In Defense of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Conversion
High-profile conversions to Christianity aren’t easy. In a secular age, the convert’s rationality, if not his sanity, is immediately cast into doubt. Meanwhile, the Christian community can be highly critical, skewering the convert over his failure to mention this or that aspect of the faith in his public statement, if a public statement has been made (or alternately interrogating him if he has neglected to explain himself at all). .
So it was with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who announced her turn to the Christian faith in an essay for UnHerd over the weekend. In Christianity, she has discovered the deepest roots of Western civilization. The faith, she wrote, represents “the story of the West, warts and all.” It is the foundation of the humaneness and decency that the Somali-born writer and activist cherishes about life in her adoptive home. But more than that, it offers the best answer to the question: “What is the meaning and purpose of life?”
Active in Dutch politics as a secular critic of European Islamism, Hirsi Ali shot to global stardom in the wake of 9/11. Western hawks and liberal interventionists celebrated her as a prototypical citizen of the sorts of societies they hoped to bring about in Muslim lands. And she became increasingly associated with the so-called New Atheists who dominated post-9/11 discourse, men like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and, above all, Christopher Hitchens. So absolute and uncompromising were her pronouncements in favor of “Hitch”-style secularism, the critic Ian Buruma labeled Hirsi Ali, not unjustly, an “Enlightenment fundamentalist.”
Yet there is nothing fundamentalist about the Christianity Hirsi Ali now espouses. Indeed, she has come to view Christianity as an indispensable antidote to irrationality, a guardian of right reason. Her erstwhile atheist idols, she explains, expected the death of God to usher “an age of reason and intelligent humanism.” But the opposite happened: “The ‘God hole’—the void left by the retreat of the Church—has merely been filled by a jumble of irrational quasi-religious dogma. The result is a world where modern cults prey on the dislocated masses, offering them spurious reasons for being and action.”
Yet precisely the civilizational emphasis in Hirsi Ali’s conversion story has invited a number of believers to question her motives and even her authenticity. Christianity might be a better answer to age-old human problems than narrow-minded scientism or woke-ism, they note, but where is Christ in all this? Has Hirsi Ali even assented to the basic teachings of “mere Christianity”: that the one God took it upon himself to heal the breach caused by our first ancestors, becoming man, dying on the Cross, and rising again on the third day?
These aren’t irrelevant questions. But they are to be asked by the ministers of Hirsi Ali’s church, not by the Christian public at large. For the rest of us, the civilizational or cultural case for converting to Christianity should be enough. Indeed, the very fact that these are the first questions that pop into the Christian public’s mind is a symptom of the loss of public, cultural Christianity and the faith’s sad confinement to a narrow, individualistic sphere. Historic Christianity, by contrast, spread civilizationally.
How else could the Church of apostles and martyrs have converted the Roman Empire from the inside out? It certainly didn’t have tribal armies to command (as the prophet Muhammad did). No, Roman people, often beginning with Roman elites, turned to Christianity because Christian life was attractive: In a late-Roman world characterized by decadence, oppression, infant exposure, rising divorce, and collapsing fertility, the followers of this strange sect lived justly and humanely.
The association between the Church and civilization deepened with the Constantinian conversion, a phenomenon that saw the Christian share of the empire spike dramatically: Did every new convert understand every article of the creed? Hardly. As the French patrologist Jean Cardinal Danielou noted, for many of these newly Christianized masses, the faith was little more than a set of external rituals. And yet immersion in a Christian civilization benefited these masses from both the temporal and eternal perspectives.
Even today, someone like Hirsi Ali discerns the outline of Christian civilization framing Western democracies that remain “marked by the Cross,” as Pierre Manent says, try as they might to erase the mark. When Hirsi Ali identifies Christianity as a religion that has left behind its dogmatic phase to embrace reasoned debate and free speech, she no doubt oversimplifies things. Yet she isn’t finally wrong. The monotheism whose God is Logos itself, reason-made-flesh has yielded a very different civilizational than, say, Islam, for whom God is ineffably Other, neither reasonable nor to be reasoned about.
In understanding the difference, Ayaan Hirsi Ali has risen far above her New Atheist milieu. And this should cheer Christians, rather than drive them to smoke out an “inauthentic” believer.