Is it possible to be an Christian atheist?

In a recent interview with the BBC, Richard Dawkins defined himself as a “Cultural Christian”. In his terms this means he’s interested in Christian traditions such as Christmas carols but he doesn’t have the underlying belief.

So can you be a Christian atheist? I’m not so sure. It’s all a question of definitions, but in my mind a “Christian” is someone who believe that Jesus Christ was the son of god, and by implication that a god exists. Therefore, cultural or otherwise, I am not a Christian.

Being interested in a particular tradition does not immediately make you part of the belief system behind that tradition. Enjoying Christmas carols doesn’t make me a Christian, it just means I enjoy some of the music that was inspired by Christianity. I’m sure there are Buddhists who enjoy Sarah Maclachlan’s beautiful rendition of Silent Night, but they wouldn’t call themselves Buddhist Christians.

I love Christmas, but I’m not a Christian, Yom Kippur fascinates me but I’m not Jewish, I enjoy the festival of light but I’m not Hindu, I dress my son up at Halloween but I don’t believe in witches.

By calling himself a cultural Christian, Dawkins is effectively redefining the word Christian, or maybe creating a new definition when used in conjunction with the word cultural. Either way, it doesn’t sit quite right with me.

5 thoughts on “Is it possible to be an Christian atheist?”

  1. I have given this issue a lot of consideration as well. I’m an atheist who was born and raised in the American Bible Belt, so just like 99% of everyone else around me, I was raised to celebrate all the major Christian holidays. It’s just that the “Christ” part of Christmas never stuck for me. When I grew older and decided that religion was not going to be part of my personal life, at first I hated not being able to mentally categorize religious holidays to my satisfaction. On the one hand, I didn’t really want to salute the religious symbolism of the occasion. On the other, I like having an excuse to make fancy food and listen to Bing Crosby music.

    Over the last few years, I’ve gradually worked around to a point where I can enjoy the holidays for what they are, without taking it all to heart. I’ve run into Christians who feel that it is abusive and hypocritical that I take the fun part Easter or Christmas or whatever and reject the religious part, but I’ve reconciled this in my mind by now. That said, Thanksgiving is still my favorite holiday. It’s an excuse to have a big dinner, spend time with people, but with no specifically religious significance, or annoying gift shopping!

    It sounds like we are roughly on the same page with Dawkins, despite the sticky widget with the terminology he uses. I would never describe myself as a cultural Christian, but I understand what he is trying to say. I could never erase all the impacts of Christianity from my life, even if I wanted to. In that sense, anyone raised and living in a predominantly Judeo-Christian society–as is common in the western world–can culturally identify with the related traditions and so on, even if they reject the underlying belief structure. I think he was probably looking for a concise way to say he likes Christmas but not Jesus. It’s tough in an interview situation to sum up the entirety of a worldview in short, which is probably why we wind up having to deal with frustrating buzzwords like “cultural Christian”!

    Hi, by the way! I guess I’m no longer a lurker here!

  2. Thanks for the interesting comment ABD. I think you’re right about the situation Dawkins was placed in. In the heat of an interview it’s easy to say something which gets turned into a soundbite that will haunt you for years to come. Given more time he may have come up with a more suitable term for enjoying Christian traditions without being a Christian. Christianity Spectator?

  3. I actually thought a bit about this over the last few days and didn’t come up with anything groundbreaking. It’s tough to have something concise that truly encapsulates what we’re trying to describe. I had a similar idea….Christian voyeur? But I didn’t really like it. Spectator is better, and it banishes the disturbing sexual connotation that voyeur conjures, but still implies a certain passiveness about the whole thing. Is there a way to describe active participation in traditions historically identified with Christian ideology, sans the buying in part?

    “Secular Christian” is the other one I came up with, but I still find it completely unsatisfactory. Lacking further explanation, it sounds like a moderate Christian who favors separation of church and state, not an atheist who favors the secular aspects of Christianity. Maybe Dawkins wasn’t so far off the mark as we thought.

  4. Maybe a term isn’t necessary, after all most “Christian” celebrations have been borrowed from Pagan ones anyway and they don’t call themselves Cultural Pagans.

    In fact, apart from the occasional religious carol, I don’t do anything with religious significance at Christmas. We have Christmas trees, stockings, presents and turkey, none of which are religiously sacred.

  5. Yes. It is possible to be a Christian atheist. I was one myself for about 10 years. I was a member of a Methodist church, worked for a Catholic newspaper, led a church bible class, but did not believe in God. For the bible class in particular I needed to have ground rules agreed with the church leaders. I said atheism was my conclusion, in a search for honesty. I would encourage the group members to find their own honest positions, and not impose mine on them. The church accepted that.
    Your statement that a Christian is by definition someone who believes Jesus was son of God would be agreed to by many but not all Christians. For me, being a Christian means I accept many Christian values, and share them with other members of a Christia church.
    But I also value many atheist writers, Dawkins among them. His “Blind Watchmaker” is a classic on evolution, and many liberal Christians would agree with most of what he says. They believe in a God who created the world in a way that is compatible with natural selection. I’m not sure that idea makes sense, but it is, nevertheless, what many Christians believe.
    My own website, wesleyschair.com, has numerous remarks favourable to atheism.
    I am not an atheist now, but would call myself a secular Christian.

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