New Atheism Finally Learns How to Destroy Christi…

This piece was adapted from Russell Moore’s newsletter. Subscribe here.

One of the most notorious atheists has had a “come to Jesus” moment. He’s also figured out, at long last, a way to undermine the Christian religion he loathes. And, unlike his previous efforts, this one could actually work.

Richard Dawkins, the author of The God Delusion, was among the most recognized proponents of New Atheism, a movement to reject the existence of God that had its golden era 15 or 20 years ago. Indeed, he was one of the movement’s “four horsemen,” along with Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett.

What was “new” about all of this was hardly the arguments, which were usually warmed-over Bertrand Russell. It was the fighting mood of it all. Audiences could feel a vicarious sense of “aren’t we naughty?” counterculturalism when they heard Hitchens ridiculing not just televangelists or abusive priests but Mother Teresa as a fraud. This theatricality eventually wore thin, until even fellow atheists seemed embarrassed by it.

But now Dawkins emerges again, this time in a viral video arguing for Christianity … kind of. He notes the plummeting of church attendance and Christian identification in his country, the United Kingdom, and says that, on one level, he’s glad to see it. Yet on the other hand, Dawkins continues, he’s “slightly horrified” to see the promotion of Ramadan in the UK. After all, he’s a Christian in a Christian country.

Lest anyone be confused, Dawkins made clear that he’s a “cultural Christian, … not a believer.” He loves the hymns and the Christmas carols and the cathedrals—everything about Christianity except, well, the Christ. “I like to live in a culturally Christian country,” Dawkins said, “although I do not believe a single word of the Christian faith.”

In this case, cultural Christian has a distinct meaning for Dawkins, which amounts to “not Muslim.” It’s a way of defining who we and they are based on national customs, not on any concern for who (or if) God is.

I immediately thought of a segment from the television series Ramy, in which the lead character, played by Ramy Youssef, talks with a Jewish businessman about similarities between the American Jewish and American Muslim experiences. One of the major similarities, the Ramy character says, is “Christmaslessness.”

I can’t think of a single one of my Jewish or Muslim friends and acquaintances who would define being a Jew or a Muslim that way (nor, I’m sure, would Youssef say that’s all of it). But I suspect there are some people for whom that feeling is a primary piece of their identity in America, for whom the issue isn’t whether God was really there at Sinai or at Mecca but rather who is part of us and who is them. The sort of “Christianity” Dawkins proposes just replaces “Christmaslessness” with “Christmasfulness,” “Easterfulness,” or, most accurately, “Ramadanlessness.”

Fifteen or so years ago, some Christian friends of mine were terrified of New Atheism. They took the “four horsemen” language as a signal of some sort of catastrophe of which these atheists were the vanguard. The project didn’t work, though. Yes, certain parts of the Western world have continued to secularize, but of all the reasons for a loss of faith, the arguments of The God Delusion probably aren’t one of them.

If I were a Screwtape, a literal devil’s advocate, advising atheists on how best to actually destroy the church, Dawkins’ kind of explicitly disenchanted cultural Christianity is not what I would propose. Overt atheism won’t work, at least at first. People are drawn to belong, and they are drawn to worship. I would, however, propose the basic impulse of what Dawkins said, though tied to rhetoric that still sounds religious. Attacking Christianity rarely works; co-opting it often does.

The urge to make religion the way to prove one’s cultural identity against “outsiders” will always find an eager audience. For those who worship their flesh—defined in terms of race, region, class, political identity, whatever—having a mascot they can call “God” will always be useful. The projection of all that they love about their own people, nation, and selves onto an unquestionable and unquestioning mascot can build cohesion. They might even call that mascot “Jesus.”

This kind of “Christianity” hollows out the Christian religion far more efficiently than straightforward attempts to convince people that God is a delusion. It defeats Christianity by replacing the living God with a God who is, in fact, a delusion.

It works to suppress the conscience that, in the deepest night, says, The God you are worshiping is a projection of your group; the group you are worshiping is a projection of yourself. It does away with a Christian faith that calls not for external conformity but for a new birth, a renewing of the mind, a union with the living Christ. Then it inhabits the husk of that religion, paganizing it until one can toss away the shell.

That final change doesn’t take long. And these blood-and-soil religions are never content to valorize their own blood and their own soil. They eventually move on to shedding other people’s blood, stealing other people’s soil.

The problem with Dawkins’s “cultural Christianity,” then, is not that he says it out loud; it’s that many people hold the same view and won’t say it … yet. Christianity is not about national anthems and village chapels and candlelight carol sings. It’s certainly not about using the levers of culture or the state to coerce other people to pretend that they are Christians when they are not.

If the gospel isn’t real, the gospel doesn’t work. Genuine paganism will win out over pretend Christianity every time.

The apostle Paul warned that in the last days false teachers would use whatever people lust for—pleasure, power, belonging, self—to introduce a kind of religion “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:5). The devil is smart enough to use hollow, cultural Christianity to make us atheists in the long run, to realize that the best way to take down a cross is to replace it with a culture, a crown, or a cathedral—or a Christmas tree.

But remember: Jesus is alive and aware, and he’s a horseman too.

Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.

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