One of the world’s most famous atheists becomes a Christian
Back in 1822 the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, predicted the death of traditional Christianity. “I trust,” he wrote to a friend, “that there is not a young man now living in the U.S. who will not die an Unitarian.” By that he meant that no one would believe in the divinity of Christ and accept the authority of a church.
Two centuries are enough to prove how wrong he was. Despite scandals and quarrels and confusion, Americans are still more or less religious. And Christianity still has as much power to attract intelligent and sincere converts as it ever did.
The latest sign of this is the announcement of Ayaan Hirsi Ali that she has become a Christian.
Hirsi Ali is one of the most impressive public intellectuals in the United States today. Over the weekend she published an essay in Unherd, a British online magazine, under the headline “Why I am now a Christian”. It was a conscious reference to Bertrand Russell’s famous 1927 essay “Why I am Not a Christian”.
Hers has been an astonishing intellectual journey.
She was born in Somalia in 1969 and raised as a Muslim in Kenya. In high school she joined the Muslim Brotherhood and found meaning in its fierce interpretation of Islam. She left Islam behind when her family migrated to Europe. She moved to the Netherlands, learned Dutch and was eventually became a member of the Dutch Parliament.
After 9/11 she became an atheist and criticised the treatment of women in Muslim societies. She wrote a script for a short film on the topic but the director, Theo van Gogh, was savagely assassinated by a Muslim fanatic. Her own life was at risk and she eventually moved to the United States where she built a career as a critic of Islam and woke culture and as a champion of free speech. She was touted as a star of the “New Atheists”.
I also found an entirely new circle of friends, as different from the preachers of the Muslim Brotherhood as one could imagine [she writes in Unherd]. The more time I spent with them — people such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins — the more confident I felt that I had made the right choice. For the atheists were clever. They were also a great deal of fun. So, what changed? Why do I call myself a Christian now?
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In her brief essay, she gives two reasons.
First, Christianity is the only effective bulwark against “three different but related forces: the resurgence of great-power authoritarianism and expansionism in the forms of the Chinese Communist Party and Vladimir Putin’s Russia; the rise of global Islamism, which threatens to mobilise a vast population against the West; and the viral spread of woke ideology, which is eating into the moral fibre of the next generation.”
All of the values that Westerners treasure, she says, have their roots in Christendom – human dignity, the rule of law, freedom, scientific inquiry, education …
this freedom of conscience and speech is perhaps the greatest benefit of Western civilisation. It does not come naturally to man. It is the product of centuries of debate within Jewish and Christian communities. It was these debates that advanced science and reason, diminished cruelty, suppressed superstitions, and built institutions to order and protect life, while guaranteeing freedom to as many people as possible.
The second reason was personal and spiritual:
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?
It is early days for Hirsi Ali’s newfound faith. She says that she learns a bit more about it every Sunday at church. She leaves the readers of her essay in the dark about what church it is or who might have brought her there. Her husband, historian Niall Ferguson, has described himself an atheist. But he has declared on X (formerly Twitter) that he fully supports her decision.
But believing that Christianity is good for society is just a first step towards faith in Jesus Christ. As Benedict XVI wrote: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
Perhaps Ayaan Hirsi Ali still has a long way to go to understand Christianity. But at least she has left behind the hellfire and hatred of Islamism, the self-absorption of woke snowflakes, and the spurious rationalism of atheism. She’s on the right track.
Michael Cook is editor of Mercator
Image credit: Ayaan Hirsi Ali website
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