Are Atheists Cultural Christians

Posted: Jan 06, 2008 12:00 AM
Are Atheists Cultural Christians

Asked by a British member of Parliament if he is one of those atheists who wants to get rid of Christian symbols especially during the Christmas season, atheist Richard Dawkins replied that he is not. Dawkins said that he himself sings Christmas carols and that he considers himself a “cultural Christian.” Just as many Jews regard themselves as Jewish, defend Jewish interests and cherish Jewish culture while not participating in Jewish religious rituals, Dawkins says that he respects the fact that the history and traditions of the West are shaped by Christianity. Dawkins says he's not one of those who wants to purge the West of its Christian traditions. The main threat to Christian symbols, Dawkins argues, does not come from atheists like him but rather from Muslims and members of other faiths.

Now this is quite remarkable. In The God Delusion, Dawkins portrayed the Christian God as a wicked, avaricious, capricious, genocidal maniac. Dawkins even blasted Jesus for such offenses as speaking harshly to his mother. Yet if the Jewish and Christian God was such a monster, what sense does it make for Dawkins to embrace the cultural influence of that deity? It would be like someone saying, "Hitler was a murderous maniac, but I am a cultural Nazi. No, I don't embrace the specifics of Nazi doctrine, but I appreciate what fascism has done to shape German culture. Let's give up the specifics of the Hitler program, but let's also keep Nazi culture along with the fuhrer's imagery on our coins and monuments."

Dawkins is not an unintelligent man, so what's going on here? One possibility is that Dawkins now recognizes that today's atheists who want to get rid of Christian symbols are just as intolerant as Christians who in the pst sought to deny atheists a voice in the public arena. So Dawkins' statement can be read as a critique of intolerance and political correctness.

A second possibility is that Dawkins now sees the Muslim threat to the West--and especially European culture--as more serious than the prospect of a second Christian Inquisition, so he has decided to ally with the Christians against the Islamic radicals. Other atheists like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens are now admitting that atheist attempts to equate Islamic extremism with Christianity are bogus. The real threat doesn't come from Presbyterianism or Anglicanism but from a radical Islam that wants to obliterate Western civilization.

I suspect that these two factors may have played a role, but the main reason for Dawkins' remarkable self-identification as a cultural Christian is that he has slowly come to realize that even the values that he cherishes--values such as individual dignity, science as an autonomous enterprise, the equal dignity of women, the abolition of slavery, and compassion as a social virtue--came into the West because of Christianity. I have been hammering this point in my debates with leading atheists, and it's possible that one of the Oxford historians came up to Dawkins and said, to his horror, "You know, Richard, that D'Souza chap has a point."

Okay, so let's give this biologist credit for learning a little history. Still, the deeper question remains. If the God of the Old and New Testaments is such a bad character, how come his cultural influence is so positive? Absent a good answer to this question, we must reconsider the premise: perhaps the God of the Old and New Testaments is not the evil figure portrayed in atheist propaganda. On the contrary, perhaps all our Western notions of good and bad derive from no source other than this Christian God. This certainly was Nietzsche's view, and he knew a lot more about the subject than Richard Dawkins.

Wouldn't it be interesting if Dawkins continues his intellectual growth and reverses his old misunderstandings? The first step for him would be to imitate the example of “cultural Jews.” Cultural Jews may not accept the Yahweh of the Old Testament. But they do tend to champion Jewish culture and defend Jewish interests, such as Israel. In a similar vein Dawkins can reject Christian theology while defending the political and cultural influence of Christianity. He can rebuke ACLU lawyers, for example, who are trying to eradicate all vestiges of Christianity from the public square. Perhaps eventually Dawkins will even reissue his book: Overcoming My Delusions: Confessions of a Cultural Christian.