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Ayaan Hirsi Ali Finds Jesus

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
November 12, 2023, ported here on January 7, 2024

Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote a November 11 article for Unheard titled, "Why I Am Now a Christian," an intentional reversal of Bertrand Russell's essay, "Why I Am Not a Christian."

Hirsi Ali begins by recounting 9/11, which, she writes, was done in "the name of my religion, Islam." She adds, "I was a Muslim then, although not a practising one." This indicates she sees a difference between the beliefs of a religion and the cultural practices of a religion. A person could believe the precepts of a religion but not practice the religion, or vice versa. She was a believer.

Then she found Russell:

When I read Russell's lecture, I found my cognitive dissonance easing. It was a relief to adopt an attitude of scepticism towards religious doctrine, discard my faith in God and declare that no such entity existed. Best of all, I could reject the existence of hell and the danger of everlasting punishment.

Russell's assertion that religion is based primarily on fear resonated with me. I had lived for too long in terror of all the gruesome punishments that awaited me. While I had abandoned all the rational reasons for believing in God, that irrational fear of hellfire still lingered. Russell's conclusion thus came as something of a relief: "When I die, I shall rot."

So Hirsi Ali confirms that embracing a (monotheistic) religion's belief system means believing that God exists, and that embracing certain forms of monotheism—especially Islam and Christianity—means believing that Heaven and Hell exist.

Hirsi Ali goes on to discuss the fundamentalist form of Islam to which she was subjected at a young age. In contrast to the sort of religion in which she was raised, Russell's atheism "seemed so appealing," she writes. She became an atheist and befriended famous atheists.

The Problem of Meaning

"So, what changed? Why do I call myself a Christian now?" she asks. It's because she rationally reevaluated the arguments for God's existence and found them plausible, right? Of course not (as others have pointed out).

Rather, Hirsi Ali argues that Christianity is necessary to defend Western Civilization from "the resurgence of great-power authoritarianism . . . ; the rise of global Islamism . . .; and the viral spread of woke ideology."

Hirsi Ali in effect offers a reductio ad absurdum. Atheism cannot provide meaning; we need meaning; hence, atheism is absurd. She writes:

But we can't fight off these formidable forces unless we can answer the question: what is it that unites us? The response that "God is dead!" seems insufficient. So, too, does the attempt to find solace in "the rules-based liberal international order". The only credible answer, I believe, lies in our desire to uphold the legacy of the Judeo-Christian tradition. . . .

I would not be truthful if I attributed my embrace of Christianity solely to the realisation that atheism is too weak and divisive a doctrine to fortify us against our menacing foes. I have also turned to Christianity because I ultimately found life without any spiritual solace unendurable — indeed very nearly self-destructive. Atheism failed to answer a simple question: what is the meaning and purpose of life? . . .

The line often attributed to G.K. Chesterton has turned into a prophecy: "When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything."

In this nihilistic vacuum, the challenge before us becomes civilisational.

Of course Hirsi Ali is right that atheism per se does not provide any answers to how to find meaning in life. Atheism describes only the negation of a belief in a god or supernatural realm; it does not describe a positive philosophy.

But Hirsi Ali makes a simple mistake. It does not follow that, because atheism does not provide a positive philosophy for life, that an atheist cannot embrace a positive philosophy for life. No one is only an atheist. What most matters is not what one disbelieves, but what one believes.

Hirsi Ali perhaps can be forgiven for thinking that atheists deny that life can be meaningful, for some atheists seem to proclaim as much. For example, Hemant Mehta, the "Friendly Atheist," says that "what is the meaning and purpose of life" is an "unanswerable question." Mehta is merely picking the opposite side of the same coin, assuming that, if God does not imbue our lives with meaning, then they cannot be meaningful. But that's totally wrong.

Meaning in the Natural World

Conveniently, I just published my new book, Getting Over Jesus: Finding Meaning and Morals without God. Here are a few things that I write in my Chapter 4, "Meaning in the Natural World":

Meaning arises in the context of people—living, conscious, conceptual beings—pursuing values. In a lifeless universe, there are no values at all. The universe as such has no consciousness, no goals, no values. So of course our lives are meaningless to the universe, just as our lives are meaningless to a given rock or planet or galaxy. The universe has no capacity to experience meaning. The question, what is the meaning of our lives to the universe, is senseless. We can sensibly ask only what is the meaning of our lives to us. . . .

The meaning of life is not something fundamentally "out there," originating apart from us. It is something we create in our own lives by pursuing our values, including those oriented to developing our minds, and by using our minds to plan the long-range scope of our lives. We build meaningful lives by pursuing a career and other major goals, by forming tight social bonds, by taking interest in hobbies and recreation, by discovering our place in the universe, by contributing your verse to the human pageant. . . .

Cast off the shallow dogma of religion, with its promise of meaning among the ghosts, and embrace a truly meaningful life as a real and living part of the universe. Do not squander your meaningful life by enslaving your mind to fear and superstition. Look at sunlit sky or starlit sky in gratitude and breathe deeply, and live.

What Hirsi Ali offers is not authentic meaning but the emotional excitement of joining others in some dogma-inspired movement. She joins Islamic fundamentalists in claiming that only a God-directed life can be meaningful. She just now wishes to share a different collective fantasy about what God demands.

Christianity and Western Civilization

Hirsi Ali writes:

[T]he legacy of the Judeo-Christian tradition . . . consists of an elaborate set of ideas and institutions designed to safeguard human life, freedom and dignity—from the nation state and the rule of law to the institutions of science, health and learning. As Tom Holland has shown in his marvellous book Dominion, all sorts of apparently secular freedoms—of the market, of conscience and of the press—find their roots in Christianity.

Hirsi Ali does not quote any Biblical support for this view, because there is (almost) none. Hirsi Ali does manage to downplay centuries of Christians torturing and murdering heretics, blasphemers, Muslims, Jews, homosexuals, and witches.

Hirsi Ali uses the rhetorical trick of conflating "Western civilization"—which largely refers to the Christianized Roman Empire and its legacy—with Enlightenment culture. But those are not the same thing. Is Japan a "Western" nation despite its minuscule population of Christians?

When Hirsi Ali claims that things such as the rule of law and the institutions of science "find their roots in Christianity," she means only that people who happened to be Christians played major roles in developing those ideas, and they often rationalized their beliefs by reading into Biblical texts meaning that they wished to find there. For example, Newton was a Christian of sorts, as was Thomas Jefferson. I guess we can ignore the pagan Greek philosophers and the Muslim intellectuals who preserved and built upon Greek writings.

For much of the history of Christianity, claiming that there is no God, or claiming that Jesus is not divine, could get a person imprisoned, lashed, or even killed. Books proclaiming such things would be banned and burned. So is it really such a surprise that people working within the Christian world tended to be Christians? Beyond fear of the Church, people brought up Christian in an overwhelmingly Christian culture tended to pick up the religion all around them. That is as surprising as the fact that scientists in the Muslim world tended to be Muslim. Anyway, Darwin's work on evolution did not appear until 1859; prior to that, the idea that a god created living beings seemed much more plausible.

The mistake that Hirsi Ali makes is to assume that a doctrine developed (partly by) Christians and that may in its presentation even quote the Bible is therefore a fundamentally Christian doctrine.

The Bible is concerned not fundamentally with the quality of human lives on Earth but with the state of human souls in the (alleged) afterlife. Liberal and scientific institutions arise, not from Christian fantasies about the afterlife, but from the fundamentally secular beliefs that human well-being on Earth matters profoundly (we can leave room for animal well-being)—indeed, that is all that matters—and that, through reason, we humans can learn about the nature of the world and universe around us.

The False Promise of Christian Unity

Hirsi Ali seeks a "unifying story" to forestall "the erosion of our civilisation." We don't "need to look for some new-age concoction of medication and mindfulness"—as if that were the only or main alternative to Christianity!—"Christianity has it all."

Yet Hirsi Ali has heard of the religious wars and bloody conflicts between different brands of Christianity, each with their unique faith. True, today, Christians of various denominations live peacefully together in "Western" countries—thanks to the secular values of freedom of conscience shared by most people in those countries.

Hirsi Ali writes:

Unlike Islam, Christianity outgrew its dogmatic stage. It became increasingly clear that Christ's teaching implied not only a circumscribed role for religion as something separate from politics. It also implied compassion for the sinner and humility for the believer.

Really? Here is how Paul opens Romans 13: "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God."

Hirsi Ali puts a lot of weight on the term "implied." Here is what I write in my book (p. 129–130):

If we examine the "render unto Caesar" line in context, we find that it hardly is the ringing endorsement of political liberalism that some people pretend. Roman imperial rule of the region is central to the Gospel story. The Pharisees try to trap Jesus with a question about taxation. What the Biblical Jesus says here is that, unlike those Jews who rebel against Roman rule, Christians generally should defer to political authorities. This is hardly a sentiment broadly supportive of political liberalism, although it is fully consistent with the view that Christians should spend their Earthly lives focused on eternal rewards and not worry much about politics.

True, Jesus endorses liberty for Christians to worship God, free from political interference. He does not in this line endorse religious liberty generally. For many centuries, leadings Christians thought that giving "to God the things that are God's" entailed cracking down on heretical and blasphemous beliefs.

"Christianity outgrew its dogmatic stage" only insofar as Christian people replaced faith-based Christian beliefs with rationally secular ones.

The sort of benevolent cultural unity that Hirsi Ali desires comes, not from Christian doctrines, but from secular, Earthly values, starting with the importance of human well-being on Earth.

The sort of "cultural unity" that today's leading political Christians promise is something very different—it is the "unity" achieved when doctrinaire Christians enforce their will upon everyone else. If this sounds hyperbolic, consider that leading political issues today for such Christians are to ban all abortion from the moment of conception, roll back gay marriage, and exclude transgender people from civil society.

The "unity" that politically powerful, evangelical Christianity offers is the "unity" of Trumpism, the January 6 Capitol assault, and widespread conspiracy mongering about the presidential election and more. Interestingly, on the same day that Hirsi Ali's article came out, Donald Trump, echoing Robert Welch, attacked the "vermin" in our country who pose the "threat from within." Trumpism is fundamentally an evangelical movement and would be impossible without its Christian foundations. Ah, but perhaps Hirsi Ali would insist, that's not "real Christianity."

It is stunning that Hirsi Ali can observe (or, perhaps, choose to ignore) the rise of religious authoritarianism globally—in the United States, in Russia, in Hungary, in France and Italy—and conclude that what we need for cultural unity is more religion.

In reaction to various forms of irrationalism threatening our civilization, Hirsi Ali offers yet another brand of authority-based irrationalism.

If we want a cultural unity worth having—a cultural unity borne of free individuals each seeking to live their best lives in peace with others—what we need to embrace is not religious dogma but a culture of reason and human rights.

For my fuller discussion of religion, see my new book, Getting Over Jesus: Finding Meaning and Morals without God.

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