Three things are too wonderful for me;
four I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a serpent on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a maiden. (Proverbs 30:18-19)
Last week, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Muslim-turned-atheist writer (and bitter critic of Islam), surprised many people with the announcement that she is now a Christian:
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.
Spiritual awakenings are enormously complex and mysterious things. They draw on profoundly primal instincts and emotions, as well as engaging every faculty of the mind and heart. And they are typically long and drawn out affairs in which we only slowly come to be aware of our own hidden sins and blind spots. There’s a reason Jesus took three years to bring the apostles along to the point where they had some clue of who he was and what he was about. And even that long period required the traumatic shock of realizing their own radical failure and dependence on his grace as the cock crowed in the dawn of one morning and the women breathlessly announced, “He is risen!” in the dawn of another two days later.
Paul may seem an exception to that rule, but Jesus’ own word to him on the Damascus Road (“It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14)) likewise suggests that the appearance of Christ to Paul was the culmination, not the start, of a long period of wrestling, reflection, and divine pedagogy by the Spirit at work in the soul of the man He would make into the Apostle to the Gentiles. The mystery of how the Spirit of God woos a human soul (a relationship constantly portrayed in scripture under the image of Bridegroom and Bride) is why I always think of that passage from Proverbs above. The grace of God, like the eagle, rides the invisible buffets of the air. It goes straight by going sideways, like a sidewinding snake. It rides over chaos by the motive power of something nobody can see, like a sailing ship. It is as mysterious as the attractions that form between man and woman in all the tempestous desires, cross currents, selfishness and selflessness of the human heart. Who can fathom it?
So I wish Ali well and I hope she finds a place far from the spotlight with a good and wise spiritual director who will bring her into intimacy with Jesus and neither brandish her scalp aloft as a celebrity convert, nor feed her instinct to deploy Christ and his gospel as mere totems and mascots in her ongoing culture war with Islam.
This is often a temptation with converts. There are two ways to enter the Church. One is to come in, facing Jesus and desiring him for his own sake. The other is to walk in backwards, both middle fingers extended to whatever it is you are leaving behind and expecting Jesus or the Church or God or something to supply you with ammo so that you can continue your old fight. We see this, for instance, in the sad case of Magdi Allam. Pope Benedict baptized former Muslim Magdi Allam at Easter in St. Peter’s Basilica with global acclaim but he publicly left the Catholic Church five years later because the Church didn’t turn out to be the anti-Islamic force he wanted it to be.
This is why C. S. Lewis warned about what he called “Christianity and”: becoming a Christian as a means to pursue some other temporal cause: political, cultural, intellectual, financial, it really does not matter. As Jesus himself says, we must “Seek first his kingdom” and trust God to order all the earthly stuff. If we try to make the kingdom a means to earthly stuff, we will end up either sad or deeply, deeply corrupt. As my friend Sherry Weddell says, “Christianity as anything other than the desire and intention to follow Jesus in this life to seek union with God and incredible fulfillment of eternal bliss with God is bound to disappoint.”
That is why we must always seek first the Kingdom but seek to love our neighbor as a corollary, rather than treating social justice as the “real” part of Christianity and the “God stuff” as optional. As C.S. Lewis’ devil Uncle Screwtape says in describing the strategy of Hell:
About the general connection between Christianity and politics, our position is more delicate. Certainly we do not want men to allow their Christianity to flow over into their political life, for the establishment of anything like a really just society would be a major disaster. On the other hand we do want, and want very much, to make men treat Christianity as a means; preferably, of course, as a means to their own advancement, but, failing that, as a means to anything—even to social justice. The thing to do is to get a man at first to value social justice as a thing which the Enemy demands, and then work him on to the stage at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice. For the Enemy will not be used as a convenience. Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist’s shop. Fortunately it is quite easy to coax humans round this little corner. Only today I have found a passage in a Christian writer where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the ground that “only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilisations”. You see the little rift? “Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.” That’s the game.
All that said, the other thing to keep in mind and heart is a remark Lewis’ favorite Christian author, George McDonald, made: “God is easy to please, but hard to satisfy.” He is so because in his love, he is delighted even by our failure to obey him if only the will is there, yet precisely because he loves us he cannot be satisfied until we are completely happy. And that can only be in the Beatific Vision.
Consider the Prodigal Son. His incredibly noble reason for returning to the Father? “How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger.” (Lk 15:17). Lots of converts have turned to God with a huge admixture of selfish motives. I know I certainly did. But God is not proud and will welcome us as the Father does the Prodigal–and begin to show us how to find even deeper happiness through taking up our cross with Christ.
So, for instance, while God will bless the moral insight that desiring liberation rather than oppression is a Good Thing (it is, after all, the fundamental point of the Exodus) and therefore blesses (to a degree) James Baldwin’s remark that, “I conceive of God, in fact, as a means of liberation and not a means to control others” he also insists, sooner or later, that we come to the realization that if human beings are not a means to an end, still infinitely less is God himself a means to an end. And if we treat him as such, it will not be long before we treat human beings—made in his image—in the same way. The second greatest commandment—to love one’s neighbor as one’s self—must always be obeyed if we are to obey the first and greatest commandment—to love God. But the first and greatest commandment may never be treated as irrelevant or subordinate to the second.
All of which is to say that I pray Ali grows in discipleship to Christ day by day and that she does not fall prey to the powerful forces at work that have done so much to make Christians subordinate Christ to the lust for earthly power in this hour, and that she be given wise and loving guides who will neither exploit her nor lose patience with her as she sort wheat from chaff in her ongoing conversion to the worship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit and not of some of the mere by-products of the Western tradition.