Christianity’s decline has unleashed terrible new gods

British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins photographed at his home in Oxford
Surprise revelation: Richard Dawkins now says he enjoys living in a Christian society - John Lawrence
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Not since the road to Damascus has there been a more notable spiritual volte-face than the one made on LBC this week. Having spent a career breathing threats against the disciples of the Lord, a certain Richard Dawkins is struck by a moment of realisation. And lo, the voice of Rachel Johnson came unto him and said “Dawko, Dawko, why persecutest thou me?”

OK, perhaps it didn’t happen quite like that, but Professor Dawkins’ admission that he considers himself a “cultural Christian”, who is, at the very least, ambivalent about Anglicanism’s decline is an undeniably contradictory position for a man who in the past campaigned relentlessly against any role for Christianity in public life, railing against faith schools and charitable status for churches.

Before we start preparing the baptismal font, it’s worth noting that Dawkins says he remains “happy” with the UK’s declining Christian faith, and that those beliefs are “nonsense”. But he also says that he enjoys living in a Christian society. This betrays a certain level of cultural free-riding. The survival of society’s Christian undercurrent depends on others buying into the “nonsense” even if he doesn’t.

Still, though Dawkins has spoken of his “cultural Christianity” before, this feels like another staging-post on a journey towards the good Professor finally admitting that the New Atheism, of which he was such a shining light, was wrong in crucial respects. First, in its almost touching naivety that a post-Christian world would give way to a values-neutral space, rooted in reason. Second, in its semi-adolescent diagnosis of Christianity as a retardant upon cultural and intellectual progress. A New Atheist would generally cite the Spanish Inquisition or some wacky US creationist as representatives of the world’s largest faith – conveniently ignoring any contradictory examples.

Like all good conversions, there’s an element of repentance; though unlike St Paul, Dawkins hasn’t had to go blind for three days to experience this epiphany. He also speaks of his concern at the rise of Islam in Christianity’s place; perhaps a tacit acknowledgement that some prominent atheists (though not he) focused excessively on Christianity, being an easy target compared to other religions.

One reason for Dawkins’ change of heart might be good old-fashioned scientific observation. It doesn’t take the brains of an evolutionary biologist to work out that New Atheism was mistaken in its diagnosis of what would follow religion’s decline. The rational world we were promised hasn’t materialised and a nastier, less reasonable one is supplanting what was there before.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in Scotland. By the New Atheist logic, it ought to be the most rational place in the UK since de-Christianisation has occurred there at a faster rate. Membership of the national Church of Scotland has fallen by 35 per cent in 10 years and the Scottish Churches Trust warns that 700 Christian places of worship will probably close in the next few years. A Scottish friend recently explained that every place where he’d come to faith – where he was christened, where his father was buried – had been shut or sold. This is not only a national tragedy, but a personal one.

New Atheism assumed that, as people abandoned Christianity they would embrace a sort of enlightened, secular position. The death of Christian Scotland shows this was wrong. Faith there has been replaced by derangement and the birthplace of the Scottish enlightenment – which rose out of Christian principles – now worships intolerant new gods.

The SNP’s draconian hate crime legislation is a totemic example. Merely stating facts of biology might earn you a visit from the Scottish police. But perhaps Christianity has shaped even this. It cannot be a coincidence that Scotland, home of John Knox, is now at the forefront of the denigration of women. The SNP’s new blasphemy laws are just the latest blast of that trumpet.

Not that things are much better south of the border, where we have de facto blasphemy laws under which a teacher can be forced into hiding for showing his class a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed. Certainly not the neutral secular space we were promised with the erosion of Christianity’s central role in society.

Yet increasingly, the thesis of Tom Holland’s book Dominion seems to be winning out, via a growing recognition that the ethics we hold as natural and universal are, in fact, anything but. Much of what atheists ascribed to vague concepts of “reason” emerged out of the faith which informed the West’s intellectual, moral, and, yes, scientific life – a cultural oxygen we breathe but never see.

I am reminded of Levin’s epiphany at the end of Anna Karenina. Throughout the novel, Levin, a dissatisfied religious sceptic, is plagued with doubt over the purpose of existence. Yet he finally comes to a stark realisation about the real roots of his belief, and the limits of a “rational” life: “He had lived (without being aware of it) on those spiritual truths that he had sucked in with his mother’s milk. But he had thought, not merely without recognition of these truths, but studiously ignoring them.” The world isn’t morally neutral, and never has been.

Recognising Christianity’s cultural impact is the first step. The bigger task facing the West is living out these values in an age when they are increasingly under threat.

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