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Cultural Christianity: our work here is done?

Cultural Christianity: our work here is done?

The following is an exclusive column featured in our Monthly Newsletter where Chine McDonald reflects on Richard Dawkins’ coming out as a ‘cultural Christian’. Interested in having these blogs land straight in your inbox? Be sure to sign up to our newsletter using the link at the bottom of the page!

There’s been a lot of talk – at least in the echo chamber that is social media – about Richard Dawkins’ coming out as, in his words, a “cultural Christian”. 

In an interview with LBC last week, the evolutionary biologist, who once likened religion to the smallpox – only harder to eradicate – and linked bringing up children in religious faith to child abuse, said that cathedrals and carols made him feel “at home”, that Christianity was fundamentally “decent”, but that he “does not believe a single word” of the actual faith.   

This is fascinating to me. It may seem we’ve come a long way from the antagonism of New Atheism that made it its mission to denounce all religion. This first decade of the 21st century, the UK saw atheist bus campaigns and government spin doctors saying they definitely did not ‘do God’. In the wake of 9/11, Western societies seemed deeply sceptical of the role of religion in public life. 

Theos was set up in 2006, in part because of prevalent voices such as Dawkins and other New Atheists, collectively known as the “four horsemen” of the Apocalypse: Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, alongside commentators such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali. They thought that Christianity was bad for society, whereas our founders wanted to make a credible case for Christianity in public life. We continue to think that Christianity can help us answer some of the most challenging questions society is asking today about how we live together, and what it is to be human. For example, we believe that the Christian concept of love can help us meet the challenges of the changes in the labour market in recent years. (Do join us at the launch of Work Shift: How Love Could Change Work if you’re in London on 23 April). We believe that Christian ideas honed over many centuries can help us explore the ethics of AI and relationships, the way death is marked in society, how we can live well in a pluralistic society, and much more. This is our bread and butter.  

During an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme about Dawkins’ cultural Christianity, presenter Edward Stourton, asked me whether in some way Theos’ mission has been fulfilled now that Dawkins is speaking in a less hostile – some might even say ‘warm’ – way about Christianity. Recent months and years have seen similar proclamations of cultural Christianity from public intellectuals. Like Dawkins, thinkers such as Tom Holland, Ayaan Hirshi Ali, and Jordan Peterson are highlighting the goodness and virtue of Christianity; and how it’s shaped the moral underpinnings of Western civilization. But not all of them are professing the truth of it.  

So perhaps – in terms of Theos’ strategy and mission – we might have taken some steps forward and could claim we’ve helped to shift the dial on the usefulness of Christian ideas in public life, over the past 17 years. Perhaps we can raise a glass to a couple of decades of work well done, because Dawkins isn’t completely ashamed of being associated with Christianity.  

But our work is far from done. The Christian faith is much more than its best and most useful ideas; there are of course those who – perhaps worse than thinking Christianity is not useful – just think it’s completely irrelevant. Regardless, it simply can’t be confined to the intellectual, the cerebral, the philosophical or the ethical.  

As Michael Wear, president and CEO of the Center for Christianity & Public Life in Washington DC, writes in his book The Spirit of Our Politics:  

“We must not confuse the aesthetics of Christianity with the power to transform hearts and lives through interactive participation in the life of God. We also must reckon with the incoherency of wanting the things of God but not God himself. This is a problem with deep roots.”

There are others more equipped than Theos to move the likes of Dawkins from ‘Christianity is good’ to ‘Christianity is true’. But until then, we’ll continue to highlight its usefulness and goodness, because we believe it’s also true.


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Fronteiras do Pensamento, CC BY–SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Chine McDonald

Chine McDonald

Chine is Director of Theos. She was previously Head of Community Fundraising and Public Engagement at Christian Aid. She has 16 years’ experience in journalism, media and communications across faith, media and international development organisations.

Watch, listen to or read more from Chine McDonald

Posted 18 April 2024

Atheism, Christianity, Culture, Religion, Science


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