Atheism and Cultural Christianity

By Paul M. Gould





The notorious atheist Richard Dawkins has been making the rounds recently with his comment that he is a cultural Christian. By this, he means that he would rather live in a culture that is grounded in Christian beliefs than one that is not. He feels “at home” in such a culture. He finds the kinds of cultural practices, including the Christian holidays, that have become part of the cultural heritage gifted to us by Christianity attractive. But Dawkins quickly reminds us that he doesn’t believe Christianity is true. To believe in the virgin birth or the resurrection of the dead is nonsense, obviously false gibberish that could not be the case. Miracles are impossible (on naturalism). So, what we have then is a kind of religious atheism. Richard Dawkins wants the benefit of Christianity without believing in Christianity itself.

How are we to think about such claims? I see at least one good thing and one bad thing in such comments. Let’s break this down.

First, there are two basic objections to Christianity. Some argue that Christianity is unreasonable. Some argue that Christianity is undesirable. And some argue that Christianity is both unreasonable and undesirable. I would have thought Dawkins is in the third category, arguing that Christianity is both unreasonable and undesirable, especially given things he said in his 2006 book, The God Delusion. There he argued that religion is both irrational and harmful, and Christianity seemed to be lumped in with all the other religions. Now it seems that Dawkins thinks differently, at least concerning Christianity. Christianity is good, even if unreasonable! This, I think, is an advance. He believes Christianity is good and beautiful, just not true. I’m reminded of Blaise Pascal’s famous prescription on how to go about making the case for Christianity. He writes,

Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is.[1]

Pascal suggests that in making the case for Christianity, we first show that Christianity is reasonable, then desirable, and then true. I think, especially today, in an age driven more by felt needs, emotion, desire, and the aesthetic dimensions of life, Pascal’s tight ordering can and should be loosened. We need to show that Christianity is both reasonable and desirable, but for many, seeing the goodness and beauty of Christianity might be a helpful entry point into taking seriously the Christian faith. In this way, I see it as a positive development that Richard Dawkins, the arch-nemesis of religion in general and Christianity in particular, is now saying that Christianity is good and beautiful. If he sees the good of Christianity, perhaps others, including the many who have read his screeds against religion, will be willing to consider afresh the claims of Jesus and the gospel.

Second, it is important to remember that we cannot separate goodness and truth. In the end, goodness and truth are tightly allied. Dawkins thinks Christianity is good and good for the world. At some point, we might hope, he might ask himself how it can be the case that something he thinks so obviously false can be so good for the world. To say of some religion or worldview that it is good is to say it is objectively valuable. If we removed Christianity from our world, something of value would be lost (according to Dawkins). But, as I’m sure others have pointed out, this idea—the idea of objective value—is inconsistent with Dawkins’s naturalism. He is on record in many places saying, in effect, that given naturalism (his particular version of naturalism is reductive materialism) there is no such thing as objective goodness. So, what we have then is an inconsistency in Dawkins’s position. It is unstable. He wants the goodness of Christianity and the truth of naturalism. But that position cannot be consistently held. This is a problem, of course, but also an opportunity. We need to press Dawkins and others who think that cultural Christianity is a viable “destination.” It is not. C. S. Lewis reminds us that we must always keep before others the question of truth. Speaking to a group of Anglican priests and lay leaders in 1945, Lewis argued:

One of the great difficulties is to keep before the audience’s mind the question of Truth. They always think you are recommending Christianity not because it is true but because it is good. And in the discussion they will at every moment try to escape from the issue ‘True—or False’ into stuff about good society, or morals, or the incomes of Bishops, or the Spanish Inquisition, or France, or Poland—or anything whatever. You have to keep forcing them back, and again back, to the real point. Only thus will you be able to undermine [their] belief that a certain amount of ‘religion’ is desirable but one mustn’t carry it too far. One must keep on pointing out that Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and if true of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.[2]

Lewis is right, of course. Belief in the goodness or desirability of Christianity is not enough. We have to force others back, and back again, to the question of reasonableness and ultimately truth. Christianity is good, and good for the world because it is true. If it were not true, it wouldn’t be good for anyone since being rightly related to reality—truth—and being good are tightly connected.

Thus, if cultural Christianity is viewed as a kind of destination or stopping point on the journey of discovery, then it represents a dead-end. It is another false re-enchantment. But, if we think of cultural Christianity in terms of a possible “way station,” a temporary stopping place for many on the way to faith, then I see it as a positive development. So, like many things in culture, there is something good and something bad about the idea of cultural Christianity. It is bad if someone takes this as a settled and coherent position. It is good, of course, if it stirs others to consider afresh the question of Christianity and its relation to truth. We can only hope that the latter is the case. In our case-making may we redouble our efforts to show others both the desirability and reasonability of the Christian faith.[3]


[1] Blaise Pascal, Pensees, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (London: Penguin, 1995), 4.

[2] C. S. Lewis, “Christian Apologetics,” in God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 101.

[3] For more on showing the reasonableness and desirability of Christianity, see my book Cultural Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019).

— Paul M. Gould is an Associate Professor of Philosophy of Religion and Director of the M.A. Philosophy of Religion program at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He is the author or editor of ten scholarly and popular-level books including A Good and True StoryCultural ApologeticsPhilosophy: A Christian Introduction, and The Story of the Cosmos. He has been a visiting scholar at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School’s Henry Center, working on the intersection of science and faith, and is the founder and president of the Two Tasks Institute. You can find out more about Dr. Gould and his work at Paul and the Two Tasks Institute. He is married to Ethel and has four children.