving Chesterton that much, he still needs to provide evidence that one of the claims, let alone both of them, are wrong before he can actually discredit the arguments themselves. Without doing such, all he has done is prove that one particular critic of Christianity is bad at arguing.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton
  2. A Most Unlikely Saint
  3. 10 Books Every Conservative Must Read: Plus Four Not to Miss and One Imposter by Benjamin Wiker
  4. straw man
  5. Heart Anatomy
  6. Left Brain vs. Right Brain: What Does This Mean for Me?
  7. Arm Amputation
  8. 29 Limb Loss Statistics, Facts & Demographics
  9. Fingertip Injuries and Amputations: A Review of the Literature
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 10.6 Authorodoxy: Being a Discursive Examination of Mr. G. K. Chesterton's "Orthodoxy" by Alan Handscare
  11. Which religion will be the largest by the end of the century?
  12. Contradictions