The former atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali announced recently in an essay at Unherd that she is now a Christian. Given Ali's ties to the new atheist movement in the 2000s—she wrote a book called Infidel in 2008—the news has been received with surprise and even shock by many.
Meanwhile, other Christians upon reading her commentary have argued that hers is something of a conversion of convenience, an act driven more by political concerns and pragmatism than by sincere belief in the dogmas of the Christian religion. There is an echo in it of the way Roger Scruton sometimes spoke of the faith, not chiefly in terms of whether or not it is actually true, but in terms of its social utility to organizing and preserving society. Scruton's faith, such as it was, seems to have been more a perennialism than the result of an encounter with the living God. Is that all that stands behind Ali's conversion too, some wonder.
While understandable given the way the faith can and often has been instrumentalized, I think that is the wrong response to Ali's testimony. There are two reasons I think that.
First, Ali's own words suggest her move toward Christianity has contained a personal element of belief, some kind of encounter with God:
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?
She never uses this word in her piece, but to me that sounds like a longing for grace. No surprise, that: One won't find grace in Islam, the religion of her youth. Nor will one find it in the new atheism of her later years. And yet I think we humans ultimately find it hard to live without grace. I have thought more than once of this passage from Melanchthon in recent years in which Melanchthon talks about the existential need we have for mercy:
Because Cain despaired of mercy, he never dared anything afterward. For there is no one who would not very eagerly align himself with the law of God if he trusted that God would have mercy on him. But because we are factious, we fight even with our own selves, and we think that the fulness of divine wrath and mercy is something more limited than is actually the case. Therefore, in contempt both of the wrath and the mercy of God, we turn to our own desires, and we poor godless, blind, raging creatures with our love for glory, property, and pleasures dare absolutely nothing.
What Melanchthon is talking about there is something like the experience James Wright is imagining in his marvelous poem which I've quoted before, "Two Hangovers":
In a pine tree, A few yards away from my window sill, A brilliant blue jay is springing up and down, up and down, On a branch. I laugh, as I see him abandon himself To entire delight, for he knows as well as I do That the branch will not break.
The difference between Melanchthon and Wright, of course, is that for Melanchthon the bird can keep jumping even if it worries the branch might break, for he knows there is still safety, for that is what mercy is. Mercy does not make us indifferent to our moral lives, for we recognize that to live against truth makes us miserable, even if there is mercy at the end. But mercy does furnish us with the internal resources to take risk and withstand the emotional and existential weight of failure. There are times where simply living in the world as a person of good will and conscience can feel unbearable—the evils around you and within feel insurmountable. Inaction and withdrawal seem safer than any plausible alternative. If we are to find a way out of that paralysis, a way toward acting in the world for the good while reckoning soberly with the risks of failure, we need to know that there is mercy at the end of all things. Christians are people who know mercy. And therefore we ought, at least, to be the kind of people able to dare great things in the world, not according to the greatness of selfish human standards, but greatness according to truth.
That brings me to the second reason we should not dismiss this apparent work of grace: God often encounters us at a point of sharp need or desire. One friend of mine has talked about how her conversion had an echo of Lewis's in it; she had the experience of looking at the world and recognizing something grand and beautiful in it and she desperately needed for that grandeur to be real, not just the product of chemicals firing in her brain, something purely internal and not in any way tied up with the world itself. Christianity told her how that beauty, that longing she felt in the face of the beauty, how that could be real.
Or consider the more famous case of Martin Luther: Racked with anxiety and fear and guilt for virtually his entire adult life, God's light came to him in the form of consolation, in assurance that he could be made right with God not on the basis of works, but purely through faith.
We now live in a time of mass social breakdown, catastrophically low social trust, and deep isolation. Even something as basic to the human experience as forming families now feels alien and difficult to us, even impossible. For Ali in particular I suspect the felt tension over this breakdown was at times unbearable. To become acquainted with the facts of her life is itself to come to understand why she would write of her conversion in the way that she did. A pastor friend who has spoken with others who have similar longings said to me last week that many of these people have come to see that the choice before them may well be simply this: Christ or the pit.
Ali's conversion, then, shouldn't be read as an instrumentalization of Christianity; it should be read as her finding divine love in the places where she has felt great pain and longing for something better. Indeed, when one zooms out a little to consider the broader landscape in the west one will likely find a great many people drawn to orthodoxy for reasons quite like those of Ali. Though not identical to Ali's conversion, there are certainly similarities to it in the stories of Paul Kingsnorth and Martin Shaw. Likewise, a number of British intellectuals currently seem to be on something of a collision course with orthodoxy themselves, for reasons not that unlike those cited by Ali. If the church is faithful in its calling in the years to come, we should expect to see more, not less, people coming to us with stories like Ali's.
Richard Sibbes reminds us, quoting the prophet Isaiah, that Our Lord does not break bruised reeds nor quench smoldering flax. If Our Lord has not done that to us, then we should not do it to someone making their first steps toward knowing the One who has saved us. We should, rather, rejoice, for in so doing we are merely joining the angels in heaven.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).