It was always two articles of faith for the New Atheists that religion would eventually disappear if society were cleansed of its superstitions with reason and that this was a desirable state of affairs as religion, as they liked to lecture us, is the root of all evil and poisons everything.  

Yet Richard Dawkins, the British biologist and one-time head honcho of New Atheism, has not always stuck closely to the above two tenets. He has had his heretical moments for he has praised the literary genius of the King James’ Bible Translation, expressed a liking of Christmas carols and church bells and when asked whether there was any kind of religion he can tolerate, his answer was a very mild Anglicanism. Dawkins has also extolled the influence of Christian morals for such things as its promotion of women’s rights. For a man who once said that it was a good thing to ridicule religious people for their beliefs, that is a stunning admittance. Dawkins therefore is a cultural Christian. 

He called himself such in a recent interview with the London-based radio station LBC’s Rachel Johnson with the emphasis firmly upon the word cultural, for Dawkins is “happy” that “the number of people who actually believe in Christianity is going down” but would “not be happy” if “we lost all our cathedrals and our beautiful parish churches”. 

As Esme Partridge has observed, Dawkins is a child of the liberal Enlightenment attitude to Christianity represented by two thinkers: John Locke (1632-1704) and Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755). Locke called religious beliefs superstitions, but his political philosophy rested on Christian ethics. So confident was Locke in the power of Christian morality that he believed that people would adhere to it even when there was no religious order to sustain it. Like Dawkins, Montesquieu ridiculed religious beliefs but recognised the debt Western civilisation owed to the way Christianity had shaped political law and the conduct of war. For Montesquieu as for Locke, Christian morals are so fundamentally decent, they will survive even when the metaphysical beliefs that underpin them have disappeared.  

Yet Locke, Montesquieu and Dawkins are naïve. As Rod Dreher observes, their view is that of someone who “greatly enjoys eating but is also glad that farms in his country are closing and that gardens are not being planted.” By denying the truth of Christianity’s supernatural beliefs, such as the Incarnation and the Resurrection, Dawkins and his forebears are cutting away the authoritative source that sustains Christian culture.  

The thinker who most perceptively saw this was Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) whose anti-Christian philosophy did not stop him from issuing the warning 136 years ago that the death of belief in the Christian God would destroy Christian morality also and a new morality would have to be created. Nietzsche saw rightly that Christianity is a system, a complete worldview, whose leading concept is belief in God and if that is removed from it, the whole belief-system, including its moral code, is destroyed. As Christianity presupposes that humans can only know what is right and wrong because of what God tells them, Christian morality is therefore a divine command. Thus, if belief in God falls and there is no divine, moral authority, so there is no authority on which Christian morality is founded. 

The history of ideas proves Nietzsche is right. All worldviews and belief systems rest on the belief in something that is transcendent whether that transcendence is God or some kind of overarching, history-shaping force. The French revolutionaries of 1789 who rejected Catholicism replaced it with the cult of Reason. The two dominant, secular worldviews of our age, liberalism and Marxism, also illustrate this point well. Liberalism has Christian roots and in its secular form places its faith in progress and rests on the moral objectivity of human rights and the metaphysics of free will. Marxism depends on belief in the inevitability of conflict between the classes and a faith that at the end of history, the proletariat will rise triumphantly from its struggle with bourgeois capitalism and create a class-free paradise. Marxism, for all its dialectical materialism, has the shape of Judaeo-Christian teleology.   

Contemporary commentators more percipient than Dawkins are very aware that we are now in the moral crisis Nietzsche prophesied. The popular historian Tom Holland, in his recent discussion with Justin Brierley for the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity (LICC), mulled over what moral options civilisation has now that Christian belief is waning. He sees three possible paths but does not discount the idea that there are more. The first is that the West will continue to go down the path of ‘progressive’ ideology and identity politics which is born of Christian concern for the weak such as minorities and the equality of all people, but which has become unchristian, particularly in the unforgiving phenomenon of ‘cancel culture’. The second path is the resurrection of ideas that Christianity has long suppressed such as the Greco-Roman world’s mores of civilian massacres in war, male sexual domination of women and slavery. Finally, Holland envisages that due to the fear that Christian morality will give way to progressive politics or ancient morality, people will once more accord respect to Christianity.     

It is the third path that Justin Brierley, Holland’s interlocutor at the LICC conference, believes is happening. In his recent book, The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God, Brierley presents evidence that influential public voices, such as Holland, Douglas Murray, Jordan Peterson and Louise Perry, are recognising Christianity’s value as the cultural force that has given the West its liberal (in the old-fashioned sense), democratic values. This, Brierley believes in his bolder moments, may even portend a resurrection of belief in Christian supernatural beliefs such as the Incarnation and the Resurrection. 

Without the unifying and stabilising effect of Christian belief, the West is fracturing into a chaos of self-interested ideologies which is delighting its enemies, namely China and Russia, whose subversion of Western culture through social media has helped this process. If that sounds far-fetched, look at the US which is more divided than it has ever been culturally and politically since the Civil War. It is not enough to defend those Christian-based moral values we all value such as equality before the law, women’s rights and free speech by calling ourselves cultural Christians. As Nietzsche recognised, without its theological convictions, Christian morality is dead. Let us hope and yes, even pray, that Brierley’s instincts about a Christian revival are right otherwise as Nietzsche described in his ‘Parable of the Madman,’ our civilisation without God, like a planet cut loose from the sun, will have no direction. Then it will fall, pell mell, into anarchy or dictatorship.