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Poor Richard’s Christianity

Mere cultural Christianity will not protect the society a famous atheist says he values

Richard Dawkins atttends the Blue Dot Festival in Manchester, England, on July 21, 2018. Andrew Benge/Getty Images

Poor Richard’s Christianity
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Breaking news: Area Englishman announces he enjoys eating but is still glad that all the farms and gardens are dying. Oh wait, actually it’s Richard Dawkins, explaining that he considers himself a “cultural Christian,” even though he’s glad that fewer and fewer Westerners consider themselves “believing Christians.” In the full interview, he expresses shock and dismay at the display of a Ramadan message at the terminus in London’s King’s Cross station. Christianity as a belief system may still be “all nonsense,” but if it’s between a Muslim culture and a Christian culture, Dawkins says he will vote “team Christian” every time.

This isn’t exactly a new sentiment for the former New Atheist rock star. Some of us remember the small tweetstorm he impishly ignited back in 2018, when he said he much preferred the lovely bells of Winchester Cathedral to the “aggressive-sounding” cry of “Allahu Akbar!” His love for the King James Bible is also well known—though he once urged his atheist friends to make sure “religion” isn’t allowed to “hijack” that great “cultural resource.” One wonders exactly what kind of “resource” Dawkins thinks the Bible is. A collection of aphorisms? Ten rules for life? The best fairy tales ever? 

Whatever it is, Dawkins thinks it’s sort of, well, nice, and he thinks Christianity is “a fundamentally decent religion” by comparison with Islam. Naturally, these warm feelings still emphatically don’t extend to “fundamentalists,” especially on our side of the pond, where large voting blocs of us still harbor deranged ideas about evolution, abortion, and the role of women in the Church. But as Dawkins once explained on a podcast, he has no problem shaking hands with “good Christians.”

Dawkins’ conundrum, of course, is that all the nice culturally Christian things he enjoys have been brought to him courtesy of “bad” Christians—those dreaded orthodox types who actually took the Bible seriously when it said, for instance, that man is made in the image of God. Dawkins likes the idea of human rights, but he has also decried “speciesism,” which leads him to conclude some humans (like the unborn or the mentally disabled) have fewer rights than others. But why stop there? Why assume Richard Dawkins has any rights?

Dawkins remains ever the evangelist, anxious to make sure that the “brights” in his orbit haven’t strayed from the gospel of atheism.

The impotence of mere “cultural Christianity” is especially evident in a dialogue Dawkins recently pulled out of the archives for his YouTube channel, where he engaged with former Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway. A charming preacher and author of many books, Holloway was defrocked after admitting he rejected basic doctrinal and moral tenets of the Christian faith. He identifies as a “recovering Christian” who still generally considers himself part of the Christian “family,” with a lingering admiration for “the Jesus of history,” as carefully distinguished from “the Christ of faith.” He’s also more willing than Dawkins to let people believe what they like if it gets them through the night. But on stage, discussing things reasonably, the two Richards are like two peas in a pod.

However, the future of Britain, Europe, and the rest of the West is not up to Richard and Richard. The choice is not between fundamentalist Islam and Anglican atheism. It is between fundamentalist Islam and authentic Christianity. Recently, British evangelical broadcaster Justin Brierley thanked his listeners for putting his new longform podcast at No. 1 on the U.K. podcast charts in the “Religion & Spirituality” category. Second and third places are both taken by Muslim podcasts. The choice is clear.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has, in her own way, chosen Christianity, writing that she sees it as a “bulwark” against the rising tide of radical Islam. But unlike Dawkins, she also seems to have experienced a crisis that made Christianity resonate with her personally. For her, it’s possible that faith is more than merely “cultural.” This bothers Dawkins, who has written not just one but two blogs trying to probe and parse his old friend’s new faith. Dawkins remains ever the evangelist, anxious to make sure that the “brights” in his orbit haven’t strayed from the gospel of atheism. Like a street preacher, he can’t even help himself with strangers. In this latest interview clip, he pauses to put his interviewer on the spot when she admits she was impressed by a visit to Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre. That’s well and good, Dawkins says, but of course she doesn’t think Jesus really rose from the dead or anything … does she?

Dawkins’ late colleague Christopher Hitchens once famously confessed to Doug Wilson that he’d told Dawkins if he had the power to eradicate true Christian faith once and for all, and he found himself face to face with the last true Christian on earth, he would falter. He couldn’t finish the job. “Why?” Dawkins had asked, incredulous. Hitchens couldn’t quite say. Perhaps, though Hitchens would never admit it, it was because a small part of him half-wondered whether he might be wrong.

Richard Dawkins might not wonder even for a second whether he’s wrong. But if he doesn’t like what’s coming once true Christianity leaves the station, he’d better hope he is.

Bethel McGrew

Bethel McGrew is a math Ph.D. and widely published freelance writer. Her work has appeared in First Things, National Review, The Spectator, and many other national and international outlets. Her Substack, Further Up, is one of the top paid newsletters in “Faith & Spirituality” on the platform. She has also contributed to two essay anthologies on Jordan Peterson. When not writing social criticism, she enjoys writing about literature, film, music, and history.


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