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Religion as Therapy

Ayaan Hirsi Ali says she converted to Christianity out of deep personal crisis. Richard Dawkins and Andrew Sullivan weigh in on her new religion.

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
November 20, 2023, ported here on January 6, 2024

Talking about someone's personal crisis is awkward. Yet Ayaan Hirsi Ali brought up her troubles, and they are relevant to her very-public conversion to Christianity. As Jerry Coyne noticed, Hirsi Ali recently publicly said:

I went through a period of crisis . . . of fear, anxiety, depression. I went to the best therapists money can buy. I think they gave me an explanation of some of the things that I was struggling with. But I continued to have this big spiritual hole or need. I tried to self-medicate. I tried to sedate myself. I drank enough alcohol to sterilize a hospital. Nothing helped. I continued to read books on psychiatry and the brain. And none of that helped. All of that explained a small piece of the puzzle, but there was still something that I was missing.

And then I think it was one therapist who said to me, early this year: "I think, Ayaan, you're spiritually bankrupt." And at that point, I was in a place where I had sort of given up hope. I was in a place of darkness, and I thought, "Well, what the hell, I'm going to open myself to that and see what you are talking about." And we started talking about faith, and belief in God, and I explained to her that the God I grew up with was a horror show. He created you to punish you and frighten you; and as a girl, and as a woman, you're just a piece of trash. And so I explained to her why I didn't believe in God—and, more than that, why I actually hated God. And then she asked me to design my own God, and she said, "if you had the power to make your own God, what would you do?" And as I was going on I thought: that is actually a description of Jesus Christ and Christianity at its best. And so instead of inventing yet another new God, I started diving into that story.

And so far I like this story, as I explore it. The more I look at it, the more I — I don't want to say I'm fulfilled, but I no longer have this need, this void. I feel like I'm going somewhere.

I wish Hirsi Ali the best in working through this crisis, which is perhaps largely rooted in the trauma she endured earlier in life. (Some people suffer depression for reasons other than past trauma.)

Assuming the story about the therapist is as advertised, I'd first point out that a professional therapist using a formal session of therapy as a pretext to religiously proselytize to a client is highly unethical. But presumably Hirsi Ali knew what she was signing up for.

Hirsi Ali repeats well-worn religious tropes about an alleged "God-shaped hole" in people's lives and about atheists really hating God, which, if extrapolated, suggests that there's no such thing as authentic atheism. (I devote short sections to each of those issues in my book, Getting Over Jesus: Finding Meaning and Morals without God.)

Some people do overcome some sort of personal crisis by embracing religion. That does not, of course, demonstrate that the beliefs of the religion in question are true. We could find comparable conversion stories among people of many different religious traditions (including Islam). We can also find plenty of stories of people who, for a time, find comfort in some religion, but later enter a new stage of crisis. And we can find stories of people traumatized by their Christian upbringing too. Hopefully Hirsi Ali can stay on a positive path.

So how do I, an atheist, explain the apparent success of Hirsi Ali's aversion of crisis through religion? I'd guess that three main things are at play: 1) Hirsi Ali has self-consciously allied politically with other Christians, and Christians appear to make up much of her current social circle, so the sociality of the religion probably is very important. 2) The pageantry and ritual of the religion may be comforting. 3) Imagining a benevolent God who cares about you personally and who hears your prayers may be comforting.

Because I also worry about downsides of religion, I'd recommend that people find secular substitutes for building supportive social networks and for developing healthy rituals and habits. (To take a simple example, my wife and I have committed to walking some ten-thousand steps each day, and that has huge psychological and health benefits.) There's not a direct analog of imagining a God for atheists, but there may some practices that achieve similar psychological results, such as Buddhist "loving-kindness meditation." In my book I talk about living life with gratitude. One can ritualize the recognition that being alive is a rare and precious thing. Generally, although imagination plays an important role in human life, I don't think living in a fantasy world is great for long-term mental health.

Dawkins on Authentic Faith

Richard Dawkins replies to Ayaan Hirsi Ali's religious conversion by denying its authenticity (this was before Hirsi Ali's remarks about her personal crisis). I for one do not presume to know Hirsi Ali's mind better than she does.

Dawkins points out that "Christianity makes factual claims" about the universe, about our relationship with a deity, and about the afterlife. If you don't believe those factual claims, you're not a Christian.

Even if "Christianity, if only as a lesser of evils, is a powerful weapon against" "Putinism, Islamism, and postmodernish wokery pokery," Dawkins writes, that doesn't make the factual claims of Christianity true. I think the conditional statement is false; the evangelical Trumpist movement is largely pro-Putin, and Christianity as another form of irrationalism promotes irrationalism generally.

Dawkins also writes, "I might agree (I think I do, although certainly not in its earlier history) that Christianity is morally superior to Islam." Dawkins fails to recognize the diversity within the religions. Certainly some Christians are morally superior to some Muslims, and the reverse is also the case. (Also, some Christians and Muslims are morally superior to some atheists, and vice versa.) Certainly in many parts of the world, common modern manifestations of Islam are deeply pathological. But there are many different variants of each religion, and you have to judge people as individuals.

Tangent: See also my reply to Dawkins on transgender issues.

Andrew Sullivan on Ineffable Faith

Sullivan offers good insights on Hirsi Ali's conversion:

Her atheism was never genuine or deeply argued. It was a social stance, a way to leave Islam behind emphatically, which eased her internal tensions for a while. She lost her Muslim faith in a spasm of justifiably righteous rage and in order to be cool; and the New Atheists, for a time at least, were the new cool. . . . If these are the reasons Ayaan lost faith, it is not surprising that she has rediscovered it so easily.

Sullivan is more impressed with Hirsi Ali's explanation of personal crisis than with her aligment with Christian politics. Sullivan takes Christianity seriously, and he hopes Hirsi Ali continues her journey.

Sullivan claims that the "God-shaped hole left by Christianity's demise has been filled by the cults of Trump and wokeness, or the distractions of mass entertainment and consumption." I would say that Sullivan merely wants to ward off new forms of irrationalism with a traditional form of it. (Note: "Wokeness" as a vague insult encompasses a wide package of attitudes and positions, some of which are reasonable, depending on specifics.) Far from being an alternative to Christianity, Trumpism (as a culture heir to Bircherism) is a manifestation of it, as even a cursory glance at the imagery and rhetoric surround the January 6 Capitol assault reveals. It's not like Christians indulging in conspiracy mongering and violence is somehow a new thing.

Sullivan describes Christianity as "knowing what [you] cannot know." He writes, "Demanding of modern humans an instant acceptance of the supernatural, let alone a set of esoteric doctrines, is rarely going to work," so we need to start modestly. He says, paraphrasing Pope Francis, that "Merely seeking faith . . . is itself a form of faith." He says religious faith "is not something you can ultimately control. It's something greater and more ineffable than anything we can understand, and leads in due course to both mystery and revelation." And he says that people believe in Christianity "because it's the deepest truth about our human existence."

What these alleged "deep truths" are he does not here indicate. They're supernatural and esoteric! Ineffable! Mysterious! Unknowable! You gotta have faith! The doctrines must be profound because they self-consciously sound like nonsense.

I for one am content seeking deep truths in the history of the universe and of the life that evolved within it and in a majesty of the human mind.

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See also my previous posts, "Ayaan Hirsi Ali Finds Jesus," "Roundup on Hirsi Ali's Religious Conversion," "Cowen on Hirsi Ali's Religious Conversion," and "Why Bertrand Russell Was Not a Christian," as well as my new book, Getting Over Jesus: Finding Meaning and Morals without God.

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