Hirsi-Ali’s Christianity?

I’ve been watching reactions to Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s recent Unherd posting about claiming to now be a Christian. Mischievously reacting to some of those (anonymous) reactions, on Twitter and Facebook, but only actually read it this afternoon. Predictable reactions mostly from people who claim to be atheist, worse still new atheists and atheist / sceptic activists.

The essay itself is excellent, whether you believe her claimed belief or not. 20 years an avowed atheist since the aftermath of 9/11 having previously been a Muslim across the whole spectrum from passive to jihadi activist.

[As] different from the preachers of the Muslim Brotherhood as one could imagine. The more time I spent with [New Atheist types] — 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?

Her alignment with the New Atheists was my problem with her for years – from one kind of activist extremism to another. Like all extremists their main sin is failure to understand anything other than the extreme caricature position of the other side with an extra dose of intellectual smugness – they were “clever” (by their own limited intellectual standards). (Ditto Maajid Nawaz – whatever happened to him?) The problem is extremists, not their religion.

Personally, it was 9/11 (explicitly) set me too on the road to understanding this, in an active research sense, although the recognition that we had an everyday problem intellectually predates this by another 10 years – over 30 years ago in my case. 9/11 was just the kick in the pants. I was never more than a passive cultural Christian myself growing-up, though I’ve (explicitly) been a humanist since 1979 – what’s that 44 years? (I’ve been explicit too about my matured position in this minefield of belief.)

The whole section following that question, :

“Part of the problem … [global poly-crises] …”
“As Tom Holland has shown in his marvellous book Dominion, all sorts of apparently secular freedoms — of the market, of conscience and of the press — find their roots in Christianity.”

Is spot on. OK, so Christianity probably borrowed most of it from Plato and Aristotle (The Virtues, The Ethics et al) – and probably failed to acknowledge pilfering from other scholarly sources who also borrowed from the Greeks – but they preserved and maintained it for two millennia.

And so I have come to realise that Russell and my [new] atheist friends failed to see the wood for the trees […] Russell’s critique of [Christian doctrine] is serious, but it is also too narrow in scope.

Absolutely – I could have written that myself. In fact I hope my skeptic friends recognise that accusation of narrowness in “our” critical rationale? Self-ID atheists absolutely fail to see what they don’t understand.

[The] 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 [… it doesn’t matter who by].

As I always say, the UN Declaration of human rights, including freedoms of speech and belief, are the pinnacle of any global constitution.

atheism is too weak and divisive a doctrine to fortify us against our menacing foes …

… and Islam [unlike Christianity] hasn’t escaped its dogmatic phase.

As Rabbi Sacks / Andrew Neil noted Islam is less mature than Judeo-Christianity, and hasn’t had it’s Westphalia moment yet a Westphalia moment. Rather than being too weak, I’ve already said atheism is about not believing, not about any unifying values worth preserving. As she quotes earlier, G K Chesterton said it best. Either way, what’s missing is:

The power of a unifying story.

This is key.

For me personally, I’m not sure if the Christian story doesn’t already have too much distracting baggage beyond / after humanity and the virtues / virtue. I notice she only mentions God in her own history in Islam or when quoting the “too narrow” atheists. She doesn’t mention it as part of her Christian affiliation, still less belief. I still live in hope that some transnational secular entity like the UN can become the custodian of “our story” but we’d have to start taking it a lot more seriously than recent populist chancers. UN with its new found care for humanity and the planet. And as Rabbi Sacks concluded, however we solve this problem it will be “a religion by any other name” – something to which we declare affiliation, value, defend as sacred in its current state, even whilst we critique and evolve it.

This final choice, of where to put the effort to preserve and maintain that story, is ultimately pragmatic – where’s our best chance of making it work –  but the decision to recognise the need for it is not.



And Dawkins has responded on behalf of the “New Atheists”.

Dawkins Open Letter to Ayaan Hirsi-Ali

Fun looking at the predictable reactions so far.

One of the critical responses (echoes my “smug cleverness” criticism above):

“You’re an intelligent, brave person who has changed your mind about where the solid ground lies, and even courageously stepped off the ledge of unbelief, towards the unknown. But here are the same old arguments you’ve heard a thousand times because I know better, you idiot.”

And, this is one version of the approving summaries:

“No, Ayaan, you are not a Christian, you are just a decent human being who mistakenly thinks you need a religion in order to remain so.”

Predictable. The idea of being a “decent human being” is central to our freedoms of thought and behaviour. Culturally / institutionally we need a narrative that maintains (preserves and evolves) what that entails – beyond individual lives and democratic cycles. I “wish” the UN could take on that custodianship, but it’s simply a pragmatic choice which institutional arrangements might best guarantee such a thing. Judeo-Christianity has a track record, Islam less so, all have baggage. Whatever equivalent we set up. it will be (per Sacks) “a religion by any other name” that WE subscribe to as humanity. (Obviously this is about needs, AHA’s or mine, beyond our individual life, a need for our fellow humans now and in future.)

How hard can it be?


17 thoughts on “Hirsi-Ali’s Christianity?”

  1. My own suspicion – and obviously I’m coming from where I’m coming from – is that unless we can revivify Christianity in the West then it will be replaced by something else, but replaced in a few centuries time, after cultural collapse (and possibly conquest/colonisation). BTW I thin it’s a mistake to think that all religions follow the same process. Islam may not be able to have a Westphalia moment, for very significant theological reasons (that differ from the Christian).

  2. Hi Sam.

    Yes, It’s certainly my view that it (or something very like it by another name after Sacks) is an urgent need. Without it society is degenerate. (And I should say, in the Sacks piece I linked, I already mentioned multiple human generations to fix – three after Kondratiev.)

    I think the “Islam is different for theological reasons” – is the point. It remains stuck in its own / different dogma.
    [I should add – I put “yet” in that sentence in error implying the trajectory of Islam might (yet) follow the Judeo-Christian – but that wasn’t in the Neil / Sacks point – just that it hadn’t. My bad.]


  3. You mention ‘Christian affiliation.’ A curiously uncommitted phrase. Christian affiliation or Christian belief? I’m still unsure – because she appears to be vague on this point – how much of AHA’s position is merely a strategic alignment and self-identification with the externalities of a tradition (‘Cultural Christianity’), and how much it represents what would have at one time been called a conversion? By that I mean an acceptance of the truth of certain first-order beliefs about the world (I listed these on one of the sites to which we both contribute). It is the difference between attending church because you acknowledge the value of the institution and wish to support the continuation of the principles and practices embedded there, and actually believing in the content of the beliefs upon which those practices rest.

    NB I approach this as a never-athiest (as in never-Trumper) but an agnostic.

  4. Hi Mark,

    Firstly yes, like me “atheism” isn’t an important part of our identity – you read and commented on the linked page of mine on that before.

    More importantly, the point of this AHA post is in that concluding sentence:

    “This final choice, of where to put the effort to preserve and maintain that story, is ultimately pragmatic – where’s our best chance of making it work – but the decision to recognise the need for it is not.”

    ie “Which” religious tradition to subscribe to is simply a pragmatic choice. but the need to do so is not.

    The pragmatic choice is not just about the content of those values, but about nature of the community processes that share and reinforce the narrative that embodies them. The affiliation – as a statement of commitment – is in believing in the values in that set of traditions (without objective / scientific “proof” they’re necessarily the best set of such values.) That’s where there is belief on faith grounds.

  5. I agree that if we – I – had to choose sides, I’d choose the admittedly Christian influenced western liberal-democratic values over any Islamic ones any day of the week. I think that they are objectively superior. But part of what I see as the importance of those values is the recognition of the primacy of the individual and of the freedom of the individual over that if the claims of the state *or religion*. This allows individuals the freedom to commit to any religion, or abstain, or to reject any. To then go back and defend those values by implying that a commitment to ‘cultural Christianity’ is somehow necessary to defend the very liberal-democratic values that allow us (rightly, in my view) to treat them as optional is, again in my view, perverse.

  6. So yes, that freedom of belief is part of the UN set of freedoms – of the individual. But “we’re all individuals” isn’t enough for a society – necessary but not sufficient.

    Freedom of belief may look like you can reject ANY belief, but that’s not really the case. To be part of society you have to subscribe to it’s values – or a reasonable set of values recognisable to that society “I’m an anarchist and I reject all your values” isn’t gonna work. As Sacks said whatever we call subscribing to a set of values – it’s a “religion by any other name”. (Literally so, in the original sense of the word.)

  7. Oh, I certainly wouldn’t claim that any liberalism worth the name could assert that you can reject *any* beliefs or values. The paradox of tolerance makes this clear. Should liberal societies tolerate those who attempt to reject and undermine the values and institutions that underpin that toleration? No. Of course they shouldn’t. And I disagree with Sacks’ argument that we could treat our commitment to entity that might become the custodian of traditions and guarantor of values as a religion by any other name. This is just wrong, as I see it. It is to completely ignore, just to take just two example, the desire for personal salvation and an afterlife that may not be part of every religion, but certainly have been central to the Christian, and to a degree, Judaic, tradition.

  8. Those examples are not really part of the set of “values”. They might be part of a narrative used to help preserve them – understood to be metaphorical / symbolic / mystical, like any good story 🙂

    My afterlife is memetic – the impressions I leave behind in those who knew me and who may pay them forward. Salvation need be no more than striving towards / accentuating the positive value in that. (And post note – as others have suggested “salvation” probably maps better to “enlightenment” – consolidating better knowledge. Saving ourselves from ignorance.)

    (But as I already said in the piece – unhealthy baggage from the (Christian) narrative so far are always up for revision – it’s just the principle of commitment to a set of values worth preserving.)

  9. Great post Ian, and good discussion.

    I want to comment on one more quote from Hirsi’s piece: “Atheism failed to answer a simple question: what is the meaning and purpose of life?”

    You already know my opinion, which is that the answer can be built from Pirsig’s hierarchy of value, and the inexorable progress it implies towards sublime complexity, and our crucial role in that process.

    Like Hirsi, you are hoping for, as you put it, “something to which we declare affiliation, value, defend as sacred in its current state,” but unlike her, you recognize the need to “critique and evolve it.”

    I suggest that you need look no further; you already have that sacred, evolvable thing in your hands, and you are in a decent position to get the word out. What is needed is to translate Pirsig’s sometimes contentious logical claims into something that has more of the feel and function of religion. Pirsig chose not to carefully define much of his own terminology, and one word he chose not to touch at all is “God.” But I think we can evolve that position, and I think we need to.

  10. I see what you’re driving at. I hope I’m blind neither to the role and value of traditions nor their ability to adapt whilst providing essential continuity. My thought is this. If I say ‘I believe x’, and someone else answers, ‘Me, too, but symbolically (or metaphorically or mystically)’, do we share a belief?

  11. Hi Mark, Yes we do, and at least you have the start of a conversation that goes “so when you say you believe X, what do you think you actually mean … (and how does that relate to our real world of “existence”)?”

    I should add, a tactic that’s infinitely better than “critical thinking” – looking for agreement rather than finding fault?

  12. Hi Tim. Oh yes.

    I call it “Sacred Naturalism” and something very much like Pirsig’s MoQ gives us an ethical framework for that. (And quite a few other process / evolutionary philosophers too).

    The practical problem is simply how and in what form to get it institutionalised culturally? (A religion by any other name, etc.)

  13. Yes, agreed. Better to isolate and characterise the differences than to merely dismiss.

    And I think here we might get to a genuine difference in approach. I do think that there is a genuine difference in first-order and second-order claims, and that they may be at odds. Let me try with an example.

    I’m going to argue that it is reasonable to start with the words of an actual believing Christian (in this case St Paul) on the bodily resurrection of Jesus:

    “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.”(Romans 10:9 KJV)


    “And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.” (1 Corinthians 15:17 KJV)

    I do not claim that Paul speaks for all Christians, but his is an important voice in the tradition. And here is as literal an interpretation as you like. My point is it is a very different thing *for those who believe as Paul did* to interpret the bodily resurrection metaphorically/symbolically/mythically. Because then what you’re saying is it didn’t actually happen. And this would seem to be at odds with the literal interpretation necessary for salvation. To some, if not all Christians, this is therefore an essential distinction.

    Would you agree?

  14. Hi Mark, if I didn’t know you better, I’d say you were taking the piss now.

    You understand the words “baggage” and “evolution”?
    If you want to have that dialogue find a theologian of history / a bible scholar.
    (And I think you’d find the discussion was mainly meta, about what it means to be real, to exist.)

    I’ve moved on to pragmatism in the 21st C 🙂

    Or maybe read AHA’s own reference – Tom Holland’s “Dominion”.


  15. Oh no, I never take the piss. I might be inept, but I’m not dishonest in my approach. I’m not a bible scholar, but I chose those quotes to illustrate the literalism, if you like, of a believing Christian.

    I can see the pragmatism in your approach. The problem is, I am not a pragmatist (neither, I think, was St Paul nor are many believing Christians as I understand them). I think that’s where our difference of approach is and perhaps that’s why we don’t see eye to eye on this issue.

    But I promise you, there has been no attempt to mock or subvert on my part.

  16. Ha, I never suggested you did 🙂
    (The “if” is important – in fact ifs, like buts, are central to any constructive discourse. The “Everything before/after the but/if” meme.)

    Biblical quotes? As I just said in the “Determinist Reductionism” post

    “examples of the negative cases don’t negate the positive case”

    They’re just baggage to be explained, evolved or abandoned. As a pragmatist 🙂
    The “pragmatism” is a good new angle for us – I’d like to understand your idea of not being one – but not here, let’s set up another post for that?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.