“Please, Professor Dawkins, can I be a cultural atheist?” (an open letter)

by Richard on December 12, 2007

Tortoise, a regular commenter here, responds to Richard Dawkins’ self-description as “a cultural Christian”.

Dear Professor Dawkins

I think we can agree that this is contextually a post-Christendom country.

And yes, like everybody else I enjoy watching The Golden Compass (or reading The Da Vinci Code, or singing along to that old jazz number It Ain’t Necessarily So, or countless other activities that would seem to reflect a sceptical approach to religious faith and its institutions). Furthermore, at this time of year I’m as likely as the next person to overindulge in mince pies and mulled wine, to get caught up in the commercialism, to drop heavy hints about expensive and extravagant objects of desire that I hope to find under the tree come Christmas Day.

The trouble is, though, that I am a person of faith. You might legitimately say that I am dogmatic in my intellectual rejection of atheism in all its forms.

Am I being hypocritical, therefore, in quaffing so freely from the tankard of post-Christian culture? Is it legitimate, or even possible, for me to “suspend my belief” in this way?

This has been a troubling dilemma for me. I was relieved therefore to read of your own enjoyment in singing Christmas carols, and indeed your magnanimous acceptance of this nation’s Christian traditions and history.

So would it be alright with you if I regard myself as a cultural atheist?

Perhaps we could, in a cultural sense at least, swap places for a while. By all means go ahead and have a good sing about midwinter snow in Bethlehem, and an infant who doesn’t even cry. Meanwhile I’ll book my panto tickets, put an inflatable snowman in the front garden, and sing Jingle Bells to my heart’s content.

But then, I wonder whether we can really disengage our behavioural selves from our intellectual selves in the manner you suggest. If we enter into the practices of a particular culture, then sooner or later don’t we find that something of the spirit of that culture rubs off on us? Don’t we end up preaching what we practise?

So, when Christmas is over for another year and you and I swap places back again, perhaps I’ll find myself wanting to challenge unthinking pietism and the introspective traditionalism to which some religious people can be prone. Perhaps I’ll ask awkward questions of people of faith; perhaps I’ll demand to know how and why the Chrismas message of “Peace on earth and goodwill to all” has been transformed into authoritarian dogma and too-ready acceptance of continuing warfare and injustice.

And perhaps you might welcome that.

But I wonder, Professor Dawkins: after you’ve celebrated Christmas, what will you do next year?

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }


Kim 12.12.07 at 8:30 am

Delicious post, TT. “Cultural atheist” - a term that deserves to take its place in our cultural discourse. Thanks!


PamBG 12.12.07 at 7:58 pm

Love it! :-)

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