Religious conversions are a hot topic following Muslim-turned-atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s news that she now considers herself a Christian. She is the first of the high-profile, militant “new” atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens to have reclaimed God.
Ayaan’s stated reasons are both practical and personal. She gave few details about the latter, other than that she found life without spiritual solace “unendurable”. She says more about her pragmatic motivations. She believes Christianity is the foundation of Western Civilisation, whose values of freedom and tolerance are threatened, an understandable concern after growing up in repressive Somalia.
This instrumentalism has been criticised, including by some Christians. As pointed out by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, modern Protestantism demands something more individual and emotional than Ayaan offered in her article (though reading between the lines, I suspect she may have had such an experience, but is choosing to keep it private). Jacob Phillips wrote for The Critic that Christianity’s adherents historically embraced sacrifice and suffering rather than considered it a societal cure-all.
Christian faith is not only linked to right wing political concerns like promoting liberty and saving the West. In the UK, the church is often associated with the left. That was one reason I was first drawn to it — but in the end, it completely changed how I viewed the world.
I was an angry leftie in the 00s before it was fashionable. As a lowly reporter for liberal newspapers like The Guardian and The Independent on Sunday, I was concerned enough about social justice to leave the media and work in NHS mental health services.
My beliefs are now widespread but were niche back then: the world’s problems were created by an oppressive privately educated elite. They could be solved if enough politically correct people gained power, extracted more cash from the rich, and moulded the State to their liking, along with rejecting fuddy-duddy traditions.
It was reading the Gospels that most excited my liberal left sensibilities
As with many people in the modern “woke” movement, this was based on the unexamined belief that being left-wing was the only compassionate and caring thing to do. My desire for a “better world” was one reason I looked for a spiritual path. Christianity would have been my last choice, as I had been convinced on little evidence that it was uncool and its adherents were sandal-wearing right-wing homophobes. Yet paganism, Islam, Buddhism and the new age brought no satisfaction. To my surprise, and of those around me at the time, it was reading the Gospels that most excited my liberal left sensibilities.
I relished the challenge of the New Testament. I had thought it was easy to be a good person. The correct political opinions and the desire to enforce them on other people were all that was required.
Jesus wasn’t telling me to tick boxes on ballot papers or protest outside the corridors of power, though. He lived under a horrendous, cruel regime but was remarkably quiet about it — he was even kind to Roman soldiers.
No, “love your neighbour” seemed a much more practical command, along with giving coats, turning cheeks, and his chilling warning of a rich man who ignores a beggar and discovers his fortunes to be reversed on the other side. I liked Jesus’s strict moral teaching, and I could see how practising it could change the world. I started to pray and worship, and surprising things happened.
I volunteered at an evening drop-in that provided a free meal, clothes and other support to anyone who asked. Many suffered from addiction. The left-wing answer to this intensely destructive malady was state-sponsored dependence on methadone, which mildly limits damage to the individual affected and society, but offers little hope for real change.
Recovering addicts who had walked the treacherous but ultimately rewarding path of abstinence and faith, whether the spirituality of the 12 steps or full-throttle Christianity, were different. I met people who once had lives of utter desperation, who were now content — even happy — and making positive contributions to society. Such transformations seemed miraculous.
Spirituality had dramatic effects in my own life. The bubbling rage of the “woke” reminds me of the resentment I used to carry. Some of it emerged from legitimate grievances, but a lot was a result of blaming others for problems where I was at least a contributing factor. This tight knot of grumpy self-centredness — what Christians call “sin” — had distorted the lens with which I viewed the world and my role and responsibilities within it.
I saw the same mechanisms playing out in the people around me, including those I had previously viewed as society’s helpless victims. We are all a complex mix of hurt and hurting, oppressor and oppressed, sinner and saint. The world had previously been black and white. I started to see it as it really is, with complex cause and effects, good and bad choices, cultures and ideas, and a hefty dose of old-fashioned vices such as pride, greed and lust.
Adopting Christianity as merely a helpful belief system is pointless
It was easy to shout at the government and the “elite” for the wrongs of society. It was much harder to roll my sleeves up and do something about it — even harder to see results from such efforts. It was easy to complain about low incomes and the extravagance of the rich. It was harder to recognise my incredible blessings and give my own meagre wage sacrificially to good causes. It was easy to be angry with men because I had been mistreated by certain members of the sex. It was harder to acknowledge that women hurt men, too — including me. It was easy to imagine a class of perpetual victims, who only needed government cash in order to be freed from their woes. It was much, much, harder to actually solve entrenched societal problems, especially when caused at least in part by much more right wing, conservative concerns like broken families, wanton drug use, promiscuity and crime.
Some might call this growing up. You don’t need religion to be “red pilled”. I found that the transcendent brought something much deeper than just a change in politics, though. I started to experience and express love in a way that I had no idea was possible. When I prayed, I’d gain clarity and subtle impressions of a kind action or a good solution. I observed coincidences, or what some new agers call “synchronicity”, that seemed to work towards a greater purpose and gave an exhilarating meaning to life, including its pain and suffering. I learned that many, many people over the centuries had walked the same mystical path that I was on.
For many, God is just an abstract concept that is used and abused for evil. I experienced something much more profound: the ultimate expression of the good, the true and the beautiful, with a power and intelligence way beyond my limited understanding. So-called “scientific” answers started to become irrelevant, simplistic and almost childish, except in response to a very limited range of questions.
I saw that although the West’s foundations were Christian, its modern construction was doing everything it could to extinguish the faith of its ancestors and deny the existence of anything beyond the material world, despite ample evidence to the contrary. I had been duped by such efforts, and it had done me no good at all.
Like Ayaan, I started with practical concerns. Ultimately though, adopting Christianity as merely a helpful belief system is pointless. It has to be true, for it to mean anything at all. Like many before me, I discovered that God is a lot more than a politically expedient metaphor.
Ayaan’s profession of Christianity did not surprise me — I’ve read stories and interviewed hundreds of unlikely converts. I’ve even personally known many of them: from divorce lawyers to crack cocaine dealers, scientists to gay rights activists. The church is a raggle-taggle consortium way broader than lazy stereotypes of middle class leftist or tub-thumping conservative.
I don’t blame her for describing her faith in pragmatic terms, because openly expressing belief in a personal, supernatural God attracts disdain nowadays. Yet, this faith has the power to transform lives in a way that political institutions never will.
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