Dawkins and Rise of Cultural Christianity (Guest Writer)

Dawkins and Rise of Cultural Christianity (Guest Writer) April 5, 2024

From guest writer: Pilgrim.

Richard Dawkins declares himself to be a “cultural Christian” and believes Christianity is a “fundamentally decent religion” that is better for society than Islam.

How very nice of him:

I do think that we [Britain] are a culturally Christian country. I call myself a cultural Christian. I’m not a believer but there is a distinction between being a believing Christian and being a cultural Christian and so, you know, I love Hymns and Christmas carols, and I sort of feel at home in the Christian ethos. I feel that we are a Christian country in that sense. It’s true that statistically the number of people who actually believe in Christianity is going down, and I am happy with that, but I would not be happy if, for example, we lost all our cathedrals and our beautiful parish churches. It would matter if we certainly substituted any other religion, that would be truly dreadful.

Dawkins says he was “horrified to hear that Ramadan is being promoted instead of Easter” and that if he had to choose between Christianity and Islam, he would choose Christianity. For Dawkins, Christianity seems like a “fundamentally decent religion […] in a way that Islam is not.” When asked to elaborate on this, he claimed that there is “an active hostility to women … and to gay people” promoted “by the Holy Books of Islam.”

If I had to choose between Christianity and Islam, I choose Christianity every single time. I mean, it seems to me to be a fundamentally decent religion in a way that I think Islam is not. …Insofar as Christianity can be seen as a bulwark against Islam, I think it’s a very good thing. And in Africa, for example, where we have missionaries of both faiths operating, I’m on team Christian as far as that’s concerned.

At the end of his response, he reiterated that although he does not “believe in the single word of the Christian faith,” seeing these a “nonsense,”  adding, “I like to live in a culturally Christian country.”

This is not a new position for Dawkins. He has alluded several times to his love of choral Evensong and country churchyards and Gothic architecture – the form of English Christianity, rather than the substance.

Cultural Christian Defined

“Cultural Christian” usually means someone who values the civilizational, artistic, and moral benefits of Christianity, but rejects its specific teachings. Clement Attlee famously said that he respected the ethics of Christianity but not “the mumbo-jumbo.” Alastair Campbell counts himself a “pro-faith atheist.” “Cultural Christians” find the supernatural claims of Christianity absurd.

So why do atheists like faith? There are perhaps two reasons which explain their fondness.

First, nostalgia. We are now in a post-Christendom period. Religious occasions such as Christmas and Easter have largely been vacated of their Christian content. These moments in time – along with some of our church buildings – have become beautiful artefacts which create nostalgia for an imagined past. A secular nation, lacking faith in anything other than its own experience and reason, is happy to selectively engage with these artefacts on its own terms. As a result, it is easier for atheists to give credit to Christianity for human rights and democracy, nice Bible fables and beautiful buildings – while leaving the vital things out.

The second reason is that they take a sympathetic view of Western civilization, and they prefer a traditional (but not too traditional) approach to culture and community life – but certainly not the morally testing beliefs of Christianity and most certainly not a Christian anthropology!

This consequentialist view of Christianity, common among non-Christian conservatives (and among some Christian conservatives too), holds that what matters is not the truth or falsehood of Christianity but the consequences of Christian belief – i.e. that it will make people happier, make them better citizens, make them more economically productive, make them more likely to lead ‘descent, law abiding lives, etc.

But will it? Is it sustainable?

Somewhat prophetically, T. S. Eliot addressed this line of thinking in The Idea of a Christian Society,

in which his major points of political comparison were the totalitarian states that were on the march in the 1930s:

What is worst of all is to advocate Christianity, not because it is true, but because it might be beneficial. Towards the end of 1938 we experienced a wave of revivalism which should teach us that folly is not the prerogative of any one political party or any one religious communion, and that hysteria is not the privilege of the uneducated.

The Christianity expressed has been vague, the religious fervour has been a fervour for democracy. It may engender nothing better than a disguised and peculiarly sanctimonious nationalism, accelerating our progress towards the paganism which we say we abhor.

To justify Christianity because it provides a foundation of morality, instead of showing the necessity of Christian morality from the truth of Christianity, is a very dangerous inversion; and we may reflect, that a good deal of the attention of totalitarian states has been devoted, with a steadiness of purpose not always found in democracies, to providing their national life with a foundation of morality – the wrong kind perhaps, but a good deal more of it. It is not enthusiasm, but dogma, that differentiates a Christian from a pagan society.

England’s secularized society in 1939, he called a “neutral society.” One where there is no continuity or consistency to the moral and ethical judgments that it imposed on the citizenry. His primary interest was to bring about a change in social attitudes “as could bring about anything worthy to be called a Christian Society,” for he feared that the other option is that the Western democracies, as secularised and religiously neutralized, may eventually each become, like Germany and Russia at the time, a pagan society, wherein the state has pre-empted all the moral prerogatives normally left to the church but without even the pretense of any consistent principles for making moral judgments.

Eliot saw it in dire enough terms. “[T]he choice before us is between the formation of a new Christian culture, and the acceptance of a pagan one.” He saw English society not as a Christian society that defines itself in terms of its own values and tradition, but as a society as materialistic as its fascist and communist rivals.

However, worse than the others whose value structures are at least self-defining, the English “are in danger of finding ourselves with nothing to stand for except a dislike of everything maintained by Germany and/or Russia.”

As one American writer states it:

Because of the history of Christianity in America, many Americans have a certain set of values that come from that Christian history – even if they don’t realize it, or don’t even consider themselves Christians. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. We are certainly glad that Christianity has had a “preserving” influence on our culture that can still be felt generations later. We should be glad when people behave morally, even if they don’t know why they are doing so.

The problem is simply that this state of things won’t last. To believe in Christian morals, without actually believing in Christianity, can only be sustained temporarily. Eventually, something’s got to give. While political actions can perhaps slow the shift, it cannot stop it completely.

Morality works best when it flows from a transformed human heart, not when it is merely forced by external laws. That is not to suggest external laws don’t matter. We should still make good laws and enforce such laws. But the healthiest cultures are the ones where morality flows naturally and internally.

We should not be content with people simply “playing” Christian for a time, because such an approach will not last in times of resistance and persecution. While it might be nice to have large churches with full pews, it would be better to have smaller churches that were filled with people who genuinely believed and understood the implications of their faith.

Thank you!

Read The Latin Right’s other writing here.

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