Paul L. Caron

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Who Are These ‘Cultural Christians’|'Christian Atheists'?

Kevin Williamson (The Dispatch), Who Are These ‘Cultural Christians’?:

Christian sensibility, but without the belief, is very little more than niceness inflated to the point of metaphysical comedy.

A peculiar phenomenon of our time is the so-called cultural Christian or even “Christian atheist,” by which is meant someone who finds the moral claims and cultural sensibility of Christianity sympathetic but who does not (will not, cannot) accept the fundamental claim of Christianity, i.e. that the Creator of the universe embodied Himself in the form of a first-century Palestinian Jew who was tortured and put to death before rising from the dead to provide a fallen humanity with a path to redemption.

I do not much blame these “cultural Christians,” a breed that is increasingly common in conservative political circles, inasmuch as the supernatural claims of Christianity are—I write this as a believing Christian—positively absurd on first hearing. Also on second and third hearing, and for many more hearings, and sometimes (often, I think) to the committed and convinced Christian. There are lots of true things that sound crazy. ...

So, why the “cultural Christian”? Where does he come from, and what does he want?

People who take an instrumental and political view of Christianity, however well-meaning (Dennis Prager is an example of this kind), sometimes argue that only “Judeo-Christian religion”—and there is no Judeo-Christian religion, nor are there “Judeo-Christian values” in any meaningful sense—provides a possible basis for a sound moral life, including the moral basis of national political life. This is, of course, what T. S. Eliot called the “dangerous inversion,” i.e., the argument that we should accept the supernatural claims of Christianity because they are useful for fortifying a moral sensibility when we should, instead, derive our moral sensibility from the truth of Christianity, if we believe it to be true, or from something else that we believe to be true rather than merely convenient. In a sense, the non-believer who sympathizes with Christianity is more of an enemy than is the frank atheist who hates Christianity—because the “cultural Christian” trivializes Christianity. The cultural Christian believes that Christianity is false and that this does not matter, while an evangelical atheist such as the late Christopher Hitchens believes that Christianity is false and that this does matter—that it matters a great deal. In that much, I am with Hitchens: Better to have a cruel and unforgiving society founded on the truth than to practice kindness based on a lie. ...

When people say they are sympathetic with the Christian sensibility, what they often are saying is that they take a sympathetic view of Western civilization, and that they prefer a traditional (but not too traditional!) approach to culture and community life. Christianity did in a profound sense create Europe—previously only a geographic term—but the two are not synonymous, and Christianity is Christianity everywhere in the world it is practiced. Those who want to use Christianity as a bulwark of national identity are even more wrongheaded—Christendom has always been a thorn in the side of nationalists, who from the time of the Reformation forward felt compelled to build their own national churches precisely to insulate national feeling and defend national power from the competing claims of a multinational religious communion. The Catholic Church was the original European Union in its princelier period—even down to the fact that the English eventually grew so irritated by it that they Brexited their way out of it during the reign of Henry VIII. (Henry II had walked halfway down the same road three centuries and some earlier.) If “cultural Christianity” means that Christians should happily cooperate with American nationalists who wish to use Christianity the way Recep Tayyip Erdoğan uses Islam, then “cultural Christianity” must be not only rejected but defeated. ...

If by “cultural Christian” we mean an atheist who is pro-life, who prefers a traditional model of marriage and family life, who believes that Western civilization is superior to its competitors, that hedonic consumerism is not the highest good, etc.—in that case, why not leave Christianity out of it altogether? Christians do not believe the same things as Jews, but pro-life Christians work easily with pro-life Jews toward pro-life ends, and they do not have to trivialize either their own religion or the Jewish religion to do so. (For that matter, the community of pro-life Christians contains within it rival religious communions that, if pressed, might not concede that some of the others are in fact Christian at all.) My advice—and my preference—is that the atheists should go and be happy atheists and not worry about being some sort of ersatz “Christian atheists.” 

As Elijah did not quite put it: If the Lord is God, then follow Him, but if Baal or Ron DeSantis or good public order is what you really care about, then you know what to do. In any case, you should stop fooling yourself—you aren’t fooling anybody else. But if you are an atheist who is pro-life, who prefers a traditional model of marriage and family life, who believes that Western civilization is superior to its competitors, that hedonic consumerism is not the highest good, etc., then you might ask yourself why you believe these things and upon what basis your beliefs stand. Maybe it is because you grew up in a (still barely) Christian civilization, or in something that was one until very recently, and you think that what this has produced is good—which only leads you back to the first question. If your answer is “culture”—culture only, and not one step farther—then you’re looking at turtles all the way down. 

Editor's Note:  If you would like to receive a weekly email each Sunday with links to the faith posts on TaxProf Blog, email me here.

Faith, Legal Education | Permalink