Confession time: I’m a cultural Christian


Confession time: I’m a cultural Christian

Allahu akbar, namaste and God bless you: MAX DU PREEZ wonders if you can be an atheist but a "cultural Christian". Or even a "cultural" Muslim or Hindu? Or perhaps a devout Muslim but not a cultural one? And he believes many atheists and not all Christians will land up in heaven


THE high priest of atheism, Richard Dawkins, declared this week that he is a “cultural Christian", even though he doesn't believe a word of the Christian religion.

Dawkins, whose 2006 book The God Delusion was almost a sacred text for atheists, has been sharply criticised in intellectual circles, especially by other atheists, for his statements in a British television interview.

But his critics find it difficult to admit that there is indeed something like an ethos centred on different faiths.

Nowhere in the debates following his interview do I see any discussion of the reality that all religions also have a strong geographic and ethnic basis, and thus a cultural basis.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

It is not coincidental that by far most Christians live in the West and Africa, most Muslims in Arab states and countries such as Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia, and most Hindus in India.

Protestantism is perhaps the least tied to a dominant culture or ethnicity of all religious movements. Judaism is only for ethnic Jews or people who are willing to go through the complex rituals to become Jews; Arabic is universally the language of Islam; the Catholic Church is not called the Roman Church for nothing, and its headquarters are in the Vatican; the Orthodox churches are mostly based in Greece, Russia and eastern Europe; and so on.

But as a Protestant, you can fully live out your faith in your own culture and environment and even add elements from your culture and past: such as the Zionist Christian Church, the Baptists of America and elsewhere, the three Afrikaans sister churches, the Lutheran Church, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, and the Evangelicals and Pentecostals here and elsewhere.

Let's first look at what Dawkins said.

“I do think that we are culturally a Christian country, and I call myself a cultural Christian. I’m not a believer, but there is a distinction between a believing Christian and being a cultural Christian.

“I love hymns and Christmas carols and I sort of feel at home in the Christian ethos. We are a Christian country in that sense. It's true that statistically the number of people who actually believe in Christianity is going down and I’m happy with that. But I would not be happy if, for example, we lost all our cathedrals or our beautiful parish churches. So I think it would matter if we substituted it with an alternative religion, that would be dreadful.”

The interviewer, Rachel Johnson, then mentions that church attendance is sharply declining but that 6,000 mosques are under construction in Europe. Does Dawkins see this as a problem?

“Yes, I do, really,” Dawkins responds. “If I have to choose between Christianity and Islam, I choose Christianity every single time. It seems to me to be a fundamentally decent religion in a way that I think Islam is not.”

Why is that? asks Johnson. He replies: “The way women are treated. I mean Christianity is not great about that, many problems with female vicars and bishops. But there is an active hostility towards women which is promoted by the holy book of Islam. I’m not talking about individual Muslims who, of course, may be quite different, but the doctrine of Islam, the Hadith and the Quran, is fundamentally hostile to women, hostile to gays, and I find that I like to live in a culturally Christian country although I do not believe a single word of the Christian faith.”

The geopolitical commentator and international entrepreneur Arnaud Bertrand immediately responded. Dawkins can thank the gods that irony is not fatal, he writes.

Bertrand says it is rather “shallow and sad" that Dawkins admits his belief and value system is based on something he dismisses as ridiculous. “And I think it's the case for many in Western ‘intellectual' elites these days, and stems from their failure — over many generations — to replace religion with a solid ideological and moral framework. Contrary to popular belief, it is perfectly possible to have a solid moral and ideological framework without religion."

I agree with the last statement: one does not need religion to have a solid moral framework. Indeed, many of the bloodiest conflicts of the last few hundred years have been driven by religion.

Our ancient ancestors developed religion as a way to formulate moral and ethical codes in order to regulate communities' behaviour. But that was many millennia ago; meanwhile, we have had the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, and humanity has since become much more sophisticated and open-minded. We no longer need to be herd animals.

In fact, my life experience has taught me that the most moral and ethical people are often not believers. A believer can sin, even abuse a child, but then they confess, are forgiven, and their path is open to do it again.

Non-believers must adhere to their own moral codes; there is no forgiveness if you break it, there are no priests and ministers and imams who can help, there is no religious Band-Aid. It's just you and your conscience.

I think if there were such a thing as heaven, many atheists would end up there, while a huge bunch of Christians would be sent to the hot place.

And yet it is surely true that the dominant religion in a particular community will have an influence on morality and ethical codes.

Back to Dawkins. I was quite surprised that such an intelligent man made such unqualified statements. I sense fear of Islam in his voice, perhaps fear of the loss of British (English?) identity with more and more immigrants making the United Kingdom their home.

The same goes for influential American television personality Bill Maher, otherwise quite a progressive man. He recently reiterated that Islam is “too much like ISIS” and is “the only religion that acts like the Mafia, that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book”.

Please take a look at this debate between Maher, Sam Harris and actor Ben Affleck.

The public intellectual and more restrained television personality Fareed Zakaria rebuked Maher in The Washington Post: “Places such as Indonesia and India have hundreds of millions of Muslims who don't fit these caricatures. That's why Maher and Harris are guilty of gross generalisations.”

I think the mistake Dawkins and people like Maher make is to equate the behaviour of certain people acting in the name of Islam with Islam itself. I know several deeply spiritual, loving, tolerant Muslims who are just as angry about what Muslim extremists sometimes do as anyone else. Imtiaz Sooliman of Gift of the Givers also springs to mind.

But are they perhaps, to abuse Dawkins, believers but not cultural Muslims?

I have been to mosques in Istanbul, Zanzibar and South Africa, but it has not brought me any spiritual tranquillity. Because women are separated from men and are considered inferior and submissive. How can that not go against my grain?

If I were to arrive on Earth today from outer space, without any socialisation or history, and had to choose a religion, it would not be Islam, mostly because of its view of women and the LGBTQ+ community.

We cannot ignore the reality that democracy is much scarcer in countries with a Muslim majority than in countries where Muslims are in the minority. All 21 countries that have criminalised religious apostasy are Muslim.

Zakaria writes: “There is a cancer of extremism within Islam today. A small minority of Muslims celebrates violence and intolerance and harbours deeply reactionary attitudes toward women and minorities. While some confront these extremists, not enough do so and the protests are not loud enough. How many mass rallies have been held against the Islamic State in the Arab world today?”

But we cannot just badmouth Islam alone and let the other major religions get away with murder.

If I were to arrive from another planet and had to choose between Islam and American Trump/MAGA evangelicals, I would choose Islam. The alternative is pure hatred, intolerance and extremism in the name of Jesus. And downright stupid, false and backward.

The Buddhists are the most peaceful believers, right? Wrong. In Sri Lanka, for example, Buddhist ultranationalists occasionally wage bloody wars against Muslims and Tamils. In Myanmar, Buddhists hunt down Muslim Rohingyas.

In India, there are occasional attacks on Muslims by Hindu groups. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling party has just passed a new immigration law that excludes Muslims.

And what about the Jewish Israelis who are in the midst of the worst genocide since Rwanda in 1994?

And if we quote the “nasty” parts of the Quran, what about the Bible? Leviticus 21:9 recommends burning prostitutes to death; Exodus 21:7 allows a man to sell his daughter as a slave. And in 1 Corinthians 14:26, Paul writes: “As in all the Christian congregations, the women should also remain silent in the meetings, as they are not allowed to speak. They must be submissive, as the law also says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home, for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the meeting.”

But let me confess: I'm sure I'm also a bit of a cultural Christian, but a South African one. (I recently outed myself here as a “genetic Calvinist”.)

The broad ethos of the mostly Christian society in which I live today embraces humanity (ubuntu), justice, tolerance and an open society, the supremacy of the law. It cares about the poor and underprivileged. And our children.

It respects women as equals and does not discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community. It tolerates other faiths. It respects the separation between church and state. It's not very prescriptive about how I should lead my life. I don't have to wear dresses or yarmulkes, but I can if I want to. I can watch rugby on Sundays. I won't be stoned if I tell the minister he's talking nonsense.

There is no Christian version of sharia.

Like Dawkins, I can say: “I find that I like to live in a culturally Christian country.”

Of course, this ethos is not always respected by all Christians — the Dutch Reformed Church in which I grew up is tearing itself apart over LGBTQ+ rights, for example. Far-right racists walk with the Bible under their arms. Some of the black churches embrace the arch-skelm Jacob Zuma.

The trick is to keep power out of the hands of the pastors, priests, imams and monks. Then all non-Christian countries will be able to develop a benevolent, tolerant ethos of their own.

Postscript: Next time I'll also write about Bahá'í, Sikhism, Jainism, Taoism, Wicca, ancestor worship, Shinto and Zoroastrianism. We cultural Christians do not tolerate discrimination against minority groups.

♦ VWB ♦

BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you.

Speech Bubbles

To comment on this article, register (it's fast and free) or log in.

First read Vrye Weekblad's Comment Policy before commenting.