Not so long ago, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was embraced by the New Atheists. The likes of recalcitrant atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, who were dubbed the four horsemen of such a movement, claimed her as the fifth member, or, as Dawkins put it, “plus one horsewoman.”
This is, among other reasons, why I was so shocked to learn about Ali’s recent conversion to Christianity. In my mind, such a momentous change of heart would likely send strong enough reverberations into the spiritual realm to force even Christopher Hitchens, wherever he is, to take notice. Such an occurrence would be as likely to me as hearing that Richard Dawkins had recently abandoned Darwinian evolution and embraced Young Earth Creationism; or to learn that philosopher of mind Daniel Dennett has left behind his view of consciousness being an illusion (eliminative reductionism) and embraced substance dualism; or if Sam Harris suddenly had been miraculously cured from his Trump Derangement syndrome.
As a former Muslim, Ali’s route to Christianity is rather atypical. Many Muslims convert to Christianity because of encounters they have with Jesus appearing to them through dreams. Others are convinced by the evidence for Christianity; for example, Nabeel Qureshi was compelled by the historical evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection (he had many other reasons to convert as well, but this provided the intellectual impetus to pursue the truth). And others, such as Mosab Hassan Yousef (also known as the son of one of the founders of Hamas, who has recently broken his silence, condemning the actions of Hamas and blaming them for the plight that innocent Palestinians face), are primarily drawn to Jesus’ wisdom and unconditional love, as he shares in his fascinating book, Son of Hamas: A Gripping Account of Terror, Betrayal, Political Intrigue, and Unthinkable Choices.
Ali has been a longtime Dutch-American activist who has been very outspoken against honor killings, forced marriage, child marriage, and female genital mutilation (something that she underwent at the age of five). In the early 1990s, she received political asylum in the Netherlands. Over the years, she has received numerous awards and authored several books critical of Islam.
Unlike Qureshi, Yousef, and many others, Ali’s conversion was not a direct line from Islam to Christianity. Hers was one from Islam to apathy (in her case, a non-practicing Muslim), to atheism, and now Christianity.
In 2001, although not a practicing Muslim, Ali publicly denounced the terrorist attacks of September 11th. At the time, she had an epiphany (like many Muslims who abandon their faith), realizing that the violent actions of the terrorists on 9/11 were in line with Muhammad’s teachings and what the traditions taught (Hadith). Many Westerners, including Western Muslims, learn a watered-down interpretation of Muhammad’s actions and teachings. In part, because of political correctness, many are left in the dark about how violent strands of Islam are grounded in history and orthodoxy.
In her 2007 book, Infidel, recounting her awakening in 2001, Ali references a series of verses from the Quran and the Hadith to support her realization:
Videotapes of old interviews with Osama Bin Laden began running on CNN and Al-Jazeera. They were filled with justification for total war on America, which, together with the Jews, he perceived as leading a new Crusade on Islam. Sitting in a dainty house in picture-perfect Leiden, I thought that it sounded far-fetched, like the ravings of a madman, but Bin Laden’s quotes from the Quran resonated in my brain: “When you meet the unbelievers strike them in the neck.” “If you do not go out and fight God will punish you severely and put others in your place.” “Wherever you find the polytheists kill them, seize them, besiege them, ambush them. “You who believe, do not take Jews and Christians as friends; they are allies to each other. Anyone who takes them as an ally becomes one of them.” Bin Laden quoted the hadith: “The hour [of Judgement] will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them.”
Her epiphany, in conjunction with reading philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell’s lecture “Why I Am Not a Christian,” gave her the push to finally abandon any belief in God. Much of what Russell said in his famous lecture resonated with Ali, especially his argument that fear motivates belief in religion. For Ali, it was a sigh of relief to abandon any belief in eternal punishment. But obviously, this is a psychological response and not a rational one—one that is ironically still geared around fear and not truth.
Russell claims in his essay that there is no credible evidence for the existence of God, so it’s an easy step for him to reject Christianity. Ironically, he lived a life rife with contradiction, supporting social causes and adhering to an objective moral standard, without any way of grounding morality and any ultimate meaning, and writing tremendous works of mathematics and logic, defending the correspondence theory of truth, but sadly without any basis to affirm why anything is intelligible and comprehensible.
Unlike Russell, who was able to compartmentalize his belief in the meaninglessness of life with the illusion of meaning and intelligibility, Ali, in her very article “Why I am now a Christian,” writes that life “without any spiritual solace [is] unendurable—indeed very nearly self-destructive.” This is one of her major reasons for embracing Christianity.
Indeed, it is in similar fashion to mathematician and Catholic philosopher Blaise Pascal, who observed that despite all of the diversions society and culture create for us, we cannot escape our ultimate demise. Pascal stated the following horrifying reality about modern humanity: “It is a monstrous thing to see one and the same heart at once so sensitive to minor things and so strangely insensitive to the greatest.” This is true when we reflect on how upset so many become when their favorite sports team or athlete loses, or how consumed they become over debates on social media about things that are in constant flux and about which we have very little confirmable knowledge. Like Ali, modern society desperately needs to come to grips with Pascal’s insights.
Ali’s other major reason for abandoning her atheism is the realization that not only does atheism not provide an adequate response to life’s meaning but also that atheism is incapable of responding to a variety of growing global threats to peace, freedom, and the West’s moral structure:
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.
Authoritarianism is on the rise not only globally but locally as well. The Covid debacle gave us a taste of what our own governments are capable of doing to us, as so many people were quick to relinquish their rights and human dignity under the false pretext of health safety and protecting others. China will function as a model for the rest of the world if we do not combat the overreach of power by our Western governments.
She rightly recognizes that Judeo-Christian beliefs are what undergirded the proliferation of Western civilization with its protection of freedom of conscience and speech, something that is currently under threat.
And yet, in spite of themselves, many atheists, like Russell, defend truth and much of traditional Christian morals. Take, for instance, Mario Augusto Bunge, the late Argentinian-Canadian physicist and philosopher who was a bona fide scientific-materialist. He wrote scathingly against the early days of woke ideology and postmodernism infecting academia. Author, mathematician, and cultural Marxist critic James Lindsay and others also defend truth and dismantle the illogicality of woke ideology in a way that is congruent with Christian moral doctrine.
Lindsay’s colleague Paul Boghossian, another self-avowed atheist who was troubled by the abandonment of truth through academia, wrote a book in 2006 titled Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism. Over the ensuing years, Boghossian continued his crusade to combat this irrationality that has become widespread throughout universities and among many professors. Thus, in the spirit of Alan Sokal’s 1996 “hoax” published in the journal Social Text, Boghossian was joined by Lindsay and sociologist Helen Pluckrose in publishing a series of papers in journals dedicated to “grievance studies,” i.e., studies that complain about unfair treatment of the allegedly marginalized in society through postcolonial theory, gender studies, queer theory, critical race theory, intersectional feminism, fat studies, etc., to expose the lack of scholarship and absurd claims that these journals publish. In 2020, Pluckrose and Lindsay published a book on the whole scandal, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity and Why This Harms Everybody.
Ali is right in emphasizing that traditional Christianity is the only response to all of these rising threats. It’s the only faith that has a rich and rigorous intellectual tradition, the correct moral doctrine, and most importantly, the truth personified, Jesus Christ, that can provide us with the courage and means to confront and overcome evil in the world. As time passes, it is my hope that she will also learn that the supposed contradictions that Russell wrote about have worthy responses by Christian philosophers, theologians, and scientists.
Ali’s story, like that of C.S. Lewis, Simon Greenleaf (chief founder of Harvard Law School), and many others, is a reminder that no one is beyond the salvific grace of Christ. We must keep praying for our atheist brothers and sisters, some of whom may be just a step away from embracing the love of Christ.