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Why You Should Be a Christian
On the conversion of Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Ayaan Hirsi Ali has become a Christian, but only if that’s okay with the rest of us.
That’s the rather clever title for this Christian pastor’s take on Ali’s already widely-read new essay in Unherd, whose title, “Why I Am Now a Christian,” is a conscious nod to Bertrand Russell’s famous “Why I Am Not a Christian.” Subsequently, there’s been a proliferation of takes left and right, Christian and atheist. So as a professional take-writer, what can I do? I must write yet another take.
I assume most people reading this already have an idea of who Ayaan Hirsi Ali is, but for anyone who doesn’t, her essay will catch you up very efficiently. For many years, she has been one of the most articulate and courageous voices against radical Islam, speaking as a woman who used to be a radical Muslim herself. As a child of 9/11, I remember frequently hearing her name in conversations about jihad in the West. When she deconverted from Islam, she joined the circle of New Atheists like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, who welcomed her as a fellow “bright,” another strong voice of reason against religious madness. As a member of the Dutch parliament, she narrowly escaped assassination, a fate that befell her colleague Theo Van Gogh with a note that she was next. She was then not much older than I am now. I have grown a lot in the years since, and apparently, so has she.
So why does she now call herself a Christian? One essay can only provide so much context, but the summary tag encapsulates her thesis: “Atheism can’t equip us for civilisational war.” She sees a dying West and a rising Islam. She perceives that liberalism is eating itself alive with woke politicking. Her atheist friends will track with her up to this point. But here she takes a step beyond them, because she recognizes that “Enlightenment values” didn’t spring out of the ether fully formed without a Judeo-Christian ethic to undergird them. She admits, like historian Tom Holland, that all the nice things she’d like to have as an old-fashioned humanist are presupposing that there even is such a thing as “human rights.”
My own initial thoughts on the essay were partly shaped by some comments Ali made on a panel at the recent ARC conference in London. The conference, organized by Jordan Peterson, pitched itself as a gathering of like-minded speakers with the shared goal of stealing Western civilization back. Ali appeared on stage for a thoughtful discussion with Peterson, Os Guinness, and Australian politician John Anderson. I recommend the whole panel, where all the speakers in their distinctive ways contemplate the problem of a “cut-flower society,” a society insisting that the flowers of freedom, reason, dignity, etc., etc., will still bloom even after they’ve been cut off from their Judeo-Christian roots. In her remarks, Ali proposes that perhaps the West was lost in part because everyone became distracted by a great debate over whether or not the Bible was literally true:
I think that in the West, we made this mistake of having a debate about is there a God, is there God, and then having everybody weigh in and twisting ourselves into pretzels (there is no God, there is a God) which is, I think—and I’ve come to realize over time—that is a waste of time, it’s not in the least helpful. I think what we should have done instead, what we should do instead, is compare the different concepts of God humanity has come up with, and the different stories that humans have told each other about…what is transcendent. And what I find appealing, for instance, about the Judeo-Christian story, is that that transcendent power ends up being a story about freedom, about tempering power…
Naturally, this appeals very much to Jordan Peterson. At the end, around the 40-minute mark, he invites her to connect these thoughts with her own spiritual journey. She then gives essentially a short version of her essay, reemphasizing that the debate about Christianity’s truth claims was misplaced: “Does God exist, was the world built in six days, do we believe in fairytales, that was the wrong conversation to have.” The right conversation to have was a conversation, more broadly, about the Good, or “the transcendent.” Today, she can say she is “proudly of Judeo-Christian religion” without having to waste her time asking herself whether she “believes every word in the Bible.”
It’s interesting to me that she mentions six-day creationism a couple of times in her remarks. She seems to use this particular claim as a kind of shorthand for what it takes to be a “Bible-believing Christian.” For some Christian apologists, this is the part where they will leap up to cry “Not all Christians…” and hastily reassure Ali that there are smart Christians who believe in evolution and aren’t at all like those embarrassing fundamentalists way over there. But in their overweening haste to distance themselves from those embarrassing fundamentalists, they would miss the point, because “six-day creationism” is not the point. Again, it’s a shorthand. I think the word “fairytales” is another tip of the hand here. The spirit of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Co. hasn’t died, not really. It’s just been tempered.
Speaking of Dawkins, Ali jokes here that she once teased him for being “the most Christian person I know,” because for all he rails against religious dogma, he still cherishes the West’s Christian heritage through its art, music, and language. Christopher Hitchens was a similar kind of Englishman. I urge everyone to read his magnificent essay in defense of the King James Bible. Ali also points to the influence of Roger Scruton, who similarly teased her many years ago. “Roger, no,” she protested at the time, “I’m not a Christian!” “But you act like a Christian,” he said, “So you are a Christian.”
This chimes with Jordan Peterson’s famous injunction to “act as if.” Act as if it’s true. Act as if it’s real. You might as well. What else is there to do?
And yet, if this paragraph in her testimony is a clue, it seems Ali’s rationale has not been entirely pragmatic:
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?
She doesn’t elaborate further, because it’s not that kind of essay. Mary Harrington speculates that she really had “a full-on Damascene conversion” and simply isn’t ready to talk about it. I won’t speculate, but if I had the privilege of a conversation with Ali, I would simply suggest that “What is the meaning and purpose of life?” is the sort of question that can only ultimately be answered by having—in her own words—the “wrong conversation.” In the conference panel, I am deeply moved by her closing analogy that if we live in a “cut flower” society, we still have “seed packets” with which to grow the flowers back. And still, in her framework, I fail to see where and how exactly these flowers are to be planted. My friend Ben Sixsmith, who’s not a Christian believer, or indeed any kind of believer, put it succinctly and well: “Religion is a good answer for this crisis of meaning if, and only if, that religion is true.”
It seems to me that Harrington misses this point when she frames Christian hesitations over Ali’s essay as “part of the problem,” guilty of a peculiarly “Protestant” hangup. She interprets them to be telling Ali, “You are not a Christian unless you believe and testify at all times with absolute conviction and unquenchable inner fire.” This is a strawman. It is something no experienced Christian would say, Protestant or otherwise. I would suspect any Christian who actually said this of being either too young or too sheltered in life to know better, and I would tell them to go and read some lives of the saints. As I put it in replies to Harrington, Christians understand that many a new convert has taken exceedingly wobbly first steps on the road of faith. And if they are neither too young nor too sheltered, they will understand that those steps can continue to wobble for some time, or perhaps grow strong and steady and then later regress to wobbling again, or zig and zag like a drunken man, or wander off the path altogether, then wander back to resume the zig-zag once more. Nevertheless, they know very well which direction they should be zig-zagging. They know that if Christ be not raised, their feeble faith is vain, and they are dead in their sins.
Recently, I was texting with a professional photographer who sometimes coordinates with professional musicians to film prison concerts. He was telling me about how these prisoners will often compulsively begin confessing their numerous horrible sins to him as he chats with them. When they hear a preacher deliver the Christian gospel, they can’t stop themselves from crying out things like “Yes!” or “That’s me!” or “I’m on the hook!” One time, he recognized a prisoner stepping off the bus in shackles. The guy used to be an ex-con in recovery. A poster kid. A success story. Yet here he was, back in shackles. “What happened?” my friend asked. “I fucked up,” he said.
“And is it true?” the poet asks. And is it true?
Ali humbly admits at the end of her essay that she still has much to learn about Christianity, but she gains more knowledge in church each Sunday. I find this posture quite refreshing. At the same time, I wonder whether she has found the sort of church that would more or less co-sign her reflections at ARC. It wouldn’t be hard for her to find. This, I stress, is not an indictment of seekers like Ali. It’s an indictment of the Church.
Ali joins other public intellectuals who are in a similar space of seeking, one foot on land, one foot testing the water. They all sound fairly similar to each other, except that she is now comfortable explicitly calling herself a Christian, while people like Douglas Murray prefer to play with somewhat tongue-in-cheek labels like “Christian atheist” — half joking, half serious. The difference lies, perhaps, in the fact that unlike Ali, Murray used to be a Christian. He once recalled Christopher Hitchens’s distaste at learning he had answered “Yes” to a Spectator Christmas survey of its writers on the question of the virgin birth. Christopher was shocked. He had no idea Douglas was that sort. In Christopher’s defense, a great many bishops and priests would likewise hate to be thought of as that sort.
In his own comments on Ali’s piece, from a wonderful interview with Israeli journalist Caroline Glick, Murray says over time he’s come to think it would take a Kierkegaardian leap of faith to affirm Christianity’s creedal precepts—a leap which “over the last few centuries has required the abandonment…or at least the temporary suspension of reason to make the truth claims, or accept the truth claims of the faith.” Others are prepared to make that leap, but speaking for himself, he remains hesitant. As he once put it in a radio dialogue with me, while emphasizing that this is just his own personal evidential bar, he “would need to hear a voice.”
This historical “subtraction story” has been told and retold many times. It’s the reason why various atheists are expressing their own disappointment at Ali’s testimony, fearing she might have left her reason behind to make the Leap. I think they might be somewhat consoled if they were to listen to her contextualizing remarks at ARC. But then in that case, they might understandably ask, why does she call herself a Christian? On Twitter, Richard Hanania asks why doesn’t she become Jewish? Judaism seems to check the various “boxes” she’s looking for in a religion just as well, if not better, and as long as this isn’t about which religion is actually true anyway, then what’s not to like? One of his followers gives an admirably concise answer: “I’d like to but they don’t want us. Not like Christians want us. Judaism is not evangelical.”
So let’s come now, finally, to my title: Why should you be a Christian? First, the question presupposes that you, the not-yet Christian reader, might have some say in this matter. But here some Christians might interject that there are those who have experienced a rather more insistent divine intrusion into their unbelief. Hence the very phrase “Damascene conversion.” I know a man who had this sort of instant conversion in a California church. At the time, he was a successful Hollywood professional, an actively gay man, indifferent to religion in general. But he was struck by an earnest bunch of evangelical church kids who were bold enough to have a Bible study in a California coffee shop, and further bold enough to tell him their church thought homosexuality was a sin. On visiting that church, he had a spiritual experience so powerful that he believed on the spot. Today, he tells me that when he hears Murray talk about needing to hear a voice, he sympathizes. It was what he needed, too.
I don’t question my friend’s experience, nor do I question the kinds of stories I alluded to in my conversation with Murray, from Muslims who claim to have experienced visions of Christ in their dreams. The voice they hear in these dreams is not always especially comforting. Sometimes it asks them, “Why are you persecuting me?” These stories should give us pause. If we ask for a voice, they should remind us that we should be careful what we ask for.
And yet, such dreams will not come to everyone. Great stirrings of the Spirit will not come to everyone. Ben Sixsmith, who I mentioned earlier, has talked about growing up in a charismatic church where everyone was feeling “movements of the Spirit” all around him, all the time. Everyone, that is, except him.
Ben is far from alone, not just among fellow non-believers but among believers whose conversion stories were not sudden but quiet, gradual, in some ways cerebral affairs. This is why I have always maintained that it’s inadequate and unhelpful for Christians to embrace Kierkegaard themselves and make a virtue out of the irrational Leap, as many unfortunately have. To be sure, people have many reasons for not believing, just as people have many reasons for believing. And, to be sure, almost without fail, those reasons extend beyond the realm of the merely rational. My parents, who are philosophers by trade, once spent a great deal of time patiently answering a man’s intellectual questions about Christianity, at the end of which he said, “Well, that was my last try, and now I have some repenting to do.” He admitted that his intellectual objections were to a great extent providing cover for a simple unwillingness to confess his mortal sin to Almighty God. But my parents waited for him to say this. Meanwhile, they went on answering his questions. (I should say that he is now a friend, and I share this story with his enthusiastic permission.)
What my parents did is something I think all Christians should, to the extent that they’re able, be reasonably prepared to do. We humans are complicated creatures. Often, we are less than fully integrated creatures, less than transparent to ourselves. Our minds are often divided. But it is one thing to say this. It’s another thing to say that division is the mind’s natural state. Christianity is not Hinduism, or Buddhism, or New Ageism. It’s a religion inevitably and vitally grounded in history. It’s a religion whose central figure stretches out fleshy hands, pierced by manmade iron, and invites his followers to touch them.
This story is sometimes interpreted as anti-evidential, because Jesus chides Thomas for not first believing by faith. But it strikes me as precisely the opposite: the starkest and most tangible presentation of evidence that could be offered. Doubting Thomas was not made to be forever doubting, forever divided. Perhaps he should have believed on the word of his friends first. But this, too, was a kind of evidence. And though, unlike Thomas, we won’t see our doubts answered in the flesh, we have the testimony of those who did. Testimony which was recorded and presented specifically for our consideration, our examination, our poking and prodding. We are not just free to ask “Can we trust the gospels?” We are positively invited to.
Still, there persists a definition of “faith” as inherently anti-evidential, inherently irrational. In reply, I always point back to C. S. Lewis’s famous quote that faith is not the art of abandoning reason. Rather, it is “the art of holding onto things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.”
In this spirit, I believe there’s a rational way to begin sketching what people like Murray, Ali, Tom Holland, and other “Christian atheists” in this space are attempting to articulate. On Twitter, my friend Jay Richards proposes a sort of first inference to the best explanation. It goes something like this:
(1) I’m far more certain of the truth of my moral convictions A, B, and C than I am certain that atheism is true. So, let's take A, B, and C as given.
(2) A, B, and C don't make a lot of sense given atheism.
(3) A, B, and C are consistent with and seem to follow from the truth claims of Christianity.
(4) A, B, and C historically emerged from a broadly Christian culture.
(5) Given (1) through (4), the truth of Christianity seems more likely than the truth of materialism/atheism.
This is a simplification of something A. J. Balfour once put a bit more eloquently: “[F]or a creed to be truly consistent, there must exist a correspondence between the account it gives of the origin of its beliefs and the estimate it entertains of their value; in other words, there must be a harmony between the accepted value of results and the accepted theory of causes.” In the West, secular humanists have an account they like to give of our origins. They have stories they like to tell—fairytales, if you will. But this accepted theory of causes is not in harmony with the accepted value of the results. It’s like getting to the end of a delicate math problem, only to discover that 2 + 2 = 5. You stop, and you shake your head, and you think, “Whatever else is true, that can’t be right.”
This is the very conundrum that has caused Murray to propose that perhaps there is nothing for it but to “go back to faith.” In context, he’s writing about the discovery that a hospital has used the bodies of aborted fetuses for fuel. This seems like a grisly story to us, but why, exactly? In an atheist world, why shouldn’t bioethicists “explore” all manner of distasteful propositions? Just the other day on Twitter, Peter Singer was plugging a new paper on why zoophilia might be fine, actually. Most sane people know this is wrong. But again, why? To quote Louise Perry, ours is a society that is rapidly “repaganizing,” precisely because we have forgotten our “Why?” Paganism never died. It just went dormant. Now it’s waking up.
I agree with Murray that going back to faith does present itself as the most obvious way out of the conundrum. I just disagree that going back to faith must require an abandonment of reason. It may, however, require an abandonment of what some people have assumed to be reasonable. It may require an overturning of old paradigms, a challenging of old notions that have been enshrined as academic axioms—axioms about the Right Way to do science, or the Right Way to do history. It may require men who make their professional livelihoods out of appearing reasonable to suffer some slings and arrows from their fellow reasonable men. But what are a few slings and arrows, if the truth is waiting for you at the end of your exploring?
You might object that I make it sound as if acquiring a rational faith is an arduous process, requiring at least three master’s degrees and two doctorates. I assure you that’s not my position. Indeed, I would say the fewer master’s degrees and doctorates you’ve already accumulated, the better off you are.
This weekend, I have closely followed the sad case of baby Indi Gregory, a little child with an incurable genetic condition who was spitefully forced to go off life support and die in an English hospice, even after Italy granted her citizenship so she could be treated there. It was further decreed by the all-benevolent, all-knowing State that she couldn’t even spend her last moments at home. She was dependent on a trach for breathing support. After being extubated, she died, though not quite as quickly as the hospital might have preferred.
Her father, Dean, is a working-class man. He speaks with a thick accent. He will tell you he is not particularly religious. But when he was in court with his wife, fighting for their daughter’s life, he says he felt the presence of the demonic like never before. He felt as if hell itself was pulling at him. And in his mind, he thought that if hell was real, heaven must be real too. If the devil was real, then God must be real too. So, in his grief, before she died, this simple man decided to have his daughter baptized.
“Well,” you may say, “he is a simple man. He did what a simple man might do.” Yes, he is, and he did. But I put it to you that he is also a rational man, and he did what a rational man might do, when he sees the simple truth.
Why should you be a Christian? Because it’s true. Because it’s true.