From Islam to Atheism to Christianity

One of the most remarkable stories of the year is Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s public profession of Christian faith. Her article in UnHerd is not only an explicit renunciation of her former atheism, but also a stunning response to Bertrand Russell’s 1927 lecture, “Why I am Not a Christian.”

Hirsi Ali recounts her own spiritual journey from Islam to atheism and now to Christianity. A large part of the reason for her return to religious faith concerns what she refers to as the ‘nihilistic vacuum’ which exists whenever there is unbelief. The results of this have proved devastating for life in the world today. As Hirsi Ali explains:

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.

Sadly, some are likely to dismiss Hirsi Ali’s profession of Christianity as being at best quaint, or even less graciously as being totally deluded. But it is she who has put her finger onto something which too many people living in the West today simply take for granted. Nearly all of the blessings which we enjoy in modern society find their genesis in the Carpenter from Nazareth. As Hirsi Ali persuasively argues:

…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.

With Christmas fast approaching, it’s time to reconsider once again the existential significance of the Jesus story. What difference does His life, death and resurrection make? It is clearly historical because our entire method of marking time is based around it. But it is also as Hirsi Ali says, “civilisational”. For without it there is only a nihilistic vacuum which exposes us to every philosophical falsehood and totalitarian ideology under the sun.

– Mark Powell