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Dawkins the New Cultural Christian

Photo credit: Zoe Margolis, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Richard Dawkins has an endearing habit of rewriting history. For almost four decades, from the mid 1970s onward, he wrote of the human genome as mainly junk. It suited his Darwinism to do so, underscoring how evolution cobbles living forms together opportunistically, and that waste and inefficiencies in the genome are simply part of the messy process that is Darwinian evolution, focused as it is on natural selection acting on random variations. 

And then in the early 2010s the results of the ENCODE project were announced, showing that hardly any human DNA, and perhaps none of it, was functionless. And so Dawkins claimed that this result — showing an overwhelming absence of junk in the genome — was consistent with Darwinian evolution. Natural selection, it seems, was more efficient and less messy than previously suspected. For the account of his flip-flop, see Chapter 7 of my book The Design Inference (the second edition, co-authored with Winston Ewert). 

Dawkins’ flip-flop regarding junk DNA pales when compared to his flip-flop in recent weeks regarding Christianity. He now calls himself a “cultural Christian,” saying he prefers Christianity to Islam, and especially enjoys Christmas carols. And while he cheers the waning of Christian faith as such, he intimates a longing for things Christian that are disappearing from the culture. 

Critics have been quick to jump on the irony here since Dawkins, as the leading voice for atheism in the English speaking world, if not in the world as a whole, has helped bring about this waning of Christian faith. But let’s be careful not to give Dawkins too much credit. Christians, through their own ineffectiveness in Christian education, have been complicit in helping Dawkins’s crusade against the Christian faith. I’ll say more about this later. In any case, here is Dawkins the newly minted cultural Christian:

I remarked that Dawkins has the “endearing” habit of rewriting history. His habit is endearing because in rewriting history he admits, albeit tacitly and shamefacedly, that he got things wrong. Junk DNA doesn’t exist. Okay, for forty years he said it did. But let’s quietly ignore that. Christianity isn’t all bad, and he regards himself (now) as a cultural Christian. Okay, for decades he railed against all religions and didn’t offer Christianity any special exemptions. But let’s pretend he wasn’t quite so doctrinaire.

Dawkins’s softening attitude toward Christianity is more curiosity than substance. It makes no difference toward undoing the damage he did in promoting atheism or toward restoring credibility to the Christian faith. For that sort of change, it’s going to take more than warm sentiments about Christianity, sentiments long submerged in Dawkins’s psyche but only now percolating to consciousness. I want in this essay to discuss what more is needed to restore credibility to the Christian faith, but let’s be clear first where Dawkins was on Christianity in his prior life. 

The current Dawkins is one who has mellowed with age. He no longer seems to be the stark, tough-minded Dawkins that made his reputation. This Dawkins would write in River Out of Eden: “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” 

Or consider how he characterized the God of the Old Testament in The God Delusion: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” 

Dawkins has stressed in subsequent conversations that this Old Testament God, as he portrays him here, is a literary fiction and that a real God, if he exists at all, might be kind and loving (consider, for instance, his conversation with Ben Stein in the documentary Expelled). 

And yet let’s be clear, the tough-minded Dawkins of the past was not a cultural Christian. He had no use for religion, period. Perhaps the clearest place where Dawkins showed himself to be implacably opposed to religion was in a two-part British television documentary that came out just before the publication of The God Delusion. That documentary was titled The Root of All Evil? That phrase “root of all evil” is taken from 1 Timothy 6:10 in the Bible, where the apostle Paul identifies the love of money as the root of all evil. 

Dawkins, in the documentary, substitutes “religion” for “the love of money.” Religion now becomes the root of all evil. The documentary is worth viewing because it makes clear that the tough-minded Dawkins of the past was an equal-opportunity hater of religions, indiscriminate in his disdain for faiths of all kinds. Here are the two parts of that documentary. If you only have time to watch one, watch the first. In it, Dawkins inveighs equally against Islam and Christianity. Indeed, you will be hard-pressed from watching this documentary to conclude that one religion is any better or worse than the other. 

Religious faith, as far as Dawkins was concerned back when he made this documentary, was a pernicious virus that needed to be eradicated. Certainly, he has played his part in helping to undermine religious faith, and Christianity in particular, in Europe and North America. But I don’t want to give him too much credit. Rather, I want to give the credit, or blame, where it belongs, namely, on the ineffective education that Christians have permitted to be inflicted on their children, which has enabled people like Dawkins to achieve the influence they have in undermining faith. 

But first, it’s worth pointing out a further irony. It’s not just that Dawkins laments the loss of cultural Christianity. He also laments the rampant loss of reason, truth, merit, free speech, critical thinking, and respect for science in the academy and wider culture. In other words, he laments the turn from modernity to postmodernity, from truth-based inquiry to make-it-up-as-you-go inquiry, from sober, rigorous habits of mind to minds at home in an insane asylum. And yet he’s probably done more than any other current figure to bring about this shift.

Dawkins the Critic of Postmodernity

A few months back I posted a piece on my blog at titled “Woke Ideology as Scientific Materialism’s Legitimate Offspring.” This article described how the National Association of Scholars was commending physicist and skeptic Lawrence Krauss for challenging the woke assault on reason, merit, and freedom in the academy while failing to see that Krauss was complicit in bringing about this very assault. 

Krauss is, of course, a close colleague of Dawkins. Back between 2005 and 2010, as the New Atheism came into vogue, its principal exponents, dubbed “the four horsemen of the apocalypse,” were Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, with Dawkins leading the charge. Krauss, to mix metaphors, was one of the key people on the bench, perhaps the sixth man.

I’m going here to put the spotlight on Dawkins rather than on Krauss. Like Krauss, Dawkins is these days attempting to stand against the woke subversion of the academy, and of science in particular. Increasingly, Dawkins is casting himself as a defender of traditional academic virtues (reason, merit, free discourse, etc.).

And yet, a compelling case can be made that precisely because of the materialist ideology that he has promoted in the name of science all these years, he has helped bring about the state of affairs in the academy that he is now lamenting — in which woke ideology subverts all that he deems precious in the academy and science (and, as we’ve seen, also in cultural Christianity).

Dawkins has been marvelously successful at advancing scientific materialism, the view that science (especially Darwinian evolution) functions to advance materialism, with Darwin being this atheistic ideology’s principal prophet. And yet, this very scientific materialism is the Pandora’s box that has opened our culture to all the evils that he now laments. 

What Dawkins seems not to have realized — or perhaps now is realizing too late — is that scientific materialism is the suicide of reason, even undermining science as reason’s most compelling expression. Scientific materialism attempts to use science as a club to enforce materialism. Yet instead, scientific materialism is a snake that eats its own tail and in the end consumes itself. It destroys itself, collapsing of internal contradiction, and thereby ruining science, as we now see happening in real time.

The view that scientific materialism collapses of internal contradiction is not new and is not made solely by people like me who oppose scientific materialism. Darwin made the point himself when he raised the following doubt in an 1881 letter to William Graham:

With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?

C. S. Lewis and Alvin Plantinga extended Darwin’s point. In his book Miracles, Lewis argued that on materialist principles, the mind is a mere material system operating according to unbroken natural laws and thus will proceed with no necessary connection to knowledge or truth. There is nothing in the constitution and dynamics of a material system of interacting parts, such as our brain, that enables it to be “about” anything in the world and thus to capture the truth of things in the world.

Plantinga took Lewis’s argument further with his evolutionary argument against naturalism (aka materialism). Plantinga noted that evolution, in its conventional materialist sense, by putting a premium on survival and reproduction, did not — and indeed could not — put a premium on knowing truth. And so any beliefs whatsoever that are compatible with survival and reproduction are, from an evolutionary vantage, as good as any other. In fact, the right delusions might be better at advancing survival and reproduction than knowing and acting on truth. 

On Darwinian evolutionary grounds, our beliefs therefore have no claim on truth. It thus makes no sense, on evolutionary grounds, to criticize woke ideologues for undermining reason, devaluing merit, or restricting speech. For instance, we are now told that math is discriminatory because only the privileged reside in educational settings where they can learn and excel at math. And so, instead of attempting to improve the mathematical opportunities of the underprivileged, we are encouraged to view math as an open-ended activity where all answers are considered equally valid. We thus see taken seriously that 2 plus 2 need not equal 4 — see my Substack essay “The War on 2+2=4.”

The woke ideology that Dawkins detests did not arise in a vacuum but is the logical outworking of the scientific materialism that he has championed. Woke ideology embraces two plus two equaling five, freedom of speech being an outdated relic, reason being a tool of oppression, and merit being a conceit of the privileged. Dawkins opposes this nonsense. But it is nonsense that his scientific materialism has invited. 

Woke ideology is not a betrayal of scientific materialism but its logical conclusion. In fact, it becomes quite appealing once people realize that on materialistic grounds we are here for no reason and have no destiny beyond this brief life, so the only meaning our life can have is the meaning we give it, the meaning we construct for it. And if conventional educational values like freedom of thought and expression get in the way of the meaning that we are constructing for ourselves, so much the worse for those values.

The scientific materialism of Dawkins epitomizes modernity. The woke ideology that he detests epitomizes postmodernity. Yet the modernity he has promoted all these years entails the postmodernity he detests. It’s as though he started a fire that got out of control, and now he’s wringing his hands about how to put it out. You don’t get to postmodernity except through modernity. The irony seems to have been lost on Dawkins and his colleagues (Krauss, Pinker, etc.). 

How We Let Him Get Away with It

There’s a joke about Satan weeping outside a church. One of the parishioners asks what’s wrong. Pointing to the church, Satan replies, “They blame me for everything.” It sometimes seems that with the West’s falling away from Christianity over the last few decades, Dawkins — or at least the movement he represents — deserves all the blame. Certainly, in advancing atheism he has played an influential role. And yet, let’s not give him too much credit. 

If there’s blame, it falls mainly on a weak and inept Christian church that has failed to adequately educate its young people. Over and over again in the Old Testament, God’s covenant people — Israel — are enjoined to be careful to teach their children the law. Jesus himself, as an adult, was principally known as a rabbi, or teacher. The Great Commission is to make disciples of all people teaching them the Christian faith. The Christian faith is supposed to make education central and effective. Yet we’ve dropped the ball here.

Ask yourself what Dawkins’s actual record of achievement has been in promoting atheism. He’s a great popular writer. He can turn a memorable phrase. He is excellent at choosing striking titles for his books. His coinage of the word “meme” was brilliant. He has a powerful platform at Oxford as an evolutionary biologist, which lends scientific credibility to his atheistic arguments. 

And yet, his arguments for atheism are weak. Christian thinkers such as Alvin Plantinga, John Lennox, and Jay Richards are readily able to refute his atheism. And his defense of Darwinian evolution is simplistic. I’m an intelligent design guy, but you can be naturalistic in your biology and still see that Dawkins’s case for Darwinian evolution fails (see, for instance, University of Chicago biologist James Shapiro’s Evolution: A View from the 21st Century, now in its second edition). 

So how did Christians miss it? How could we have more effectively trained our young people and thereby closed the door to Dawkins’s atheism? Let me offer seven key points on which Christian education has missed it and that hinder Christians from effectively countering the atheism infecting our culture. I’ll list them without much explanation here, though I plan to address some of them more deeply in upcoming posts. I’m painting with a broad brush, so there are exceptions — churches, schools, and teachers that are doing Christian education right. The problem is that they are exceptions.

  1. Ghetto mentality. Christians have become overly comfortable in the security of their faith communities. Rather than venture out and try to take the promised land, it’s easier to wander around in the wilderness. That may work until Christian young people have to venture into the world of higher education, which has an entire infrastructure in place to subvert Christian faith. A ghetto mentality is inherently isolating and breeds a sense of inferiority. Indeed, if we were confident about our position, we wouldn’t stayed trapped in a ghetto — we’d play offense rather than defense. We’d storm the gates of Hell rather than let them fall on us. 
  2. Scientific materialism. We’ve already touched on this point. The commanding heights in our culture see science as underwriting materialism. The idea that science could reveal God’s work in creation is anathema. Scientific materialism requires an atheistic origin story, which Darwinian evolution helps to provide. With scientific materialism in place, general revelation is dead. Without general revelation, we lose God as creator. Without God as creator, we lose design. And without design, we lose all constraints, so that people now take seriously that men can bear children and that two plus two can equal anything, including a granola bar. 
  3. Misguided views of Scripture. Secular criticism of the Bible sees it as a hodge-podge of writings cobbled together over time by committees disconnected from the events discussed and intent on achieving theological purposes with little concern about the factual truth of what is affirmed. Many Christians have responded with a Biblicism that requires an ultra-literalist mode of interpreting the Bible and that makes defending the truth of the Bible impossible without presupposing that Biblicism. Without a sound, intellectually credible view of the Bible, the Christian faith becomes indefensible. Fortunately, the work of scholars such as Mike Licona, Gary Habermas, Craig Keener, and N. T. Wright is showing the Bible, and especially the New Testament, to be intellectually credible. 
  4. Avoiding the extra work. Phillip Johnson, the founder of the intelligent design movement, used to say that a sound Christian education requires twice the work of an ordinary education. An ordinary education will, for instance, teach Darwinian evolution as textbook orthodoxy. But a Christian, to avoid being misled by this textbook orthodoxy, will need to know it as well as venture beyond it, studying the alternatives. I found the same thing in my student days at Princeton Theological Seminary, where I needed to supplement the theological liberalism I was being taught with more traditional orthodox scholarship. Being a clear-thinking Christian in this culture means doing a lot of extra work. Many Christians, unfortunately, think they can get by with doing the bare minimum. An effective Christian education won’t allow that. 
  5. A culture that devalues education. Christian culture in the West doesn’t seem to value education all that much. Perhaps that’s because Christianity has lost so much ground, especially at the hands to intellectuals like Dawkins, that Christians feel their energies are best spent elsewhere. Thus during what traditionally had been Sunday school, Christian youth may focus more on sports or video games than on the Bible and Christian doctrine. Thus adult reading groups at church may focus more on personal growth, relationships, and overcoming negative emotions than on what the faith is and how it is being challenged. There’s nothing wrong with such devotional reading, but what about reading Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker and balancing it with Michael Denton’s Evolution: A Theory in Crisis? What about studying the history of Christian doctrine? A Christian culture that values education would eagerly try to understand and engage the principal forces moving the culture.
  6. Loss of creedal and confessional moorings. Education is great, but it needs to be directed rightly and grounded in truth. There are plenty of educated people whose education is making the world worse. Education is a force multiplier, but unless properly directed and grounded, it can be as much a force for evil as for good. Barna and Gallup polls indicate that Christians increasingly have little knowledge of what they believe or should believe. Many Christians regard it as morally acceptable to do things that the Christian Church has universally rejected (these days especially in the area of sexuality). A sound and effective Christian education means reasserting the traditional creeds, confessions, and catechisms (compare Jude 3). Side note: My friend, the late church historian Samuel Moffatt, learned the Westminster Shorter Catechism when he was seven. He was born in 1916, so that would have been back in 1923. A hundred years later, who does that any more? And if not, why not? 
  7. Reluctance to inoculate. For the record, I’m not anti-vax, but I am a vaccine skeptic in the sense that I distrust vaccines that carry no liability for the manufacturers (thanks to the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986) and for which rigorous safety studies are lacking (which seems to cover a lot of vaccines). That said, I’m a great believer in inoculating Christians to the falsehoods of our culture. Yet consistent with a ghetto mentality, Christians often seem reluctant to inoculate their children to false ideas. Inoculation has the advantage of exposure to a toxin in a controlled setting where it cannot do much damage. Unfortunately, inoculation is messy, can lead to unwanted questions, and can even be the catalyst for some to lose their faith. Yet the alternative is to confront the toxin at full force later, with a much greater loss of faith. A sound Christian education evinces a willingness to inoculate. Side note: I would inoculate my students when I taught at seminary. For instance, when Dawkins visited Austin, Texas, in 2006 to promote his newly published The God Delusion, I gave my students extra credit to go down to Austin (almost 200 miles from Fort Worth where I taught), listen to him speak, and get his signature on a copy of his book. I always insisted that my students read my side as well as the other side.

Richard Dawkins has always been more bark than bite. Unfortunately, we’ve let him and his fellow atheists get away with far more than merited by the strength of their arguments. I’ve responded to Dawkins’s evolutionary arguments at length in my writings, especially in the recent publication of the second edition of The Design Inference. You can judge for yourself the success of my efforts. My own view is that his defense of Darwinian evolution stands refuted. 

At any rate, his argument for atheism is on even weaker ground than his argument for Darwinism. Dawkins is a professional biologist but an amateur philosopher, and his argument for atheism is philosophical, displaying his limitations in the field. This can be readily seen in the two YouTube videos with which I close. They show Dawkins debating fellow Oxford professor John Lennox (a mathematician and philosopher). Whether you agree that Lennox won these debates, it’s clear that he is unfazed and holds his own against Dawkins:

Cross-posted at Bill Dembski on Substack.