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“A fundamentally decent religion”

Atheists and agnostics begin to find value in cultural Christianity, but only authentic Christianity will save

Richard Dawkins speaks at CSICon 2022 in Las Vegas, Nev. Wikimedia Commons/Photo by Karl Withakay

“A fundamentally decent religion”
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In 2013, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins announced that teaching children about hell was tantamount to abuse. In 2015, the author of The God Delusion elaborated further, telling the Irish Times that children needed to be “protected” from the religious beliefs of their parents and that we must “write off” those who believed in Scripture. It was a grotesque but unsurprising suggestion from a man who had spent years attacking Christianity.

Less than a decade later in 2024, Richard Dawkins has changed his tune. He still clearly despises the truths of Christianity, but he has abandoned his characteristic contempt and now calls himself “a cultural Chrisitan.” How has this evolution come about?

Dawkins became an atheist culture warrior in the years following 9/11, when the New Atheist movement emerged in the wake of Islamist terror and the sex scandals wracking the Roman Catholic Church. The most prominent of these atheist polemicists were the men dubbed the movement’s “Four Horsemen”: philosopher Daniel Dennett, journalist Christopher Hitchens, neuroscientist Sam Harris, and Dawkins himself. Each published bestselling books attacking God and religion that were briefly but wildly popular.

The New Atheist movement has since spectacularly collapsed and Justin Brierly describes its demise in his fascinating new book, The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God. Hitchens and Dennett have died, and Harris has turned to writing and podcasting on other topics. Indeed, the rise of wokeness, the all-encompassing digital age, and the decline of Western power have forced many atheists to admit that Christianity will not, as it turns out, be replaced by the rationalist regimes they dreamed of. The West is gripped by a crisis of meaning—and atheists have nothing to offer.

Dawkins himself has been forced to confront this fact, and he appears to have realized of late that the society he cherishes—one in which freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and other principles he apparently chalked up to the evolutionary process, are the rule—may not be possible in the anti-Christian culture he once strove so hard to bring about. In 2018, a mere three years after he suggested that children needed to be “protected” from Christianity, he tweeted out a Guardian article on “the rise of a non-Christian Europe” with the caption: 

Before we rejoice at the death throes of the relatively benign Christian religion, let’s not forget Hilaire Belloc’s menacing rhyme: “Always keep a-hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse.”

In 2019, Dawkins went even further. In an interview with the Times, he stated that eradicating Christianity—once his fervent goal—was, in fact, a terrible idea, because “people may feel free to do bad things because they feel God is no longer watching them.” This obvious fact appeared to have just occurred to him. In a book published that year titled Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide, he reiterated the point that belief in God might prevent people from doing terrible things. Perhaps he’d read a book about the Soviet Union, or Mao’s Cultural Revolution—or perhaps he noted the pseudo-religious zeal of the Western woke revolutionaries with concern.

Dawkins soon experienced the righteous wrath of the woke himself. In 2021, The American Humanist Association revoked his “Humanist of the Year” honour, claiming that his posts questioning some premises of transgender ideology were “antithetical to humanist values” and that the comments used “the guise of scientific discourse” to “demean marginalized groups.” The New Atheist movement believed they could midwife an enlightened society; they got cancel culture, instead.

In an interview on March 31, 2024, the evolution of Richard Dawkins continued. “I do think we are culturally a Christian country,” he said. “I call myself a cultural Christian. I’m not a believer, but there’s a distinction between being a believing Christian and being a cultural Chrisitan, and so, you know, I love hymns and Christmas carols and I sort of feel at home in the Christian ethos, and I feel that we are a Christian country in that sense. It’s true that statistically, the number of people who believe in Christianity is going down, and I’m happy with that.”

“But I would not be happy if, for example, we lost all our cathedrals and our beautiful parish churches,” he added. “So I count myself a cultural Chrisitan. Certainly, if we substitute any alternative religion, that would be truly dreadful.” Unlike Islam, he mused, Christianity “seems to me to be a fundamentally decent religion.” Perhaps this series of epiphanies will result in Dawkins realizing that, as Ben Sixsmith observed recently in The Critic, a culturally Christian society will inevitably die if nobody believes in Christ.

Richard Dawkins and his fellow atheists spent years sawing lustily away at the branch they were sitting on. Many prominent atheist intellectuals have since begun to have second thoughts. Niall Ferguson has urged people to go back to church. Ayaan Hirsi Ali has declared herself a Christian. Douglas Murray has called himself a “Christian atheist” and Charles Murray, an agnostic, believes that America is in desperate need of another Great Awakening. Many have recognized that the West needs Christianity—even Richard Dawkins. Perhaps his evolution is not yet complete.

Jonathon Van Maren

Jonathon Van Maren is a columnist, a contributing editor with The European Conservative, and a pro-life activist. His most recent book is Prairie Lion: The Life and Times of Ted Byfield.

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