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The Conversion of Ayaan Hirsi Ali
a response to her Unherd essay
On November 11, 2023, Ayaan Hirsi Ali published an essay in Unherd entitled, “Why I Am Now A Christian.” You can read it here if you haven’t read it already.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali was part of the New Atheism movement in the early 2000s and is the author of several books. She was raised Muslim and after becoming an outspoken apostate to Islam, has faced enormous security concerns — the sorts of people who enjoy beheading infidels have a hate-on for her — and demonstrated astonishing courage in the face of relentless criticism, much of it deranged, and a great deal of serious danger.
I have admired Ayaan Hirsi Ali for a long time. Because of this, and because of my having identified myself as a reluctant atheist (that is, someone who lacks a belief in God but wishes that I had such a belief) for a long time, several folks emailed me this article and asked me what I thought about it.
I have many and somewhat conflicting thoughts, from several angles. Here goes.
Did AHA Make A Utilitarian Decision?
I perused a little of the online response to her essay, and several people made the point that she seems to have made a utilitarian decision, rather than actually coming to believe that Christianity makes truthful claims about the world.
This is a reasonable question to ask about her essay, because she does not describe any process of changing her mind about the reality of a God existing or the truth claims of Christianity. Rather, she describes seeing Christianity as a necessary and helpful tool in the fight to save the West from the threats it now faces.
My first response to this question, reasonable as it is, is to laugh. I’m not sure what could possibly be more utilitarian than making a decision designed to save oneself from an eternity of conscious torment in hell, and the primacy of Christianity as the only means to prevent that eternal conscious torment is far and away the most oft-cited reason why people should accept Jesus and become Christians. Speaking as someone who grew up in a particularly aggressive Christian sect, left it, and gets proselytized to fairly often: if I had a dollar for every time I’ve been reminded that I will have no excuse when God asks me why He shouldn’t send me to hell, I would have no student loan debt and a good start on the down payment for a house.
My second response is that we don’t actually know if AHA has changed her mind on the truth claims of Christianity. She is under no obligation to narrate her thought processes for us, nor to conduct an intensely private journey in public. Something the atheists rushing to mock, degrade, and deride her should remember is that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
Additionally, she is friends with Sam Harris and other famous atheists who have large and significant public platforms, much of which they gained through their advocacy of atheism. I think I understand, to a great extent, the position this may put her in. Three of my closest friends, and a few of my good-but-not-inner-circle friends, have significant public platforms. If I came to believe something that they had spent years mocking and deconstructing, I would be highly motivated to find a way to talk about it that preserved my important relationships. I would not want to put any of them in a place where they would have to spend time and energy commenting on my change of mind, nor of explaining and/or defending their choice to stay my friend, or not.
Because, in her place, I might write about it very carefully, I am hesitant to conclude one way or the other about whether AHA actually believes the truth claims of Christianity. I think people who take a strong position on this question, based solely on the essay, are doing so erroneously.
Many Types of Christians: in General
The word “Christian” means so many different things to so many different people that it’s functionally useless without clarification. The Westboro Baptist Church, Pete Buttigieg, and Barack Obama all claim to be Christian. Depending on individual understanding and theology, different people, both professing Christians and not, might conclude that that the Westboro folks are Christian and the other two are not; that the Westboro folks are demons and the other two are real Christians, or vice versa; that all are Christians, just badly misguided and mistaken in various ways, or that none are in fact Christians.
What is an actual Christian? I don’t have a firm answer for myself, but I like the one my therapist implied recently. I was telling him about someone I know only online and via phone. She had been, in my opinion, unfairly attacked and unjustly criticized on social media. We were talking a few days later when the subject came up. Her first comments were loving concern for her attacker and expressing sincere hope for his well-being, with no regard for herself. It was kindness and generosity so complete that it had almost made me cry. I was telling my therapist about it—because the topic of the reluctance in my reluctant atheism is a recurring theme—when he said: “Ah. You’ve met an actual Christian.” Selfless concern for others and love of enemies, when motivated by Christian conviction, seems like a reasonable metric for actual Christianity.
Many Types of Christians: Faith vs Belief
I do not believe that God exists. Please note the extremely careful wording there. I did not say “I believe that no God exists.” I am an atheist of the agnostic variety, not the strong variety.
And yet, every once in awhile, I pray. Why? Because I might be wrong. I’m wrong all the time. I’ve been wrong far more often than I’ve been right in my short life. When someone I love is in real danger, actual or perceived, or in profound distress, I will pray. Most recently, I prayed for the safety of someone I love very much, a Jew who was overseas—away from America’s universal 911 access, armed police, and other safety buffers. Worst case scenario: if there is no God, then perhaps my quiet focus on how deeply I love the person I was praying for will cause my unconscious mind to have a good idea. Best case scenario: there is a God and perhaps my prayer means something to Him/Her/It. No downside, in other words. And it was certainly comforting, to feel that I had done literally everything I could.
I was telling a friend—a friend who converted to Catholicism as an adult—about this occasional impulse to pray. He said in part: “‘Faith as small as a mustard seed can move mountains.’ Faith and belief are two different things. One can have faith — your urge to pray, for example, would be an example of faith in action — and not have a consistently rock solid ‘belief.’ Belief is good but it’s not a prerequisite is what I’m saying.”
I have known Christians who claim to never have the slightest doubt about the existence of God and other tenets of Christianity, and I believe them.
I have also known Christians who doubt the truth of Christianity’s claims—particularly the existence of God—nearly as much as I do, but pursue Christianity anyway. They want to do the work of a Christian, they want to live the life of a Christian, and they believe it to be at least somewhat probable that the claims of Christianity are true. Thus, they lead their lives as if they have certainty in those claims, doing the best they can to be worthy of the love represented in the central Christian story.
Christians of the former type will likely not recognize themselves in AHA’s essay.
Christians of the latter type will likely welcome her to their family.
It is entirely possible that AHA has decided to act in faith without any belief at all, and each person’s take on Christianity will dictate their response.
If there is no God and/or she never finds belief, then the worst case scenario would seem to be that she will waste some time. The best case scenario is that she may become happier and find more meaning in her life.
On Cultural Christianity, or Being Christian-ish
I read a story in an Anne Lamott book once. It’s been a long time, so I may not have the details right, but my memory of it is this: her friends reacted to her becoming a Christian by mentally putting her in a box akin to the one that they put their non-observant-Jews-who-were-mostly-atheist friends in. They were Jews, yes, but not really. They were Jew-ish. Likewise, they regarded Anne as Christian-ish. Plenty of people—including, I would argue, AHA before her recent announcement—are Christian-ish already, so calling them Christians doesn’t necessarily represent a dramatic change.
I am not sure if it’s a good idea to use the word “Christian” to refer to cultural Christianity or not, but as Wokism continues to become our dominant religion, this will likely start happening more and more, and thoughtful people will need to consider how to grapple with it.
On Fighting Woke Religion With Christianity
One reasonable take on AHA’s essay is that she’s choosing to embrace the Christian religion instrumentally, as a tool to fight the Woke religion. If so, this is completely understandable on one level. Christianity believes in original sin for everyone and to the same degree. There is no hierarchy where “cishet white males” and “cis white gays” and “white women” are the most sinful of all, with gradually less sin attached to each caste until we reach the sacred caste of black women, particularly black transwomen, with the crown of total virtue reserved for black transwomen who are disabled and/or prostitutes.
Even better, Christianity offers a path to redemption, which Wokism does not.
If this is what AHA is doing, is there a danger in this tactic? Of course. I grew up in a fundamentalist sect and heard regular sermons wherein they said the quiet parts out loud. I know they want the death penalty for many, many offenses, believing that if God lets an innocent person get sentenced to death, well, He has his reasons. I know they would restrict the civil liberties of women and gays. I know that they want the government small enough to fit into bedrooms and uteruses.
The Constitution offers a strong safety buffer against fundamentalist Christianity’s excesses, however: Christianity is recognized as a religion. Presently, Wokism is not. Our institutions, including the government, public schools, and the military, accept purely metaphysical claims like that “gender identity” is a thing that everyone has, which can sometimes be found in the wrong-sexed body (perhaps an error by the gender fairy?). Specious claims like “implicit racism” and “systemic oppression” are accepted as though they are factual, and government policies are based on them.
If Americans are put in a position to choose between Wokism and fundamentalist Christianity, then Wokism will win. Americans are not at all motivated to live by fundamentalist rules. Women have autonomy, making 85% of all purchasing decisions and comprising a huge percentage of vital industries. Gays have been getting married for a long time now, and institutions have adjusted to their having the right to form contractual relationships with other adults as they choose. Americans love their autonomy and their vices far too much for fundamentalist Christianity to win the fight against Wokism.
But if Americans react to the insanity of Wokism by embracing a moderate form of Christianity: one that can accept Christians who struggle to believe, who want to do the work of Christianity even if they don’t have any certainty about its truth claims, who recognize that there is power and beauty in the central Christian story even if it’s only metaphorically true and not literally true (credit to Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying for that helpful paradigm) — that may win. How? By removing the hierarchy of virtue assigned at birth, reducing the importance of immutable characteristics, giving purpose and meaning, promoting more stable families, and motivating people to have love and regard for enemies as much as for themselves.
If AHA is the most high-profile person to try to take us down the latter path, I applaud her and hope very much that she succeeds.
On Using the Word “Christian”
“Anyone can be sentimental about the nativity; any fool can feel like a Christian at Christmas. But Easter is the main event; if you don’t believe in the resurrection, you’re not a believer. If you don’t believe in Easter,” Owen Meany said, “Don’t kid yourself—Don’t call yourself a Christian.”
—from A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
I think Owen Meany got it right in the quote above, which is why I will likely never call myself a Christian, unless I come to believe in the Resurrection. I am more and more sympathetic to the cultural aspects of non-fundamentalist-Christianity. I am reading Thomas Merton. I want to believe in a God — yes, mostly for childish reasons of unresolved trauma and holding out hope for the experience of fatherly approval and unconditional love. Granted. Admitted. Owned.
If AHA is in something akin to the same place I am—wanting to believe moreso than actually believing—and calling herself a Christian anyway, that’s her decision, and I can respect it as an aspiration. I can hope she gets where she wants to go, and finds peace there.
If she has truly come to believe and is simply choosing not to subject herself to the whole fucking internet tearing her reasons apart—or to her friends being called on to either defend or denounce her—more power to her.
I don’t think we know for sure what’s going on with her.
I don’t think that either extreme—the mocking derision of atheists who feel betrayed, or the exultant glee of Christians who feel vindicated—is warranted.
I think we should all be happy for her that she’s found something that is improving her journey through this life, and then return to minding our own business.
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About Me and My Substack: I’m a data scientist whose great love is mathematics, but I also enjoy writing. My posts are mostly cultural takes from a broadly anti-Woke perspective—yes, I’m one of those annoying classical liberals who would’ve been considered on the left until ten seconds ago. Lately I’ve regained a childhood love of reading and started publishing book reviews. My most widely useful essay may be this one, about how to resist the demon of self-termination.
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