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Why I am now a Christian Atheism can't equip us for civilisational war

Christian Marquardt/Getty Images

Christian Marquardt/Getty Images


December 25, 2023   7 mins

In 2002, I discovered a 1927 lecture by Bertrand Russell entitled “Why I am Not a Christian”. It did not cross my mind, as I read it, that one day, nearly a century after he delivered it to the South London branch of the National Secular Society, I would be compelled to write an essay with precisely the opposite title.

The year before, I had publicly condemned the terrorist attacks of the 19 men who had hijacked passenger jets and crashed them into the twin towers in New York. They had done it in the name of my religion, Islam. I was a Muslim then, although not a practising one. If I truly condemned their actions, then where did that leave me? The underlying principle that justified the attacks was religious, after all: the idea of Jihad or Holy War against the infidels. Was it possible for me, as for many members of the Muslim community, simply to distance myself from the action and its horrific results?

At the time, there were many eminent leaders in the West — politicians, scholars, journalists, and other experts — who insisted that the terrorists were motivated by reasons other than the ones they and their leader Osama Bin Laden had articulated so clearly. So Islam had an alibi.

This excuse-making was not only condescending towards Muslims. It also gave many Westerners a chance to retreat into denial. Blaming the errors of US foreign policy was easier than contemplating the possibility that we were confronted with a religious war. We have seen a similar tendency in the past five weeks, as millions of people sympathetic to the plight of Gazans seek to rationalise the October 7 terrorist attacks as a justified response to the policies of the Israeli government.

When I read Russell’s lecture, I found my cognitive dissonance easing. It was a relief to adopt an attitude of scepticism towards religious doctrine, discard my faith in God and declare that no such entity existed. Best of all, I could reject the existence of hell and the danger of everlasting punishment.

Russell’s assertion that religion is based primarily on fear resonated with me. I had lived for too long in terror of all the gruesome punishments that awaited me. While I had abandoned all the rational reasons for believing in God, that irrational fear of hellfire still lingered. Russell’s conclusion thus came as something of a relief: “When I die, I shall rot.”

To understand why I became an atheist 20 years ago, you first need to understand the kind of Muslim I had been. I was a teenager when the Muslim Brotherhood penetrated my community in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1985. I don’t think I had even understood religious practice before the coming of the Brotherhood. I had endured the rituals of ablutions, prayers and fasting as tedious and pointless.

The preachers of the Muslim Brotherhood changed this. They articulated a direction: the straight path. A purpose: to work towards admission into Allah’s paradise after death. A method: the Prophet’s instruction manual of do’s and don’ts — the halal and the haram. As a detailed supplement to the Qur’an, the hadeeth spelled out how to put into practice the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, God and the devil.

The Brotherhood preachers left nothing to the imagination. They gave us a choice. Strive to live by the Prophet’s manual and reap the glorious rewards in the hereafter. On this earth, meanwhile, the greatest achievement possible was to die as a martyr for the sake of Allah.

The alternative, indulging in the pleasures of the world, was to earn Allah’s wrath and be condemned to an eternal life in hellfire. Some of the “worldly pleasures” they were decrying included reading novels, listening to music, dancing, and going to the cinema — all of which I was ashamed to admit that I adored.

The most striking quality of the Muslim Brotherhood was their ability to transform me and my fellow teenagers from passive believers into activists, almost overnight. We didn’t just say things or pray for things: we did things. As girls we donned the burka and swore off Western fashion and make-up. The boys cultivated their facial hair to the greatest extent possible. They wore the white dress-like tawb worn in Arab countries or had their trousers shortened above their ankle bones. We operated in groups and volunteered our services in charity to the poor, the old, the disabled and the weak. We urged fellow Muslims to pray and demanded that non-Muslims convert to Islam.

During Islamic study sessions, we shared with the preacher in charge of the session our worries. For instance, what should we do about the friends we loved and felt loyal to but who refused to accept our dawa (invitation to the faith)? In response, we were reminded repeatedly about the clarity of the Prophet’s instructions. We were told in no uncertain terms that we could not be loyal to Allah and Muhammad while also maintaining friendships and loyalty towards the unbelievers. If they explicitly rejected our summons to Islam, we were to hate and curse them.

Here, a special hatred was reserved for one subset of unbeliever: the Jew. We cursed the Jews multiple times a day and expressed horror, disgust and anger at the litany of offences he had allegedly committed. The Jew had betrayed our Prophet. He had occupied the Holy Mosque in Jerusalem. He continued to spread corruption of the heart, mind and soul.

You can see why, to someone who had been through such a religious schooling, atheism seemed so appealing. Bertrand Russell offered a simple, zero-cost escape from an unbearable life of self-denial and harassment of other people. For him, there was no credible case for the existence of God. Religion, Russell argued, was rooted in fear: “Fear is the basis of the whole thing — fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death.”

As an atheist, I thought I would lose that fear. I also found an entirely new circle of friends, as different from the preachers of the Muslim Brotherhood as one could imagine. The more time I spent with them — people such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins — the more confident I felt that I had made the right choice. For the atheists were clever. They were also a great deal of fun. 

So, what changed? Why do I call myself a Christian now?

Part of the answer is global. 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.

We endeavour to fend off these threats with modern, secular tools: military, economic, diplomatic and technological efforts to defeat, bribe, persuade, appease or surveil. And yet, with every round of conflict, we find ourselves losing ground. We are either running out of money, with our national debt in the tens of trillions of dollars, or we are losing our lead in the technological race with China.

But we can’t fight off these formidable forces unless we can answer the question: what is it that unites us? The response that “God is dead!” seems insufficient. So, too, does the attempt to find solace in “the rules-based liberal international order”. The only credible answer, I believe, lies in our desire to uphold the legacy of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

That legacy consists of an elaborate set of ideas and institutions designed to safeguard human life, freedom and dignity — from the nation state and the rule of law to the institutions of science, health and learning. As Tom Holland has shown in his marvellous book Dominion, all sorts of apparently secular freedoms — of the market, of conscience and of the press — find their roots in Christianity.

And so I have come to realise that Russell and my atheist friends failed to see the wood for the trees. The wood is the civilisation built on the Judeo-Christian tradition; it is the story of the West, warts and all. Russell’s critique of those contradictions in Christian doctrine is serious, but it is also too narrow in scope.

For instance, he gave his lecture in a room full of (former or at least doubting) Christians in a Christian country. Think about how unique that was nearly a century ago, and how rare it still is in non-Western civilisations. Could a Muslim philosopher stand before any audience in a Muslim country — then or now — and deliver a lecture with the title “Why I am not a Muslim”? In fact, a book with that title exists, written by an ex-Muslim. But the author published it in America under the pseudonym Ibn Warraq. It would have been too dangerous to do otherwise.

To me, this freedom of conscience and speech is perhaps the greatest benefit of Western civilisation. It does not come naturally to man. It is the product of centuries of debate within Jewish and Christian communities. It was these debates that advanced science and reason, diminished cruelty, suppressed superstitions, and built institutions to order and protect life, while guaranteeing freedom to as many people as possible. Unlike Islam, Christianity outgrew its dogmatic stage. It became increasingly clear that Christ’s teaching implied not only a circumscribed role for religion as something separate from politics. It also implied compassion for the sinner and humility for the believer.

Yet I would not be truthful if I attributed my embrace of Christianity solely to the realisation that atheism is too weak and divisive a doctrine to fortify us against our menacing foes. 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?

Russell and other activist atheists believed that with the rejection of God we would enter an age of reason and intelligent humanism. But 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 — mostly by engaging in virtue-signalling theatre on behalf of a victimised minority or our supposedly doomed planet. The line often attributed to G.K. Chesterton has turned into a prophecy: “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”

In this nihilistic vacuum, the challenge before us becomes civilisational. We can’t withstand China, Russia and Iran if we can’t explain to our populations why it matters that we do. We can’t fight woke ideology if we can’t defend the civilisation that it is determined to destroy. And we can’t counter Islamism with purely secular tools. To win the hearts and minds of Muslims here in the West, we have to offer them something more than videos on TikTok.

The lesson I learned from my years with the Muslim Brotherhood was the power of a unifying story, embedded in the foundational texts of Islam, to attract, engage and mobilise the Muslim masses. Unless we offer something as meaningful, I fear the erosion of our civilisation will continue. And fortunately, there is no need to look for some new-age concoction of medication and mindfulness. Christianity has it all.

That is why I no longer consider myself a Muslim apostate, but a lapsed atheist. Of course, I still have a great deal to learn about Christianity. I discover a little more at church each Sunday. But I have recognised, in my own long journey through a wilderness of fear and self-doubt, that there is a better way to manage the challenges of existence than either Islam or unbelief had to offer.

 

This piece was first published in November, 2023.


Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an UnHerd columnist. She is also the Founder of the AHA Foundation, and host of The Ayaan Hirsi Ali Podcast. Her Substack is called Restoration.

Ayaan

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j watson
j watson
6 months ago

Welcome this being republished.
Definitely something in this – the legacy of the Judeo-Christian tradition and that legacy of ideas and institutions designed to safeguard human life, freedom and dignity, pluralism, secular freedoms, the market, of conscience and free speech. Even the reflective, communal ritual of a Church service has a calming, re-basing effect if you just step back and view appreciate you are partaking in a millennia old tradition. And Jesus of Nazareth, whoever he was, was one of the most remarkable figures in all History.
Yet the leap then to a Deity who made all things, and the horror of much of the Old Testament, will always be a step too far for many. But if we can retain perspective on the benefits of the tradition then the Author is right.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
6 months ago
Reply to  j watson

I suspect that the author would like to believe the “Deity thing” as it would make her feel less dissonant – and make her a more settled member of the herd she has joined. I’m not sure how you can ever deal with this dissonance unless you can somehow convince yourself there is/was/will be some bloke floating on the clouds. Not a jump I could ever make, and I suspect that neither will she.

Last edited 6 months ago by Ian Barton
Adrian Clark
Adrian Clark
6 months ago
Reply to  j watson

While it remains a step too far then knowledge of God revealed in the two inseparable testaments will also remain.

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
6 months ago

As Churchill said: Judeo-Christianity is the worst form of religion except for all the other forms of religion.

John Pade
John Pade
6 months ago

I liked it! Ms. Ali (I hope I haven’t offended) flitted around the varied reasons for believing and settled at last on meaning. That is also why I believe. It could be that meaning is the furthest, ever movable horizon that science can’t reach, true. But it might be a categorical fortress against which science’s tools will remain powerless in the end.
As for which religion, look around. What have the followers of them wrought? Error for all, certainly. Very little else for most. One or two or three can point to something more: great civilizations, dazzling achievements, extensions of the human potential in every domain. The elevation of man to an image of his Creator.
But it must come down to faith. Maybe faith awakened by peering into the nihilistic vacuum, or maybe by experiencing and considering the founder’s revelations. Revelations that when lived lead to a good life and, in communion with other believers, a good society.

Adrian Clark
Adrian Clark
6 months ago
Reply to  John Pade

Faith based on reason in an intelligible universe.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
6 months ago

My opinion hasn’t changed from the first time I read this article. It still strikes me as the writer is merely following her current group rather than it being a deeply held belief, much the same as all her other dalliances with religion or atheism. I find it hard to believe that it’s sheer coincidence that her beliefs just happen to match whichever group of people she’s with at the time

Adrian Clark
Adrian Clark
6 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Then try a bit harder (at least for the sake of charity).

Peter B
Peter B
6 months ago

“After a careful cost-benefit analysis, I decided to become a Christian”.
Not quite what she said, but the idea that your religious beliefs are adopted primarily for the benefits you hope to attain from the change (defending Western civilisation) rather than more fundamental faith and belief does seem like a “category error”.
No doubt a similar line of thinking was around during the Crusades …

j watson
j watson
6 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Yes Pascal’s Wager, although I don’t think she was quite in that category.

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
6 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Her point I think is that the Muslims will take over western societies with their zeal for all things Mohammed unless their putative victims ( the rest of us ) find something with which to resist them . Yes crusader spirit very good example he he.

Adrian Clark
Adrian Clark
6 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Ali has embarked on her Christian journey
We all have different starting points with different vantage points along the way. No doubt as with Middle Age Crusaders.

John Solomon
John Solomon
6 months ago

So, not a muslim (any more). That I understand. Studying christianity. That too I understand.
But it seems to me a bit premature and indeed presumptious to say “I am now a christian.” What about faith, belief, even conviction?
You are not a christian, as I understand it, just because you go to church and are ‘looking into it’.

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
6 months ago
Reply to  John Solomon

You convict yourself of supreme arrogance here . She likes the stories , she goes to church , she’s a Christian . Are you some kind of latter day Inquisitor come to rule on how deep her faith is ?
Or does she need to do a course and get a certificate ?

Last edited 6 months ago by Alan Osband
Adrian Clark
Adrian Clark
6 months ago
Reply to  John Solomon

Christianity is essentially relational. The doctrines, rituals, and creeds are understood over time. l

Paul Monahan
Paul Monahan
6 months ago

Why the need for anthropomorphic religion?; she could explore and find solace and a spiritual connection with Hinduism, Buddhism, yoga, therapy

Adrian Clark
Adrian Clark
6 months ago
Reply to  Paul Monahan

Because God chose to reveal himself and his purposes for mankind through men culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ (thanks for asking).

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
4 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Clark

Well said Mr Clark

Philip Eapen
Philip Eapen
2 months ago
Reply to  Paul Monahan

Hinduism, Buddhism, yoga, therapy? Go check out the countries that owned these religions for centuries. Look at the mess they are in. Lack of freedom. Social stratification, rampant discrimination, and lack of social justice. Superstitions galore. Lack of scientific temper. Extreme poverty. Low status of women.
And yet, those who follow those religions repackage their faith and sell it to the West as New Age, Yoga, Meditation, etc.

LANGAT KIPKOECH
LANGAT KIPKOECH
6 months ago

“I still have a great deal to learn about Christianity”…. beautifully worded. Take up the book, ‘The Great Controversy’ (available online for free download)
by Ellen White, a devout Christian and woman of God. She discusses Christianity’s past, present and future in great detail.

Adrian Clark
Adrian Clark
6 months ago

Do you mean Ellen G Whte of the Seventh Day Adventists? (starting in USA – 19th century millenialists)

Last edited 6 months ago by Adrian Clark
G K
G K
6 months ago

Ms.Ali is a brave soul but I don’t see how one can simply pick up the system of beliefs. I rather believe to Paul Kingsnorth’s experience of being picked up by it, not the vice versa.
I wish I believed but after the years of spiritual search and a Divinity degree, I fail to reconcile my live experience as a human being and hyper-inflated figure of Jesus. A humble preacher with a few good stories (and the best ones are, as evidence suggests, were later ascribed to him) just happened in the right place and right time. So that the Jewish religious zeal fermented into a new religion. This dynamic is nothing new and there’s little miraculous in it.
The religions based on orthopraxy like Judaism and Islam are faring way better in my view, because they worry much less about theology and have clear practical benefits.
I think Judaism with its tangible, physical demands could be a more logical choice for Ms.Ali. ( or reformed Islam for that matter )

Alan Osband
Alan Osband
6 months ago
Reply to  G K

You sound a tad bitter all those years of study left you with so little . What’s reformed Islam ? You don’t mean the Canadian Lesbian they used to have on thought for the day

Adrian Clark
Adrian Clark
6 months ago
Reply to  G K

Do you want to know the person and Jesus Christ rather than the caricature you’ve been shown?