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Surprising Mourners for the Decline of Christianity

Dr. James Emery White | | Updated: Apr 15, 2024
Surprising Mourners for the Decline of Christianity

Surprising Mourners for the Decline of Christianity

In an interview with LBC in London, famed atheist Richard Dawkins offered two startling admissions: first, that he mourned the loss of much of what reflects the Christian faith in the world, and second, that he would consider himself a “cultural” Christian. He stated:

I do think we are culturally a Christian country. I call myself a cultural Christian. I’m not a believer, but there is a distinction between being a believing Christian and a cultural Christian.... I love hymns and Christmas carols and I sort of feel at home in the Christian ethos, and I feel that we are a Christian country in that sense.... [I] would not be happy if, for example, we lost all our cathedrals and our beautiful parish churches.

Dawkins even added that if he had to choose between Christianity and Islam, he would choose Christianity every single time: “It seems to me to be a fundamentally decent religion, in a way that I think Islam is not.”

After this came another lament, written by the self-described agnostic Derek Thompson for The Atlantic:  

As an agnostic, I have spent most of my life thinking about the decline of faith in America in mostly positive terms. Organized religion seemed, to me, beset by scandal and entangled in noxious politics. So, I thought, what is there really to mourn? Only in the past few years have I come around to a different view. Maybe religion, for all of its faults, works a bit like a retaining wall to hold back the destabilizing pressure of American hyper-individualism, which threatens to swell and spill over in its absence.

He adds that rituals of religion bring that which is “embodied, synchronous, deep, and collective.” His final words are haunting: “It took decades for Americans to lose religion. It might take decades to understand the entirety of what we lost.”

Strange that a famed atheist bemoans the loss of what Christianity has brought to culture, and an agnostic the loss of what Christianity brought to the dynamics of human community. They both reject the faith itself but also mourn the loss of its influence. Neither considers that what they mourn may, in truth, be a powerful argument for reconsidering whether there might be truth in its tenants. After all, as its founder has already suggested, such things should be judged by their fruit. But at the very least, the world is beginning to see the cultural importance of the “Keeper of the Springs,” a story often told by the late Peter Marshall.

The “Keeper of the Springs” was a quiet man who lived high above an Austrian village in the deep forests of the Alps. He had been hired many years before by a town eager to see debris cleared from the pools of water that fed the spring that flowed through their town. The man did his job well, faithfully patrolling the hills, removing branches and leaves. The clear water made the village a popular attraction, with graceful swans gliding across the spring, creating rich farmlands and picturesque views. As time went by, the town council faced budgetary challenges. They saw a line-item for a “Keeper of the Springs.” Who was this? What did he do? Surely such an obscure role wasn’t needed. By unanimous vote they released the man from his duties.

At first, nothing changed. The water flowed as clear and free as ever. The town council felt reassured in their decision. Then autumn came and the leaves began to fall. Wind blew and branches fell into the pools. Soon the flow of water began to lessen. Then a yellowish-brown tint appeared in the spring. Soon the water grew even darker. Before long, a film covered the water along the banks and a stank odor filled the air. Millwheels ground to a halt, the tourists left with the swans, and soon disease and sickness began to permeate the village.

The town council called another meeting. Realizing their mistake in judgment, they brought back the old “Keeper of the Springs.” Within a matter of weeks, the waters began to return to their pristine state. Marshall’s point then, even more pressing today, is that what the spring meant to the village, the Christian faith means to the world. Christians know this from the teaching of Jesus about the importance of being salt and light. Now atheists and agnostics are seeing it too through the loss of cathedrals and community.

James Emery White

Derek Thompson, “The True Cost of the Churchgoing Bust,” The Atlantic, April 3, 2024, read online.
LBC video post of Richard Dawkins on X, posted March 31, 2024, watch here.
Walter Sánchez Silva, “Famous Atheist Richard Dawkins Says He Considers Himself a ‘Cultural Christian,’” Catholic News Agency, April 3, 2024, read online.
Catherine Marshall, Mr. Jones, Meet the Master.

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/ThitareeSarmkasat

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age, is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on XFacebook, and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.

Surprising Mourners for the Decline of Christianity