Many readers will know that the late, great public intellectual Christopher Hitchens was celebrated as one of the Four Horsemen, a quartet of brilliant atheist writers, debaters, and orators that included Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett. When Hitchens died in 2011, many wondered who might step in to continue the fight against religion and superstition, and for secularism and enlightenment values.
One name that popped up frequently was that of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Born in Somalia and indoctrinated into fundamentalist Islam as a refugee in Kenya, Hirsi Ali eventually fled an arranged marriage and settled in the Netherlands, where she became a politician and an activist against radical Islam. After the 2004 assassination of her friend Theo Van Gogh (with whom she created the short film Submission, which protested Muslim subjugation of women), Hirsi Ali eventually immigrated to the United States, where she has continued her activism. Her books—which have become must-reads among fans of the New Atheism—include Infidel, Nomad, and Heretic.
Over the years, Hirsi Ali’s activism has shown an increasingly conservative bent. Her unrelenting criticism if Islam even landed her (ludicrously, in my opinion) on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of “anti-Muslim extremists.” She’s been associated with the American Enterprise Institute and Prager University, and her self-titled podcast has featured flattering interviews with the likes of Newt Gingrich and Christopher Rufo (the activist who single-handedly created the specious moral panic surrounding Critical Race Theory).
And now, in an essay with UnHerd, Hirsi Ali claims she is a Christian.
Well, sort of. She doesn’t claim that she’s a true believer in the Nicene Creed. She doesn’t clarify whether she’s a unitarian or a trinitarian, Protestant or Catholic, fundamentalist or not. She doesn’t touch on whether she believes in the historical accuracy of the Bible, the literal godhood of Jesus, hope for an afterlife, etc. (And I should add, before I go any further, that Hirsi Ali doesn’t owe us an explanation at all. She’s free to say and believe anything she wants, but since she’s made her thoughts public…)
So, what does she say? More or less, that atheism is unequipped to oppose the global cultural threats of authoritarianism (i.e., Communist China and Vladimir Putin), raging Islam, and “wokeism.” In any event, her explanation of atheism’s inadequacy is itself inadequate:
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.
Now, there’s no denying that a Venn diagram of “the geography of traditional Christendom” and “places that enjoy modern liberalism” (in which democracy, rule of law, free speech, and freedom of religion prevail) would show considerable overlap. What we think of as the West emerged from a cultural substrate dominated by various strains of Christianity. How this is and why this should be has been the subject of debate for decades. One interpretation (Hirsi Ali’s, apparently) is that the central beliefs of Christianity somehow underly the principles of the free, modern West and provide a common religious/cultural system that would more closely bind Western cultures together. Another interpretation is that Western political and cultural forces came to the conclusion that interdenominational strife needed to be set aside for the sake of peace and prosperity, leading to centuries of defanged Christianity to which movers and shakers could give lip service while sponsoring and pursuing more practical matters, like how to govern justly, how to understand the mysteries of nature, and how to make money.
In any case, it’s hard to see how a revived Christianity can offer solutions to any of the threats Hirsi Ali is anxious about. Given the current attempts by various authoritarians (and authoritarian wannabes) to topple the wall separating church and state, and the fact that 21st century mainstream Christianity (in America, anyway) is determined to ignore everything Jesus Christ ever taught. I cannot think of anything that would be more problematic, say, in solving the problems in the Middle East, than presenting the Western powers as explicitly Christian entities, rather than neutral, secular factions interested in suppressing war and terrorism.
And finally, while the bond of shared religious belief may provide an evolutionary or cultural advantage in the survival of a group, it doesn’t make that belief true, or even beneficial to the individual. A resurgent Christianity very well might be capable of beating back Communism, Islam, and “wokeism,” but it probably wouldn’t be good news to non-Christians, homosexuals, women, and other minorities.
So, as Hirsi Ali continues to “discover a little more at church each Sunday,” I’ll be interested to learn what she discovers that countless previous generations failed to discover, or failed to accept, in the long struggle that has blessed us and cursed us with modernity. She might feel a little better about herself and her views of the world, but I doubt she’ll find a silver bullet.