A response to Ayaan Hirsi Ali's declaration "Why I am Now a Christian"
I've seen this notion by various atheists including Shermer and Peter Boghossian that the Christian argument goes something like this:
1. I believe in the core tenets of Christianity but it's a faith-based decision, not based on rationality
2. Having lost point 1, I now turn to the practical benefits of Christianity
I think this is a misread, and because I believe that Shermer and Boghossian are both smart enough to know better, it comes off as intellectually dishonest. It's treating a "yes, and" argument as a "yes, but" argument, as though point 2 is meant to salvage the argument after point 1 has failed. That isn't what's going on in the mind of a Christian and they know that.
Fundamentally, Christianity a matter of faith, not rationality. Christians aren't hiding the ball here, they say it outright in the writings of Paul and other places. They say that there is no way to salvation but faith in Christ, and that this is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. When, thousands of years later, nonbelievers on Substack call it foolishness, that's not some new idea, but rather a very, very old one.
So we get the same dance every time. Shermer says that the only path to truth is rationality, and no other standard is valid. Christians say that God created a world that follows consistent natural laws, which is important, but that rationality isn't everything, and when it comes to what sort of person to be, they live by a different standard, faith. Shermer says, "aha, you cannot prove by rationality that your worldview is true!". Well, duh. In literally any situation where two groups are looking at an issue by different standards, they will come to different conclusions about who is right.
But then atheists will say, "but rationality is a better standard that faith". Sure, but that's a false binary. The difference between Christians and atheists isn't that one only accepts truth by faith and the other only accepts truth by evidence. Both do both, it's just that the latter category denies it.
Christians are perfectly comfortable using science as a tool to unravel truths about the natural world. I'm a Christian and a chemist. No problem. But then Shermer claims that atheism is completely a negative proposition, and that his decisions in life are rationally determined. Sure. I'm sure it's "the most advanced findings on the topic" that makes him love his family.
That really doesn't wash when you behold the complexity of existence, the limitations of our understanding, and the finite nature of existence on Earth. There are some things that science may never figure out. There are other things that science will not figure out in our lifetimes. For those things will we choose not to engage with them? In some cases it's impossible. Instead, we will rely on tradition, heuristics, or often just gut feelings, as Shermer and literally everyone else does on a daily basis.
Read more Nietzsche, Michael. The problem with your argument is that the enlightenment is the consequence of Christian values and aligned values from other religions. There can be no deriving morality without God. Nietzsche tried and knew the project could not succeed. Ayn Rand tried and failed. Marx and Marxists tried and failed. We have a choice between religions of God or religions that make a God out of a man, an idea, or a nation. There is a cosy humanist conceit that they can derive morality independently, when in fact these humanists are just echoing the Christian moral culture of their birth. With every generation distant from religion this birth-culture fades. Morality degenerates into the worship of self or the worship of power, or both. As Nietzsche saw, as Rand found out. If your intellect is superior to these two (to name but two), the burden of proof (not mere assertion) is on you.
So, so good. Thank you. I too have admired Ayaan for years but she is attributing morals and values to Christianity that she herself had when she was a Muslim, *and* when she was an atheist.
When I first read Ayaan's piece, I saw that hers was a "cultural" conversion, for cultural and political reasons, rather than based on veracity. Your article articulated all that and more.
I tend to be a sceptic myself, with a background in the sciences and objective logic. However, I am also a person of faith. My faith did not come easily. Up to late 30s I thought ideas about of god could be real, but also suspected they could be just wishful thinking, or invented by those it power to placate oppressed masses. Over the years I accumulated bits of evidence and experience and by my early 40s I started some more serious searching and study. After the accumulated evidence became overwhelming, I had no choice but to accept it. The evidence is unlike scientific evidence that can be easily reproduced or tested. It is more like legal evidence, and for me progressed through stages: probable cause (there is reason to think that there could be some truth here); preliminary investigation resulting in an indictment (there is sufficient evidence to justify a serious investigation and trial); more detailed investigation and questioning; a verdict; and finally, continuing post-verdict evidence that for me further cemented the initial verdict.
Examples of the kinds of evidence meaningful to me include testimony of witnesses that I knew and had enough knowledge of to trust (and in some cases I could personally question), documented records and reports of other witnesses that appear reasonably reliable, historical records, cross corroboration of various witnesses and sources, patterns of history, and my own personal experiences.
An early step in my faith journey was accepting that metaphysical reality exists and contains intelligent agents with the ability to influence physical reality. I also concluded the Biblical record of events and how people interpreted them at the time is reasonably reliable, especially more recent portions and aspects that are cross corroborated in multiple places and by multiple authors. Eventually I concluded Jesus is in fact the Messiah promised in the Old Testament. As such, I consider myself a Christian, however, I do not accept or insist on “dogmas” of the various denominations. In fact, I consider myself to be antidogma. One friend referred to the dogmas as an “intellectual prison.” While I had never thought about it that way I quickly agreed.
I'm really torn here. My suspicion is that enlightenment humanism requires a cultural foundation of belief in free will and individualism, which are just not present in some places. The thinkers that come out of cultures with a long Christian tradition punch way above their weight in the development and promotion of enlightenment humanism, and I think the societal values that informed their thought are the main reason for it.
Of course there have been other pockets of culture that have contributed to enlightenment humanism (like Daoist philosophy that was allowed space to flourish in China).
And looking across the span of history, it seems like the most prominent atheist cultures (the Soviet Union and other Communist countries) produced anti-enlightenment, anti-humanist societies and philosophers of the first order.
I say all this as an "there's no proof that there's a God" agnostic, and feel awkward arguing that my own beliefs are probably helping to undermine the flourishing of the kind of society I want.
“we discovered natural rights that dictate that all people should be treated equally through the moral sciences”
In what way can morals come from science? The belief in equality is irrational, based either in a belief in the Christian God, or the God of the humanist’s own making. By every scientific measure, people are not equal. This is a spiritual concept.
I'm curious to know whether what I'm about to share is a widely-known argument for the validity of the Christian faith, or something that only exists within some Christian circles. The comment that an extraordinary event requires extraordinary evidence seems to me to be absolutely true, but I think this evidence is compelling, not unavailable.
First, a vast majority of people living at the time when Jesus's disciples began sharing about their resurrection experience had significant political, religious, and personal reasons for discrediting this. It should have been easy for them to open the tomb and show Jesus's body if it was still there, and they would have certainly been looking for any possible ways to stop the movement. Most accounts say the tomb was guarded by soldiers, as there was high motivation to ensure that no one took his body away and made preposterous claims.
Second, the next leap people often make is that someone must have found a way around the guarded tomb, and stole or destroyed Jesus's body in order to prevent the religious leaders from being able to produce it and discredit their movement. In that case, it's highly probably that those motivated to do this would be the disciples themselves. Except...the disciples were all repeatedly beaten, put in jail, even died tortuous deaths for asserting that Jesus had risen from the dead. And there was no personal or political gain that they received for their assertions - they were poor, constantly traveling, and as mentioned above, suffered greatly. It seems highly unlikely that these men would persistently put themselves through these pains for something that they knew was false. Perhaps some say that their motivation, which they might have been willing to die for, was to raise enough of a force to overthrow their Roman oppression, and perhaps some would have been willing to die for that. But we know that Jesus's followers did not preach or teach anything along these lines.
Third, a passage in Acts 5 quotes a respected Jewish leader, Gamaliel, who says in essence, "Revolutionaries have come before - we've seen people make these claims, draw followers, then die and the movement dies. If this is of human origin again, it will fail. If it doesn't, and can't be stopped, then it must be true." Granted, this requires a leap, but look at what Christianity has persisted through for centuries...is this something at least worth considering?
Shermer is admirably in line with Ayaan's concern about the civilizational war that is upon us. And he is also to be commended that he knows who his allies are in this war, and they are mostly Christian and mostly NOT Muslim or postmodern leftists. He and I (a Christian pastor) find strange bedfellows these days.
However, once again he shows the eager willingness of atheists to pour the "universal acid" of naturalism on everything - everything that is, except their own beliefs.
He says the West's cherished values, which he, an atheist, considers to be objective and universal(!), are not grounded in Christian belief but on "scientific naturalism and Enlightenment humanism." Will he get any argument from Ayaan on this? No. What Ayaan and other deconverting atheists have done is take the question deeper - a step apparently Shermer is unwilling to take. The step is this: "on what are scientific naturalism and enlightenment humanism" built? Do they just hang there in midair, suspended on nothing?
He doesn't see it.
Physicalism/Naturalism/Atheism (whatever you want to call it) is a universal acid that swallows up all superstition and religion and all claims of value. Yes, that is the implication. But as such it ALSO swallows up every ground for believing in the efficacy of reason and therefore also of science and the whole Enlightenment program.
And if you need evidence that this is the endgame of making his chosen philosophy the default ideological center, he needs to not look at the relatively better off irreligious European states he cites. He needs to look at the world those States (now including even the much more religious US) are pulling us into, its valuelessness, its rudderlessness, its Gnostic exaltation of the Self and safety, its negation of truth, its return to authoritarianism and Truthspeak. This leftist wokeism which he decries is not the legitimate child of Christianity. Scientific Naturalism and Enlightenment Humanism are! Leftist Wokeism, however, is the legitimate child of the New Atheists. Shermer and his ilk have sown this wind. We are reaping the whirlwind.
Everything good about her atheism, Ayaan has come to realize, first came from Judeo-Christian roots. So, she said, why stop at the unsatisfying springs, when one may drink from the well?
Nothing Shermer wrote answered the 3 questions she posed regarding China, Putin, and ideology. It’s about Faith. Faith tells me Christ rose from the dead. As a Catholic married to a Jew for 36 years it is something that myself as an individual believes. I don’t need to be hit over the head by the Church to know this. What Ayaan was searching for she has found in Christianity. She could have also found it in Judaism. It’s a sense of hope wrapped in Faith.
I think this is misunderstanding Ayaan's point. There's no moral imperative pushing atheism. There's no external driver for humanism other than an internal belief - which is not compelling to others. Judaism and Christianity both have an external reason to bring freedom to the world - the belief that God said so - and that is far more compelling a motivation and hence more likely to succeed.
What motivates us to learn about the world if we don't already assume that there is meaning to be found?
I had all these same skepticisms. But my going out in nature and observing, my giving birth to 4 humans, my breath and heart working in this body have led me scientifically and spiritually to be a Christian. I don't go to church, "church" is everywhere. The Bible is the record , but not the end all, be all....You have gone to great efforts to support the idea that it is unreasonable to believe in God. But, if you can ever get far enough back, back, back... Where did the original spark come from? I find that if we are open, the good ideas(many that you stated) bring us to the higher power and make life even more amazing. But each person had to come there on his own. Alone.
Interesting points. But I think it elides certain assumptions. First, humans are not purely rational beings - as the Nazarene said, in my opinion accurately, "man does not live by bread alone". That is the point Ayan is making, and either that core need state will be fed by an intrinsically illiberal religious worldview, or one that is consonant with, and gave birth to, Western traditions. Second (and this is a quibble), we often view the history of human individuality (and the rights of various sub-groups as we define them today) through the lens of our modern, non-food insecure, highly wealthy 21st century lifestyle. Women's suffrage Is a response to a need driven by less death in childbirth and thus longer lives, gay rights are driven by a reaction to mass media/imperial condemnation of the "effeminate" virtues, etc. etc. (there was a lot more tolerance for Whitman than there was Wilde than there was for Stonewall). It was not the Empire of Reason that gave us those rights and definition (in my opinion), it was mere response to social needs, in the context of a society that needed to worry less about making sure the cows got milked. Throughout all of it, man searches for meaning, and for many of us, that meaning runs through the communion of religion.
There is so much omitted and lacking in scrutiny in this article it’s hard to know where to begin.
“Instead of a tiny handful of elites holding most of the political power by keeping their citizens illiterate and unenlightened, through science, literacy, and education people could see for themselves the power and corruption that held them down and began to throw off their chains of bondage and demand their natural rights.”
This is Mr Shermer’s last point from his speech in 2012 from which he quotes in this article. Mr Shermer must be willfully blind if he thinks this has manifest itself or has in any way set us free. Because one can’t help when reading this thinking how rapidly we have declined even since his speech. In those 11 short years we have seen the pre planned fulmination of the very ignorance, elitism and oppression of thought and speech, especially in terms of protections for women, he so abhors.
At least in Christianity it took centuries for the rot to set in. I would say the rot set in as countries, such as the ones Shermer listed in a study by Gregory S Paul (he doesn’t give a date for the study, why?) moved away from Christian values, not as they followed them. With the adoption of Mr Shermer’s atheism as a religion, and that is what it is he can deny it all he likes, we are spiraling into hell in just two or three generations!
As well meaning as he is, what Mr Shermer and those who think as he does, cannot seem to grasp with all his reasoning and his education is the basis for the Christian faith. What he handily omits when he quotes Paul is that Paul was referring to why Jesus came and died for us. He came to save us from ourselves, because there is no other salvation to be had.
Does Mr Shermer honestly believe that Paul and all the disciples lived and died horribly persecuted as Martyrs for a mere “feeling? That they only encountered Christ as a whoo whoo “Spirit”. Now that goes against all reason!
No. When Shermer points to the world and highlights all its failures even with Christianity, he’s demonstrating why Jesus came. We are hopeless, no matter our religion, hence Christ came to save us.
“No greater love than this, than a man should lay down his life for a friend.”
So, Mr Shermer, even with all your fervent denial of the existence of God, Christ, loves you and came for you, a sinner who cannot save yourself. It’s hard to grasp this for us mere humans, how radical God’s love is for us. But when you do it will change your life. Remember you do not need to seek God, He is looking for you.