Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Richard Dawkins’s ‘Cultural Christianity’ Is Thin Gruel

There is no such thing as cultural Christianity without Christians.


The famed atheist Richard Dawkins is now calling himself a “cultural Christian.” That he would like to claim the culture of Christianity for himself while rejecting its theological tenets is not surprising. What is surprising is his honesty.

In an interview with the British network LBC on Easter Sunday, the New Atheist and author of The God Delusion announced, “I find that I like to live in a culturally Christian country, even though I do not believe a single word of the Christian faith.” Calling himself a cultural Christian means he can appreciate Christmas carols and cathedrals without worshiping Christ, the evolutionary biologist said. While Dawkins is still “happy” to see the number of Christians in the West declining, he spoke concernedly about losing Christian parishes to the thousands of new Islamic mosques being built across Great Britain. He reasoned that this is because Christianity is a “fundamentally decent religion,” unlike that alternative; indeed, Dawkins called the substitution of any alternative religion for Christianity “truly dreadful.”


What Dawkins is describing is what American liberalism has been attempting to actualize for decades: beautiful churches and traditions, absent the beatific vision of Christ made known to man. Standing apart from all this striving is the very important question whether such a thing—religion without religious adherents, church without God—can even exist, or would make any sense if it did. The mosques taking over Europe indicate the answer: When Christ is marched out of the church, the cathedrals may remain standing, but other religions will march in. 

The idea of a neutered Christianity is tantalizing to an ideology that makes equality its cornerstone. The liberal worldview cannot allow for Christianity as it is, claiming superiority over all other religions and worldly regimes, but if perhaps that troublesome part could be cut out, and the consequences of sin forgotten, the remains could be something beautiful and harmless, or so the thought experiment goes. This is more than mere idea: The mainline Protestant denominations in America have gone to great lengths to liberalize the American church, and quite successfully so. In most major cities, the grand historic parishes belonging to the Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian (PCUSA), and Unitarian denominations fly the rainbow flag to signal that “all are welcome,” even people their churches once excommunicated for living in unrepentant sin. 

The doctrines of Christianity have been purged to fit the new sexual mores of our day. The PCUSA has been ordaining female pastors for nearly 70 years, in direct contradiction of the holy scriptures it claims to represent, for the sake of obedience to the god of gender equality. But it is the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., Episcopalian in denomination, that demonstrates the greatest zeal. The church lists among its core values a commitment to “God’s gift of self-determination and democratic ideals.”

Strange: Neutered Christianity does not look much like Christianity at all. In fact, its shape is much more like some new religion, with acolytes stumbling over themselves to demonstrate their commitment to the solemn new doctrines ranging from sexual libertinism to that wonderful catch-all, “democratic ideals.” The high holy days of the old church have been smothered over by those of the new church: If Eastertide and Transgender Day of Visibility fall on the same day, the Christian holiday must submit to the sexual. The only possible consequence of taking Christ out of the church is that new gods will come to fill the void. Humans are by their nature religious. 

Dawkins is right to recognize that it is better to belong to a Christian nation than to any other sort of nation. Indeed, much of his own worldview, whether or not he knows it, is borrowed from Christendom. It is not just cultural edifices like hymns and parishes, but the very systems of science Dawkins employs that were built by Christians, not to mention our legal and judicial heritage. These are not doctrines of the church, but they are the fruits of a people that once sought to live in accordance with nature and nature’s God. Where Dawkins goes wrong is in imagining he can remove Christ and still have the effects of Christianity. The faithful have left the mainline denominations already, and their buildings have been blasphemously desecrated; as they continue to be chased from the public square (Christianity is now apparently synonymous with white ethno-nationalism, the worst of all bogeymen), so too will Christian virtue. More violent crime, theft, drug use, suicide, broken families, and other social ills are downstream of this change, as Dawkins himself seems to be subconsciously aware. 

The UK, like America, was once a Christian nation, but it will not remain so without Christians. Beauty, it turns out, cannot be found apart from holiness. The dampness in our eyes at “Ah, Holy Jesus” is not caused by meditating on suffering in the abstract, but on the very particular suffering of a very particular man. Absent that man, the whole thing is meaningless. 

Dawkins himself has long rejected any claims to religious neutrality, frequently mocking Christians. In The God Delusion, he argued against all forms of religion as dangerous, divisive, and just plain illogical. At a 2012 rally of some 20,000 atheists and agnostics in Washington, DC, Dawkins derided Christians who believe in Christ’s real presence at the communion table. “Religion makes specific claims about the universe which need to be substantiated, and need to be challenged—and if necessary, need to be ridiculed with contempt,” he told a cheering crowd on the National Mall. Moments later he added, “Mock them! Ridicule them! In public!” 

Having actively persecuted the church, Dawkins finds he is sad to see it go. We cannot pretend this is anyone’s fault but his own, and that of his compatriots who have crusaded against religion as the root of all social ills. Nevertheless, some of the church’s greatest apologists have come from its worst former persecutors. May the same be true of Dawkins.