Ayaan Hirsi Ali's astonishing announcement that she has become a Christian, is almost as surprising as if Richard Dawkins had entered the priesthood, says Andy Bannister
Last weekend I was with friends in Oxford and we took a wander along Addison’s Walk, a pretty tree-lined footpath that rambles beside the River Cherwell. It’s a walk steeped in spiritual history for it was on an evening stroll here in 1931 that C.S. Lewis had a deep conversation with his friends J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson which helped him take a massive leap forward toward Christianity.
Lewis had become a believer in god two years earlier, after a decades-long journey from atheism. He had been driven in part by the realisation that all that he loved - art, music, beauty, culture, truth - made no sense within atheism. A growing realisation that he wasn’t so much seeking god as being pursued, led to the dramatic moment: "In the Trinity term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most reluctant convert in all England,” he wrote in Surprised by Joy.
It shows how much Christians have canonised St. Lewis of Oxford that we often quote that story with excitement (“Look how the great atheist fell!”) without appreciating that Lewis’s initial conversion is a bit insipid. It took the later conversation with Tolkien and Dyson to help complete his spiritual journey. Lewis wrote: "I have just passed from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ—in Christianity … My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it.”
I was reminded of C.S. Lewis’s unconventional and circuitous road to faith when I read with shock the recent announcement that Ayaan Hirsi Ali has become a Christian.
Ali is a public intellectual, author and women’s right’s activist, but is also famous as a fiery atheist, former Muslim and later fierce critic of Islam, her criticism driven by the hatred and violence she had seen both in her first-hand experiences as well in as Islam’s core texts, as detailed in her book, Infidel.
Ali was born in Somalia but grew up in Nairobi in a Muslim family. During her teenage years, the Muslim Brotherhood infiltrated her community. Until then, religion for Ali had been just dead ritual. "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…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."
But then came the Twin Towers attacks and as Ali watched fellow Muslims celebrating 9/11, she began to question everything she knew. And as she read widely, she stumbled across the atheist Bertrand Russell’s famous lecture, ‘Why I Am Not a Christian’. He affirmed her hunch that religion was simply driven by fear and so with a sense of joy, she threw off the shackles of Islam.
Ali became not merely an atheist, but a fierce critic of Islam, her no-holds-barred attacks on her former faith resulting in her receiving death threats and having to spend time in hiding. (The Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh who collaborated with her on the film Submission was brutally murdered and a letter threatening Ali pinned to his corpse with a knife).
But despite the public profile she was gaining and the excitement of hanging out with other New Atheists, including Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, something wasn’t right and in time, Ali began to doubt her atheism too. Initially, she was worried that atheism couldn’t provide the West with the resources to tackle its myriad cultural and civilisation challenges but then, more personally, because atheism left her feeling an utter emptiness: "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."
And thus Ali’s astonishing announcement that she has become a Christian, almost as surprising as if Richard Dawkins had entered the priesthood. Social media lit up like a Christmas tree: disappointed atheists accused her of treachery; while Christians - well, some rejoiced, but others urged caution: “Hang on a moment, isn’t her conversion a bit…insipid?" It was noted that in her conversion story, the name of Jesus is never mentioned, let alone the cross. I understand this hesitancy, and have some sympathy with it, not least because I worry about celebrity conversions, but let me also offer some observations.
What Ali needs from Christians are not theological brickbats, but love, support, and encouragement as she explores who Jesus is
First, Ali’s conversion has not happened in a vacuum, but against the backdrop of a change in the intellectual climate. More and more public intellectuals are beginning to talk positively about faith, a story told well in Justin Brierley’s recent book The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God. Let’s ensure we are answering the questions of today’s spiritual seekers, not tilting at yesterday’s windmills.
Second, remember that the path to faith is often long and winding. Is Ali a full-blooded Christian? Clearly not. But then neither was C.S. Lewis during his Most Reluctant Convert phase. Like Lewis, Ali still has a way to travel, but I’m encouraged she realises this, as she writes: "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."
Third, we should reflect on the cost of discipleship, which is high for those who come to Christianity from Islam, let alone Islam via New Atheism. Ali continues to face death threats from Islamists and online attacks from angry atheists. To publicly announce her conversion took huge courage. Many of us have had far less costly journeys to Christ, so maybe we would do well to demonstrate a little humility. What Ali needs from Christians are not theological brickbats, but love, support, and encouragement as she explores who Jesus is.
Finally, remember to pray. Pray for our atheist friends. Pray for our culture, in its chaotic messy brokenness. And pray for those, like Ali, who have discovered that absent of Christianity, many beautiful things in our culture that had flowered in the soil of the gospel begin to wither.
In C.S. Lewis’s journey from reluctant convert to committed Christian, there were many Christian friends, like Tolkien, Dyson and others, who were significant influences. My prayer for Ayaan Hirsi Ali is that God likewise brings strong Christian friends into her life who can celebrate with her the steps that she has taken, but also help encourage her the rest of the way home to Jesus.