Cultural Christianity: Richard Dawkins, Atheism, and Morality

By Richard Young | Posted April 15, 2024

Imagine an atheist and a Christian debating God’s existence. After the usual arguments over first cause and design, the conversation drifts toward morality. The Christian argues that morals came from God, who gave humanity His moral law, the Ten Commandments. The atheist says that morals were not from above, not from God, but were cultural and social—mere human creations. What’s more, he insists, one culture didn’t have the right to judge the morality of another.

“Kind, sir,” the Christian retorts, “some cultures teach you to love your neighbors, others to eat them. Which do you prefer?”

A cute story, but it points to something important regarding how humans, whatever they believe, try to live their lives and raise their families. And it fits right with the recent hubbub when Richard Dawkins, the world’s most recognizable atheist apologist, claimed that he was a “cultural Christian.”

Dawkins claiming to be a Christian—of any kind?

What’s going on with that?

The New Atheists

They were known as the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” or less dramatically as the “New Atheists”: Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and, most famously, Richard Dawkins, who all came to prominence after the 9/11 attacks. Refusing to differentiate, for instance, between Christians who feed the homeless on the streets of India, and Muslim fanatics who crashed airlines into buildings, they wrote books, articles, and blogs excoriating all religions and all religious believers, no matter their faith or their actions.

Of the four, Richard Dawkins, 83, a British biologist and prolific writer (books like The Selfish Gene, Unweaving the Rainbow, and others), became most well-known, especially with his 2006 bestselling tome The God Delusion, in which he declared: “I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.”1

And: “I have found it an amusing strategy, when asked whether I am an atheist, to point out that the questioner is also an atheist when considering Zeus, Apollo, Amon Ra, Mithras, Baal, Thor, Wotan, the Golden Calf and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I just go one god further.”2

Though their bombast eventually wore thin, even among other atheists, and they faded from the limelight, Dawkins has continued his anti-religion rhetoric and remains the world’s most well-known atheist apologist.

The Cultural Christian

This was why in an Easter interview, he caused a stir when, talking about England, he said. “I do think we are culturally a Christian country. I call myself a cultural Christian. … I’m not a believer, but there is a distinction between being a believing Christian and a cultural Christian. … I love hymns and Christmas carols and I sort of feel at home in the Christian ethos, and I feel that we are a Christian country in that sense.”

A “cultural Christian”?

Some find the idea absurd. The word “Christian” means “Christ-like,” and what culture is like Christ? What, then, could being a “cultural Christian” mean? Loving hymns and Christmas carols no more makes you Christian than liking matzoh ball soup and potato latkes makes you Jewish.

Most revealing, however, was his statement that he felt at home with the Christian “ethos,” which includes its morals. He made this statement while explaining his discomfort with Islam and how it manifests. In other words, he is saying that he likes Christian morality even if he doesn’t like Christian doctrine.

Free-Loading Atheists?

All this leads to the question of where atheists get their moral compass from. One does not have to believe in God to be moral or good (at least as the world defines “good”). Rather, the point is that atheists don’t have any secure source of absolute morality—or of defining what is good.

John-Paul Sartre, perhaps the last century’s most well-known atheist, wrote that the atheist “thinks it very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him; there can no longer be an a priori Good since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it.”3

For instance, central to Christianity is the idea of an innate human freedom to make or not make moral choices; otherwise, how could God fairly judge, much less condemn, anyone, as the Bible says that He will? He couldn’t.

Evolutionary biologist William Provine said, “If no God exists, then no ultimate foundations for ethics exist, no ultimate meaning in life exists, and free will is merely a human myth.”4

That’s why Dawkins, based on his atheistic, mechanistic view of the world, including the human nervous system, finds the idea of moral free choice nonsensical. He even said that people have no more free choice than does an automobile.

Yet that has led him to a problem.

“When a young man pressed him on the issue after a public lecture, however, Dawkins admitted that he does not practice what he preaches. He does not treat the very idea of responsibility as nonsense. He does hold people responsible for their actions: ‘I blame people, I give people credit.’ ‘But don’t you see that as an inconsistency in your views?’ the young man asked. Dawkins replied, ‘I sort of do, yes. But it is an inconsistency that we sort of have to live with, otherwise life would be intolerable.’”5

That is, he has to draw from something else, like Christianity and the human moral freedom it teaches; otherwise, life would be, in his own words, intolerable.

Some atheists are open about where they get their morals from, such as the late hard-nosed Darwinist Richard Rorty, who admitted that the concept of human rights originates from “religious claims that human beings are made in the image of God.” Rorty also writes: “This Jewish and Christian element in our tradition is gratefully invoked by free-loading atheists like myself.” 

In other words, nothing in his atheism or Darwinism could give him this concept of morality; he had to pilfer it from the Bible, a book that he otherwise did not believe in.6

Whether admitting it or not, Dawkins does the same freeloading: He takes from a religion that he does not accept at all but needs in order to help make sense of his life. Despite his in-your-face disdain for Christianity, he has absorbed its “ethos” anyway.

Otherwise—what? Would he rather live in a culture in which you ate your neighbors as opposed to loving them? Not likely.

To learn more about how God views right and wrong, and how we can know the difference between them, read “Written in Stone,” which points us to the foundation of all morality: God’s law.


1. Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin Company, New York; 2006) p. 36.

2. Ibid. p. 53 

3. Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism and Human Emotions (The Wisdom Library; New York; 1957). p. 22.

4. From a debate between William B. Provine and Phillip E. Johnson at Stanford University, April 30, 1994, titled “Darwinism: Science or Naturalistic Philosophy?”

5. Pearcey, Nancy. Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes (p. 158). David C Cook. Kindle Edition

6. Richard Rorty, “Postmodernist Bourgeois Liberalism,” Journal of Philosophy 80, no. 10 (October 1983): 583–89.

Richard Young
Richard Young is a writer for Amazing Facts International and other online and print publications.

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