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”.
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?