Earlier this month, the critic of Islamism, advocate of classical liberalism, and famous "new atheist" Ayaan Hirsi Ali announced her conversion to Christianity. This was greeted with considerable consternation in various quarters, as you might imagine, though welcomed in others. Raised in Somalia, subjected to genital mutilation as a five-year-old, propagandized to as a teen by the Muslim Brotherhood, Ali’s been a courageous and problematic figure for more than 20 years. Problematic, for example, in often appearing to attribute acts of terrorism straightforwardly to Muslim teachings.
Ali's account of her reasons for going from "Muslim apostate" to "lapsed atheist" is fascinating. It de-emphasizes her individual "faith journey," in favor of geopolitical context. She doesn't talk about a personal crisis, but portrays her transformation above all in relation to the quest to preserve "Western civilization" from the forces that threaten it. These threats are the rise of "authoritarianism" (as represented by Russia and China), "Islamism," and "wokeism". To Ali, the "rule-based liberal international order" that constituted the new atheists' god now appears "insufficient" to address such distorted ideologies.
The only force capable of uniting "us," Ali insists, is "our desire to uphold the Judeo-Christian tradition." This suggests an underlying structure whose presence can often be felt under Ali's writings: she sees the world squaring off into a pro- and anti-Muslim worldwide conflagration. Her model is very "clash of civilizations" and now, very "holy war." The world she envisions over the next few decades looks something like Gaza, perhaps. I admire Ali in many ways. I don't admire this picture. And that only Christianity can save us from Islam, even if it were true, doesn’t entail that Christianity itself is true.
I remain a bit puzzled by all of this as a motivation to conversion. As far as she goes in her own announcement, she doesn't explain why she hasn't converted to Judaism, for example. Ali doesn't recount any personal experiences that brought her to Christianity. She basically just says that Christianity is the only force capable of fighting Islamism and wokeism. But even if you believed that Christianity was the only viable road to defeating wokeism and that wokeism was a scourge that must be eradicated, it wouldn't follow that you believed Christianity. As Christians I know might say: that's a matter of accepting Jesus as your personal savior.
Ali doesn't say anything about what sort of Christianity she has converted to, or why she selected this one as opposed to that one. She says almost nothing about the content of Christian teachings at all. It emerges that Ali is converting for prudential considerations of geo-political strategy. The question emerges whether that’s a conversion at all.
In a fascinating defense of Ali, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry makes the following observations:
The prevailing image of religious conversion today is one that is individualistic—conversion is in some sense experienced within the self—and sentimental—one is transported by emotions—which then cause one to affirm a certain set of religious dogmas… This individualistic and pietistic model is of modern, recent vintage. Such experiences have always happened but they were not thought to be the majority, even less the default or only case.
The Protestant, modern, pietistic understanding of religious faith as an individual, fundamentally sentimental phenomenon is ahistorical and empirically inaccurate. Religion is also (one might even say primarily) a social phenomenon. Man being a religious animal, he will always find religions to bind society together. Observing that some religions produce better results than others—to judge the tree by its fruits, to coin a phrase—is perfectly legitimate.
I have seen many people stumble on the path of faith because they have an expectation that religious belief or practice must, of necessity, produce some sort of deep personal or emotional effect, and therefore feel that they’re “doing it wrong” or that it’s “not for them” or that they just “haven’t been touched” or “called”. No! These people have also been called and touched, just in a different way. In the meantime, this pietistic understanding of faith has done a lot of damage.
One thing happening here is recapitulating the Protestant Reformation, just as Gobry (who writes under the acronym PEG) frames it. I’ll object to the idea that the individualistic and sentimental account of faith is "of modern, recent vintage": 1517 was long ago, and these questions go back to Paul and Augustine, I'm afraid, and forward to Kierkegaard and Emerson. But even if it was recent that wouldn't make it false, would it?
We might observe that some religions do a better job of binding together societies than others (or wait, is that true, exactly?), and someone might use that as a motivation to try to believe such religions. But the judgment that Christianity is more unifying than Islam, which appears more plausible in some locations than in others, is definitely not the same as the judgment that the Christian God exists, or that Christian ethics are excellent, for example. Believing that only Christianity can unite us against wokeism isn’t the same as believing Christianity. So I want to press Gobry, and Ali too: what do you personally believe? And do you believe it passionately?
The sentimental and individual questions aren’t the only questions. Maybe they’re not the most important questions. But they’re the only questions about belief and faith. It’s possible that everyone around me professes doctrine X and that I don’t, even as I nod along. Belief has collective sources and consequences, but it has only individual reality: you could have a case in which a whole society or denomination professes doctrines that no one really believes. Perhaps Gobry even belongs to such a society. It’s possible to sit in church singing with everyone and have no faith whatsoever.
Gobry writes: “'The best argument for the Catholic faith, in the end, is the beauty of her art, and the life of her saints', once said none other than Benedict XVI, and the argument presented there is really a different version of Ali’s: look at what Christian civilization has produced, look at how uniquely beautiful and praiseworthy it is; the fact that a civilization animated by such ideas produced such unique and surpassing greatness must be an indication that these ideas are in a profound way true."
However, I could believe that the Catholic Church has produced the best religious art, or even the most beautiful things the world has ever known, and be an agnostic. This seems obvious.
And these are the sort of questions that set off the Reformation in the first place. Nice architecture! You just drained the economy of Europe to build it. I don't regard the fact that you've got enough money to hire good painters as a reason to believe what you're saying.
Furthermore, the "pietist" idea that religious faith is a matter of personal experience and commitment and that religious community follows rather than constitutes conversion, is a relatively harmless picture of what belief is and what believers should do. Radical pietist Protestant sects from the Quakers to the Mennonites are among the least violent and disastrous religious tendencies that ever existed, though no religious tendency is without its drawbacks. But focusing on the state of your own individual soul can be a lot less morally disastrous than institutionally policing the souls of others.
The "collective" approach to religious belief is what squares us off against them, arranges people into a seemingly homogeneous groups of crypto-believers and sets than at each others' throats. So there's something to be said for faith as a personal journey of transformation rather than a collective strategy for mobilization.
—Follow Crispin Sartwell on X: @CrispinSartwell