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Sorry, but Christianity must be more than just cultural


IN 2007, the four men who came to be recognised as the leaders of New Atheism – Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens – met at Hitchens’s apartment in Washington DC to affirm their alliance and explore together the nature of their respective anti-theisms. Hitchens, ever the contrarian, voiced two heretical views at the meeting: first, that as religion is so deeply engrained in humans due to their evolutionary trajectory, it is unlikely that it will disappear; two, that it is undesirable that religion should disappear since arguing with religious people sharpens sceptics’ polemical skills. Hitchens later stated to Doug Wilson, his debating partner on the ‘God is not Great’ book tour, that for the rest of his life he would never forget the look of hostile incredulity on Dawkins’s face when he said those two things.

Yet Dawkins, despite his trenchant desire to see society thoroughly secularised, has expressed at times a fondness for certain aspects of Christianity. He has extolled the literary genius of the King James Bible, expressed a liking for Christmas carols and church bells, and when asked whether there was any kind of religion he can tolerate, his answer was a very mild Anglicanism. Dawkins therefore is a cultural Christian.

As Laura Perrins wrote in TCW last week, he called himself such in a recent interview with LBC’s Rachael Johnson with the emphasis firmly upon the word cultural, for Dawkins is ‘happy’ that ‘the number of people who actually believe in Christianity is going down’ but would ‘not be happy’ if ‘we lost all our cathedrals and our beautiful parish churches’.

As Esme Partridge has observed, Dawkins is a contemporary version of the liberal Enlightenment philosophers John Locke and Baron de Montesquieu. Locke called religious beliefs superstitions, but his political philosophy rested on Christian ethics. So confident was Locke in the power of Christian morality that he believed people would adhere to it even when there was no religious order to sustain it. Like Dawkins, Montesquieu ridiculed religious beliefs but recognised the debt Western civilisation owed to the way Christianity had shaped political law and the conduct of war. As Dawkins does in his LBC interview, Montesquieu contrasted Islam unfavourably with Christianity, writing that Mahommedan princes were crueller in their punishments than Christian rulers. For Montesquieu as for Locke, Christian morals are so fundamentally decent that they will survive even when the metaphysical beliefs which underpin them have disappeared.  

Yet Locke, Montesquieu and now Dawkins are naïve. As American journalist Rod Dreher observes, their view is that of someone who ‘greatly enjoys eating but is also glad that farms in his country are closing and that gardens are not being planted’. By denying the truth of Christianity’s metaphysical beliefs, such as the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, Dawkins et al are cutting away the authoritative source that sustains Christian culture. 

The thinker who most perceptively saw this was Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), whose anti-theist and anti-Christian philosophy did not stop him from issuing the warning around 130 years ago that the death of belief in the Christian God would destroy Christian morality and a new morality would have to emerge. Nietzsche saw rightly that Christianity is a system, a complete worldview, whose leading concept is belief in God; if that is removed from it, the whole belief-system, including its moral code, is destroyed. As Christianity presupposes that humans can know what is right and wrong only because of what God tells them, Christian morality is therefore a divine command that is beyond criticism. Thus, if belief in God falls, so too does the authority on which Christian morality is founded.

The history of ideas proves Nietzsche right. All worldviews and belief systems rest on the faith in something that is transcendent, whether that transcendence is God or some kind of overarching, history-shaping force. When the French revolutionaries of 1789 suppressed Catholicism, they replaced the Christian God with the cult of Reason. The two dominant secular worldviews of our age, liberalism and Marxism, also illustrate this point well. Liberalism has Christian roots and in its secular form places its faith in progress and rests on the moral objectivity of human rights and the metaphysics of free will. Marxism depends on belief in the inevitability of conflict between the classes and a faith that at the end of history, the proletariat will rise triumphantly from its struggle with bourgeois capitalism and create a class-free paradise. Marxism, for all its dialectical materialism, has the shape of Judaeo-Christian teleology.   

Contemporary commentators more percipient than Dawkins are very aware that we are now in the moral crisis Nietzsche prophesied. The popular historian Tom Holland, in his recent discussion with Christian journalist Justin Brierley for the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity (LICC), mulled over what moral options civilisation has now that Christian belief is waning. He sees three possible paths but does not discount the idea that there are more. The first is that the West will continue to go down the path of ‘progressive’ ideology and identity politics, which is born of Christian concern for the weak such as minorities and the equality of all people, but which has become unchristian, particularly in its unforgiving methodology of ‘cancel culture’. The second path is the resurrection of ideas that Christianity has long suppressed such as the Greco-Roman world’s mores of civilian massacres in war, the male sexual domination of women and slavery. Finally, Holland envisages that due to the fear that Christian morality will give way to Wokery or ancient morality, people will once more accord respect to Christianity.  

It is the third path that Justin Brierley, Holland’s interlocutor at the LICC conference, believes is happening. In his recent book, The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God, Brierley presents evidence that influential public voices, such as Holland, Douglas Murray, Jordan Peterson and Louise Perry, are recognising Christianity’s value as the cultural force that has given the West its liberal (in the old-fashioned sense) democratic values. This, Brierley believes in his bolder moments, may even portend a resurrection of belief in Christian metaphysics such as the Incarnation and the Resurrection of Christ.

Without the unifying and stabilising effect of Christian belief, the West is fracturing into a chaos of self-interested ideologies which is delighting its enemies, namely China and Russia, whose subversion of Western culture through social media has helped this process. If that sounds far-fetched, look at the US which is more divided than it has ever been culturally and politically since the Civil War. It is not enough to defend those Christian-based moral values we all value such as equality before the law, women’s rights and free speech by calling ourselves cultural Christians. As Nietzsche recognised, without its theological convictions, Christian morality is dead. Let us hope and yes, even pray, that Brierley’s instincts about a Christian revival are right, otherwise as Nietzsche described in his Parable of the Madman, our civilisation without God, like a planet cut loose from the sun, will have no direction. Then it will fall, pell-mell, into anarchy or dictatorship.      

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