I always thought that Ayaan Hirsi Ali belonged as the “fifth horseperson” alongside Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris. After all, her arguments against religion were as strong and well expressed as those of the “four horsemen”. Perhaps it was because she concentrated most of her attacks on Islam instead of religion in general, but she was still an atheist, and had no faith.
But things have changed, as you see from the Unherd article below (click to read):
An excerpt, starting with her discussing her own strict Muslim indoctrination, which was much dispelled by reading Bertrand Russell’s essay, “Why I am not a Christian?”
You can see why, to someone who had been through such a religious schooling, atheism seemed so appealing. Bertrand Russell offered a simple, zero-cost escape from an unbearable life of self-denial and harassment of other people. For him, there was no credible case for the existence of God. Religion, Russell argued, was rooted in fear: “Fear is the basis of the whole thing — fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death.”
As an atheist, I thought I would lose that fear. I also found an entirely new circle of friends, as different from the preachers of the Muslim Brotherhood as one could imagine. 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?
I don’t find the answer convincing: it’s largely this: “only values derived from Judeo-Christian religion can fend off pernicious values derived from those and other faiths.” To wit:
Part of the answer is global. Western civilisation is under threat from 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.
We endeavour to fend off these threats with modern, secular tools: military, economic, diplomatic and technological efforts to defeat, bribe, persuade, appease or surveil. And yet, with every round of conflict, we find ourselves losing ground. We are either running out of money, with our national debt in the tens of trillions of dollars, or we are losing our lead in the technological race with China.
But we can’t fight off these formidable forces unless we can answer the question: what is it that unites us? The response that “God is dead!” seems insufficient. So, too, does the attempt to find solace in “the rules-based liberal international order”. The only credible answer, I believe, lies in our desire to uphold the legacy of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
No, all atheists are not united by the mantra “God is dead”. Most of us are secular humanists, adhering to a set of values that were largely developed by unbelievers seeking to mold a better society. Moreover, the base on which many of those values rest antedated Jude0-Christian religion; in fact, some of it might comprise evolved tendencies that were adaptive for individuals living in small groups.
And why only “Judeo-Christian” tradition? I can understand why Hirsi Ali leaves Islam out, but what about Buddhism or other “legacies of religious tradition?” At any rate, all you need to know to refute this and what’s below is that one can derive ethics not from “religious tradition”, which may or may not (but usually does) incorporate the supposed dictates of God, as in the Ten Commandments, but from pure philosophical musings that don’t involve a deity.
Finally, as many religionists do, Hirsi Ali imputes any moralistic or philosophical advances in modern Western society to Judaism and Christianity, simply because both faiths (mostly the latter) were the main set of religious beliefs in that society. But that doesn’t mean that these faiths were responsible for moral values, any more than they were responsible for scientific advances, also largely developed in Judeo-Christian societies.
One would think that Hirsi Ali, who is no dumb bunny, would have heard of the Euthphryo dialogues, in which Socrates argues (via Plato) that you cannot derive piety (we can use “morality” instead) as “that which the gods love”, for do the gods love piety simply because it’s pious, or is something pious because the gods love it?
The point of this dialogue, translating “piety” to “morality” is that we cannot convincingly maintain that we derive, say, a “thou shalt not kill” morality simply because that is what the gods tell us is good. If that were true, then whatever the gods say must be moral, and if the gods said it was moral to kill people without cause, well, then that must be moral, too. But it isn’t, because we can think of good (secular) reasons why it’s bad to kill people.
The conclusion is that our ideas of morality must predate the dictates of the gods We don’t need gods to tell us what is right or wrong, as we have intuitive feelings, which can then be examined by secular scrutiny, of what is right and wrong, and those feelings don’t come from religion. (My view is that they are a social veneer, worked out by trial and error, overlain on a morality evolved when we lived in small groups.)
In the end, Hirsi Ali offers another reason for her deconversion, and it’s the usual reason why believers believe:
Yet I would not be truthful if I attributed my embrace of Christianity solely to the realisation that atheism is too weak and divisive a doctrine to fortify us against our menacing foes. 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?
This didn’t seem to be a problem for Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, or Hitchens!
Unfortunately, religion might give you a meaning and purpose of life, but they are bogus ones. As I you can see in 2018 in a post here called “What’s your meaning and purpose?“, 373 readers generally concluded that there is no “meaning and purpose of life” to be found within religion, except to follow God or Jesus. (This was one of the most commented-upon posts I ever wrote.) In general, you make your own purpose and meaning.
Also see this later post for more thoughts on the issue.) Considering religion in the later post, I said this:
What people like [Ted] Peters and [Steve] Gould always forget is that religion is one source of meaning and purpose but:
a. It is not the SOLE source of meaning and purpose in life; humanism is another (and a better one).
b. People in countries that are nearly completely atheistic, like Iceland or Denmark, do not seem to be stricken with ennui because they don’t have religion to give them meaning and purpose. They get what they need from secular sources. I’d rather hang out with a bunch of Danes than with a bunch of American theologians any day.
c. Most important, religion doesn’t answer “why” questions in any agreed-upon way. Yes, an individual can find “purpose” in slavish worship of Allah, but that’s a personal answer, not a general answer. In fact, all answers to the question are subjective and personal, and usually don’t come from religion though they may be buttressed by religion. What it boils down to is this: “the answers religion provide to questions of meaning and purpose all involve God’s will.” And there’s no evidence for what God’s wills, much less for God itself.
I won’t go over ground that’s been well plowed on this site. But it makes me ineffably sad when an incisive thinker and skeptic like Hirsi Ali concludes her article this way:
Unless we offer something as meaningful, I fear the erosion of our civilisation will continue. And fortunately, there is no need to look for some new-age concoction of medication and mindfulness. Christianity has it all.
That is why I no longer consider myself a Muslim apostate, but a lapsed atheist. Of course, I still have a great deal to learn about Christianity. I discover a little more at church each Sunday. But I have recognised, in my own long journey through a wilderness of fear and self-doubt, that there is a better way to manage the challenges of existence than either Islam or unbelief had to offer.
Northern Europe is now highly atheistic, and Scandinavia nearly entirely so. Are those societies failing to manage the challenges of existence? I don’t think so. Those are some of the most empathic and humane societies around, and they’re bearing up well without Christianity, thank you.
I would love to question Hirsi Ali on the “truths” that she’s learned by going to church. And I wonder if any of the three remaining Horsemen ever will.
Here’s a video that starts about the time that Hirsi Ali espouses her newfound faith; it was sent, along with the link above, by a reader. The moderator, as you see is also a believer, Jordan Peterson. I think Richard Dawkins would take issue with Hirsi Ali’s claim that he’s one of the most Christian people she knows, simply because he admires evensong and cathedrals!