Richard Dawkins’ Cultural Christianity

Or: Sawing off the branch that holds you up

Perhaps to the surprise of many, Richard Dawkins, famed “New Atheist” of yesteryear, in a recent radio interview called himself a “cultural Christian.” He was quick to clarify that he is “not a believer” in the actual teachings of Christianity, but nonetheless told the interviewer “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.” This exchange was prompted by the discomfort Dawkins felt in the build-up to Easter seeing England full of lights celebrating the Muslim holiday of Ramadan.

Beyond mere aesthetics, Dawkins also stated that he likes to “live in a culturally Christian country” because it is kind to women and tolerant of homosexuals, whereas Islam is fundamentally hostile to both. The tenets of political liberalism happily coincide for Dawkins with a basically Christian culture, though in reality, the specific form of tolerance Dawkins takes to be the Christian culture of Britain is a twisting of the Christian virtues of kindness and love. What is particularly striking is how the rise of militant Islam, combined with the rapidly increasing numbers of Muslims throughout the UK (and all of Europe for that matter), is what prompted Dawkins’ reflections on Christian culture.

Islam is a militantly intolerant religion, but it is also a confident one. Islamic teaching—as wrong as it is—provides its adherents with an understanding of why they exist and how they should live in the world. It gives them meaning and purpose. Political liberalism is impotent in the face of Islam because political liberalism has no positive vision for life. It puts forth certain rights: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and so forth. Yet, it is unable to tell you why you should even want to live, what you should desire to be free to do, or how you can find happiness. Some of those rights, properly understood, are good and important as far as they go. No one may kill or imprison anyone else without cause; in general, it is best to let people live their own lives without massive interference from others, and so on. Islam, however, has a positive vision for all of life, which is why it is bulldozing every existentially empty competitor in its path.

Dawkins, I’m sure without realizing it, is the heir to many more benefits of Britain’s Christian past than he realizes. In the interview, he primarily focused on the outward, mostly aesthetic, trappings of Christianity, as well as his conflation of Christianity and progressive social mores. But consider just a few of the much more foundational things citizens of nations formerly shaped by Christianity enjoy, though often take for granted. The English, as also their American cousins, are subject to a long history of defending the concept of impartial justice. This is a biblical concept, rooted in God’s own character: “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor” (Lev 19:15; etc.). Such a conception of justice, however, has not existed throughout most of human history, and certainly does not exist in Islam, which requires strict equity for fellow Muslims but allows deception, abuse, and violence toward non-Muslims. Christianity historically provided protections for the weak (orphans, widows, etc.), whereas such were often ruthlessly cast aside in non-Christian societies. The Old Princeton theologian Charles Hodge rightly wrote in his Systematic Theology that 

Christianity is the basis of the common law of England, and is therefore of the law of this country . . . . Protestant Christianity has been, is, and must be the law of the land. Whatever Protestant Christianity forbids, the law of the land (within its sphere, i.e., within the sphere in which civil authority may appropriately act) forbids. Christianity forbids polygamy and arbitrary divorce, so does the civil law. (344)

Basic “Christian assumptions about human nature and justice” undergird the entire legal system of the Anglosphere world, as Russell Kirk puts it in a chapter entitled “The Christian Postulates of English and American Law.” That is to say: “Christian doctrine, in the United States as in Britain, is not the law; yet it is a major source of the law, and in particular a major foundation of jurisprudence.” Kirk does not mean that English or American laws are direct applications of the Bible. Rather, he highlights the many ways in which a basically Christian understanding of humanity and justice undergirds the law.

Richard Dawkins has not likely considered the full range of implications of abandoning the Christian culture he has so long sought to undermine in his attacks on the Christian faith. Many others have, however. And they are waiting in the wings to fill the vacuum left by the removal of “Christian assumptions about human nature and justice” from our political system and our laws. Militant Islam is one such competitor to Christianity. Leftism is another. The younger generation of leftists operates with very little doubt as to the superiority of their moral system (however incoherent it is in reality). The only thing stopping this generation from wholly imposing its system is a lack of power, but that will not be the case for long, absent determined resistance. You cannot, however, fill a vacuum with nothing.

Dawkins is the beneficiary of a political and legal system shaped over centuries by Christian principles of justice, human nature, and more. He appears blissfully unaware that he is sawing off the very branch suspending him safely above the mob of Islamists, radical leftists, and others, ready and willing to dispense with classical liberals like himself who only (rather ineffectively) impede their advance and triumph.

But as Kirk also notes:

When the religious understanding, from which a concept of law arose in a culture, has been discarded or denied, the laws may endure for some time, through what sociologists call ‘cultural lag’; but in the long run, the laws also will be discarded or denied. With this hard truth in mind, I venture to suggest that the corpus of English and American laws— for the two arise for the most part from a common root of belief and experience cannot endure forever unless it is animated by the spirit that moved it in the beginning: that is, by religion, and specifically by the Christian people. Certain moral postulates of Christian teaching have been taken for granted, in the past, as the ground of justice. When courts of law ignore those postulates, we grope in judicial darkness.

The “cultural lag” in Western nations once shaped by Christian truth can lead someone like Dawkins to devote his life to attacking the very foundation of the benefits and freedoms he enjoys. As such, he (and others like him) simply hasten the day in which their own worst societal nightmares come true.

To those who seek to retain and extend the Christian shaping of their laws and society the strange case of Richard Dawkins should serve as a reminder that, while cultural Christianity is a good thing, it is also unsustainable in the long term without genuine spiritual renewal in society. The cultural lag between the widespread abandonment of genuine Christian belief and the full societal implications of that abandonment can easily deceive Christians, just as it has deceived Dawkins, into thinking otherwise.

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Ben C. Dunson is Founding and Contributing Editor of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.

5 thoughts on “Richard Dawkins’ Cultural Christianity

  1. Thank you Ben. This interdependence of a fading biblical worldview and its cultural outworkings is mostly overlooked in the general media and it’s great to see your article(s) addressing it.

  2. When religiously conservative Christianity claims credit for all of the attributes that make the West attractive, it is like when Trump claims that only he can fix this mess: it is as delusional as it is false.

    What is odd is that Richard Dawkins is old enough to know how religiously conservative Christianity regarded women and homosexuals during our nation’s Christendom faze. In fact, many of my fellow religiously conservative Christians from the past believed in white supremacy from the days when settlers came up through at least the 1970s. Notable theologians such as Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge, and J. Gresham Machen believed that blacks were inferior to whites. There are even articles on this website that call for a return of WASP dominance.

    In terms of homosexuals and women, the former were treated as perverts and criminals and the latter were treated as dependents because of their inferiority during Christendom. And again, we can go to former prominent Reformed leaders to hear defenses given for both beliefs. And when we look at today, many of my fellow religiously conservative Christians want a SCOTUS reversal of Obergefell as well as at least a social marginalization of homosexuals.

    And so what Dawkins might be conflating to liberalism is not Christianity in general, but the kind of Christianity that comes from liberal theology. And right there is the shame on us religiously conservative Christians because it is an example of the latter part of Romans 2.

    There are other things to comment on, but we should note that Islam is not fairly represented in the above article. Not that there are no problems with islam when it is fairly represented. But Islam itself is a religion that revolves around justice. It is a political religion that found the avarice of the wealthy repulsive and the exploitation of those from the lower classes by the wealthy to be criminal. There are facets of Islam that neither progressives nor conservatives should ever accept. But there are also lessons from Islam that we would do well to learn. And we should read most of or the whole Koran ourselves to see what it says while looking at the context of each section. it is a better way to learn about islam rather than to rely on analyses of Islam by its antagonists. We need to read the Koran to better understand the growing number of Americans who are Muslims.

      1. Mike,
        Why do you respond to the articles here and to my comment? Is it to draw attention to your book that is on your website?

        I read the material here because the people who write articles for here are fellow believers in Christ who have different views. I agree with a few of those views, but I also disagree with most of them.

        It is important that we as Christians and as Americans not just expose ourselves to different views, but to interact with them as well. Such interaction is at the heart of democracy. To avoid such exposure and interaction is to isolate oneself and promote an ideological ghetto mentality.

        So why did you respond to my comment? If you so disagree with me, address the points I make. Discuss why you think I am wrong instead of making accusations you can’t prove. After all, a person who writes a book on how Trump is so good for the nation should be able to point out flaws in my comments.

  3. Good Morning!

    Richard, you are to be congratulated for at least two reasons! First, for your bravery in admitting to being a ‘cultural Christian’, particluarly in view of the cryptic subtitle of Ben’s article: “Or: Sawing off the branch that holds you up”. Wow!

    Second, Richard, what you have seen in Christians where you live is similar to what the non-Christians saw as the ‘followers of the way’ (the name by which Christians were known before being given this latter name) came to their respective locales. The arrivals of the Christians was related to their dispersion, mitivated by the persecution they were facing.

    The continuing exposure the non-Christians experienced caused them to become more and more aware of the Christians’ lifestyle realities (and thus the differences between their own lifestyles and those of their new neighbors). No doubt these non-Christians, like yourself, began to imbrace at least some of these differences, ultimately to the point that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire and beyond.

    No doubt, also, this broad based, formal affirmation has influenced the cultural and legal underpinnings that Ben describes.

    One last thought regarding culture that pertains to you and your professional life: the field of cultural anthropology tells us that of the cultures formally studied so far, all have a creation story.

    I hop you will become more and more familiar with the culture of the followers of the way!


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