G. K. Chesterton? Malcolm Muggeridge? Émile Cammaerts? Umberto Eco? Apocryphal?
Question for Quote Investigator: An individual who becomes skeptical about traditional belief systems does not automatically embrace careful thought and rationality. Instead, the individual may embrace more eccentric belief systems and superstitions. Consider the following related remark:
When people cease to believe in God, they do not then believe in nothing, but in anything.
This statement has been attributed to the prominent English writer and philosopher Gilbert K. Chesterton. However, I am uncertain because I have not found a solid citation. Would you please explore this topic?
Reply from Quote Investigator: Researchers have been unable to find this saying in the writings or speeches of G. K. Chesterton who died in 1936.
The earliest known linkage to the famous writer appeared in the 1937 biography “The Laughing Prophet: The Seven Virtues and G. K. Chesterton” by Émile Cammaerts. The biography discussed a story titled “The Oracle of the Dog” featuring Chesterton’s amateur detective character Father Brown during which the sleuth asserted that some modern thinkers had replaced their rationalism and skepticism with superstition. Cammaerts summarized the viewpoint as follows. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1
The first effect of not believing in God is to believe in anything …
Cammaerts was not quoting Chesterton; instead he was concisely representing a stance he ascribed to Chesterton and his character Father Brown.
In 1953 English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge attributed the full saying under examination to Chesterton:2
G. K. Chesterton once remarked that, contrary to the popular supposition, when men cease to believe in God they do not then believe in nothing, but in anything.
Muggeridge helped popularize the attribution to Chesterton by presenting it repeatedly, e.g., in 1953, 1955, 1963, and 1966. The credibility of this linkage was weak because the phrasing of the attributed statement varied.
Below is an overview showing excerpts and dates. The overview begins with thematically related statements from other thinkers and continues with remarks from Chesterton that were pertinent to this topic. The overview ends with versions of the saying that have been attributed to Chesterton after his death.
1844: When people cease to believe in God, they believe in ghosts. (Attributed to Georg Christoph Lichtenberg)
1867: When men cease to believe in God, they begin again to believe in ghosts, i. e. in shams. (George M. Grant)
1870: “When men cease to believe in GOD, they believe in ghosts.” Destroy the venerable edifice of belief in the sober and severely moral and orderly GOD of the Bible, and amidst the ruins will spring up superstitions, extravagant and obscene … (J. Rice Byrne)
1908: The man who cannot believe his senses, and the man who cannot believe anything else, are both insane. (G. K. Chesterton)
1914: There may have been a time when people found it easy to believe anything. But we are finding it vastly easier to disbelieve anything. Both processes save the human mind from the disgusting duty of distinguishing between one thing and another. (G. K. Chesterton)
1923: It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense, and can’t see things as they are. A dog is an omen and a cat is a mystery and a pig is a mascot and a beetle is a scarab, calling up all the menagerie of polytheism from Egypt and old India. (Spoken by Father Brown in G. K. Chesterton’s short story “The Oracle of the Dog”)
1924: You all swore you were hard-shelled materialists; and as a matter of fact you were all balanced on the very edge of belief—of belief in almost anything. There are thousands balanced on it to-day; but it’s a sharp, uncomfortable edge to sit on. You won’t rest till you believe something. (Spoken by Father Brown in G. K. Chesterton’s short story “The Miracle Of Moon Crescent”)
1928: Men have always one of two things—either a complete and conscious philosophy or the unconscious acceptance of the broken bits of some incomplete and shattered and often discredited philosophy. (G. K. Chesterton)
1937: The first effect of not believing in God is to believe in anything. (Émile Cammaerts’s depiction of G. K. Chesterton’s viewpoint)
1953: When men cease to believe in God they do not then believe in nothing, but in anything. (Malcolm Muggeridge’s depiction of G. K. Chesterton’s viewpoint)
1955: When people cease to believe in God, they do not then believe in nothing, but in anything. (Malcolm Muggeridge’s depiction of G. K. Chesterton’s viewpoint)
1963: When people cease to believe in a deity they do not then believe in nothing, but — what is much more calamitous — in anything. (Malcolm Muggeridge’s depiction of G. K. Chesterton’s viewpoint)
1989: When men stop believing in God, it isn’t that they then believe in nothing: they believe in everything. (Umberto Eco’s depiction of G. K. Chesterton’s viewpoint)
Additional details and citations are available in the article on the Medium platform which is located here.
Image Notes: Illustration of a person meditating from geralt at Pixabay. The image has been cropped and resized.
Acknowledgement: Great thanks to Ian Grattidge and Eccles whose twitter thread on this topic led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Grattidge highlighted the connection to Cammaerts. Also, thanks to Nigel Rees for his helpful entry about this quotation in the “Cassell Companion to Quotations”. Additional thanks to The Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton. Their website at chesterton.org contains an insightful essay about this saying titled “When Man Ceases to Worship God” which lists several germane citations.
 1937, The Laughing Prophet: The Seven Virtues and G. K. Chesterton by Émile Cammaerts, Quote Page 211, Published by Methuen & Co. Ltd., London. (Verified on paper)
 1953, Ciano’s Hidden Diary: 1937-1938, Translation and Notes by Andreas Mayor, Section: Introduction by Malcolm Muggeridge, Start Page vii, Quote Page ix, E. P. Dutton & Company, New York. (Verified with scans)