Richard Dawkins’ “cultural Christianity,” political theologies, and the Church of Pope Francis

cultural Christian

Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and ethologist and one of the most famous atheists in the world, announced just a few weeks ago that he is a cultural Christian:

“I do think we are culturally a Christian country. I call myself a cultural Christian.”

He said this in an interview with Rachel Johnson for LBC radio, in which they discussed how the Muslim month of Ramadan was being celebrated in London’s Oxford Street, instead of the Christian feast of Easter.

Dawkins, whose scientist atheism was memorably dismantled by the critique of Terry Eagleton, said in that same interview that he recognised the benefits of Christian culture and enjoyed “living in a culturally Christian country”.

At the same time though, he did “not believe a word of the Christian faith”.

In slightly different terms, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Muslim and now former atheist, recently declared that she has converted to Christianity: the announcement of a political conversion, as a “desire to uphold the legacy of the Judeo-Christian tradition.”

This is one of the possible responses to the collapse of cultural Christianity in Europe and in the West: not just in terms of the political inability of the Churches to maintain a certain role of religion in the public square through legislation, however.

It’s also a possible response in terms of “ex-culturation” (as French sociologist of religion Danièle Hervieu-Léger called it more than two decades ago) and “de-culturation” (as French political scientist Olivier Roy named it in more recent times).

This is not new.

I remember the attempt in the mid-1990s by Cardinal Camillo Ruini (for many years president of the Italian bishops’ conference and John Paul II’s vicar for the Diocese of Rome), to launch a “cultural project” for Italian Catholicism.

One of the unintended (or maybe intended) consequences of that project was the rise in Berlusconi’s Italy between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s of the so-called “devout atheists” on the right side of the ideological spectrum.

It’s a project which evidently did not accomplish its goals given that Italian Catholicism is on its way, even though in its own way, towards ex-culturation and de-culturation similar to other European countries.

Relationship between Gospel and culture

Until a few years ago, a certain kind of progressive and liberal Catholic used to rejoice for the collapse of cultural Christianity, which was seen as a burden from Christendom and an obstacle for the transmission of a purer Gospel message.

Now things appear a little more complex in the relationship between Gospel and culture.

Clearly embracing Christianity instrumentally, for cultural and political reasons, is often a fearful reaction against the diversification of our societies, against the lost dominance of Christianity in favor of the growing presence of other religious identities (especially Islam) in the Western world.

It is not surprising that more and more often these “political” conversions arrive in Europe from the far left or militant secularism.

From a theological point of view, professing an attachment to the culture of Christianity as a defense against other religious and cultural identities is clearly problematic.

The first problem is because a political-cultural Christianity instrumentalises the legacy produced by believers in Jesus Christ (believers in various and always imperfect ways) for goals that are not the ones of the Gospel.

It embraces a particularly narrow view of Christian culture that does not recognise the authority of non-Western Christianities (sometimes with traditions older than the Roman Catholic Church) because they cannot be identified with European Christendom.

Leaving the Christian message in the hands of this kind of “cultural Christianity” entails many consequences and not just in terms of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue and of civil coexistence in our multi-religious societies.

It also prevents a correct interpretation of the Gospel which is not at the service of one particular culture at the exclusion of others.

It is not surprising, therefore, that this new wave of cultural Christianity contains a political theology that both liberal-secular mainstream and progressive Christians clearly do not appreciate because it is a preparation or already part of a civilisational war.

Understanding of “culture”

Two questions arise here.

The first question concerns intellectual and academic work. What are the differences and similarities between this kind of “cultural Christianity” on the right and the radical-progressive political theologies on the left?

Within the Churches in the West, including the Catholic Church, there is another kind of cultural Christianity that risks being similarly opportunistic towards the Gospel.

Important streams in 21st-century political theology around race and gender in academic departments in Anglo-American universities are often a form of cultural attachment to and development of the liberationist turn of Christian thought.

But often without any reference to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the faith perspective, in absence of references to the incarnational-sacramental imagination, ecclesial intentionality, and the graces of the Incarnation and the Resurrection.

This kind of progressive cultural Christianity has been a more welcome guest in academic theology in the West.

It remains to be seen if and how this challenge from “cultural Christians” will impact liberal-progressive theology that operationalizes an understanding of “culture” as a gateway to more diversity, inclusion, and dialogue.

The second question concerns the relationship between faith and culture in today’s Church.

It’s the symptom of the new semantics of “culture” from something that silently unites in lived experiences to something that becomes a politically militant platform in defense of a lost homogeneity.

But we must pay attention to the intergenerational character of these conversions, which no longer concern only the elderly struggling with nostalgia, but also a certain number of young people.

It’s not, as it was in the early post-Vatican II period, an archeological, Agatha Christie-like passion for the splendor of a bygone era. Now it’s something different.

Tensions between “the West and the rest”

More crucially, this wave of “cultural Christians” represents one of the tensions between “the West and the rest” during this pontificate.

In ways significantly different from his predecessors, Pope Francis embodies a non-European, “global south” Catholicism that vindicates the need for a process of liberation from Western culture, and a deeper inculturation in local non-Western traditions, in order to be more Catholic.

Conversely, “cultural Christians” in the West are looking for the opposite: a recovery of the cultural legacy of Christianity bestowed in past centuries – philosophy, literature, arts – to preserve some sense of collective self.

This clash of trajectories runs deeper than the usual, lazy, and largely Western “liberal vs. conservative” characterization of what is happening in Catholicism today.

The problem of the relationship between Christianity and culture has re-emerged at this time of disestablishment of the ecclesiastical and theological system created by the Churches in the West over the centuries.

Theologically, Dawkins’s “a-Christian Christianity” is the wrong answer to that problem.

But it’s also an unconscious way to ask the real question that is on the horizon: what it means, in the globaliesd Church of today, to begin a new phase of inculturation in the West now ex-culturated from Christianity.

  • First published in La Croix International
  • Massimo Faggioli is an Italian academic, Church historian, professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University and columnist for La Croix International
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