Ayaan Hirsi Ali's stated reasons for her recent Christian conversion have garnered many legitimate criticisms.
Former atheist anti-Islamic author Ayaan Hirsi Ali recently wrote a column for UnHerd declaring her new identity as a Christian. This caused quite some uproar in certain circles given her previous ardent advocacy for rejecting Islam for unbelief. The author and public critic of Islam was associated with the New Atheist movement.
I discussed previously how this move was perhaps less surprising than it might have been given that it was more a case of jumping ship for political reasons as opposed to an evidential or rational justification of Christianity. Seth Andrews of The Thinking Atheist fame read my article and contacted me for a discussion about these issues, also expounding on these issues in an interview with fellow skeptic Austin Johnson.
She had previously appeared on the UnHerd YouTube channel in videos titled “Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Wokeness is a gift to Islamism” and “Ayaan Hirsi Ali: virtue signaling on immigration, BLM and MeToo is dangerous.” It is a paint-by-numbers approach to right-wing talking points. Only theism seems to her to be able to combat radical Islam, the political threats of Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China, and the “viral spread of woke ideology.”
Along with espousing her clear political ideology, Hirsi Ali seemed to feel that atheism couldn’t feel the meaning and purpose hole left behind after an upbringing in fundamentalist Islam. The key takeaway appeared to me and the people I have spoken to that she is not particularly rationally justified in adopting her newfound religiosity and that the move is based more on psychological needs.
Because one of the main criticisms of her piece was the lack of decent justification, she has responded to her criticisms in a new video released by Unherd—”Ayaan Hirsi Ali answers her critics: The former New Atheist describes her epiphany.” Unfortunately, I do not have access to the content that is behind a paywall. However, there is a transcript that can be found online of her answers.
As Freddie Sayers of UnHerd asks Ali, “A lot of people were also questioning what appeared to be the practical argument for your faith decisions. The argument felt more like a justification of Christianity as a mechanism to resist cultural collapse; it was not so much a personal journey, not so much about your own faith. Is there anything that you would expand on there?”
Hirsi Ali answers that she “went through a period of crisis—very personal crisis: of fear, anxiety, depression. I went to the best therapists money can buy.” Again, this talks to a problem of psychology as opposed to evidence and rational thought. She admits to struggling and having a “big spiritual whole or need” that sedatives and alcohol could not cure, and neither could reading books on psychiatry and neurology.
A therapist at one point declared, “I think, Ayaan, you’re spiritually bankrupt.”
And perhaps this is a cautionary tale about the hidden agendas of some therapists. I have previously discussed such issues with the psychologist Dr Caleb Lack and his work with the Secular Therapy Project. Because in her position of having given up hope and being in “a place of darkness,” Hirsi Ali admitted, “Well, what the hell, I’m going to open myself to that and see what you are talking about.”
Enter stage left: God.
“And we started talking about faith, and belief in God, and I explained to her that the God I grew up with was a horror show. He created you to punish you and frighten you; and as a girl, and as a woman, you’re just a piece of trash. And so I explained to her why I didn’t believe in God—and, more than that, why I actually hated God. And then she asked me to design my own God, and she said, ‘if you had the power to make your own God, what would you do?’
To be fair, this is actually an interesting question. Unfortunately, her answer seems to jump ahead and miss some very pertinent details: “And as I was going on I thought: that is actually a description of Jesus Christ and Christianity at its best. And so instead of inventing yet another new God, I started diving into that story.”
Although I cannot easily verify whether she provided any of the details of her own ideal of a deity, it seems wholly unlikely that anyone would discuss a version of God that would detail an analog to the wholly incoherent Holy Trinity, setting out all the terrible events seen in the Old Testament. Not unless there was some serious priming taking place.
And so far I like this story, as I explore it. The more I look at it, the more I—I don’t want to say I’m fulfilled, but I no longer have this need, this void. I feel like I’m going somewhere. There are standards that I have to live by that are quite high, and that’s daunting. But these are standards that I’d rather aspire to, even if I fail…
Personally, these claims are terribly vague and don’t give me any more reason to think differently from my previous analyses of her conversion. The interviewer certainly had a handle on the criticisms that I and others have leveled against her, asking, “Do you believe that we were created by the Abrahamic God? And if you do, have you always believed that’s the case, and simply changed the flavor of that belief over time? If you don’t, is this more a sense of political pragmatism?”
It’s this political pragmatism that I have been emphasizing in her change of worldview. And I have to say that her answer still leaves me deeply unsatisfied:
“My atheist friends want to see evidence. You say, ‘Do you believe that God created…?” And then you say, “Well, have you got any evidence for God?’ I want to sidestep that question by saying: I believe they are stories, and I choose to believe the story that there is a higher power. What that means I’m still developing, I’m still learning as much as I can. But I choose to believe in that story because the legacy of that story is what we’re living through. So yes, it’s partly pragmatic. And yes, it is partly personal and spiritual.
Which is to say that the fundamental basis of her conversion is still not a grounding in evidence. It is pragmatic, personal, and spiritual. That’s not to say that these things don’t have merit, but in the context of evidence-based decision-making, I think there is something important missing here:
“And it’s a story I like because it’s a story that says: human life is worth living because it’s in the image of God. And instead of seeking a God somewhere out there who’s ordering you to do all sorts of things, God is something in you. That’s much, much more appealing to me than the story of: there is nothing there, you have no more value than mold. And that’s atheism. And I think if you tell people they have no more value than mold, then what’s the point?”
Again, when Hirsi Ali appeals to Christianity, she is appealing to the draw of the story from a personal and psychological point of view as opposed to anything else. So I don’t think from these comments that Hirsi Ali has done anything to dispel the criticisms leveled against her by those who took umbrage at her conversion.
As for the claim that atheism attributes no more value to humans than to mold: You would think that someone so involved in the community for so long would have a better grasp of what atheism is and what it simply isn’t. I am an advocate for the definition of atheism being that of “strong atheism”: the assent to the proposition that God does not exist. But even if you adhere to “weak atheism,” usually defined as a lack of belief in God, then you get to the same place: The definition is very narrow and has nothing to say about any concepts outside of the proposition concerning God’s existence.
To expect atheism to say anything else about reality, from meaning and purpose to aesthetics and ethics, is to misunderstand the word. It’s like expecting the Atkins diet to dictate geopolitical policies concerning Putin’s Russia being in an axis with Iran for the dieter, or expecting someone who is a chess player to have her whole moral value system set out for them on account of their playing chess.
Atheists are required to do a whole lot more philosophy to end up with justified conclusions concerning the meaning or purpose of life, or for any other philosophical or political matter in human conception. Atheism simply can’t “tell people they have no more value than mold,” or tell them they have vastly more value than mold. This is incredibly naïve.
I will readily admit that I have hitherto been unable to listen to the interview or read any more than a fraction of the transcript but it seems to me that Hirsi Ali has not answered any of the criticisms initially leveled at her. She would still profit very much from reading around the subjects of which she is talking.
It is very easy to set fire to an effigy of atheism when it is made solely from straw.