If you’ve been around both atheistic and conservative circles, you may well have encountered people who identify themselves as Cultural Christians. Sometimes referred to as Secular Christians, these are people who formally do not believe in God and reject the supernatural claims of the Bible and the Christian faith, but nonetheless ascribe to the religious doctrine and philosophy of Christianity either because they identify with it on a cultural level or because they feel that it is the best moral framework available for a broad society. In The Satanic Bible, Anton LaVey referred to such people as Christian Atheists.
Of course the term isn’t confined solely to neckbeards on the Internet who wish they were born in the Middle Ages so they can LARP as Crusaders only in real life. The term also has some purchase in the New Atheist movement: Richard Dawkins, despite his strident criticism of Christianity and indeed all of religion, has referred to himself as a Cultural Chrisitan, stating in the past that he sings carols like most British people do and resists the charge of being “Christianophobic” – a term no less of a fraudulent political label than Islamophobia and is simply used by conservative Christians to scaremonger about the secularizing of society. There is also a somewhat more malevolent aspect to the term: it was utilized by the infamous Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik in his manifesto, and I suspect because of this the position has its associations with white nationalists and alt-righters (which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me; I mean, if you’re a white nationalist concerned with the European “volk”, why would you pay lip service to religion based on a Jewish deity?). I have never subscribed to the Cultural Christian label, and in this post I intend to show that the main arguments in support of such a position are fallacious and delusional.
The main argument held by Cultural Christians seems to be that Christianity is the basis of the loose collection of ideas we refer to as the Western canon, or Western Civilization, thus to support Western civilization is to support Christianity from a cultural position. However, a cursory glance at European history (both Christian and pre-Christian) and the teachings of the Bible easily disrupts this premise.
Do you like democracy? Well, Western democracy didn’t originate in the Bible. It arguably originated in ancient Greece, in the Republic of Athens. Sure, it wasn’t perfect (women couldn’t vote and slavery was a thing back then), but it was also one of the early attempts at direct democracy – voters would have their say on every legislative issue. The Athenians were also so invested in their democratic system, and this even permeates into their normative attitudes; namely that they derided people who took no interest in politics, and considered them foolish and ignorant. Outside of Greece, the Roman Republic was another early form of Western democracy, in fact it was a classical example of representative democracy, where the electorate would appoint representatives to the legislature rather directly ratify each issue. There’s also the Althing in Viking Age Iceland, which is widely considered to be one of the earliest forms of parliamentary democracy. Similar assemblies where also held throughout the Germanic world, and even in Britain where they were referred to as folkmoots by the Saxons. All of this before Christianity took over in the respective territories, under the auspices of pre-Christian religious traditions. In contrast, the Bible implies that democracy is a bad thing because humans cannot govern themselves and that those who challenge a prophet of God in support of democracy will be destroyed by God. The feudal system that characterized much of Europe during the Middle Ages was justified with the doctrine of the Great Chain of Being – a Christian concept which entails a rigid hierarchical order that stratifies all creation as ordained by God.
Do you like freedom of speech? The Bible actually forbids this to some extent, with one of the Ten Commandments forbidding cursing and Colossians 3:8 condemning “filthy language”. Publications and universities were once controlled by the Catholic Church, and in 1543 they decreed that no publication could be distributed without the permission of the Church. European rulers during the Christian age also used the state to control scientific publications and artistic expressions deemed threatening to public morality and the Christian faith. The Inquisition was another way of controlling publications, specifically the regulation of the import of books to colonies in the Americas by the Peruvian Inquisition. And as will be delved into further later on, the Catholic Church punished intellectuals who denied important teachings of the Church. Of course, this is one instance when the pre-Christian world wasn’t much better, with Socrates being poisoned by the Greek state for “corrupting” the minds of the people with skepticism and the office of the censor in Rome being the origin of the word censorship. In fact, the notion of freedom of speech as was understood since the Enlightenment was probably not practiced throughout much of the ancient world, and was chiefly defended by a handful of philosophers.
Human rights? While England did establish the Magna Carta, it was opposed by the Catholic Church that dominated Europe and annulled by the Pope. And the Protestants were far from better, rounding up non-believers and women to be burned at the stake for absurd charges of witchcraft, diabolism and conspiracy to commit such things. Also, a little thing called The Inquistion anyone? Not to mention the occasional slaughter of pagans in Europe such as in the Massacre of Verden, and the brutal conquest of native tribes in Latin America and elsewhere. The Bible also has several verses in which torture is an approved method of subjugation, persuasion, not to mention redemption, as well as endorsements of slavery.
How about scientific inquiry? Galileo Gallilei was banned from promoting the theory of heliocentrism, which is now well-established as scientific fact, by the Catholic Church and forced to comply with the Church’s declaration that heliocentrism was officially false. Nicolaus Copernicus also faced censure by the Catholic Church, with his book Revolutions banned by the Church. The Catholic Church burned Giordano Bruno for promoting the concept of exoplanets and generally contradicting Catholic doctrine. So needless to say it’s not got a great record on science. Not to mention, although some scientists like Isaac Newton would have considered their inquiry compatible with their faith on the grounds that both science and faith entailed the quest to discover and unlock the secrets of God’s creation, Christianity holds that it is a sin for Man to try and explain God’s mysteries because God is undefinable by nature. The Bible casts a man named Thomas in a negative light for doubting Jesus and asking for proof of his resurrection.
How about preserving the heritage of people? Not only did the Christians have a tendency to destroy pre-Christian cultural artifacts in Europe, destroying idols and temples and replacing them with Christian structures, but they also destroyed the cultural heritage of peoples outside Europe. When the Spanish Christian conquerors arrived upon the Mayan civilization, they not only abolished the native religion but also burned down most of the Maya Codices, thus destroying much of the literature of an entire people and destroying what could have been a source of knowledge on the culture and civilization of that people. The Inquisition in Goa burned many Indian texts, along with many Indians, predominantly Catholic converts who were accused of being crypto-Hindus. They also destroyed Buddhist artifacts that were seized by the Portugese. There are many Saints in the Christian canon who are venerated for the destruction of former pre-Christian heritage, such as Saint Boniface and Junipero Serra. It should be noted, however, that the Christians didn’t always destroy the artefacts of the former culture. During the Renaissance, for example, artists in Christian Europe appropriated the literature and heritage of the pre-Christian classical world, often remaking them as symbols of Christian doctrine. However, those artists also faced pressure from the Church for supposedly promoting idolatry, heresy and lust, forcing the artists to justify their works within the framework of Christian dogma.
Finally, how about tolerance? Again, the Christian powers weren’t very good at that, what with destroying belief systems they found heretical. The Christian powers also frequently persecuted the Jews both racially and religiously, often expelled from the kingdoms they inhabited, and in Spain they were forced to choose between baptism and slavery.
The argument that Christianity is the basis of Western culture can easily be disputed. Although Christianity is clearly an offshoot of Judaism and is thus based on Judaism, Western Christianity also layered aspects of Hellenic philosophy on top of it, reshaping them in its own image. The Logos is a title attributed to Jesus Christ within Christian contexts, and is generally used to refer to the word of God. The Logos also appears before Christianity in the writings of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, for whom Logos was the everlasting Word in which all things become united, and the ordering principle of the cosmos. The Logos was also held by the Stoics to be the animating principle pervading the cosmos, a portion of which is possessed by each individual, thus it is comparable to the Christian concept of the immortal divine soul. The Jews, by contrast, rejected the doctrine of the immortal soul, though in Jesus’ time some Jewish sects such as the Pharisees adopted the soul doctrine. Plato’s philosophy contained many ideas that would be characteristic of Christian philosophy. For instance, Plato considered there to be a division between matter and the soul, he believed in the existence of a divine, intelligent craftsman that he referred to as the Demiurge, he believed that the resultant creation comprised an imperfect but orderly cosmos, considered mortal existence to be a passing phase in the wider cosmic existence, and he believed that by sublimating irrational desires the individual can seek perfect purity and order.
Aristotle’s conception of the nameless Prime Mover can be seen as similar to the Christian conception of God in some respects, an eternal source of motion and cosmic order without defect (his rationale being that eternal things are always good and cannot possess defects), a being that never changes, has no beginning or end, and is an immaterial being whose activities are purely spiritual and intellectual. However, unlike the Christian God, this Prime Mover has no plan for anything that exists in his creation. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity was can be said to derive from Stoic philosophy to some degree through Seneca’s conception of a threefold divine power which “we sometimes call the All-ruling God, sometimes the incorporeal Wisdom, sometimes the holy Spirit, sometimes Destiny”. The concepts of Heaven and Hell have their Greek equivalents as well – the Elysian Fields was the realm were heroes, the righteous, and mortals related to or chosen by the gods would dwell in a blissful and happy afterlife with the gods, while Tartarus is the underworld where the rest go when they do, with all of the truly wicked and evil souls residing in the fiery pit of Tartarus. In general the concept of a transmission of a soul to an otherworldly plane after the death of the body occurs not just in Greek mythology, but several pre-Christian pagan traditions, as well as the monotheisitc religion of Zoroastrianism, whereas in Judaism there was no immortal soul and Sheol was the realm where all of the dead go regardless of moral conduct in an existence severed from life and from God.
Then there’s the little things. Many Christian Saints likely evolved from past pagan deities and figures, and others became the demons recorded within Christian demonology. The Saints also, in a sense, took on the function of the old tutelary deities, serving as the patrons of nations, cities, territories, activities, families, and other things, and they could also be prayed to for various favours, which may explain why many American Protestants and Evangelicals consider Catholicism to a pagan religion rather than a form of Christianity. The depiction of angels as winged humans isn’t entirely Biblical (Jewish tradition has all sorts of monstrous and chimeric visages for its angels), drawing instead from the Greek depictions of beings like Eros or Nike and Roman beings like Victoria. You can see this in the angelic statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus in London, depicted as a winged angel with a bow in the fashion of a mature version of the Roman Cupid, which was conveniently renamed The Angel of Christian Charity, or how in the Roman Senate all statues of Victoria were removed from the Senate to suit Christian sensibilities, except for one statue which possessed wings. Among the differing views on daemons in Greece, Plato’s view of them as spirits that watch each individual to whom they are allotted probably influenced the concept of a guardian angel that sometimes appears in Christian circles. In general, both the angels and the demons come from the concept of daemons. And of course, many holidays we celebrate have their basis in older pagan festivals. Christmas has its roots in Saturnalia and various Germanic festivals, and St Valentine’s Day has its links to the Roman festival of Lupercalia. Even Western marriage is said to come from the early Christian embrace of Roman weddings.
Much of Christianity as we know it derived its culture and philosophy from Greek and Roman philosophy and pagan religion, which it used to form a doctrine palatable to gentiles and generate a non-Jewish superstructure for a religion that was still ultimately Judaic at its base. Therefore, it doesn’t to sense to say that all of Western heritage comes from Christianity, when in reality the bedrock of such heritage was established before Christianity, mostly by Greek and Roman Hellenism. All the while, Christian power sometimes actively worked against the heritage it utilized to construct itself by destroying artifacts of Greek and Roman paganism and rejecting the principles of republican democratic governance they gave to the West.
However, to say that Western culture is Pagan culture would be anachronistic in the current context. Although the base of our cultural heritage is pre-Christian rather than Christian, things have evolved rather dramatically over the last few thousand years for European civilization, and now secularism makes up the current form of our culture, having shaped that which has come before and moved it away from strictly religious purpose. Rather than Western culture being Christian or Pagan in character, Western culture, like all others, exists as a dialectical, evolutionary continuum, wherein the form of what is considered culture and civilization modifies itself over time, sometimes gradually and sometimes radically, giving rise to new forms in a cycle of perpetual re-creation. The same condition goes for all of human history, a continuum upon itself, a continuum of our continual evolution and struggle for emancipation. It is ultimately this reason combined with the absence of anything resembling modern Western values in the Bible that I reject the argument for the Cultural Christian position, for it is arbitary to try and pigeonhole Western culture as Christian culture.
Of course there is the argument further still that Christianity was a beneficial force to the development of European civilization, and was instrumental in defending the continent from the march of Islam, especially during the Crusades. The reality, however, is quite different. The Teutonic Knights (a.k.a. The Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem) often slaughtered their fellow Christians in Poland and raided the territories of Lithuania, forcing Poland and Lithuania wage war against them in the First Battle of Tannenburg. The Teutonic Knights also engaged in conquests of Orthodox Russia backed by the Catholic Church. In 1204, the Crusader armies sacked the Christian city of Constantinople, killing thousands of civilians, raping women, even nuns, pillaging churches and monasteries and smashing altars to their own God. As a result of such sacking, the Byzantine Empire was left weakened and unable to defend itself from the advance of neighboring Islamic forces, such as the Ottomans and the Sultanate of Rum. And of course, the Crusaders were known for massacring fellow Christians who followed a different sect, as happened to the Cathars during the Albigensian Crusade. Far from uniting Europeans under the Christianity, Christian power was simply the glue for a civilization that constantly went to war with itself under the auspices of the Catholic Church, with, ironically, the lives of fellow Christians crushed underfoot. And that’s not even counting the times they massacred pagan Europeans, such as in Verden.
Also, despite modern propaganda concerning how Europe’s Christian ancestors drove out Islam wherever it reared its ugly head, Christian powers in Europe actively collaborated with the Islamic Ottoman Empire during the 16th and 17th centuries, including England, France and Transylvania. Martin Luther was even somewhat sympathetic to Islam on the grounds that Islam rejected the veneration of images and opposed the Catholic Church. Islam was even tolerated by the Dutch at the tail-end of the 17th century, with Muslims being hosted in Dutch trading ports. So much for Deus Vult.
So not only is it utterly arbitrary to attach Christianity and Christian power as the basis of Western civilization, and not only was Christian power ultimately the source of a lot of violent national and ethnic conflicts in Europe that resulted in thousands of deaths, but Christian power isn’t even the strong bulwark against Islam that traditionalist ideologues claim it to be, given that the Crusaders allowed for Islamic powers to make ingress into Europe and the Protestants were happy to ally with Islamic powers to the East in opposition to the Catholic Church. Christian power truly was a cannibalistic, self-destructive, self-betraying force in its day, on top of being tyrannical, regressive and intolerant. A force of barbarity to behold.
Finally, the Cultural Christian position often entails an attempt to justify conservative politics using religious scripture. But if you’ve ever taken even a cursory look at the Bible, you’ll soon become aware that the Bible is not a consistent political manifesto, and there are several different verses that can be used to justify any position across the political spectrum, even in cases where it doesn’t mean what the people invoking it says it means. In this context, Cultural Christianity for the most part becomes simply the secular version of the longstanding right-wing Christian trope of using an internally inconsistent and contradictory tome to justify their overarching politics.
In summary, the Cultural Christian position is a vanity. It neglects the reality that Christianity as we know it is largely a product of Hellenic ideas and philosophy mingling with apocalyptic Jewish faith, and the reality that history, culture and civilization are continuums compounding upon themselves to start with. It neglects the barbarous reality of Christian power. Its assumptions about the relation between Christianity and Western values are not actually supported by history or even the Bible, and are the work of pure propaganda and pure ideology. It exists solely as the result of a contradiction of having a conservative mindset towards religion and culture within a Western Christian context but being unable to believe in God or the supernatural claims of Christianity. It, frankly, serves to appeal to the feelings of not just Christians (many of whom reject Cultural Christianity anyway because it’s not really belief in God and Jesus) but also the atheists who hold this position because, for some reason, they feel that Christianity equals The West (which, by the way, also dovetails nicely with dumb right-wing political thought concerning the “clash of civilizations”). If someone tells you that he/she is a Cultural Christian, feel free to laugh at such a person. They deserve it.