Richard Dawkins vs Ayaan Hirsi Ali

The God Debate


June 3, 2024
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At the UnHerd-sponsored Dissident Dialogues Festival in New York, Richard Dawkins and Ayaan Hirsi Ali discussed her recent conversion to Christianity, and whether the whole ‘New Atheism’ movement of which they had both been key members had done more harm than good.

Freddie Sayers
Ayaan, I think we have to start with the extraordinary few months you’ve just had. For those people who haven’t been following it, tell us the story. How did such a famous atheist, someone who had rejected religion, come to call herself a Christian?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
I didn’t, like many people who come to faith, see big banging lights. And I didn’t have any of those spectacular experiences that some people share. I wish I did, but I didn’t. I had a personal crisis. I lived for about a decade with intense depression and anxiety and self-loathing. I hit rock bottom, I went to a place where I actually didn’t want to live anymore, but wasn’t brave enough to take my own life. So I was self medicating. I had over a long period of time seen a psychiatrist, other  doctors. I was trying to understand my condition and trying to treat it with the help of pure evidence-based science. And in January, February of last year, I saw one therapist who said, perhaps it’s something else that you have. And she described it as spiritual bankruptcy. And that resonated with me. And having reached a place where I had absolutely nothing to lose, I prayed and I prayed desperately. And for me, that was a turning point. And what happened after that is a miracle in its own right. I feel connected to something higher and greater than myself, I feel I
 my zest for life is back. And that and that experience has filled me with humility, I have to say it and it is something that’s very subjective, it’s extremely difficult to explain. I’m trying to work to get into the details, the granular details of how I got there in a book, but that is a short book. That’s the shortest story that I can tell.

Richard Dawkins
Ayaan, that’s a moving personal story. But to call yourself a Christian is a bit different. A Christian has to believe in something. You go to church now and listen to the vicar. Do you notice what a lot of nonsense he talks? I mean, do you really take it seriously that Jesus is the Son of God? That Jesus rose from the dead? Jesus was born of a virgin? That is a part of Christianity.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
I know you very well, we’ve been friends for a long time. In fact, in some ways, I think of you as a mentor. I would say you’re coming at this from a place of: there is nothing. What has happened to me is I have accepted there is something. If you accept that this is something and that there is a powerful entity. For me God turned me around. I think what the vicar is saying no longer sounds nonsensical, it makes a great deal of sense. Not only does it make a great deal of sense, it’s also layered with the wisdom of millennia. I did mock faith in general, probably Christianity in particular. But I don’t do that anymore. That is where humility comes into it. It doesn’t seem like that now in 2024, after I went through that experience. It doesn’t seem nonsensical to me and I don’t mock it. I think I’ve come down to my knees, to say, perhaps those people who have always had faith, have something that we who lost faith don’t have.

It is also people who have faith like the woman who told me to pray said, “You’ve tried everything and you’ve lost hope, you’ve lost faith. Try it. Pray.” Just in that one word there is so much wisdom and that’s it I am suffering. I’m just trying to say no, it’s not stupid. It’s in fact clever, and it’s wise.

Richard Dawkins
So you believe in some kind of higher power, which is comforting you and you’re reacting from an Islamic past. I know that from what you’ve written, what you feel is Christianity is a bulwark against Islam, which is a quite separate thing from what you’ve been saying. But I believe you stand by that. That’s part of what you’re saying. I accept that, I support that. That’s why I’ve called you a political Christian, but from what you’ve just said, it sounds like you are more than just a political Christian. It sounds as though you actually believe it.

Freddie Sayers
What is your response to those specific questions of Richard? When the vicar is saying that Jesus is the Son of God literally, not figuratively, how do you square that with your highly trained rational mind?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
It is different planes of perception. So I choose to accept Jesus Christ, the teachings of Jesus Christ, the story of Jesus Christ, I choose to accept that. On the personal level, the rewards and I get that this is very subjective again, but mine are through choice, which is separate from where I think that, aside from my personal experience, the history of Western civilization is mainly Christian. That the external forces, for instance, the spread of Islam, non-violently, or violently, and the challenge of Islam and the message of Islam to Western civilization, can be countered, and should be countered with the message of Western civilization, which is essentially a Christian message. In that sense, I think there are more people who agree with me, but that is on the societal level. Then on the civilisational level, I think that every model you’ve used yourself, Richard, the phrase lately that there is moral Christianity and there is cultural Christianity.  But it is then a problem when moral and cultural Christianity collides with moral and cultural Islam, or moral and cultural confusion-ism, or cultural authoritarianism. I think then perhaps we’re on the same page about the fact that might be a way of countering it, but on the personal level, yes, I choose to believe in God. I think there we might say, Let’s agree to disagree.

Richard Dawkins
Let’s take the moral thing first. Islam is a nasty religion. I think we agree about that. But Christianity is not all that nice either. When you think about Christianity, Christianity is obsessed with sin. St. Augustine said that we all inherit the sin of Adam because he didn’t exist. So we inherit Original Sin. Original Sin came down in the semen. Jesus was not conceived with semen. That’s why he’s clear of sin. His mother Mary had to be clear of sin as well. So she had to have an immaculate conception. This is all obvious nonsense. This is all theological bullshit. The idea that humanity is born in sin and has to be cured of sin, by Jesus being crucified, Jesus being punished for all our sin is a morally very unpleasant idea. I’m sure you must agree about that?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
I find that Christianity is actually obsessed with love. That is in the figure of the teaching of Christ. As I see it, and again, I’m a brand new Christian, but what I’m finding out is that this is the opposite of growing up as a Muslim and the message of Islam. The message of Christianity I get is that it’s a message of love. It’s a message of redemption. And it’s a story of renewal and rebirth. So, Jesus dying and rising again for me symbolises that story. In a small way I felt I had died and I was born. That story of redemption, and rebirth, I think makes Christianity actually a very, very powerful story for the human condition and human existence. The pain of suffering, but also our internal recognition of what you call sin. But perhaps the character defects of both good and evil are there, but that both good and evil are in us. I think those teachings in Christianity are far, far more powerful and have led to, I think, the flourishing of Western civilization.

Compared to say, growing up as a Muslim where I was taught that the only way for you to be faithful, is to have fear, naked fear, and to have these sets of obligations which you basically obey. That was very much about power. It was centred around hellfire and all of these other things. I’ll give you an example. When I was an atheist, I was going all over both the United States and all over Europe, mocking Christians making fun of them, making fun of faith, as you’re doing now dear Richard. I was walking with six to seven men at any given time, protecting me, armed, from things that I said that were offensive to millions of Muslims. Christians were writing me letters saying, we’re going to pray for you, you’re misguided. And I think that alone defines for me the distinction between Christianity in general, mainstream Christianity at least and mainstream Islam.

Richard Dawkins
I must say, I’ve never met a vicar that I didn’t like. They’re always very, very nice people. But, nevertheless, the stuff they believe is obvious nonsense and you have to take the whole package, because you talked about Jesus rising from the dead. You don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead? Surely?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
I choose to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. That is a matter of choice. It’s a matter going back to: Is there something or is there nothing? I think you start with: there is nothing. And yes, for years I agreed with you that there is nothing. But if you come round to the idea that there might be something much more powerful than we are, something that caused everything else, then something like Jesus rising out of the dead are these other miracles, Jesus being born out of a virgin, for that higher power is not a big deal. Again, it’s a matter of choice. And it is just different planes of perception. And I think here on this plane of perception, having been a former atheist, I don’t think this is something we’re going to resolve tonight, or agree on right now.  That is where I think it’s perhaps more interesting, even if you choose not to believe.

Let’s at least talk about the value of Christianity for today. I look at these universities, the most illustrious universities of the West. You’ve all seen images of young women draped in Keffiyeh as a symbol of Hamas, performing the Muslim prayer. Tell me if those kids are not morally and utterly lost, just look at queers for Palestine. So for you and I and Steven Pinker and all of those wonderful people who are locked up in our ivory towers, let’s ask ourselves what was happening on the ground because in the last six decades, we pretty much demonised Christianity and the teachings of Christianity out of the public space, out of school out of universities, and a vacuum of God. And that vacuum is now being filled, as GK Chesterton said, not because people have come to reason, but because now they’ll believe in anything. And there are very awful forces today out there that are claiming the hearts and minds and souls of these young students.

Freddie Sayers
We’re getting into the bigger political cultural question. I feel it’s worth pressing one more time on this one. You said agree to disagree. I understand having read Richards letters to you that that literal belief is the bit that he can’t get past. Are you saying that you don’t literally believe those things? You talked about planes of reality. Is it that you saying you see beauty in those things and choose to suspend your rational judgement? Or do you literally believe them?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
I think that is something subjective and there is a choice in the things that you see and perceive that a different person cannot perceive. Art, music, you do enjoy a great deal of Christian art and music. I will look at a painting by Pollock, and I will think my six-year-old must have spilled all of the paint on the canvas, and run around. People are crazy enough to pay millions of dollars and hang it on walls. But I’ve actually seen people be moved to tears staring at a Pollock, that is a plane of perception. That is real but it’s also very, very difficult to measure. It’s the same the way you were moved by certain pieces of music. 

The fact that I have faith, and I choose to have faith, because of what I’ve experienced, is just as real for me as it is for the millions of people who believe. But for me, what is even more real, is the story itself and the wisdom in that story, the morality that has evolved out of that story, the internal debates of millennia long and everything that we inherited from it, it’s just too casual to cast that aside. When we’ve done it, I think we have caused ourselves a great deal of damage.

Freddie Sayers
Richard, having heard that story, that moving story from Ayaan, of clearly how her conversion has helped her and also she has explained, in beautiful words, the mode in which she believes it, do you still say you are not a Christian? 

Richard Dawkins
No, not at all. I came here prepared to persuade you Ayaan that you’re not a Christian. But I think you are a Christian. And I think Christianity is nonsense. You have to appear to be a theist, you appear to believe in some kind of higher power. Now, I think that the hypothesis of theism is the most exciting scientific hypothesis you could possibly hold. And the idea that the universe was actually created by a supernatural intelligence is a dramatic, important idea. If it were true, it would completely change everything we know. We’d be living in a totally different, different universe. That’s a big thing. It’s bigger than personal comfort and nice stories and these things. The idea that the universe has lurking beneath it an intelligence or supernatural intelligence that invented the laws of physics, that invented mathematics is a stupendous idea, if it’s true. To me that simply dwarfs all talk of nobility and morality and comfort. 

Freddie Sayers
Would you have preferred for your erstwhile new atheist colleague Ayaan not to have converted having heard her story?

Richard Dawkins
No, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t say that. I’m just saying that religious belief is bigger than what gives you comfort. Or it’s bigger than morality. It’s bigger than what gives you comfort. It’s bigger than what gives you a bulwark against Islam. It’s something that is huge and is something terrific and it’s false.

Freddie Sayers
Ayaan mentioned planes of reality. Is it for you entirely black and white whether those kinds of stories are true or not? It feels like Ayaan’s saying that she chooses to believe them because she accesses some kind of greed for truth via them and is less interested in the details. You’re not softened at all on that?

Richard Dawkins
I’m softened by a personal story and I’m softened by beautiful music. I’m softened listening to St. Matthew Passion and not just the music itself, but the story behind it. It’s a very moving story. And I’m moved by it in the same way as I’m moved by great fiction. It is fiction. One, of course, can be moved by fiction. I think Ayaan has described me as the most Christian person she knows. That may be true in certain senses in a cultural sense. Certainly when you say to me Christianity is a religion of love, Jesus, was a very, very great character of a very loving character. The bad things about Christianity actually stemmed mostly from what came afterwards and Paul and the other Christian apologists who came up after him.

Freddie Sayers
So you cannot allow the possibility that Ayaan has access to truth that you yourself have not seen?

Richard Dawkins
It is a scientific hypothesis that there is a supernatural creator. I don’t see how you can get to that, from feelings of personal comfort or feelings of political necessity. You have to get to that from thinking.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
That brings us to consciousness. First of all, the hypothesis itself. Which, even if you don’t allow for, set religion aside, the hypothesis of where did all this come from? How did it begin? Again, there is no consensus on that. There is no consensus on what consciousness is and what all that entails. But I think that it is, on an academic level, very interesting and very rewarding. To look into and explore all of these different things separately. On an academic level and on a non-academic level, I think that it’s very useful. 

Now, I hate to go back to utility, but to have all of these things connected, where as human beings, we are material, yes, but we also are more than material, we have a sense of consciousness, and we have a range of needs. Some of these needs reason can answer and pure science can answer. But some of these needs cannot be answered by that and I think faith in a higher power in God, and in the story that makes sense of it all gives it meaning and this is very, very important for human beings. 

The danger lies in trying to conflate these different planes. And then, casting aside as useful, this is false. It’s useful, it’s useless, it’s unnecessary. Now we have the range of human suffering, where, as an atheist, you don’t really offer an answer, you don’t offer a prescription for this is a way of life, this is the path to happiness. This is how you can deal with the challenges of existence. 

Atheism is an attitude. It basically says, As of now, there is no evidence to show that God exists or that higher power exists, full stop, and you’ll figure the rest of it out. It’s very, very difficult to figure the rest of it out starting from scratch. I think faith then gives meaning and purpose. And yes, if you’re afraid of the dark, and if you’re afraid of whatever it is that’s causing you anxiety, or whatever it’s causing you self-doubt, relationships between other human beings. I think Christianity does have a recipe and perhaps, in my view, the best recipe for not only how to live with yourself and connect to the universe, but also how to connect with fellow human beings and then bring about a civilization like this one.

Richard Dawkins
Suppose it were true that atheism doesn’t offer anything. So what? Why should it offer anything? Why should the universe offer you anything?

Freddie Sayers
What is the scientific explanation for you being moved to tears by some Matthew’s passion?

Richard Dawkins
Well, it’s neurology. 

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
I think the question you asked now is very interesting. Why should atheism offer you anything? There is no reason why atheism should offer anything. But faith offers something else. Faith offers something valuable and tangible. So why should atheism mock that and knock it down? Is it not possible to have this coexistence where there is a place for reason? There is a place for faith and for subjectivity, just like we agreed to have a separation between religion and politics, I think it is absolutely possible to have that and Christianity allows for that. A separation of science and the material world, the temporal world, versus the world of faith. These things when, they complement each other, lead to a much more powerful outcome than when you don’t.  

Again, I find the differences between us a little cosmetic and a little artificial, because there are so many things that you are saying which I agree with. It’s just that the attitude that atheists take is that if you do not see the world the way they see it, and if you don’t live according to reason, you must be an idiot. You must be unintelligent, you must be stupid. I think that that is wrong.

Richard Dawkins
Okay, let’s not go there. I don’t want to say that. What I do want to say is this. Faith offers you something, obviously, that’s very, very, very clear but it doesn’t make it true. It doesn’t make the existence claims of Christianity true. There is a difference from saying that being in a certain psychological place is consoling and comforting and offers you a meaningful life, meaning of life and gives you a purpose in life, all those things, which are wonderful. I have them too, but they are a bit different. But I do have a purpose in life, I have a meaning in life. But just simply because something gives you a meaning and a purpose in life, it doesn’t make the existential claims true. Christianity, like any other religion, makes claims about the world about the universe, which are either true or not true. I may be wrong and you may or may be right, they met, they may be true. But the mere fact that they’re comforting, doesn’t make them true. 

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
That’s an important point. But I agree with you on that point, the mere fact that they are comforting doesn’t make them true. But the hypothesis that there’s something other than nothing, is something you can’t disprove as much as I can’t prove. Materially, yes, Jesus was born out of a virgin. So I think it’s some of these areas where I think it’s a very, very important debate that has occurred. But 200 years ago.

Richard Dawkins
I agree, we can have that debate, and that that’s an important debate. That’s the one I would like to have, rather than the one that’s comforting. For example, I would like to know whether you think we survive our bodily death when our brain dies. I asked you that when we had dinner together you said no. Have you changed your mind about that?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Bodily, no, I don’t. I won’t survive death. I don’t think you will survive death. I said that when Bertrand Russell said, “When we die, we shall rot”. That is true. But then what happens to the soul consciousness, etc. That again I can’t say.

Richard Dawkins
You think there is a soul that survives death? 

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Well, there is something that I did feel a connection to and it wasn’t a bodily connection. It was a connection through consciousness and mind and whether that’s going to outlast me or not, I don’t know. I don’t know about that. Richard, I do know where you stand on this debate.

Freddie Sayers
We could spend the next hour going through different theological points and seeing whether Ayaan agrees with or not. But there is this bigger cultural societal impact point that you’ve really been in the middle of Richard. Recently, you came out as a cultural Christian.  

Richard Dawkins
I’ve been a cultural Christian all along, and I’ve never heard anything else. 

Freddie Sayers
There was a lot of social media excitement recently that you had confirmed that you were a cultural Christian. This I suppose, the political Christianity point that Ayaan has also been making. If you accept that there is utility to faith at an individual level, and at a societal level. How do you feel about what you and your fellow New Atheists for the past few decades or so have done in so enthusiastically dismantling it?

Richard Dawkins
I am so much more wedded to the importance of truth that I don’t regret anything. I do think that if, for example, in Africa, there are missionaries, Christian missionaries, and Muslim missionaries fighting for people’s loyalty, then I’m on Team Christianity where that’s concerned. So politically, if you have to have a religion then there you go.

Freddie Sayers
Will you explain that to us a little bit more?

Richard Dawkins
I don’t believe you have to have a religion. I think it’s patronising to suggest that people do need a religion. But if they do need a religion that I’d rather it was Christianity than anything else.

Freddie Sayers
So the dream world, according to Dawkins, would be: nobody having a religion, in first place. Then in second place, Christianity, and then Islam comes last?

Richard Dawkins
Yes.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Okay, I think that’s fantastic. I also want to say, you don’t have to go as far as Africa, to see this confrontation between team Christianity and team Islam. There is team Christianity versus team woke-ism, it’s right here, there is a great deal of Islamic missionary work that has been very successful in Britain, in the US and in other parts of Europe.I think, team Christianity, or team Christian is less confident here in the world of Christian civilization, than, say, in Africa, and I want to go one step further and call upon team Christianity to counter this message, because it’s a very powerful message. Even if you and I disagree on whether, there is God, and whether there is creation, I respect your view. I know you respect mine. 

Freddie Sayers
Are you inviting Richard Dawkins to join Team Christianity?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Richard Dawkins is on Team Christianity.

Freddie Sayers
Do you accept that, Richard Dawkins? Are you on team Christianity?

Richard Dawkins
If that’s the choice.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Richard Dawkins just said that. But I think and I really mean this in a serious way, I look at those young people in their twenties in their teens in their thirties. Right now, they’re being offered these messages of moral frameworks that they’re embracing, that are cultish, that are based on fear, that are nihilistic, and that’s a dead end. So if you say you’re on Team Christianity, then I would encourage those who are so inclined as to advance Christianity, not to worry about Africa, but to stand here. Stand up to those fears. Stand up to those people in Columbia, in Harvard.

There are mosques and Islamic centres that have convinced young people here in America and in Britain and elsewhere that Christianity is dead and has nothing to offer. That Western civilization is a moral vacuum, and that they’re here to fill it. To my astonishment, it seems as if they’re making an impact, look at all these so-called pro-Palestine protests, which are not really pro-Palestine. These are, in my view, clearly, in many ways, adopting the religious frameworks offered by Islamists, and what I see is not what you saw in the Sixties. That’s a different story. What you’re seeing now is a moral vacuum that is being filled. My moral vacuum was left behind.

Freddie Sayers
What is your answer to that? Are you hoping for some kind of Christian revival? Are you now, having been a famous New Atheist,will you now be a Christian evangelist?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
I don’t know if you should put it that way. The way I would like to put it is, you have this amazing civilization, you have this amazing society and it is pretty frightening to see that the best and the brightest are converting to the mind virus of woke-ism and the mind virus of Islamism. And that as atheists no one even seems to have woken up to the idea. There is a condemnation of woke-ism in which you ask: would you condemn the woke and the mind virus of the world, you condemn radical Islam? But we then have to offer these young people something. 

Richard Dawkins
Rational secular humanism. Enlightenment, enlightenment values is what we offer.

Freddie Sayers
Do you share Ayaan’s diagnosis that as the “mind virus of woke-ism”, as she puts it, and Islamism returns to parts of the West, Enlightenment humanism doesn’t seem to have resisted that advance very successfully?

Richard Dawkins
Well, let’s push it harder then.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Rational secular humanism is itself an outcome of Christianity.

Richard Dawkins
I don’t buy that.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
It starts with the admission that rational secular humanism, the Enlightenment, was able to take place within that Christian context. It is a product of Christian civilization. It didn’t happen in China, it didn’t happen in the Middle East. It didn’t happen anywhere else. It happened in these disputes between Christians. I think part of that story in that whole history is one that needs to be celebrated and given to these young minds. I think we’re where you are, where you have a vacuum, something is going to fill it. Aside from the personal rewards that I reap from Christianity, and that you read from Christianity, I think there is the societal and the civilisational context where this thing is going through the cracks. And without a counter message, a spiritual counter message, I think we’re in very, very bad situation and very, very serious trouble.

Richard Dawkins
It may be true historically, that rational secular humanism grew out of Christianity in the sense that historically, that’s where it came from. But that’s because there’s a reaction against Christianity rather than having been in concert with Christianity.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
But even as a reaction against Christianity, the advances that we have made are rooted in that story. My objection to throwing the baby out with the bathwater is that if you create this disconnect, then young people haven’t been told of those debates. They read in works that tell them that everything that the white male, a Christian, left behind is exploitative, it’s destructive. It has to be replaced with something else. It’s settler, colonial, whatever. It’s been cut off from the roots of that civilization. And I think part of the reason why that vacuum came about and it was possible was because of this casting aside of Christianity, and this attitude within atheism, that if you say reason, everybody will suddenly start to become reasonable and think reasonably. In that sense, that’s been a mistake. GK Chesterton was right. 

Freddie Sayers
Do you regret having been part of the new atheist movement having preached atheism from that pulpit?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
I do regret doing that I want to say that when I realised the damage that I was doing, and I was doing a great deal of damage, by equating Islam with Christianity, first of all, it is false. We were talking about truth and falsehood. Not all religions are the same religions, they are different, they come out of different cultures, and grow out of different contexts. So Christianity is not the same as Islam. 

I’m guilty of having said all faiths, all perceptions of God are the same and they’re equally damaging. So I came back from that. I also have come to regret the damage that I’ve done, and I want to see, I want to make my friends like Richard and Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, all the others. I want you to see what I see. What I see is where you have a moral vacuum, something is going to fill it, I want you to see that the teachings of Christianity just like you said, if there is a competition between team Christian and team Islam, you wouldn’t be on Team Christian, that what you value in Christianity is something that really is absolutely necessary to pass on to the next generation. We have failed in the next generation, by taking away from them that moral framework and telling them it’s nonsense and false, but also not protecting them then from the external forces that come in for their hearts, their minds and their souls.

Richard Dawkins
I think that you’re wrong to differentiate Christianity from Islam in that sense. They all have these Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. They share have the same Holy Book, they believe in Hell, they believe in a dictatorial God. They believe in so much that’s similar. The problem with Islam is that it’s 700 years out of date, and Christianity has moved on. Thank goodness, and mainly because most Christians don’t actually believe it anymore. They don’t take it seriously. The problem with Islam is that they take it seriously. They believe in their religion, they actually will fight to the death for their religion in the way that crusaders used to thank goodness, they no longer do Christianity has grown up and grown out of that.

Freddie Sayers
How do you respond to Ayaan’s charge there? It feels like quite a grave charge that, that atheism movement, that dismantling has left a whole generation inadequately equipped to deal with the forces that are coming at them?

Richard Dawkins
We have secular humanism, we have rationality, we have moral philosophy. Moral philosophy is how we decide which bits of Christianity we like, and which bits we don’t, which bits of the Bible we take as being moral and which ones we don’t we cherry pick. And the basis for our cherry picking is modern, secular, moral philosophy, which is a well established philosophical discipline. It’s on that basis that we decide what is moral and what is not, we decide in favour of feminism of all the things that we value. Those do not come from Christianity, they come in spite of Christianity, in spite of all religions.

Freddie Sayers
What is your diagnosis? Why has that come about? Why do so many people seem to be so lost during this secular age, if it’s not the fault of receding religion?  

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
I really do want to object to Richard, the statement you made about the holy books of Christianity and Islam being the same is absolutely untrue. In fact, maybe a follow up to this discussion would be to actually read these books to see what’s in them and how different they are. Another mega, mega difference is the character of Jesus and the character of Muhammad. Absolutely radically different. That is why the holy books are not the same story and are absolutely not the same, they are different. Yes, each one of them makes a claim to being an Abrahamic religion there, I do have to do a little bit of reading up on Abraham, I have to do a little bit of reading on the Old Testament. But as far as I can tell, now, from where I am in the New Testament, it couldn’t be more different from, from the Koran.

Richard Dawkins
The Old Testament is a very, very nasty book indeed. And the New Testament, on the face of it, is better. But the aspect of it which I mentioned before, the idea of God couldn’t think of a better way to forgive the sins of humanity than to have his own son crucified. That is a disgusting idea.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
God gave us free will. But again, I don’t want us to go back to where we agreed to disagree. You asked, “What do you mean by a moral vacuum?” What can we fill that moral vacuum with? The conception or the perception of the difference between right and wrong is, I think, something human beings have been trying to answer for millennia. 

We have different human beings and different categories of human beings have reached different answers. I think that if you take the history and the story of the moral of this civilization, if you say, well, it’s useless. Let’s mark it, let’s cast it aside. What emerges is a generation of young people growing up who haven’t been provided with their Christian or their Judeo-Christian moral framework. They also for some reason, haven’t been given what you’re saying you’re offering now, which is a moral humanism, or I haven’t seen any kind of organisation in the way religions are organised. Temples are freezin, and people dedicated to delivering a message of morality to young people. 

Freddie Sayers
Richard do you accept that?

Richard Dawkins
In that case, if that were true, then we need to work harder. What we don’t need is to saddle our morality with a lot of supernatural nonsense. 

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
What I think the assumption was that universities and schools would provide that, and that universities and schools again, separated from their Christian underpinnings, started to say that we are neutral grounds, and we are going to adopt a moral neutrality towards religion and faith. They’re exactly where the vacuum emerged, young people looking for moral direction, not getting in from their own civilization and other forces coming in and filling that out. That is the crisis that you are witnessing now. I think it is very I’m not evangelising. I’m not imposing a new or an old form of morality. I am saying that we are having a very, very serious moral crisis.  I hope that this is just the first conversation. But for those of us, I am coming out and saying when I was advancing atheism, and saying that Christianity is nonsense, and it is just as nonsensical and as dangerous as Islam. I was absolutely wrong. I contributed to this moral vacuum, and I stepped back.

Richard Dawkins
The largest Christian Church at the moment is the Roman Catholic Church. They are the people who got the organisation going, they’ve got the whole of South America, they’ve hit an enormous number of people and what they stand for is total opposition to abortion, contraception. This is not a good organisation for morality.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
I think the challenge to you is, if you say the Catholic Church or the Anglican Church or any of the other Christian churches are either — in terms of your words — either nonsensical or immoral or useless or regardless of however you characterise them, if you don’t have an alternative, and I think the last five or so decades, we see that no alternative has been established the assumption was reason and enlightenment and humanism is simply going to emerge from education. The higher your level of education, the more reasonable you are. Now what we see on display in our universities is the very opposite. That is a moral crisis.

Freddie Sayers
Do you accept that?

Richard Dawkins
If you seem to be saying that the organisation isn’t there we need a church of humanism or something like that. I’ve never been in favour of that kind of thing.

Freddie Sayers
Due to the observation that Ayaan’s is making, do you think that’s true that having expected enlightened humanism to take the space, if religion receded, that didn’t happen? Something else happened?

Richard Dawkins
I never was never that optimistic. I never thought we were going to have a sort of brave new world of enlightened humanism. I was just interested in the truth. And the idea that somehow, we were on a mission to found a new church or something like that. We just never were.

Freddie Sayers
So you didn’t think about what would happen afterwards?

Richard Dawkins
No, I mean, I can’t speak for my colleagues. For as far as I was concerned, what I was interested in is what is true. I believe that all religions are false. And I’m interested in what is scientifically true.

Freddie Sayers
Before we conclude, I feel we should touch on this question of Islam. It actually seems most people watching will be surprised by some of the language and the intensity of your agreement on this issue. You describe it as a nasty religion. That’s a strong term. What do you mean by that?

Richard Dawkins
I don’t mean that individuals are nasty. I mean that the idea of things like the penalty for apostasy is death. What kind of religion is it that has to penalise people who leave it by killing them? That is a revolting idea.

Freddie Sayers
Are you, like Ayaan, anxious about the protests? Do you watch what’s happening in the news with anxiety? In that respect, she seemed to be saying earlier that Islamist ideas are growing. 

Richard Dawkins
The protests that are going on in American University at the moment look like anti-Jewish and anti-semitism.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
The vector for these anti-virulent anti-semitism is Islam. It’s radical Islam. In every university there is a Muslim Student Association era Islamic centres, there are mosques, there are websites, and they propagate — sometimes in the most sinister ways — the faith and the antipathies and the antipathy that radical Islam hold against Jews have had, like, they’re running amok in our universities in our schools. 

So if from one day to the next we wake up, the seventh of October last year, that horrible events happened where 1200 Israelis were killed, many of them young people, many of them actually on the Left in Kibbutz Sims, and many, many women, raped, people mutilated and you would think that in making that model reckoning that students here or anywhere, even fellow Muslims have said, this is absolutely heinous, and it has to be condemned all the way. That is not what we are seeing. What we are seeing is the investments that radical Muslims made here on our soil, those young people completely brainwashed into coming out and blaming the victim, draping themselves into Keffiyeh’s shouting genocidal slogans in chant on our campuses, and thinking that they are replicating 1968 and see themselves as anti-war patrons. There is something that is going on there is the mind virus of woke-ism, there is the mind virus of radical Islam and atheism. Atheism is not the answer, I cannot go with all constraints to these young people and say, there is nothing to believe in. Because the more we say there is nothing to believe in there is nothing, then the someone else comes in and fills that nothing with something, and I don’t like what I’m seeing.

Freddie Sayers
Some of the language you’ve used this evening has been interesting. Are you really hoping to go back to the days where Christians take up intellectual arms against Muslims, and we have a kind of civilizational conflict? It will be very anxious for people to hear that.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
I’m not going there. I’m going to Chapel Hill, North Carolina and you look at some of those frat students. Please just take a look at how they responded. Where there is an existing faith that is strong. It is very difficult for all of these other mind viruses to encroach upon and take over. That is as far as I’m going. I’m not saying let’s start the Crusades, again. I’m just saying, let’s stand for what we have. Let’s embrace it, and let’s defend it. And to defend it, you have to have a counter message. There is a great deal of activism knocking on young people’s doors, telling them “Do you want to know the difference between right and wrong? Do you want to know the difference between truth and false?” I don’t see any counter activism coming from humanists or coming from atheists. I see you and my fellow friends just as bewildered as anyone else when you look at this. 

So the people who are in charge of universities, people who are in charge of educating and developing young minds are looking on and thinking what the heck is going on here. That is not the right attitude and it never has been the right attitude. There’s a great deal of denial. Yes, there’s a clash of civilizations. And this clash of civilizations has been going on at least since 1989. And the attitude of Western leaders, political leaders, academic leaders, media leaders, has been to hide in denial. It’s been to deny it, and the more you deny it, the more those adversaries who are clashing with us benefit from it. Right now I don’t think atheist humanism is offering any answers, I challenge you to come up with an elaborate message to fight these people.

Freddie Sayers
What is your message to your Muslim, or formerly, Muslim followers? You have many, many people who see you as a beacon of someone who has left the Islamic faith behind and has found success and flourished in a secular Western society. What do you say to them now?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
There’s Muslim rebellion, and some Muslims and the Muslims who are peace loving, who hate the Islamists who hate the message of hatred and blowing people up and closing their minds and threatening people that if you leave Islam, you’re going to be killed, which is absolutely revolting. 

So right now, I have more genuine Muslim friends than I ever had before because the same individuals who reject, they still identify as Muslim, but they reject the idea of forcing faith on other people. Many of my Muslim friends, are scratching their heads and wondering why Western civilization is committing suicide, why they are allowing this in the name of freedoms in the name of freedom of speech, freedom of association, and freedom of religion. We have allowed a cult of power, Islamism, a political totalitarian ideology, to see itself here, deepen and broaden and grow. We have nothing in return to say. It’s a cult that wants to destroy the very freedoms that it uses to advance its agenda. 

Freddie Sayers
So what is your invitation to your Muslim or formally Muslim followers? Is it to become a Christian?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
I’m not telling people to become Christian. All I have done is explain why I have become a Christian. I’m not saying to fill, I did say at one point in 2010, you know, leave you’re a good person, leave Islam and tell the Catholic Church: Why don’t you win hearts and minds that way? That is not what I am saying today. But I am saying to those fellow muslims I’m in a club with the clarity conference. It’s Muslim reformers, ex-Muslims people with a background like mine. And  what we do is if nothing else just make you aware, if the world is ruled according to Sharia, if the people who are advanced in this cult get what they want, we are going to see women caged up, we are going to see beheadings we are going to see civilization go down the drain. They’ve demonstrated it over and over again. Al Qaeda has done it. ISIS has done it. Hamas is doing it today. I think that we need to come out of denial and see as plain as daylight and as plain as they hold. They keep showing us all the time. If they prevail, this is what they’re going to do. Ask the citizens of Iran, ask the citizens of Saudi Arabia, ask at Mali, the Nigeria boycott under Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, that is what they are going to subject us to the same barbaric, barbaric and heinous crimes that they subjected to those whom they prevail over.

Freddie Sayers
We could talk for many hours. I want to give the final word to you Richard, what has this conversation made you think? 

Richard Dawkins
We have two epidemiological theories here. We have a vicious mind virus. We agree about that, really about your prognostications about that. The question is, do we combat it by vaccination with a mild form of the virus? Do we say no viruses at all and go for enlightened rationality?

Freddie Sayers
You’re a religious anti-vaxxer! Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in thanking both Richard Dawkins and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.


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Campbell P
Campbell P
22 days ago

People should Google Dawkins v Lennox for a real debate and see Dawkins’s arguments, petty prejudices, and caricatures of Christianity gently but soundly destroyed by a greater intellect of infinitely more rationality and common sense. It really is a pleasure to witness the deceitful and spurious fantasies of the New Atheists dismantled completely and so kindly from such a great mathematician. No wonder Dawkins fears debating him!

Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
21 days ago
Reply to  Campbell P

Just watched this discussion on YouTube from soup to nuts and I personally would replace the name ‘Dawkins’ with ‘Lennox’ in the first line of your comment.
This came across as a setup that I was relieved to see both Lennox and Dawkins push against. The moderator reads an excerpt from Dawkins’s book, out of context. Dawkins gets an opporutnity to expand on the excerpt. Lennox is then given the opportunity to provide a rebuttal which he does along with a lot of firehosing. This is a rhetorical technique only used by people really afraid of losing their argument i.e know that they are on shaky ground (around 55.12 as an example).
Lennox seems woefully ignorant about basic human psychology, pre christian creation myths, how real archaeologists look at scratches on cave walls, the importance of religion as a social control mechanism, the difference between the world at a molecular level and the world at the way more complicated human interaction level, what David Hume actually said about causation, how different people might view beauty, and on and on.
Despite all that it was great to see a calm, reasoned discussion for once….in a blue moon.

Campbell P
Campbell P
19 days ago

I don’t think we were watching the same discussion. Lennox’s ‘ignorance’ as you call it is pure speculation on your part. Both you and N. Taylor have missed the essential epistemological difference between the two. Lennox, as a mathematician, follows the rules of logic and reason but recognises that not all truth is discoverable by scientific enquiry alone. Dawkins’s world and mind are closed ones; that is the great shame.

Rob Alka
Rob Alka
19 days ago
Reply to  Campbell P

I’m not really replying. It’s just that I can’t figure how to present my own comment!
Anyway, I’m listening to the debate but both sides are losers. The Believer in God is a loser because it doesn’t make sense to believe in something when there is no real evidence, or at least none that homosapiens should or can recognise and accept.
Change Belief to Hope (aka wishful thinking) and then you can be rational and at the same time join with those who share your emotional or inward or unproven hope – and by all means get your 10 cents worth of morality in how you and others listening, singing or reading out of the same sermon or a bible with enough common denominators – and if you’re trying to include the Muslim’s Koran and the Jews’ Old Testament as part of that God’s Religious Common Denominators, good luck with that!
As for Mr Dawkin’s alternative belief, which is simply not to believe in religion – or at least stop promoting religion’s USP (Unique Selling Proposition, which is heaven rather than hell or oblivion at life’s end on this crumbling planet.
It’s not just hope (wishful thinking) but also carries the risk or insinuation from white collars that non-believers won’t have access to that USP. In other words, goodness per se is not enough.
We can’t define infinity, either to the future or the past. So it’s hardly possible to determine the beginning or end of our existence, be it physical, spiritual or something in between (a cyborg ….. can’t be worse than a 100% homosapien politician) By the same token – flipping to the opposite side.
The scientists, in search of substance, describe the beginning as, for example, The Big Bang. It’s handy to start with the Big Bang, least of all when there is no beginning and no end to infinity.
It’s not merely convenient that we can’t define God. I think it’s worse than that. I think its passing the buck of “morality”. I put the blame for that on white collar priests (and their Jewish or Islam equivalent). Morality needs to be defined and taken on board in the here & now, not given the nod or unthinking acceptance when read or preached from the Old or New Testament or the Koran
Mr Dawkins offers no solution other than to keep an open mind and distinguish between (a) Knowing, (b) Believing, (c) Hoping. Only (c) makes any sense.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
21 days ago

Fascinating, Captain.

Richard Dawkins has not in fact gone Christianity gaga as was rumoured, but is in fact, as sane as ever. Which is very sane indeed.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, I am not so sure and further observation is needed. Not about her practicing Christianity which is nonsense of course, but about the various flips, from a religion out into atheism and then back into a different religion. This strikes me, as belief as a shoe-shopping experience: you have been given shoes which turns out to be unacceptable, so you ditch those, wander down to Harrods and order something else, which eventually turn out to be equally unsatisfactory. The natural reaction is of course to try something else yet again, and this time it works perfectly. As with for anyone buying shoes, it’s an intimate thing and right up against your embodied self and the experience is deeply personal: you struggle to explain to others the reason why this one is ‘just right’ in a way all the other were not, but it is of course. But as anyone who has worn the ‘wrong’ shoes knows, this over a period of time can make you miserable.

Benjamin Dyke
Benjamin Dyke
21 days ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Methinks thou doth protest too much! We have it here from the great Prashant Kotak that Christianity is ‘nonsense’….Ayaan mentions the whole time, in a very humble way, that her experience and beliefs are subjective and never pretends to arrogance – that for me alone is worthy of great respect. Dawkins meanwhile despite his obvious intelligence is at best ignorant, at worst arrogant. He simply cannot grasp that people with intellect can believe in Jesus Christ. I’ll end with some words from Jesus “At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
20 days ago
Reply to  Benjamin Dyke

That quotation perfectly illustrates why those of us who are moral and yet atheists despise the historical teaching of Christianity; it’s an utterly vacuous thing to say. It obviously makes some people feel good that they can quote such things, which is part of the problem. Feeling good and ‘morally superior’ is a very human thing to do when in fact you’re tricking yourself with such things.

Nicholas Taylor
Nicholas Taylor
20 days ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

People are not computers. Dr Ali has a perfect right to be a bit irrational and uncertain about matters that cannot be tested by experiment except through one’s own feelings. The religious elements of Christianity may be objectively nonsense, but I don’t see how you can say that her practicing of Christianity is nonsense, especially as it is not easy to define what the term means.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
20 days ago

“…People are not computers…”

Errrmm, well, yeah, perhaps not. But, yeah, very probably, people are computers. I would even go further and say, Everything is a Computer, even the Biblical God. Erm, probably. But, just a different kind of computer from your average Intel chip in your laptop.

Jeremy Eves
Jeremy Eves
21 days ago

Richard Dawkins says truth is scientific. But science is descriptive. It never answers the question why? Science believes in measurement. But how is love measured? There is no instrument for love like a thermometer for temperature. Is love not true? Christianity makes substantial claims about truth. That they cant be measured with a physical instrument does not make them untrue, it simply means that other means are needed to test them. The claims are not unreasonable, but when human reason runs out of road into mystery then faith becomes the next logical conclusion. God is not a human, but if we start by denying the possibility of something greater than ourselves and our world, then we prevent ourselves from even looking. That’s definitely not scientific practice!

Nicholas Taylor
Nicholas Taylor
20 days ago
Reply to  Jeremy Eves

One should seek and honour truth, and it can be said to exist objectively even if not accessible, but it is an aspiration. In a YouTube lecture, John Gray lists truth as an aspiration along with tolerance, choice and justice, all three of which are subject to qualification. If truth also is subject to qualification, let’s allow it as shorthand for verification.

Campbell P
Campbell P
21 days ago

Many apologies! I failed to add, ‘Well done, Ayaan! ( I failed to add it when I ought to have begun with it!!)
I had to read the interview again to appreciate just how closed, unreasonable, and unscientific were Dawkins’s arguments. His is a very closed and subjective mind. A little more humility would serve him very well.

Nicholas Taylor
Nicholas Taylor
21 days ago

Professor Dawkins uses the word ‘true’ 16 times, Dr Ali only twice. That is not a criticism but it does illustrate ‘different planes of perception’. I have gone through Paul’s letters and the synoptic gospels and found a number of inconsistencies, indeed themes that seem to have nothing to do with each other. I am not referring just to the clash between James and Paul. The miracles, for example, though not entirely concordant between the gospels, look like they were invented later. After all, miracles hardly ever happen, and when they do, need to be witnessed and recorded in detail, unlike general principles like ‘loving one another’ and parables illustrating principles, both of which can be expressed in various ways or paraphrased.
I have formed the view that Jesus’ real message is likely to be found in the Sermon on the Mount, that appears only in Matthew. From its 95-odd pronouncements can be distilled 14 commandments with half a dozen themes. The tone is dry, didactic, quite fundamentalist, as misogynistic as one might expect at the time (re divorce), with a hint of apocalyptic unless the quirky lines about fowls and lilies and taking no thought for the morrow were added later. They lay down the law that Jesus says he came not to destroy but to fulfil. They may work as principles for peaceful ascetic individuals, but seem to offer little as prescriptions for the conduct and sustaining of a society. It is no wonder therefore that Christianity had to be made up as it went along. That may indeed be its strength, as it can keep on making itself up indefinitely.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
20 days ago

Yeah, about that Sermon on the Mount, lettered academics from Oxford and Cambridge have in fact incontrovertibly proven recently that the words as written have not in fact been recorded accurately, because Matthew didn’t have his hearing aid in, on that famous occasion. For example, JC, predicting the rise of the tech billionaires, actually said “The geek shall inherit the earth”. Matthew misheard and misreported this in 5:5, but nevertheless impressively prescient of JC to have forecast Gates, Brin, Ellison, Musk, et al two millennia on, don’t you think?

Campbell P
Campbell P
19 days ago

That’s because you haven’t understood Paul’s theology. I suggest you read ‘ What Paul Really Said’ by T OM WRIGHT.

David Butler
David Butler
21 days ago

The multiverse is estimated to contain 10^10^10^7 universes. A part of one of those universes – the Observable Universe – is considered to consist of more than 100 billion galaxies. One of those is the Milky Way Galaxy, which is thought to be composed of somewhere between 200 billion and 400 billion stars.

One of those stars – the Sun – anchors a Solar System consisting of five (as of now) known dwarf planets, four outer planets, and four inner planets. Of those four inner planets, one – the Earth – is home to 8 billion (and counting) human beings.

One of those human beings – Richard Dawkins – believes that God does not exist.

What a remarkably humble man.

I am reminded of the dyslexic flea who does not believe in the existence of Dog.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
20 days ago
Reply to  David Butler

The multiverse is entirely theoretical. Even our universe is only partly observable, based upon our evolved senses, scientific advances in the perception of different wavelengths and we’ve still a very long way to go in our understanding of how all this came about.
What it absolutely does not do is point to the conclusion you’ve drawn, which is that it was created by a creator. There is absolutely no correlation between not yet understanding something and jumping to the conclusion that there must therefore be someone or something from which those incredible numbers of galaxies originated. That’s just plain old anthropomorphism, and dangerous, because it then leads to the religious mindset which needs to be overcome – for all our sakes.

Nicholas Taylor
Nicholas Taylor
20 days ago
Reply to  David Butler

Like you, Dr Dawkins has the whole Universe, if not the statistics of the hypothetical multiverse, to cite as evidence in support of his argument.

Nicholas Taylor
Nicholas Taylor
17 days ago

I have just learned that former OFSTED Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman is to speak at the National Secular Society conference in October on protecting liberal values. According to the NSS announcement she advocates for ‘muscular liberalism’ as a response to, inter alia, religious and extremist indoctrination in schools. While distinct, this could potentially be ‘yang’ to Cultural Christianity’s ‘yin’.

Nicholas Taylor
Nicholas Taylor
17 days ago

Campbell P writes, presumably in response to my setting James and Paul in opposition: “you haven’t understood Paul’s theology. I suggest you read ‘What Paul Really Said’ by [the Right Reverend C] TOM WRIGHT [Bishop of Durham]”. I don’t have that book to hand, but have read a critique of it that, while somewhat technical, does contain many references to Paul’s letters. I also have been through the letters and Paul’s emphasis on Faith, that in his own case he puts down to revelation, is explicit.
This is not highly relevant as I only mentioned Paul in passing, but one line in the critique caught my eye: “[C T Wright] claims he is not denying that Christ took believers’ sins and they in turn get His righteousness.” Cultural Christians may view Jesus as having suffered the consequences of human corruption, but for religious Christians it is a central tenet, whatever else Jesus may or may not have said or done.
However, as I understand it, this is virtually the reverse of the Jewish notion of expiation of sins. For them, a blood sacrifice, a gift to God, had to be pure. The sins were conferred on another creature, the ‘scapegoat’, that was then driven out into the wilderness. The parallel with Judas is rather compelling.
This may be a red herring as religious Christians, always able to accommodate contradictory beliefs, will also regard Jesus as the epitome of purity. The only ‘sins’ a Cultural Christian is likely to be concerned about are historical, and they can still argue that Cultural Christianity represents, by definition, the better, more loving, more humbly retrospective and self-examining, side of our secular nature.

Hugh Thornton
Hugh Thornton
21 days ago

This was a bit one-sided in that Dawkins is experienced in atheist argument and Hirst Ali is a new Christian. Dawkins got away with speaking nonsense that was not challenged. Nice to hear the truth about Islam which many people are afraid to say in public. Dawkins has clearly not understood the crucifixion of Jesus. A great book on this is “The Cross Of Christ” by John Stott. His depiction of it as “disgusting” is disgusting.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
20 days ago
Reply to  Hugh Thornton

I suspect that what Dawkins understands – and what you don’t – is that the subjective feelings induced by the crucifixion story are precisely why they’re misleading.