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In April, Richard Dawkins declared that he considers himself a “cultural Christian.” A decade ago, the infamous New Atheist professor whimsically confessed to Rowan Williams that he sometimes catches himself humming hymns in the shower. Today, he is calling for the defense of Christianity as the established religion of Britain: “I feel at home in the Christian ethos. I feel that we are a Christian country.” The remarks were prompted by his discovery that Ramadan lights, rather than Easter decorations, were hung on London’s Oxford Street. Dawkins declared that it would be “truly dreadful” for the United Kingdom to substitute another religion, namely Islam, for Christianity. Since then, he has only doubled down on his newfound appreciation for the religion of peace.

The New Atheism movement took off with the zeal of a new religion, but within ten years, the “community of the reasonable” (Brights, they called themselves) began to fracture. In 2011, an attendee of the World Atheist Convention proposed to one of the panelists, Rebecca Watson, that they have coffee in his hotel room. Watson knew that coffee meant sex—not coffee—and angrily declined. Many New Atheists raged at this affront against feminism, and when Dawkins poured mockery on them for doing so, the more progressive faction nailed their feminist, social justice, anti-racism/homophobia/transphobia theses to the internet and “Atheism Plus” was born.

What these more earnest New Atheists didn’t understand is that New Atheism means sex, not atheism. The well-trod arguments against God’s existence were not the animating force of the movement; they couldn’t be, because the leaders of the movement barely understood and didn’t bother to articulate those arguments. The movement was about liberating oneself from the burden of moral responsibility. It was about giving permission to college students to sleep around as much as they wanted, without a guilty conscience, because God was an invented trick by parents, like Santa Claus, to keep us from being naughty.

Classical theists, of course, don’t believe in such a god anyway. God is Absolute Being, the timeless, absolute source and ultimate condition of all existence. Philosophers who knew the best arguments for and against God’s existence, while empathizing with arguments such as the problem of evil, often emphasized that rejection of belief in God entails nihilism (which makes the problem of evil rather worse). When there is no ultimate grounding for existence, existence becomes meaningless. 

Dawkins seems to be slowly realizing the implications of his position and the movement he helped unleash as radical Islam and woke ideology fill the vacuum in our post-Christian age. As historian Tom Holland put it on X, Dawkins is sawing on the branch of Christianity he’s sitting on, gazing nervously at the ground far below. Dawkins wants the fruit of the tree without the tree; he wants liberation from superstition and fundamentalist religion while keeping the yield of religion.

Tom Holland himself, like many of us, struggles with certain aspects of Christian theology. But unlike Dawkins, Holland sees clearly that Christianity inaugurated those aspects of civilization we hold dear—the inviolable dignity of every human person, human rights, women’s equality, and so forth. He is not quick to throw out Christianity because he knows, and fears, the consequences. This somewhat timid yet resolute position is the one Roger Scruton occupied, as does Jordan Peterson, Louise Perry, and a growing number of others.

In May, Dawkins spoke with a former acolyte of New Atheism, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who recently converted to Christianity, at UnHerd’s Dissident Dialogues. When moderator Freddie Sayers asked Dawkins how, in light of his cultural Christianity, he felt about the New Atheists’ decades-long effort to dismantle it, he reaffirmed and extended his April remarks: “I do think that if, for example, in Africa, there are missionaries, Christian missionaries, and Muslim missionaries fighting for people’s loyalty, then I’m on Team Christianity where that’s concerned. So politically, if you have to have a religion, then there you go.”

Sayers pressed Dawkins a second time, asking whether he bears any responsibility for the recession of Christianity and the movements that are filling its place. “So you didn’t think about what would happen afterwards?” “No,” Dawkins honestly answered.

Dawkins and the New Atheists are terrified of radical Islam. But the decline of Christianity must inevitably leave room for less-optimal substitutes. It seems that Dawkins is beginning to wonder whether the high of New Atheism was worth the consequences. Perhaps the gentle yoke of Christianity isn’t so bad after all.

Paul Shakeshaft (@paulshakeshafte) is an independent writer who studied philosophy under Roger Scruton. The views expressed here are solely his own.

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Image by Fronteiras do Pensamento, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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