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Hello, fellow wayfarers … How an atheist’s “come to Jesus” moment is a brilliant strategy to repudiate Christianity … Why you should look for a group of your own Inklings … What new phrase one of y’all taught me and how it well describes this era … a Rocky Mountain Desert Island Playlist … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.

Russell Moore

The New Atheism Finally Learns How to Destroy Christianity

One of the most notorious atheists has had a “come to Jesus” moment. He’s also figured out, at long last, a way to undermine the Christian religion he loathes. And, unlike his previous efforts, this one could actually work.

Richard Dawkins, the author of The God Delusion, was among the most recognized proponents of New Atheism, a movement to reject the existence of God that had its golden era 15 or 20 years ago. Indeed, he was one of the movement’s “four horsemen,” along with Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett.

What was “new” about all of this was hardly the arguments, which were usually warmed-over Bertrand Russell. It was the fighting mood of it all. Audiences could feel a vicarious sense of “aren’t we naughty?” counterculturalism when they heard Hitchens ridiculing not just televangelists or abusive priests but Mother Teresa as a fraud.

This theatricality eventually wore thin, until even the atheists seemed embarrassed by it. But now Dawkins emerges again, this time in a viral video arguing for Christianity … kind of. He notes the plummeting of church attendance and Christian identification in his country, the United Kingdom, and says that, on one level, he’s glad to see it. Yet on the other hand, Dawkins continues, he’s “slightly horrified” to see the promotion of Ramadan in the UK. After all, he’s a Christian in a Christian country.

Lest anyone be confused, Dawkins made clear that he’s a “cultural Christian, … not a believer.” He loves the hymns and the Christmas carols and the cathedrals—everything about Christianity except, well, the Christ. “I like to live in a culturally Christian country,” Dawkins said, “although I do not believe a single word of the Christian faith.”

In this case, cultural Christian has a distinct meaning for Dawkins, which amounts to “not Muslim.” It’s a way of defining who we and they are based on national customs, not on any concern for who (or if) God is.

I immediately thought of a segment from the television series Ramy, in which the lead character, played by Ramy Youssef, talks with a Jewish businessman about similarities between the American Jewish and American Muslim experiences. One of the major similarities, the Ramy character says, is “Christmaslessness.”

I can’t think of a single one of my Jewish or Muslim friends and acquaintances who would define being a Jew or a Muslim that way (nor, I’m sure, would Youssef say that’s all of it). But I suspect there are some people for whom that feeling is a primary piece of their identity in America, for whom the issue isn’t whether God was really there at Sinai or at Mecca but rather who is part of us and who is them. The sort of “Christianity” Dawkins proposes just replaces “Christmaslessness” with “Christmasfulness,” “Easterfulness,” or, most accurately, “Ramadanlessness.”

Fifteen or so years ago, some Christian friends of mine were terrified of New Atheism. They took the “four horsemen” language as a signal of some sort of catastrophe of which these atheists were the vanguard. The project didn’t work, though. Yes, certain parts of the Western world have continued to secularize, but of all the reasons for a loss of faith, the arguments of The God Delusion probably aren’t one of them.

If I were a Screwtape, a literal devil’s advocate, advising atheists on how best to actually destroy the church, Dawkins’ kind of explicitly disenchanted cultural Christianity is not what I would propose. Overt atheism won’t work, at least at first. People are drawn to belong, and they are drawn to worship. I would, however, propose the basic impulse of what Dawkins said, though tied to rhetoric that still sounds religious. Attacking Christianity rarely works; co-opting it often does.

The urge to make religion the way to prove one’s cultural identity against “outsiders” will always find an eager audience. For those who worship their flesh—defined in terms of race, region, class, political identity, whatever—having a mascot they can call “God” will always be useful. The projection of all that they love about their own people, nation, and selves onto an unquestionable and unquestioning mascot can build cohesion. They might even call that mascot “Jesus.”

This kind of “Christianity” hollows out the Christian religion far more efficiently than straightforward attempts to convince people that God is a delusion. It defeats Christianity by replacing the living God with a God who is, in fact, a delusion.

It works to suppress the conscience that, in the deepest night, says, The God you are worshiping is a projection of your group; the group you are worshiping is a projection of yourself. It does away with a Christian faith that calls not for external conformity but for a new birth, a renewing of the mind, a union with the living Christ. Then it inhabits the husk of that religion, paganizing it until one can toss away the shell.

That final change doesn’t take long. And these blood-and-soil religions are never content to valorize their own blood and their own soil. They eventually move on to shedding other people’s blood, stealing other people’s soil.

The problem with Dawkins’s “cultural Christianity,” then, is not that he says it out loud; it’s that many people hold the same view and won’t say it … yet. Christianity is not about national anthems and village chapels and candlelight carol sings. It’s certainly not about using the levers of culture or the state to coerce other people to pretend that they are Christians when they are not.

If the gospel isn’t real, the gospel doesn’t work. Genuine paganism will win out over pretend Christianity every time.

The apostle Paul warned that in the last days false teachers would use whatever people lust for—pleasure, power, belonging, self—to introduce a kind of religion “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:5). The devil is smart enough to use hollow, cultural Christianity to make us atheists in the long run, to realize that the best way to take down a cross is to replace it with a culture, a crown, or a cathedral—or a Christmas tree.

But remember: Jesus is alive and aware, and he’s a horseman too.

Find Your Own Inklings

Reading Cal Newport’s Slow Productivity, I was struck by one of his suggestions for how to “obsess over quality” without burning out: “Start your own Inklings.”

Newport references, of course, the group—including C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, and others—that would meet to talk at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford. After discussing how several books most of us know came out of those meetings, Newport dismisses the idea that the group had a mission to fight modernism with fantasy literature. This was a group of friends, he says—people who cared about some of the same things and enjoyed being together when they could.

This is how to get better at whatever you set out to do, Newport writes: There is “a focusing effect that comes from performing for a crowd. When you want to impress other people, or add to the conversations in a meaningful way, your mind slips into a higher gear than what’s easily accessible in solo introspection.”

Not long ago, I was having lunch with a friend who identified one of the key differences among the ways people work. Some people, he said, are collective thinkers, and some are solo thinkers. Neither is particularly good or bad; it’s just the grain of how different minds function. It’s not true (necessarily) that collective thinkers just go along with the hive mind of a group, and it’s not true (necessarily) that solo thinkers are on their own and without community. It’s just that they reach ideas in different ways.

I immediately said that I am a solo thinker. It would be a waste of your time and mine if you were to call a brainstorming session to find out what I think about Richard Dawkins’s “cultural Christianity” comments. I didn’t really know what I thought about them until I sat down and wrote about it just now.

So, I agree with Newport that you should try to find your own Inklings, though I would frame it differently than he does. I really don’t think you should find people you want to impress. That doesn’t work. In fact, it’s exhausting. What I think Newport is getting at here is that you should find a group of people whom you respect, not for whom you want to perform.

As a matter of fact, the best thing is to find people whom you don’t have to impress. Tolkien and Lewis couldn’t have argued over elves and dryads if one had been the editor at the other’s publishing house. The reason they could spur on each other’s creativity is that they really weren’t collaborators. They were sitting around smoking pipes. The pressure to perform wasn’t there, at least not in the way we typically think of performing.

If you can find a group of people like that, you will find something special. Will it make you more productive in your work? Maybe. Is it worthwhile even if it doesn’t? Yes.

On Malignant Normalcy

After my piece on “Why Character Doesn’t Matter Anymore” a couple of weeks ago, I received an email from a Christian thinker whom I respect a lot and whose writing I always read. His email introduced me to a phrase from social psychology that puts words to something important: “malignant normalcy.”

He didn’t explicitly say that I could quote him, so I won’t use his name. But I thought I would mull over here what he described: “Malignant normalcy is a concept that helps us understand how harmful or destructive behaviors and social conditions can be normalized, to the point that they are accepted as a routine or standard part of life.”

Drawing on the work of psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, whose area of expertise is the psychological effects of war and political violence, the reader described the mechanisms of this malignant normalcy. They include desensitization (repeated exposures to aberrant behavior), justification (aberrant behaviors rationalized by authorities, sometimes using religion to do so), and conformity (people overlooking aberrant behavior because they want to conform to a group that is desensitized to or justifying that behavior).

That’s precisely at the root of the problem I wrote about, and we can see it everywhere. When we look back on this era (in both the church and the world), I think we will be startled less by the disruptions and divisions we’re experiencing than by the debates we didn’t have, the questions no one even thought to ask. After a while, almost anything can seem to be “normal.”

Desert Island Playlist

Every other week, I share a playlist of songs one of you says you’d want to have on hand if you were stranded on a desert island. This week’s submission comes from reader Tom Neven of Colorado Springs, Colorado:

  • Mi Abuelito” by Fernando Ortega: A beautiful love song to his grandfather sung in his beautiful tenor voice.

  • He Is Not Silent” by Out of the Grey: Captures what I often experience—“He is not silent / He is not whispering / We are not quiet / We are not listening.”

  • Glory Bound” by The Wailin’ Jennys: Beautiful bluegrass and beautiful harmonies. “When I hear that trumpet sound / I will lay my burdens down / I will lay them deep into the ground / Then I’ll know that I am glory bound.”

  • Over the Edge” by Sarah Jarosz: A kicking dose of Americana.

  • Wichita Lineman” as covered by Little Big Town: Their take on the song perfectly captures the deep melancholy of the lyrics.

  • Redemption Day” by Sheryl Crow: In a world gone mad, there is hope.

  • Center of the Sun” by Conjure One: Just a beautiful song about not letting the world get you down.

  • Shepherd Moons” by Enya: Beautiful instrumental that got me through a particularly hard time in my life.

  • Avalon” by Roxy Music: Discovered this song visiting a record shop (remember those?) around 1981 with my wife when we were newlyweds. I lost my wife to cancer five years ago (this year would have been our 43rd anniversary), and hearing it takes me back to that carefree weekend with her years ago. (My eyes teared up just writing this.)

  • Baubles, Bangles, and Beads” by Frank Sinatra: Nothing particularly special about the lyrics, but this is Ol’ Blue Eyes at his best.

Readers, what do y’all think? If you were stranded on a desert island for the rest of your life and could have only one playlist or one bookshelf with you, what songs or books would you choose?

  • For a Desert Island Playlist, send me a list of up to 12 songs, excluding hymns and worship songs. (We’ll cover those later.)

  • For a Desert Island Bookshelf, send me a list of up to 12 books. If possible, include one photo of all the books together.

Send your list (or both lists!) to, and include as much or as little explanation of your choices as you would like, along with the city and state from which you’re writing.

Quote of the Moment

Our feelings could not be put into words—and even if we had found the words, fear would have prevented our speaking them aloud to one another. It was not our minds that resisted but something inside our breasts. People can shout at you from all sides: “You must!” And your own head can be saying also: “You must!” But inside your breast there is a sense of revulsion, repudiation. I don’t want to. It makes me feel sick. Do what you want without me; I want no part of it.

—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

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Russell Moore

Russell Moore
Editor in Chief

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