Why Atheism Is Insufficient

Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s new essay ‘Why I am now a Christian’ is the most interesting thing I have read in a very long time.
Why Atheism Is Insufficient
Ayaan Hirsi Ali speaks onstage at "What Is the Future for Women in Islam?" during Tina Brown's 7th Annual Women in the World Summit at David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center in New York City on April 7, 2016. (Jemal Countess/Getty Images)
Roger Kimball
I was going to begin by saying that Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s new essay “Why I Am Now a Christian” is the most interesting thing I’ve read in a very long time.

But, while true, it isn’t the whole truth.

“Interesting” doesn’t do justice to the power of her essay or to the effect that it had on me.

At bottom, the “interesting” is essentially an aesthetic/intellectual category.

The primary claim of Ms. Hirsi Ali’s essay is spiritual.

In the West, Ms. Hirsi Ali is known as a courageous critic of militant Islam and a colleague and collaborator of filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who was brutally murdered by the Moroccan Dutch Islamist Mohammed Bouyeri in 2004.

Her essay includes some essential autobiographical data.

She tells how she was raised in Africa as a devout follower of the Muslim Brotherhood.

She says a bit about how she moved away from Islam to embrace the atheism that’s regnant in the secular West.

The full story of that journey, which took her first to the Netherlands and then the United States, is told in her books “Infidel“ and ”Nomad: From Islam to America.”

Bertrand Russell’s 1927 essay, “Why I am Not a Christian,” made an especially deep impression on her.

She enthusiastically embraced the atheism that Russell championed.

At first, she thought it embodied the emancipation that she sought.

Why has she changed her mind?

She gives two reasons.

The first has to do with the great civilizational conflict in which we in the West find ourselves embroiled.

It’s a multidimensional conflict that involves seemingly incompatible forces.

One threat emanates from the expansionist, totalitarian behemoth of the Chinese Communist Party.

Another emanates from the revanchist ambitions of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

A third emanates from a newly energized Islamism that’s bent on pursuing a “Grand Jihad” with an aim of sabotaging the political and moral institutions of the West.
Then there’s the rapid spread of “woke ideology,” that homebred “mind virus” that has coursed like wildfire through the moral fabric of Western civilization.

“We endeavour,” Ms. Hirsi Ali wrote, “to fend off these threats with modern, secular tools: military, economic, diplomatic and technological efforts to defeat, bribe, persuade, appease or surveil.”

But these tools seem wholly inadequate to the task.

“With every round of conflict,” she noted, “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.”

Indeed, it turns out that we’re existentially disarmed because we’re fighting an entirely reactive battle. We recognize and can mobilize to fight against external threats. But what are we fighting for? Who or what is the “we” that’s mobilizing? What vision guides us? What banner do we rally around?

Ms. Hirsi Ali is surely right that “the response that ‘God is dead!’ seems insufficient.”

She’s also right that “the attempt to find solace in ‘the rules-based liberal international order’” is doomed to fail.

This brings her, at last, to the crossroads.

“The only credible answer, I believe, lies in our desire to uphold the legacy of the Judeo–Christian tradition.”

Ms. Hirsi Ali proceeded to describe some of the many tentacles of that legacy, reminding us how the Judeo–Christian tradition has outgrown its “dogmatic stage.”

Christ’s teaching, she pointed out, “implied not only a circumscribed role for religion as something separate from politics.”

“It also implied compassion for the sinner and humility for the believer,” she wrote.

But Ms. Hirsi Ali’s newfound support for Christianity isn’t only pragmatic.

“I would not be truthful,” she wrote, “if I attributed my embrace of Christianity solely to the realization 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.”

In short, “atheism failed to answer a simple question: What is the meaning and purpose of life?”

The answer that secular prophets such as Russell gave oscillated between a more or less hedonistic nihilism and the sterile liberalism of the do-gooder and social reformer.

To a large extent, Ms. Hirsi Ali pointed out that “the God-hole” that secularism has bequeathed to us has been filled not by uplifting nostrums from the liberal catechism but by “a jumble of irrational quasi-religious dogma.”

The result is a society in which zealous groups “prey on the dislocated masses, offering them spurious reasons for being and action—mostly by engaging in virtue-signaling theatre on behalf of a victimized minority or our supposedly doomed planet.”

The truth of the matter, as Edmund Burke saw, is that “man is by his constitution a religious animal.”

Islamism understands this. That’s the secret of its mass appeal.

Christianity also has a profound grasp of this fundamental datum of human anthropology.

The ways in which they schematize that understanding are very different.

We see one alternative working itself out on the streets of London, New York, and other metropolises where the supporters of Hamas are praising Hitler and baying for Jewish blood.

Ms. Hirsi Ali outlined a different and more accommodating possibility.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Roger Kimball is the editor and publisher of The New Criterion and publisher of Encounter Books. His most recent book is “Where Next? Western Civilization at the Crossroads.”
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