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Roundup on Hirsi Ali's Religious Conversion

Steven Pinker, Michael Shermer, Jerry Coyne, and Hemant Mehta weigh in.

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
November 13, 2023, ported here on January 7, 2024

Yesterday I published my article, "Ayaan Hirsi Ali Finds Jesus," in which I draw on my new book, Getting Over Jesus: Finding Meaning and Morals without God. I argue that, contrary to Hirsi Ali's assertions, Christianity does not help us find authentic meaning in life and does not provide the pathway to a healthy cultural unity. Thank you to Anders Ingemarson and to Craig Silverman for their kind remarks about my essay.

Here I thought it would be helpful to round up some others' remarks about Hirsi Ali's conversion.

Steven Pinker

Pinker writes:

The brave and brilliant Ayaan Hirsi Ali is one of my heroes, but I disagree with her here ("Why I am now a Christian"). The alternative to theistic morality is not atheism but humanism, the use of reason to enhance human flourishing.

Enlightenment humanism works but is invisible and unappreciated. When a disease is eradicated, a government changes peacefully, a famine averted, child mortality plummets, a war ended through diplomacy, a billion escape extreme poverty, there are no icons, myths, scripture, messiahs to credit.

Michael Shermer

Shermer published a lengthy essay in reply. Here are a couple of quotes:

I . . . support her [Hirsi Ali's] heroic work defending women's rights, civil rights, free speech, and freedom of religious expression, along with her brave stand against intolerance, bigotry, and hate, religious or otherwise. . . .

In my books The Moral Arc and Giving the Devil His Due I show that it isn't atheism bending the arc of justice and freedom, but Enlightenment humanism—a cosmopolitan worldview that places supreme value on human and civil rights, individual autonomy and bodily integrity, free thought and free speech, the rule of law, and science and reason as the best tools for determining the truth about anything.

Jerry Coyne

Coyne writes:

Most of us [atheists] are secular humanists, adhering to a set of values that were largely developed by unbelievers seeking to mold a better society. . . .

[A]s many religionists do, Hirsi Ali imputes any moralistic or philosophical advances in modern Western society to Judaism and Christianity, simply because both faiths (mostly the latter) were the main set of religious beliefs in that society. But that doesn't mean that these faiths were responsible for moral values, any more than they were responsible for scientific advances, also largely developed in Judeo-Christian societies. . . .

Northern Europe is now highly atheistic, and Scandinavia nearly entirely so. Are those societies failing to manage the challenges of existence? I don't think so. Those are some of the most empathic and humane societies around, and they're bearing up well without Christianity, thank you.

As Coyne points out, Hirsi Ali was influenced by Jordan Peterson in her conversion; at least, she announced her conversion in conversation with Peterson.

Hemant Mehta

Mehta, the "Friendly Atheist," writes (in a rather unfriendly article):

Hirsi Ali explained her change of faith. . . . She didn't write about how she "found God." She didn't have a sudden late night epiphany. She wasn't convinced of her wrongness in the middle of some theological debate. In fact, you won't find any actual defense of Christianity anywhere in the piece.

Instead, she rationalizes her Christianity by citing, among other things, "Islamism" and "woke ideology." Which is to say she now feels she has more in common with the politics of conservative Christians than secular Humanists because the former group despises Muslims and progressives as much as she does. It's Christianity by way of pragmatism. . . .

She also claims that people who don't believe in God are "capable of believing in anything." As if those of us who live in reality are somehow more susceptible to conspiracy theories than those who believe in the supernatural.

I probably find more agreement with Hirsi Ali in her critiques of (forms of) Islam and the left than does Mehta. In my essay, I wrote about why I disagree with Mehta that, "What is the meaning and purpose of life?" is an "unanswerable question." And I don't like Mehta's insults against Hirsi Ali. Yet Mehta and I largely agree about the problems with Hirsi Ali's claims about religion.

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