Richard Dawkins and the Decline of Christianity

Wilmersdorfer-Mosque

Wilmersdorfer Mosque, Berlin. Picture: Wikimedia Commons.

I read with great interest this morning that the great evolutionary biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins has warned Europe, the cradle of both Christendom and Western Civilization, not to abandon Christianity wholesale.

As Dawkins sees it, Christianity, compared with Islam, is a relatively more benign faith. And the fact that Dawkins quotes Hilaire Belloc, who, along with Belloc’s friend and collaborator, G.K. Chesterton, was one of the greatest apologists for the Christian faith, lends some remarkable insight into this thinking.

“Before we rejoice at the death throes of the relatively benign Christian religion, let’s not forget Hilaire Belloc’s menacing rhyme: ‘Always keep a-hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse,” Dawkins warned in a recent tweet.

Dawkins obviously perceives the effects that likely will unfold in Europe as the birthrates of European Muslims increase relative to non-Muslims. Increasingly within Europe, there appears to be nothing in place to provide a counterweight to the rapid demographic onslaught of Islam throughout the continent — a faith that, broadly speaking, at least, holds no truck with Dawkins’ tradition of atheism and free thought or with traditional Western notions of liberalism and the open society.

The Coming of Sharia Law in Europe

It seems that former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who predicted that Britain and, for that matter, other European countries ultimately will adopt elements of Sharia law, will be proven right in a few more decades.

Demographic trends in Europe paint a disturbing picture of what’s to come.

Based on a recent survey of European 16- to 19-year-olds, the Czech Republic is the least religious country in Europe. Some 91 percent of people within this age group responding that they profess no religious affiliation. Between 70 and 80 percent of young adults in Estonia, Sweden and the Netherlands also categorize themselves as non-religious

In Poland, the most religious country in Europe, some 17 percent of young adults claim to be non-religious, while a fourth of young adults in Lithuania profess no belief.

I have my problems with Christianity, particularly evangelical Christianity. I think both the great strength and misfortune of evangelical Christianity stems from a set of historical realities that forced it to embrace an unusually radical form of Sola Scriptura – something that earlier Reformers, Luther and even Calvin, were unwilling to do.

Essential Scaffolding

If my study of networking and what I’ve come to call the “human exoskeleton” has underscored anything, it’s that we’ve got to look at all human civilization, but particularly its crowning achievement, Western Civilization, as a highly nuanced network, as an intricate system of interrelated parts.

All that we know of our civilization has been supplied by this interconnected scaffolding — everything that has been enlisted over eons in the construction of it: language, culture, faith, technology, for example. And Christianity has provided the basis of much of the scaffolding Western civilization. Equally important, it has provided Westerners not only a means to sort good from bad on an individual basis but also as standard for measuring the value of civilization as a whole — to apprize the merits of their civilization vis-à-vis others.

I’m convinced that the propagation of the culture and values of the West on a global scale would not have been possible without the edifying and sustaining attributes of Christianity, both in its Catholic and Protestant forms. I seriously doubt that Westerners could have otherwise summoned the courage and resolve to undertake such a difficult task.

Christianity has contributed in a multiplicity of ways to formation and advancement of Western civilization. We now take much of this legacy woefully for granted.

The Advent of Secular Liberalism

And now that so much of the civilization of the West has been supplanted by liberal secularism, itself an outgrowth of Christianity, we lack even the standard with which to identify the factors that threaten us, particularly the mass introduction of Islam into the heart of Europe, the cradle of both Western civilization and Christendom.

Simply put, Christianity no longer serves most of Europe as a moral and ethical backstop or as the means of assessing and affirming the quality of Western Civilization.

Stephen Bullivant, professor of theology and the sociology of religion at St. Mary’s University, London, is the researcher who compiled and reported the survey of religious beliefs of young Europeans in a report titled “Europe’s Young Adults and Religion.”

Bullivant has concluded that religion is now moribund. “With some notable exceptions,” he says, “young adults increasingly are not identifying with or practicing religion.”

And he argues that this trajectory is likely to become even more marked in the future.

“Christianity as a default, as a norm is gone, and probably gone for good — at least, for the next 100 years,” he says.

The Mixed Blessings of Sola Scriptura

This brings me back to Sola Scripture doctrine or rather to the irony of it. A set of circumstances confronting Martin Luther, forced him and subsequent generations of Protestants to put most of their eggs into single basket, namely the emphasis on scripture as the primary basis of church authority.

Remarkably, Luther’s and subsequent reformers’ emphasis on scripture sparked an unanticipated effect: an explosion in literacy among the masses that placed the West on a trajectory toward scientific and technological transformation, one that in strictly material terms, has benefitted the West and the rest of the world decidedly for the better.

Yet, this had the entirely unintended effect of rendering Christianity susceptible to two remarkable achievements that grew out of these advances: textual criticism of ancient scripture and the advances in evolutionary science sparked by the research of Charles Darwin.

As I’ve mentioned previously, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Professor Molly Worthen explores this great unintended effect, at least, as it has unfolded within the American religious and cultural context, in her excellent book, “Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism.”

Catholicism, the world’s preeminent Christian faith tradition, though one less reliant on the authority of scripture, grapples with the same crisis, of course. For both the Catholic and Protestant faith traditions, the dramatic advance of secularism has undermined their ability to carry the very best and enduring attributes of the Christian faith — the parts that have served us so well over two millennia — into the future.

One example of this impending loss: The longstanding Catholic opposition to abortion, one that has been embraced by their evangelical co-religionists within the last couple of generations. This traditional Catholic resistance to abortion provides a very important check on a civilization that seems on the verge turning away from the West’s historically high standard for the value of life.

Consider how quickly Nazi Germany embraced mass extermination as the Christian influences within Germany receded in the 1930’s and 40’s and one gets an idea of the spiritual malaise that ultimately may take hold of our civilization.

Simply put, for the last two centuries since the advent of David Strauss, the father of textual criticism of scripture, and Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary science, the efforts of Western religious thinkers to supply a compelling moral response to the effects of material progress and the advent of secular liberalism have been seriously undermined.

Granted, post-theism is the reality that scientific discovery and progress have served Westerners within the last two centuries. But this should not detract from our paramount need to reconstruct the most valuable aspects of Christians scaffolding into a modern, post-theistic faith. We must find some way to build new scaffolding that not only acknowledges but also borrows significantly from Western civilization’s historic Christian heritage.

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About Jim Langcuster

A Southern late-Baby Boomer whose post-retirement focus is on building a post-racial, post-Confederate Southern regional identity. If the election of 2016 underscored one thing, it is that this country is intractably divided and that radical devolution of power to localities and states is the only way to save the American Union.
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