Thursday, April 4, 2024

Cultural free-riders

Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, and a prominent one. But he is more widely known as one of the New Atheists. Consequently, a recent comment has received a bit of attention, for example:
...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. ....

...[T]his 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. ....

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. ....

...[I]ncreasingly, 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. .... (more)

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