Back to Constantine (or the Apostle Paul!), Christians have always loved dramatic celebrity conversions to their tribe (though in fairness, most folk do). So it is not surprising that Christian apologists are celebrating Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s conversion to Christianity which she anounced yesterday in an essay simply titled “Why I am now a Christian.”
For example, Justin Brierley called it “extraordinary” and quickly tweeted that her conversion confirms his new book The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God:
This is quite extraordinary. @Ayaan is an ex-Muslim who was a leading voice in new atheism.
I feel like the thesis The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God is happening at an ever increasing pace…
— Justin Brierley (@JusBrierley) November 11, 2023
Now let me say first that I am always delighted to hear of a conversion to Christianity. But that doesn’t mean we can’t say a critical word about the reasons given. And in the case of Ali’s article, the reasons are remarkably thin.
Ali first says that atheism is “too weak and divisive a doctrine to fortify us against our menacing foes.” But honestly, this is not much better than the story of Voltaire telling his educated guests not to discuss atheism around the servants lest they then set aside their moral compass and steal the silverware. In short, it’s a mere pragmatic appeal to God as a means of social cohesion and pro-social behaviour.
Furthermore, even if “atheism” as such is too weak to “fortify us”, it doesn’t follow that atheistic belief systems are. This is a point I explain at some length in The Doubters’ Creed. Unfortunately, Ali seems to have fallen into a strawman here by assuming there are no metaphysically and ethically robust non-theistic accounts of absolute reality and human flourishing.
Ali then adds a second claim: “I have also turned to Christianity because I ultimately found life without any spiritual solace unendurable — indeed very nearly self-destructive. Atheism failed to answer a simple question: what is the meaning and purpose of life?” Ali continues the strawman here. Atheism, as such, is just the denial that God exists: it doesn’t aim to provide “meaning and purpose.” But it doesn’t follow that atheistic belief systems all fail to do this.
Ali’s reasoning is equivalent to saying that if you remove the engine (i.e. “God”) from a gas-powered car (our worldview), you can’t go anywhere. But the proper comparison is not between the car with the engine and the car without the engine; rather, it is the car with the engine vs. the car with another power source. And if you are unaware of the possibilities for non-theistic sources of ultimate meaning and purpose, that just underscores the point: do your homework before making an unjustified conclusion. (Again, see The Doubters’ Creed for further discussion).
So to conclude, while I am delighted to hear about another conversion, that should not keep us from providing an honest and unvarnished critical response to the reasons given. Apologetics that quickly and uncritically embraces weak apologetic conversion stories may gain a shorterm victory but it does so at the cost of its longterm credibility.