Atheism, Civil Religion, and the Fate of the West

Even Dawkins can see the cultural value of Christianity:

Various Christian commentators have made much of what U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower once said in late 1952 in an off the cuff remark. They claim he was pushing a diluted, generic religion since he spoke of the importance of religious faith in America, going on to say, “and I don’t care what it is.” However, he did immediately say this: “Of course, it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion with all men being created equal.”

Be that as it may, other more secular critics have sought to argue that America’s Founding Fathers were mainly deists. While some, like Jefferson, certainly were, most in fact were biblical Christians of various stripes. I have sought to make that case in various pieces, eg.: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2020/07/04/independence-day-and-the-christian-connection/

But all this raises the issue of civil religion. That term is meant to express a view that religion can be good for society, but a religion largely devoid of any creeds, theological claims, forms of worship, and so on. That is, it has to do with more generic religious sentiments, values and symbols. It is about binding people together, not under strict doctrinal claims, but with broad-reaching symbols, rituals and ceremonies.

Of course the biblical Christian who believes that doctrine most certainly does matter, and that a real Christian is someone who does understand the need for theological boundaries, will not be happy with such a watered-down civil religion.

Just yesterday I wrote about how many public figures and intellectuals in the West of late have come to see the importance of Christianity. Think of folks like Jordan Peterson, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Douglas Murray, Tom Holland and even Russell Brand. Some of them have even said they are now Christians: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2024/04/01/hope-for-the-secular-west/

Of course one always wants to know if they are really promoting civil religion instead of biblical Christianity. When Ali came out recently saying she had converted (first from Islam to atheism, and then from atheism to Christianity), some believers asked if this was just a type of cultural Christianity that she had latched on to.

Richard Dawkins was of course quite struck by Ali’s defection from the atheist camp. And he too may be softening, slightly. In the recent past he and the other new atheists foolishly claimed that all religions are equally bad, with no redeeming features about them.

But the truth is, while they lumped all religions together, misotheists like Dawkins in The God Delusion, or Christopher Hitchens in God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, overwhelmingly singled out Christianity in their attacks. But now Dawkins might be seeing the light – or some of it. Consider this media report:

Pre-eminent atheist Richard Dawkins said on Easter Sunday that he identifies as a “cultural Christian” and that he prefers to live in a country based on Christian principles and would not want the UK to become an Islamic nation. Emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford and God Delusion author Richard Dawkins said that he identifies with Christian society and that he would choose it over other countries based around other faiths, namely Islamic nations.

 

Speaking to LBC Radio’s Rachel Johnson — the sister of former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson — Dawkins said on Sunday that he was “slightly horrified” that Ramadan lights were put up in London instead of Easter ones. “I do think that we are a culturally Christian country, I call myself a cultural Christian. I’m not a believer, but there is a distinction between being a believing Christian and being a cultural Christian. I love hymns and Christmas carols. I sort of feel at home in the Christian ethos. I feel that we are a Christian country.” https://www.breitbart.com/europe/2024/04/01/athiest-richard-dawkins-says-he-would-choose-christianity-over-islam-every-single-time/

What are we to make of this?

Four things can be said about these matters. First, and more specifically, whether someone like Ali has actually become a true Christian, or is still just swimming in the waters of cultural Christianity or civil religion might remain to be seen. I would like to think that she has genuinely embraced the Christian faith, but time will tell, and at the end of the day only God knows the human heart fully to make an accurate assessment on this.

But folks like Dawkins, on the other hand, based on what they have clearly stated, would simply be affirming what this piece is all about: civil religion. He likes what Christianity has done by way of making the West what it is, with all its social goods and values, but he wants nothing to do with the particular and exclusive truth claims of Christianity.

Second, so much of this is quite similar to the error of the older theological liberals. These folks were quite keen on the ethics of Jesus while denying or downplaying the teachings of Jesus. But that effort was always doomed to failure. The truth is, the moral beliefs and values of Jesus are inextricably tied in with his specific teachings.

It does no good to speak about loving God and neighbour when we are simply incapable of doing either. Because we are all sinners fully set on self and hostile to God, unless we first hear and apply the actual gospel message of Jesus – that we are lost and headed to a lost eternity, needing to repent and put our faith in Christ and the work he did at Calvary – we are simply unable to love others as God wants us to. As C. S. Lewis once put it, “We are not merely imperfect creatures who must be improved: we are, as Newman said, rebels who must lay down our arms.” 

We certainly are unable to come even close to the demanding moral imperatives of something like the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5-7). Only the person who has gained new life in Christ and received the indwelling Holy Spirit can begin to start living out what is found on those lofty moral mountain peaks.

So pretending that we can somehow promote and emulate the neat moral teachings of Jesus while divorced from his entire set of teachings – especially that we are sinners who must repent – will get us nowhere in trying in any way to please God. Only the spiritual man, saved by grace, can please God. Otherwise we must accept what Paul taught in Romans 8:8: “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”

Third, and related to this, I do indeed greatly value what Christianity has done for the West. The reason we have such vital social goods like freedom, genuine pluralism, the rule of law, the moral worth of all persons, and genuine tolerance is exactly because the West is overwhelmingly the product of biblical Christianity.

I can readily see why even atheists like Dawkins can give praise to Christianity for all this. These tremendous social goods are nothing to sneeze at. But they did not arise out of nothing. The Judeo-Christian worldview is what made Western civilization, and without it the West would never have come into being.

And do not get me started on the tremendous differences that are found in the teachings and practices of Jesus versus the teachings and practices of Muhammad. It was NOT Islam that gave rise to the West, but Christianity. These differences I have wrote repeatedly on over the years. See just one piece on this: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2019/12/30/muhammad-versus-jesus/

Fourth, while I do greatly value the West and all its goods, and will continue to fight for them, I know that it too, like everything else, must one day come to an end. Sure, it will last longer – or less longer – depending on how we treat that which made it possible: biblical Christianity.

But it cannot live on this borrowed spiritual capital forever. Either it must return to its roots – not just in the form of civil religion, but in the form of faith, repentance and revival – or it will soon be a goner. In this regard the words of T.S. Eliot that I have so often quoted from his 1948 book Christianity and Culture are once again worth sharing here:

It is in Christianity that our arts have developed; it is in Christianity that the laws of Europe have – until recently – been rooted. It is against a background of Christianity that all our thought has significance. An individual European may not believe that the Christian Faith is true, and yet what he says, and makes, and does, will all spring out of his heritage of Christian culture and depend upon that culture for its meaning. Only a Christian culture could have produced a Voltaire or a Nietzsche. I do not believe that the culture of Europe could survive the complete disappearance of the Christian faith. And I am convinced of that, not merely because I am a Christian myself, but as a student of social biology. If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes. Then you must start painfully again, and you cannot put on a new culture ready made. You must wait for the grass to grow to feed the sheep to give the wool out of which your new coat will be made. You must pass through many centuries of barbarism. We should not live to see the new culture, nor would our great-great-great-grandchildren: and if we did, not one of us would be happy in it. To our Christian heritage we owe many things beside religious faith. Through it we trace the evolution of our arts, through it we have our conception of Roman Law which has done so much to shape the Western World, through it we have our conceptions of private and public morality. And through it we have our common standards of literature, in the literature of Greece and Rome. The Western world has its unity in this heritage, in Christianity and in the ancient civilisations of Greece, Rome, and Israel, from which owing to two thousand years of Christianity, we trace our descent.

While some might ask whether Eliot himself is here pushing a form of cultural Christianity, let me say this: I am glad folks like Dawkins are beginning to realise the overwhelming value of Christianity. But that is not enough – more is needed. He, like everyone else, needs to turn from his self-centredness and rebellion and submit to the God who made him. Barring that, he can continue to be moved by ‘hymns and Christmas carols’ but that will be as close as he gets to the God who stands behind all this.

In sum, I daily pray for guys like Dawkins and Ali and Peterson. You should do the same. But it must be kept in mind that it is not civil religion that will save us. Turning to a Christless religion will only hasten our decline. Only as individuals turn to Christ and start living for him can we expect to see any real reprieve from the current gathering gloom in the West.

[1821 words]

5 Replies to “Atheism, Civil Religion, and the Fate of the West”

  1. They want all the benefits but won’t commit–reminds me of many other things these days.

  2. So true and I am quite sure that, if not for the constant propaganda emanating from the media, especially the despicable government owned media, there would be many more people waking up.

    We have gone from being liberal to being excessively liberal to now using government funds to promote wickedness and creating laws to actually enforce wickedness. This cannot end well. God’s morality is based on wisdom, truth and love and this is clearly demonstrated by history.

    The “head and not the tail” scripture in Deut 28 showed what God said would happen to Israel if they forsook His morality and this happened exactly as He said. Now with Western nations, with the massive and exponentially increasing debt and decreasing ability to defend ourselves, Western nations are now experiencing the exact parallels.

    Pilate’s question “what is truth” was not an isolated incident. Very few understood the importance of truth at that time and those pagans, such as Confucius and Plato, who put importance in truth ended up being respected by Western society for that very reason. Truth and respect for truth works – it is functional. God’s morality laws were not made to oppress people – they were made based in love and truth and this is why they work. Nations don’t go into massive debt because God is actively working against the nation. They go into debt because sin is costly and dysfunctional.

  3. No of course, Dawkins has NOT converted… But he does seem to have some nostalgia for the “Good Old Days”… Perhaps all this is is that he likes the social by-products of Christianity. But can you have that without real and vocal Christian believers who recognize they have to be salt of the Earth in their own nation, in their own generation??? Now the philosopher Frediech Nietzsche would have nothing but contempt for atheists such as Dawkins who reject the Christian God, but would like to keep Christian morality.In his 1889 essay Twilight of the Idols (ix.5), Nietzsche cynically observed:

    “G. Eliot. They are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality. That is an English consistency; we do not wish to hold it against little moralistic females à la Eliot. In England one must rehabilitate oneself after every little emancipation from theology by showing in a veritably awe-inspiring manner what a moral fanatic one is. That is the penance they pay there.
    “We others hold otherwise. When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet . This morality is by no means self-evident: this point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands. Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know, what is good for him, what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows it. Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticism; it has truth only if God is the truth ? it stands or falls with faith in God.
    “When the English actually believe that they know ‘intuitively’ what is good and evil, when they therefore suppose that they no longer require Christianity as the guarantee of morality, we merely witness the effects of the dominion of the Christian value judgment and an expression of the strength and depth of this dominion: such that the origin of English morality has been forgotten, such that the very conditional character of its right to existence is no longer felt. For the English, morality is not yet a problem.”

    In his autobiography (Surprised by Joy), Lewis observed that shortly after WWI when he began his university studies little had changed since Nietzsche’s initial observations (1955 : 209-210)

    “But there were in those days all sorts of blankets, insulators, and insurances which enabled one to get all the conveniences of Theism, without believing in God. The English Hegelians, writers like T. H. Green, Bradley, and Bosanquet (then mighty names), dealt in precisely such wares. The Absolute Mind — better still, the Absolute — was impersonal, or it knew itself (but not us?) only in us, and it was so absolute that it wasn’t really much more like a mind than anything else. And anyway, the more muddled one got about it and the more contradictions one committed, the more this proved that our discursive thought moved only on the level of “Appearance”, and “Reality” must be somewhere else. And where else but, of course, in the Absolute? There, not here, was “the fuller splendour” behind the “sensuous curtain”. The emotion that went with all this was certainly religious. But this was a religion that cost nothing. We could talk religiously about the Absolute: but there was no danger of Its doing anything about us. It was “there”; safely and immovably “there”. It would never come “here”, never (to be blunt) make a nuisance of Itself. This quasi-religion was all a one-way street; all eros (as Dr. Nygren would say) steaming up, but no agape darting down. There was nothing to fear; better still, nothing to obey.”

    So part of Dawkins recent comments may come from a growing realisation that Islam could take over Europe or at least gain political influence. While people like Dawkins had great fun criticising Christianity, criticising Islam is not all fun and games. Ask Salmon Rushdie. Ask the Charlie Hebdo survivors or Bataclan survivors…

    And then there’s a background issue: Postmodern elites in the West have given “victim/protected minority status” to Islam. This is because it suits their interests to use Islam as a wrecking ball to eradicate any vestige of judeo-christian influence in Western culture or institutions. Thus Moslems being categorized as perpetual VICTIMS is not a fluke occurrence, but a deliberate political decision. Seeing postmodernism is determinedly attacking and eroding any judeo-christian influence it can find in the West, it picks ideological allies such as Moslems to futher this endeavour.

    Yet when the day comes when their objectives will be attained, Moslems should expect to be violently dropped by postmodern elites… The party will be over. Chances are selling LGBTQ ideology in Islamic countries may be the spark that breaks this alliance… Time will tell.

    Refs
    Lewis, C. S. (1955) Surprised by Joy. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich New York 238p.
    Nietzsche, Friedrich (1895) Twilight of the Idols. (translation by Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale)

  4. Frankly, I think Richard Dawkins is simply scared of the rise of Islam. He thinks that by attacking Christianity he will get an atheist utopia. He never factored that Islam might fill the vacuum. Is it too late for regrets now? Who knows…

    In the meantime, some other trouble at the UN…
    https://citizengo.org/en-au/node/12811

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