Dawkins: I’m a Cultural Christian

Last week Richard Dawkins announced that he was ‘a cultural Christian’ who liked singing carols as much as anybody else. He denied wishing to ban Christmas, and stated that he had no intention of removing Britain’s Christian heritage. The danger of that, according to Dawkins, comes from other religions, not from atheists. Frank’s already blogged about this at Atheism Sucks, and I’ve left a few comments there. However, considering what an apparent volte face this appears to be, I thought I’d go into it on here as well, especially as Mattghg has particularly asked what I make of it all.

 I have to say I’m not impressed. For the first part of the statement – that Dawkins is ‘a cultural Christian’ who likes singing carols, this appears to me to be mostly true. The religious scholars and philosophers who have investigated Humanism have pointed out that for the most part its morality is based very definitely on Christianity. It diverges from Christianity in its sexual morality – premarital sex and abortion are regarded as acceptable, but broadly it conforms to Christian moral principles. As for Dawkins’ comment that he likes singing Christmas carols as much as anyone else, well, I’ve no doubt he does. Daniel C. Dennett also, apparently, has his atheist friends gather for a ‘Christmas sing-song’.

At another level, Dawkins’ description of himself as such is false, and there seems to be an element of deception in it, of what Rabbinical Law describes as ‘stealing the mind’. This ‘stealing the mind’ or genebath daath has been defined as ‘misrepresentation of the truth, such as is practisd by the confidence trickster who seeks to influence his victim to think or to act against his own interest or what would ahve been his better judgement.’ 1 Dawkins’ tactic towards Christianity and religion in general is to try to keep its adherents culturally secure by not excluding from society while doing his level best to undermine their faith. He has stated that he likes the British system of a state church and the bishops of the Anglican Church sitting in the House of Lords, as with it British Christians don’t feel excluded from government as has occurred in America with the separation of Church and State. My guess is that this attitude is merely a cultural sop to keep believers happy. His real attitude to religion is shown in his unrelenting hostility to it, demands for the closure of faith schools and denunciation of a religious upbringing for children as a form of child abuse.

Now organised atheism in Britain and America has attempted to remove these nations’ Christian heritage. There have been several cases in America where atheists have campaigned against the public celebrations of Christian festivals, like Christmas, by the state authorities or in schools. Similar cases have been brought in Britain, such as by the elderly lady I’ve already mentioned who tried having Christmas banned a few years ago because it infringed her human rights as an atheist. There was also the campaign by a Humanist group to have a cross removed from a crematorium under the pretext that this would be offensive to other faiths. Now the crematorium in that instance was secular, but it had been a church, and the crucifix was a legacy from the period when it had served the Christian community. The council that received the complaint from the irate atheists noted that no non-Christian group using the crematorium had complained about the crucifix. It had only been the Humanists that had complained.

Now this says something about the process of secularisation in general. Various councils in Britain have attempted to secularise Christmas in the past on the pretext that Britain is a multicultural society, and some non-Christian religious groups would find Christmas offensive. Birmingham did this a few years ago when they replaced Christmas with a ‘Winterfest’. Again, one of the comments about this process is that very few non-Christians had complained. Quite often when this occurs the local paper will do a straw poll and interview people in the street. The Muslims and Hindus canvassed have no objection to the celebration of Christmas at all. In the case of Islam, although Muslims don’t view Jesus as the Son of God, they do revere Him as ‘the purest of the prophets’, believe in the Virgin birth, and, at least in Shia Islam, see Him as inspired by the Holy Spirit. Given this high, but not divine, conception of our Lord, the celebration of Christmas is certainly not an affront to Islam. Yet whenever objections to Christmas, or any other Christian festival or celebration, is raised, it is always under the pretext that this will be offensive to other faiths. My own attitude here is that this attitude is partly from a genuine fear of giving offence amongst some governmental groups, and partly a tactical attitude by secular groups or individuals who would like to have religion removed completely from the public sphere, and the possibility of offending non-Christian individuals is merely a pretext for doing so.

Dawkins’ comment also touches on some quite deep issues of cultural ownership. Unlike the other, non-Christian faiths, Christianity seems to be a target for ridicule in the West because, while these other religions are still perceived as marginal and not part of the general British cultural heritage, because Christianity has been part of British and Western culture for so long it is still perceived as being part of the heritage of those who no longer believe, and have no qualms about sneering at it or wishing to undermine it. Dawkins clearly believes he has the right to sing Christmas carols because of his membership in the culture which produced them, whereas, I suspect, he would be far more hesitant to sing some of the classic Hebrew hymns to the Lord, such as the piyyutim in the Jewish prayer book, or recite the Qu’ran. These aren’t part of general Western culture, and so people outside those faith communities – Judaism and Islam – rightly feel they have no claim over them. But this attitude is becoming increasingly uncomfortable as society becomes more secularised. Christians in Britain and elsewhere do feel themselves to be a minority that isn’t given the same respect as Islam, Judaism or Hinduism, for example. From this perspective, Dawkins’ designation of himself as a ‘cultural Christian’ is false, as he has repudiated Christianity and so has no claim on its cultural products.

I’d also strongly argue that his conception of ‘culture’ and ‘heritage’ is itself deficient. He seems to view culture largely from the standpoint of aesthetics, as a system of literary, pictorial and musical signs and motifs. So he will say, as he did when promoting his book, Unweaving the Rainbow, that Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion will move him to tears.  I’m sure that’s true, but culture and heritage go beyond simple aesthetics. From the anthropological perspective, culture is the defining characteristic of society as a whole, affecting how its members view the world and each other, the way they dress and behave. Clearly Dawkins is not a cultural Christian in this sense, as he is trying to attack the cultural role of Christianity in this broader, societal sense. If he was sincere about preserving the Christian heritage, I doubt he would have made such sneering comments about the British Airways staff member who sued for religious discrimination because she had been banned from wearing her crucifix outside her uniform. After all, if people’s heritage is inviolable, then from a purely secular, multicultural standpoint the lady had every right to wear something that was culturally significant to her. 

This attitude also extends to Christian-based school assemblies. Under British law, schools are required to hold assemblies in the morning which have a basis in Christianity. Now I know some militant atheists who are vehemently opposed to this. However, if Christianity is seen merely as a system of literary and aesthetic signs with a moralising message, there can be no possible objection to this. After all, the Christians of the Middle Ages took over the ancient Pagan literature and read and enjoyed them as literature. Durign the Renaissance, Classical pagan myths were incorporated into European art, literature and music, frequently with a moralising purpose. These pagan myths were seen as part of the general cultural heritage of Europe, and were so taken over and used, even though the members of that Christian society did not believe they existed and would have severely disapproved of attempts to revive their worship.

Thus Dawkins’ claim to be a ‘cultural Christian’ who is no threat to the country’s Christian heritage is confused, deceptive and contradictory. One could argue that if he’s serious about preserving Christian cultural heritage, then he should actually support the faith schools he so vehemently hates, as in it are being brought up the next generation of the real custodians of that culture and heritage.

As for the general principles of cultural ownership, my own view is that there are degrees of ownership here, comparable to ownership and usufruct in law. Usufruct is the right to use someone else’s property. For example, in the Middle Ages a peasant cultivator may have had the right to pasture his animals and gather wood and mast for his pigs on his lord’s land. He didn’t own the land, but nevertheless had certain rights to use it. At the level of cultural property, one could argue that through membership of the general European culture whose Christian members produced the great religious works of art and literature that atheists like Dawkins admire, such as St. Matthew’s Passion, the general population certainly has some rights to use it. However, true ownership and guardianship of that culture lies with that faith group. In this case, it’s Christianity. And however much Dawkins might admire some of its cultural products, he’s repudiated Christianity and so has relinquished any deep claim to it or participation in it as a cultural force.

So Dawkins’ claim to be a ‘cultural Christian’ really is actually quite shallow, and deliberately intended to present his bitter opposition to Christianity as far less threatening than it is. Well, there’s a passage in Proverbs which tells you to beware when your enemy puts his arm around you. It’s what Dawkins has been metaphorically trying to do with this comment. The best course of action in this instance is not to be deceived and push him away. 


1. Isidore Epstein, Judaism (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1959), p. 148.

4 Responses to “Dawkins: I’m a Cultural Christian”

  1. Dirk Diggler Says:

    First of all, if you don’t like or want Christmas to be a secular holiday, then you might want to start with fighting against the commercialization of the holiday.

    One of the thousands of words that may be used to describe me happens to be atheist, and I also consider myself a cultural christian and even celebrate Christmas (gasp!). I don’t really see a conflict here. I like the music, love eating Christmas cookies, gathering with friends and family for a special dinner and give gifts. These things do not require one iota of faith or spirituality of any kind. These are purely human acts. The only way you can have difficulty holding the thought that an atheist might do them is if you have difficulty considering atheists as human.

    Lot’s of stuff I object to in this post, but I don’t have much time today. However, I can’t let this one go without speaking my mind:

    “The religious scholars and philosophers who have investigated Humanism have pointed out that for the most part its morality is based very definitely on Christianity.”

    No. Wrong. Not even close. Basic morality comes from the human ability to empathize. Killing, stealing, cheating, lying are wrong because we don’t want those things to happen to ourselves. God has nothing to do with it. Yes, religion may add rules to this list, but it is completely false to assume morality comes from Christianity or any other religion. Do these same religious scholars and philosophers believe there was no such thing as morality before Christianity?

    To my mind, morality comes from our ability to reason and see long term goals. Morality has evolved as an idea that helped our species survive as part of a greater community. Morality is what differentiates us from lower animals. We take care of our weak, old and sick. We sacrifice for the greater good. Identification with, or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another is what shapes our morals, not the fear of gods.

    As a matter of fact, I would say that the ultimate moral relativism is claiming that morals come from a god or religion. Are you really saying that if there were no god, you would run wild raping, pillaging and murdering?

  2. beastrabban Says:

    Hi Dirk – thanks for taking the time to comment. Here are my replies to the points you raised.

    Firstly, I don’t like the crass commercialisation of Christmas, and in my experience this is going hand in hand with its secularisation. Last Christmas in one of the villages around my home town a shop opened dedicated to selling Christmas products. There were absolutely no Christian articles for sale at all. When one Christian lady who went in asked if they stocked any nativity sets, she was told by the manager that they didn’t. The manager stated she didn’t stock any Christian material, because she was an atheist, and besides, Christmas was originally a pagan festival anyway. It wasn’t, but that shows how deep this myth has become ingrained in our society.

    Now admittedly this is an extreme case, but nevertheless the exploitation of Christmas’ commercial aspect has meant that there is a drastic reduction in explicit Christian imagery, and the status of Christmas as a holiday in even the secular sense of the word is under threat. Last Christmas, as I recall, there was a debate in Britain about whether shops should be allowed to open on Christmas Day. Most people were against it, but some were in favour. In this case, the idea of Christmas as a holiday in which one is free to spend time with relatives, friends and neighbours away from the pressure of work, is under threat.

    Now to answer your second point about begrudging atheists celebrating Christmas, I actually don’t. I’m glad you enjoy the season and spending time with family and friends, even if you don’t believe in God or Christ. Nevertheless, there is a question of cultural ownership here, that is not solved by the statement that the traditions associated with the festival are human acts. The festival itself has a religious basis, and while it’s become secularised along with much else of modern culture, there is a problem of how people outside a particular religious tradition can join in its celebrations without this becoming cultural appropriation. Let’s use another example of a similar process for the sake of argument.

    It became fashionable a little while ago for some White women to wear a nose ring similar Asian custom. However, some Asians did find this offensive, as the nose ring does have a distinct religious meaning in their culture, and they felt this was being insulted by the way non-Hindus had adopted it. Now one can justify the adoption of the nose-ring by Western women using the arguments you have used to defend your participation in Christmas: the wearing of the nose-ring is an act by humans, and if the Asian community is to be a full part of British culture, then it’s natural that members of other British communities, such as White non-Hindus, adopt aspects of Hindu culture. Nevertheless, one is faced with the situation that the women who adopted the nose-ring without due cultural sensivity were appropriating an aspect of a culture that was not theirs.

    Now the reason I used the analogy of usufruct to describe the relationship of British secular culture to Christian festivals like Christmas is because clearly, as a country that has a Christian history and whose mainstream culture has been shaped by Christianity, mainstream British culture does have rights to use Christian festivals. However, as the festivals are in origin Christian and religious, their cultural ownership is with the Christian community. Now I don’t want to stop atheists or anyone else from celebrating Christmas. I do, however, want its origins to be publicly acknowledged and respected.

  3. beastrabban Says:

    Now let’s deal with your comments about Western morality deriving from common human morality without any particular relationship to Christianity.

    Now I am not for the moment suggesting that people only became moral with the arrival of Christianity. Indeed, St. Paul mentions righteous pagans who are ‘circumcised in their heart’. Yes, most societies have proscriptions against lying, theft, murder and adultery. However, the particular way these proscriptions are interpreted in our society have been profoundly shaped by Christianity.

    For example, one of my friends used to work in Pakistan. Talking to him one day about the difference between Asian and British attitudes, he stated that British culture stresses literal truth far more than general Asian culture. He was an atheist, but pointed to the way Victorian British Nonconformity stressed lying as a particularly offensive sin. In some parts of Asia, however, it was perfectly acceptable practice to make exaggerated claims to reinforce one’s business credentials.

    One can also see the influence of Christianity in the Western attitude towards monogamy. Although marriage is in serious decline in Britain, with most children, according to recent statistics, now being born out of wedlock, the general expectation is that partnerships should still be monogamous. This comes from Christian tradition. Elsewhere in the world, such as in Islam, China and Japan and in pre-Christian northern Europe it was permitted for men to have more than one wife. One can also discuss the way attitudes towards private property and many other aspects of Western culture have also been profoundly affected by Christian theology, although this may often be obscure and secularised.

    To go on to your next point, an evolutionary origin for moral behaviour does not remove God from the picture, or necessarily make such behaviour intrinsically moral. Believers in theistic evolution consider that evolution may actualise such moral sense and behaviour, but that there is still an autonomous, transcendent realm of moral values that proceeds from the mind of God, and which exists independently of religion. Now you mentioned that morality has evolved to help humanity survive. This might be true, and I have no objection to it if it is. However, utility does not equal morality. For something to be good, it must be intrinsically good, rather than merely useful. Take, for example, the public awards given to the men and women who act with outstanding courage working for the benefit of others, such as, say, a person who is awarded the George Cross for an exceptional act of heroism in saving another person. Now one can argue that such awards are good, because such recognition will encourage others to emulate this heroism. However, a better reason is simply that it is right that someone who has risked their life and limb for another person without thought for themselves should receive public praise for their noble actions. Morality is thus transcendent, outside of the process of evolution, though this may bring out the human potential for it.

    Now let’s take your statement As a matter of fact, I would say that the ultimate moral relativism is claiming that morals come from a god or religion. Are you really saying that if there were no god, you would run wild raping, pillaging and murdering? Now I have to say that I believe in an objective morality, grounded in the objective existence of a Creator. However, if God does not exist, then morality is simply intersubjective – the result of evolutionary accidents or social conventions. I may respect or abide certain of those moral precepts, but without a transcendental objective grounding through a deity they remain simply conventions and/or inherited behaviour, which has no intrinsically binding force.

  4. vicky Says:

    If you seriously believe that Christmas did not originate from pagan festivals you need to go back and do a little more research.

    It is quite obvious to anyone who does cursory reading on the matter (any old encyclopedia will do) that the origins of Christmas are not Christian and have nothing to do with the Christ.

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