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Cowen on Hirsi Ali's Religious Conversion

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
November 14, 2023, ported here on January 7, 2024

I confess I do not understand Tyler Cowen's favorable treatment of religion. Does he believe that God exists? Does he regard that as an answerable question? Or is he something like a "personal atheist, cultural theist" who likes (what he sees as) the cultural benefits of religion? Perhaps he's definitively answered such questions somewhere but I've missed it; if so, perhaps someone can write in to point me in the right direction (if not, perhaps Cowen could tell us).

Along these lines, see my review of Cowen's book: "Toward Reasonable Stubbornness."

If we back up to 2018, we find this Cowen post about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: "The important thinkers of the future will be religious thinkers, installment #1637."

Then, on February 17, 2021, Cowen asked, "Why will the important thinkers of the future be religious ones?" Here is part of what he writes:

First of all, I was led to the point by example. For instance, Ross Douthat and Peter Thiel are two of the most interesting thinkers as of late and they are both religious and Christian. . . . In fiction, Orson Scott Card is one of the intellectually most influential writers in the last few decades and he is a Mormon. . . .

Second, I see that both secular "left progressive" and "libertarian" traditions—both highly secular in their current forms—are not so innovative right now. I don't intend that as criticism, as you might think they are not innovative because they are already essentially correct. Still, there is lots of recycling going on and their most important thinkers probably lie in the past, not the future. That opens up room for religious thinkers to have more of an impact.

Third, religious thinkers arguably have more degrees of freedom. . . . The claims of the religions are not so closely tied to the experimental method and the randomized control trial. (Narrator: "Neither are the secular claims!") . . .

If you are reading a secular thinker, always ask yourself: "what is this person's implicit theology?" No matter who it is. There are few more useful questions at your disposal.

At a couple of points in the above, Cowen seems to imply that everyone starts with some sort of faith.

This brings us to Cowen's remarks about Hirsi Ali's conversion, in a post, "Classical liberals are increasingly religious."

Cowen says that classical liberals these days "typically . . . are religious as well." He writes:

That could be Catholic or Jewish or LDS or Eastern Orthodox, with some Protestant thrown into the mix, but Protestants coming in last. [On this last point, see the remarks of Fergus McCullough, which Cowen recommends.]

The person being religious is now a predictor of that same person having non-crazy political views. Classical liberalism thus, whether you like it or not, has become an essentially religious movement.

Many strands of libertarianism are being left behind, and again this is a positive rather than a normative claim. It is simply how things are.

What Cowen does not mention is that anti-liberals also are increasingly religious. Cowen does not mention Kevin Vallier's book, All the Kingdoms of the World: On Radical Religious Alternatives to Liberalism. The anti-liberals that Vallier discusses are perhaps the most "interesting" (and most terrifying) Catholic intellectuals today. Trumpism is essentially a Christian evangelical movement. Obviously Islam in many of its manifestations (not all!) is a hotbed of anti-liberalism. The Russian fascist Dugin is in his own peculiar way a deeply religious thinker, and of course the Russian Orthodox Church is in the can for Putin. Hindu nationalism is a major force in India.

My take is that "classical liberalism" really is becoming more religious, as Cowen observes, and this is largely in reaction to the outright nihilism of much of today's "secular" left. Hirsi Ali is right to see a "nihilistic vacuum" among today's left insofar as it is influenced by old-fashioned Marxism (which I regard as a sort of religion) and by newfangled anti-reality postmodernism.

In his 2012 book The DIM Hypothesis, Leonard Peikoff wrote of "The Anti-Secular Rebellion." And then Peikoff joined this rebellion by voting for Donald Trump in 2020. If Peikoff, the main popularizer of the ideas of "intransigent atheist" Ayn Rand and the author of two books warning about the rise of religious fascism, could ally with the Christian nationalist Trumpist movement in opposition to today's left, it's not hard to see why the less-philosophical Hirsi Ali would seek comfort in the arms of religion.

But what we who champion human well-being need is not faith and supernaturalism but reason and reality.

See also my previous posts, "Ayaan Hirsi Ali Finds Jesus" and "Roundup on Hirsi Ali's Religious Conversion," as well as my book, Getting Over Jesus: Finding Meaning and Morals without God.

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