To the delight of many Christians and the chagrin of many atheists, the activist and (former) atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali has declared herself for Christianity. Some atheists and Christians seem quick to point out that her article does not explicitly say she accepts Christian doctrine about Christ dying for our sins, resurrecting, the hypostatic union of the trinitarian God, and so on. Her article is more about politics and resisting Islamism than spreading the Good News. She does say, in the last paragraph, that she attends church, which is likely a good sign that she does accept (or is coming to accept) the Christian doctrine. But is she right to convert to Christianity?
I’d heard of her conversion a couple days ago, but writing this post was inspired by the following video:
The question is really twofold: is Ayaan Hirsi Ali right about Christianity insofar as it makes true claims about the nature of existence? And, is she right about Christianity being the best (or perhaps only) method for achieving the goals the discusses in the article (mostly political goals)? As to the first question, I’ve written about it at some length elsewhere on this blog (see my posts “God Does Not Exist: Philosophical Arguments” and “God Does Not Exist: Scientific Arguments” for that). To grossly oversimplify those lengthy articles, my view is that there is good scientific reason to doubt the existence of any God, and particularly the Abrahamic God, and there are good philosophical arguments for why it is much more likely that God does not exist than that He does. Philosophically I am an agnostic, but when it comes to the Abrahamic God and the particular doctrines of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam I am definitely an atheist. Further, I’ve argued that, even if the Abrahamic God did exist, we would not have good reason to worship Him (see my post “Why Should We Worship God?“).
As for the second question, I’ve written about that on this blog as well (see my posts “Classical Liberalism in a Godless World” and “Meaning Without a Shared Narrative” and “Something Worth Fighting For“). Again, to oversimplify my view, I think the realization that God most likely does not exist and that our religious doctrines are not based on true propositions has been disastrous for humankind, and in particularly for western liberal enlightenment values, and for many of the same reasons that Ayaan Hirsi Ali notes in the article:
Yet 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?
Russell and other activist atheists believed that with the rejection of God we would enter an age of reason and intelligent humanism. But the “God hole” — the void left by the retreat of the church — has merely been filled by a jumble of irrational quasi-religious dogma. The result is a world where modern cults prey on the dislocated masses, offering them spurious reasons for being and action — mostly by engaging in virtue-signalling theatre on behalf of a victimised minority or our supposedly doomed planet. 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. We can’t withstand China, Russia and Iran if we can’t explain to our populations why it matters that we do. We can’t fight woke ideology if we can’t defend the civilisation that it is determined to destroy. And we can’t counter Islamism with purely secular tools. To win the hearts and minds of Muslims here in the West, we have to offer them something more than videos on TikTok.
The lesson I learned from my years with the Muslim Brotherhood was the power of a unifying story, embedded in the foundational texts of Islam, to attract, engage and mobilise the Muslim masses. Unless we offer something as meaningful, I fear the erosion of our civilisation will continue. And fortunately, there is no need to look for some new-age concoction of medication and mindfulness. Christianity has it all.
Atheism is weak and divisive (of course, so is everything else, but atheism, I think, is particularly impotent as any sort of centralizing thesis around which civilization can organize). Life without spiritual solace can be (but is not necessarily) difficult to endure. Its only real answer to the question “what is the purpose of life?” is “whatever you make it” and if that is too difficult or too big of a responsibility, it can be utterly daunting. There is a “God hole” that has, in the west, largely been filled by either distraction through various sensual pleasures (sex, substance abuse, overeating, online addictions, and so on) or political extremism (with woke ideology* and QAnon/Trumpism being the two big extremes on the political left and right respectively) – see my post “The Doomer, the Incel, the Shitpost, and our Schizoid Society” for more thoughts on all that. I also agree that, without any ideology to rally around, the west is likely to fade into obscurity (if they are not outright conquered or descend into civil war) on the world stage. As Ayaan Hirsi Ali notes earlier in the article:
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”.
As well as in the earlier quote where she says “We can’t withstand China, Russia and Iran if we can’t explain to our populations why it matters that we do.” And it is, as she notes, a unifying story, such as religion, that can give people reason to defend their way of life against threats.
My issue comes from my answer to the first question: is it better to rally around a unified story that is almost certainly not true (such as Christian doctrine) for the sake of maintaining western enlightenment values, or is it better to languish in social and political unrest (and likely even collapse) while maintaining loyalty to what is true (or, at least, not accepting the untruths of Christian doctrine)?
I discuss in the introduction to my philosophical arguments against the existence of God the fact that the propositional beliefs of religions like Christianity is likely not what draws people in or keeps them there – most people are likely not persuaded by evidence or well-reasoned arguments for their Christianity (especially since such evidence or well-reasoned arguments are scant), but hold their beliefs because A) they are what they were brought up to believe, B) they give them a sense of belonging, and C) they give them a sense of purpose. Although A does not apply to Ayaan, it seems that B and C are what has led her to Christianity. Yet, as I also argued, it is the propositions of religion on which everything else rests, because if the propositions are not true, then everything else is necessarily propped up by untruths.
The sense of belonging people get from religion is surely real, but people are right now gaining a sense of belonging from things like woke ideology. Yet I, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, would not argue that we all ought to buy into the untruths of woke ideology just so we all have a shared narrative around which to organize society. The shared narrative is important, but the shared narrative ought at least be based on things that are true (or as close to true as possible). The sense of purpose people gain from their religion likely feels real, but if their purpose is, say, to worship God, and it is the case that God does not exist, then they are worshiping nothing and their purpose goes unfulfilled.
Yet the fact remains, for whatever reason, humans evolved to have a God shaped hole. Or, to be more precise, a “belief in God” shaped hole, since the word “God” does not actually refer to anything mind independent (i.e., the belief in God is what it is we evolved to desire, not God). And so, the contradiction – between our need to believe in God and the fact that we have discovered that God likely does not exist – is just another way in which humans did not evolve to live in the world we have taken for ourselves.
None of this is to say that Ayaan Hirsi Ali has made the wrong decision. The tension between the choice to either adopt untrue beliefs for the sake of western enlightenment values (which, though far from perfect, have been one of humankind’s greatest inventions to date) or eschewing untrue beliefs, but at the cost of those beneficial values, is very real. When it comes down to it, I envy her ability to set aside any misgivings she may have had about Christianity in order to live in a sort of ideological experience machine. Likewise, I envy the intoxicating clarity enjoyed by the woke left and the Trumpist right, who can sacrifice rationality at the alter of gratuitous certainty.
*What is woke ideology? Drew, in the video posted at the beginning of this post seems to think that “woke ideology” is a rightwing canard with no practicable definition. I think it could broadly be defined by five overarching beliefs:
- Power Dynamics: oppressor and oppressed relationships are inherent and inescapable in all human interactions and have historically favored white, cisgendered, heterosexual men of European ancestry at the expense of all other peoples; as such, all interactions, whether between two individuals or entire societies, must be viewed through the lens of oppressor-oppressed power dynamics. Because of the current regime of oppressors and oppressed, double standards that disfavor the oppressors are not only warranted, but morally righteous.
- Identity Epistemology: our identity groups, such as race, sex, gender, orientation, national origin, etc. are the primary mode(s) in which we understand the world around us. People who lack some common identity are incapable of truly understanding one another and yet they have a moral duty to understand each other (or, at the very least, the oppressors have a moral duty to understand the oppressed, even though they are incapable of doing so).
- Identity Politics: even though identities are something imposed on people by the oppressors, it is our identity that determines where we are on the oppressor-oppressed hierarchy and determines how we understand the world, and so it is only by rallying around these (imposed but politically useful) identities that political aims can be achieved. White, cisgender, heterosexual men of European ancestry do this whether they know it or not by the mere fact that they benefit from it, and so everyone else must do it to throw off this oppressive regime.
- Critical Praxis: the only way to address this state of affairs is through actions that range anywhere between virtue signaling, cancel culture and other modes of “critiquing” oppression, political activism, education (e.g., Freirean pedagogy), and even violence.
- Utopianism: all or most of the deficiencies of humankind and human civilization (and even physical handicaps) can be addressed if we install the correct social/political/economic system, namely something in the leftist, socialist, and/or Marxist tradition.