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Richard Dawkins: A Christian?

In John’s Gospel, Jesus says: “I have come that you may have life, life to the full.” (Jn 10:10)  Life, in other words, in abundance.  Life in all its fullness.  Life the way it was meant to be. 

Richard Dawkins shocked the World Easter Sunday when, in an interview, he declared that he considers himself a cultural Christian.  If you aren’t familiar, Dawkins is one of the most famous atheists of our day, a leader of the so-called “New Atheists.”  Years ago, he wrote a hugely impactful, best-selling book called The God Delusion.  In that book, he called belief in God, including belief in Jesus, a “pernicious” superstition.  Complete and utter nonsense. 

I read The God Delusion when it first came out.  As I recall, one of the points Dawkins harped on most was that many of our most pernicious modern ills are rooted in this pernicious delusion.  That’s why I, along with many others, am so shocked that Dawkins is now extolling the benefits of “cultural” Christianity. 

In his Easter interview, which you can easily find on YouTube, Dawkins goes on to say that he is worried about the state of (cultural) Christianity of the United Kingdom.  He fears that it is being eroded—in pernicious ways!  Even though he staunchly maintains his atheism—he still thinks Christian belief in things like the Virgin Birth or Jesus’ Resurrection are delusionary—he wants Great Britian to retain its Christian roots and civilization. 

Why?  Well, in addition to several nostalgic and aesthetic aspects of Christianity he sincerely enjoys, namely its hymns and Christmas carols—who knew!—Dawkins is concerned that the erosion of Christian values, specifically values like the equal dignity of all, will result in dire consequences for the UK.  In fact, he says that he prefers Christianity to every other religion, every other belief system.  Because, more than any other belief system, the values of Christianity enable human flourishing. 

In what can only be described as a stunning reversal, Dawkins now sees the merit—and even urgent need—in maintaining the values this “pernicious delusion” produces.

“I came that you may have life, life to the full.”

The Vatican recently released a new document called Dignitas Infinita, “Infinite Dignity” in English.  In it, Pope Francis talks poignantly about the “drama of poverty” and emphasizes the urgent need to treat all people, especially the least and most marginalized among us, with an infinite dignity.  He argues that this dignity is not something we give ourselves or assign to others.  We can’t.  Whatever dignity we’d bestow would be grounded in our finite human judgment which is all too unsteady and unreliable.  For us to have an infinite dignity, a dignity that has the requite depth and unshakable constancy it would need to be meaningful and have real potency, it must be grounded in One who is infinite, who is capable of endowing us with something that has infinite breadth.  For human dignity to have real substance and staying power, it must be endowed on us by God.  By His grace. 

Surprisingly, Francis doesn’t ground the infinite dignity of every human being, as is normally done, in Genesis—the fact that we are made in God’s image.  Instead, he grounds our infinite dignity in the Incarnation—the fact that God took human weakness and vulnerability upon Himself and died to save us.  If this is how much God loves us, then we must be infinitely precious to Him.  

What else would drive God to pay an infinite price to redeem us?  Because that’s exactly what the Christian conviction claims Jesus did.  As God, throughout eternity, the eternal Son would have only known the infinite love of the Trinity.  When He experienced the abandonment of God on the Cross, when He was separated from this love, it was a loss of infinite proportion.  For Him to be willing to pay this infinite price to save us means we must be infinitely precious to Him.  By virtue of the Incarnation then, we are endowed with an infinite dignity no finite human can ever take away or diminish in the least.    

“I came that you may have life, life to the full.”

There is a tremendous chasm, however, between the breathtaking recognition that all humans possess this intrinsic dignity and the way we normally look at and treat one another.   

There is a tremendous chasm between this infinite dignity and how we inevitably tend to live in such a self-consumed way that we look right through people, especially the least, who are usually invisible to us, or look at people as a means to our desired end. 

There is a tremendous chasm between what we know we should be and what we actually are, between how we are meant to live and how we actually live.   

There is a tremendous chasm between the fullness of life Jesus is inviting us to experience and the mind-numbingly myopic lives we so often live. 

Dawkin’s fear that his Christian culture is slipping away has poignantly exposed this chasm.  He is worried that it will devolve into a compassionless society that has little regard for equality and human rights.  But, as the Christian belief system undergirding his culture would tell him, this is the human condition.  This tremendous chasm between what is and what should be betrays the inevitable tendency within all of us, the fundamental brokenness of our nature.  A brokenness that we can’t fix.  No matter how acutely aware we become of it.  No matter how hard we try to change it.    

That’s why the same belief system that affirms our intrinsic dignity as no other belief system ever has also says we need a savior.  The same Christian belief system that tells us we are infinitely precious to God also tells us that we are so broken we are utterly helpless in fixing ourselves—just look at the sad record of history and all the incomprehensible cruelty humans continue to inflict on one another despite all the repeated admonitions throughout the centuries to live out the Golden Rule.  And Christianity goes on to tell us that, in our broken state, we are so fragile that the only thing that can fix us is to be convinced that our lives have significance and meaning and value.  That we are, in other words, precious—infinitely precious—to God.  Because, if we aren’t absolutely convinced, beyond all doubt, that we are infinitely precious to God, we will never be convinced anyone else is either.  If we don’t have perfect assurance that we have an infinite dignity, we will never be able to see the infinite dignity in anyone else. 

But there is one thing, and one thing only, that can convince us that we are this precious to God—if we see God loving us the way He does in Jesus.  That’s why we need Jesus, a savior.  The Incarnation—and crucifixion—is what it takes to convince us we have an infinite dignity.  This is what it takes to transform our brokenness. 

What Dawkins rejects as a delusion is the one and only thing that can enable us to live the way he wants people to live, the way we were meant to live. 

“I came that you may have life, life to the full.”

Want proof?  Want proof that Christianity does this as no other belief system can? 

First off, it’s simply a historical fact.  Dawkins is only beginning to discover what a number of prominent historians have been demonstrating for decades: The historical record clearly shows that Christianity has had a profoundly positive, transformative effect on any culture it touches.  And, especially as it relates to seeing the human person being endowed with an infinite dignity, no other belief system throughout history has managed to achieve this same effect.  Despite numerous shameful episodes, like the Crusades or Inquisition, it is an indisputable historical fact that when and where Christianity has been authentically lived, when and where people have taken this belief system seriously, when and where they have put their faith in a God who loved them so much He became human and died to save them, they have also bridged the chasm to live the way we all know we are meant to.  It is an undeniable historical fact that it was people authentically living the Christian belief system who, for example, were the source of our understanding of human rights, esteem for women and children, the virtue of charity, the need to be concerned for the poor, and the creation of hospitals. 

Moreover, where “Christian” cultures fall short of honoring the equal dignity of all, where they fail to see and provide for the least among us, where they are oppressive, patriarchal, and unjust, it is the Christian belief system itself that subverts them, that topples them, that brings them down.  Continually.  Relentlessly.  As one ancient historian has recently shown, it is remarkable how frequently this has happened.  As he concludes, in the cultures the Christian belief system has touched, no oppressor nor oppressive system or oppressive ideology is safe!  From its earliest impact by subverting the hierarchical Roman Empire with its radically egalitarian counter culture, in many different and varied ways across history, this belief system keeps challenging, uprooting, and eventually overturning any system or ideology that doesn’t honor the infinite dignity of all. 

Lastly, as many writers through the ages have observed, from the Roman critics of the Early Church to the top scholar of comparative religions in our time, Huston Smith, when authentically lived, the Christian belief brings a joy, a fullness of life, that is utterly unique.  By convincing  believers that they are infinitely precious to God and thereby enabling them to see the infinite dignity of every other person, Christianity provides a joy nothing else can: God’s own joy.  The joy He knows in loving this way.  Let me give you one quick example.    

In our consumeristic culture, the only thing we’re convinced of is that giving up everything to follow Jesus—or even just denying ourselves to trust our life to Him—would result in misery.  We esteem comfort, entertainment, self-fulfillment.  So we’re convinced that the only thing the Christian belief system can bring us is a life of drudgery and discomfort. 

But look at those through history who have given up everything to follow Jesus.  They are anything but miserable.  In their discomfort, their simplicity, their self-denial, they exude a joy that eludes our culture.  While we are dealing with unprecedented rates of loneliness, depression, and suicide, these “miserable folk” seem to have discovered the secret to life. 

Philip Yancey provides a great illustration.  As a journalist, Yancey has had the opportunity to interview all kinds of celebrities, from movie stars to musicians to professional athletes.  He’s also interviewed far more obscure people, including many who’ve dedicated their lives to Christian service—doctors who work with leprosy patients, health workers ministering to those suffering from Aids, relief workers in some of the poorest regions on earth, to name a few. 

As a general rule, he’s observed that those who have everything our culture thinks we need to be happy are usually the most miserable people he’s come across in life—and most miserable to be around!  Conversely, he finds that those who are authentically living out the Christian belief system are not only to be admired for taking the infinite dignity of all, especially the poor and most marginalized, seriously.  They are to be envied! 

As Yancey candidly admits, before meeting them, he fully expected to be in awe of the sacrifices many of these interview subjects have made.  But what he wasn’t prepared for was to find himself envying them.  He found that each of them exuded a joy and possessed a fullness of life that he could only describe as enviable.  Because they were living—and loving—the way we are all meant to.  They were experiencing a joy that can only be found in this kind of life, this kind of love.  The kind of love that is only found in Christ, the conviction that flows out of how infinitely precious we are to Him. (The Jesus I Never Knew, pp. 117-118) 

“I have come that you may have life, life to the full.”

It’s historical fact: What Richard Dawkins so highly esteems about Christian culture was only made possible by those who believed what he considers a delusion.  But if this delusion, this belief, this conviction that God finds us so infinitely precious that He would die for us, is the one and only thing that has enabled human beings to see the infinite dignity of all people, if it yields a fullness of life nothing else does, perhaps it is no delusion.  Perhaps we were made for this.  Perhaps this love is the true origin of our species. 

“I came that you may have life, life to the full.”

Yes, He did.  And yes, we can.  If we follow Him.  That’s why we need Jesus.

What do you think of Richard Dawkin’s stunning reversal?  Do you think it’s possible to be a cultural Christian without accepting its belief system?  Go to the “Contact E. J.” Page of the Raising Jesus Website to share any comments you have.  I look forward to hearing from you!

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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