A God-Shaped Hole
I hope I typed that title correctly
Ayaan Hirsi Ali was the Fifth Horsewoman of the New Atheism. Now she’s a Christian. And it was perhaps the least surprising coming out since Sean Hayes.
Let me start with her announcement. There is a personal element to her conversion and a political element. The personal is briefly mentioned: “I have also turned to Christianity because I ultimately found life without any spiritual solace unendurable — indeed very nearly self-destructive.”
I have some sympathy for AHA here. Life is not easy for any of us, and AHA’s early life (abusive parents, oppressive religion, murderous violence) was harder than many. It’s a tougher man than me who would deny anyone spiritual solace.
However the bulk of the essay consists of the political reasons for her conversion.
She (and “the West”) has three enemies: 1. Authoritarian states such as Russia and China; 2. Islamism; and 3. The “woke ideology, which is eating into the moral fibre of the next generation”. If woke ideology is eating plenty of fibre (moral or otherwise) then that explains its frequent bowel movements.
Against these, she talks about the need “to uphold the legacy of the Judeo-Christian tradition”. Let’s start by noting that Judeo-Christianity is not a religion. In fact, some Jews get very unhappy with this term. They see it as an attempt by a Christian majority to absorb and erase the distinctly separate traditions of Judaism into a Christian worldview. However it is a term that has gained currency in conservative circles because it defines “the West” in religious terms against secular liberal values on the one hand and Islam on the other. On a pragmatic basis, it allows American Jewish reactionaries like Ben Shapiro and Dennis Prager to hang out with American Christian reactionaries like Matt Walsh and Michael Knowles. Unfortunately, we’ll have to come back to Dennis Prager in a bit.
As the obnoxious but perceptive Carl Schmitt said: “Tell me who your enemy is, and I will tell you who you are.” AHA’s enemies tell us a lot about her. Islamism is obvious given her history. Russia and China are a little more unexpected. In part because it’s not clear to me how embracing Christianity is supposed to stop either of them. Putin’s Russia has explicitly embraced the more nationalistic forms of Orthodox Christianity - and the strongest support for Russia in America seems to come from the religious right. The loudest champion of Christianity in Europe right now is Hungarian autocrat Victor Orban. So there’s that.
More worryingly, AHA’s version of Christianity seems to be identical with liberal democracy but a cursory reading of European history tells you that’s a false equivalence. She references Tom Holland’s Dominion which does try to argue that Western secular societies have their roots in Christianity - as opposed to the narrative that these roots lie in the classical Greeks and Roman traditions that horrify and fascinate Holland. But Holland has to work hard to get to that conclusion. His book is saturated in blood and oppression that are only broken with occasional flashes of conscience. If you value reason and freedom and science then go for those directly, rather than a detour through a bleached and bland Christianity.
As for “woke ideology”, the only people that talk about that are conservatives. Regardless of what you think of progressive mores (I find plenty to like and some to loathe), it’s a bit of a giveaway. AHA is based at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford. She’s married to conservative historian Niall Ferguson. She is even making videos for Dennis Prager’s extremely conservative PragerU. She is solidly part of the American political right - and what could be more normal in that milieu than to be a Christian? Converting back to Islam - now that would be a shocker. But being a Christian at the Hoover Institution? Big deal.
Towards the end of the article, she says: “We can’t withstand China, Russia and Iran if we can’t explain to our populations why it matters that we do. We can’t fight woke ideology if we can’t defend the civilisation that it is determined to destroy. And we can’t counter Islamism with purely secular tools. To win the hearts and minds of Muslims here in the West, we have to offer them something more than videos on TikTok.”
And yet it’s not clear to me exactly what she has to offer. For me, Christianity is at its most powerful when its adherents express the intensely personal nature of their relationship with a divine being and joy they get from communion with fellow believers. There’s none of that here. I don’t see why anyone would be motivated to join AHA on the barricades for so little.
Finally, it is not AHA’s conversion to Christianity that leaves me feeling a little down. Whatever gives you solace in this cold, harsh world. For me, it’s cooking enormous ragus. But I understand that may not be enough for everyone. No, what depresses me is that AHA was a unique voice who could convert her experience into something bigger: yes, a woman, an African, a former Muslim; but also someone with an articulate and passionate views on religion and gender and all kinds of things. And now she is just another right-wing ideologue bashing “wokeness”. That’s the tragic conversion that stings.