Also Available in:

Richard Dawkins claims to be a cultural Christian

Wikipedia CCA 2.0, Steve Jurvetson.Richard-Dawkins-CFI
Richard Dawkins in 2022

by Andrew Sibley

Media reports have recently highlighted Richard Dawkins’ comments that he considers himself to be a cultural Christian.1 This was in a London Broadcasting Company (LBC) radio interview over the Easter weekend (1 April 2024), with Rachel Johnson, sister of former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Good news you may think, but it doesn’t mean that he has given up on his belief in atheism and evolution, or his attacks on biblical creationism which he referred to as “pernicious nonsense” in the interview. It is of course good that he has moved to find Christianity appealing culturally, but what about the deeper reality of faith, and what does it mean to be a cultural Christian?

Dawkins and Cultural Christianity

He has in fact been making such statements about cultural Christianity since at least 2007, commenting that he enjoys singing Christmas carols, and other traditions of the faith. He stated that:

“I’m not one of those who wants to stop Christian traditions. This is historically a Christian country. I’m a cultural Christian … So, yes, I like singing carols along with everybody else. I’m not one of those who wants to purge our society of our Christian history.”2

In January 2024, Dawkins gave some more insight into his thinking, specifically in relation to the conversion to Christianity of former Muslim, and ex-atheist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. He expressed the view that Christianity was a defence against the rise of Islam.

“I asked her [Ayaan Hirsi Ali] whether she really believes in fundamental Christian tenets such as the afterlife, Jesus’s resurrection and his parthenogenetic provenance. She doesn’t. I got the strong impression her Christianity is a matter of politics more than belief. Christianity is our best bulwark against Islam. Well, if rooting for benevolent Christianity in preference to malign Islam is all it takes to be a Christian, I’m a Christian too.”3

In the interview over Easter 2024 (1 April 2024), Dawkins says that Christianity is a “fundamentally decent religion”, and that:

“I feel at home in the Christian ethos … and I’m happy with that. But I would not be happy if we lost all our cathedrals and our beautiful parish churches. So I count myself a cultural Christian.”

But he still says that actual belief in the virgin birth and the resurrection are “nonsense”. There are admittedly some Christians who struggle with these beliefs, but ridiculing the faith as Dawkins continues to do is another matter entirely.

Richard Dawkins considers himself to be a cultural Christian. Is he searching for faith?

The fruit of Dawkins’ godlessness

Dawkins’ earlier statements suggest a lack of clarity in his worldview thinking, and it was not clear that Dawkins was still holding to Christian faith values at all. In River out of Eden (1995) he wrote with a sense of nihilism:

“The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”4

Such nihilistic statements encourage the rise of godlessness; or belief in the ‘death of God’ as Nietzsche put it. Nihilism opens up society to anarchy and violence, and the undermining of cultural values and institutions. With the loss of Christian faith and values a power struggle arises that risks merciless and brutal regimes taking control of society. In the 1930s in Germany, it was the rise of fascism and belief in racial purity which followed from the hollowing out of Christianity; for Dawkins, he is fearful of militant Islam. Is he going to repent for writing his former books because he now sees the danger?

His statements here do not reflect the Christian belief that the universe is not indifferent; that divine love, design, purpose and goodness are real. There is at least a measure of good in Dawkins’ affirmation that Christianity leads to benefit for society in terms of cultural outcomes, but his own thinking seems muddled. One cannot say they value the benefit of Christian culture, and at the same time work to undermine it by calling the belief nonsense. Dawkins is working to cut down a tree, while also wishing to sit in its shade and enjoy its fruits.

Is it possible to be only a cultural Christian?

The short answer is no. The type of Christianity that shaped Western culture required real commitment to the faith by many saints. A weak, woolly belief that goes with the flow is of no use to hold society together and cannot shape anything, although it is perhaps mirrored in the thinking of some church leaders today. As Theo Hobson pointed out, “The distinction between a believing Christian and a cultural Christian is dubious, because religion is culture.”1 Dawkins says that he loves to sing hymns and carols, but these were written by people who truly believed what they were composing. The same with the churches and cathedrals, they were funded and built by committed people.

In truth, the scriptural accounts of Jesus Christ call us to make a real commitment, not just pay lip service to a belief and culture that one may find more pleasing than the alternatives. The Messiah has been given anointed authority over all people and nations. But Christ is one who rules in humility. He is King of kings and Son of God, born of a virgin and the one who died in our place for our sins. He then rose from the dead, and now is enthroned in the heavens.

Pray for him

Before we write off Dawkins entirely, Christians should pray for him, that he will have a real epiphany and come to faith in Christ. Other notable Christians came to faith in remarkable ways: St Paul on the road to Damascus while persecuting the church, and St Augustine and C.S. Lewis both felt drawn rather reluctantly to Christianity. 

Published: 11 April 2024

References and notes

  1. Hobson, T., Is Richard Dawkins a Christian? spectator.co.uk, 2 April 2024. Return to text.
  2. BBC News, Dawkins: I’m a Cultural Christian, news.bbc.co.uk, 10 December 2007. Return to text.
  3. Dawkins, R., This week’s diary, spectator.co.uk, 27 January 2024. Return to text.
  4. Dawkins, R., River out of Eden, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, p. 133, 1995. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

The Greatest Hoax on Earth?
by Dr Jonathan Sarfati
US $16.00
Soft cover