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Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Shameful Conversion to Christianity
Jordan Peterson claims another scalp
In one sense, this was true. Ayaan’s account has nothing to say about why she thinks Christianity is true. There are no arguments offered for the existence of God and no arguments offered for the reliability of the New Testament.
But there is an argument. Not for the conclusion that Christianity is true, but for the conclusion that Christianity is necessary. It is necessary, Ayaan believes, to uphold the value of western civilization and it is necessary for the individual seeking meaning and purpose.
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This is not a new argument. Christians have been making it forever, but it was Jordan Peterson who most effectively injected it into the current debate. Peterson used it to win over Dave Rubin. Now, with Ayaan, he’s claimed another scalp.
All of this was avoidable. Peterson’s argument is a bad argument. But no atheist has stepped up to convincingly answer it because there is no moral leadership among today’s secular thinkers. Instead of offering the world an inspiring rational moral ideal, atheists have evaded the issue, or, worse, embraced a secular form of Christian ethics.
We can do better.
Christianity pollutes western values
Ayaan claims that Christianity’s “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.”
That this should be said of a religion which gave us a fifteen hundred years of subjugation, stagnation, and suppression of free thought is unconscionable. That she brushes this history aside with the claim that “Unlike Islam, Christianity outgrew its dogmatic stage” is obscene.
Christianity did not outgrow its “dogmatic stage.” It was defanged thanks to the heroic courage of men and women who refused to bow to dogma (and thanks to Aristotle). Christianity did not grow up—it was watered down. (See “Christianity’s True Moral Legacy.”)
It is true, of course, that most of the people who created western civilization were Christians and often argued in Christian terms. How could it be otherwise in a world where Christianity held a monopoly on man’s mind thanks to centuries of coercion and indoctrination?
But this does not mean that Christianity gets credit for freedom, science, health, and learning, any more than alcohol gets credit for the novels of Ernest Hemingway. There is nothing in these values that requires faith in the supernatural, obedience to a deity, or the worship of a man who preached hatred for life on earth.
On the contrary, freedom, science, health, learning, progress, prosperity—all of these depend on the supremacy of reason and love of life on earth. It is revealing that the Christian creators of western civilization, such as John Locke, looked aghast at Christianity taken seriously.
Christianity taken seriously gave us the Dark Ages. The Enlightenment made Jesus bend the knee before reason.
Christianity robs life of meaning and purpose
“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?”
Life does require meaning and purpose. But how exactly does religion provide life with meaning and purpose? Religion is nihilistic: it diminishes the only genuine values there are—earthly values. (See “Other-Worldly Nihilism.”)
There is a sense in which religion gives life meaning and purpose—it gives life meaning and purpose in the same way that any cause or cult does. It allows people without self-esteem to find a substitute in serving a cause greater than themselves. But this is precisely what explains the evils Ayaan sees Christianity as opposing.
In this nihilistic vacuum [created by unbelief], 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.
Why are China, Russia, and Iran threats? Because they are collectivist countries that subordinate the individual to the group. And why haven’t we established a foreign policy capable of opposing them (and capable of opposing Islamic totalitarianism)? Because, under the influence of Christianity, we reject self-interest as immoral.
What is woke ideology? It’s just the latest manifestation of social justice egalitarianism, a collectivist ideology that demands that we serve and sacrifice for “oppressed” groups. But this, too, is just secularized Christianity, with its insistence that the meek will inherit the earth and that “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” As Tom Holland observes in his book Dominion:
Christianity, it seemed, had no need of actual Christians for its assumptions still to flourish. Whether this was an illusion, or whether the power held by victims over their victimisers would survive the myth that had given it birth, only time would tell. As it was, the retreat of Christian belief did not seem to imply any necessary retreat of Christian values. Quite the contrary. Even in Europe – a continent with churches far emptier than those in the United States – the trace elements of Christianity continued to infuse people’s morals and presumptions so utterly that many failed even to detect their presence. Like dust particles so fine as to be invisible to the naked eye, they were breached in equally by everyone: believers, atheists, and those who never paused so much as to think about religion.
Had it been otherwise, then no one would ever have got woke. (Dominion, 533)
Real meaning and purpose comes, not from religion, but philosophy. Religion is half-assed philosophy: it is philosophic conclusions without philosophic arguments. Philosophy, by contrast, can define and defend a rational, earthly moral ideal.
Toward Earthly Idealism
In the Introduction to The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand observed:
Religion’s monopoly in the field of ethics has made it extremely difficult to communicate the emotional meaning and connotations of a rational view of life. Just as religion has preempted the field of ethics, turning morality against man, so it has usurped the highest moral concepts of our language, placing them outside this earth and beyond man’s reach. “Exaltation” is usually taken to mean an emotional state evoked by contemplating the supernatural. “Worship” means the emotional experience of loyalty and dedication to something higher than man. “Reverence” means the emotion of a sacred respect, to be experienced on one’s knees. “Sacred” means superior to and not-to-be-touched-by any concerns of man or of this earth. Etc.
But, Rand argues, these concepts do refer to real emotions. Their source in reality is not some supernatural dimension, however, but “the entire emotional realm of man’s dedication to a moral ideal.”
At the end of this month, I’ll be releasing my new book, Effective Egoism, which explains in detail what a true earthly ideal would look like—one that is, in Rand’s words, “dedicated to the exaltation of man’s self-esteem and the sacredness of his happiness on earth.” For now, let me quote from my book’s introduction.
In my judgment, the assumption that’s done more damage to self-creation than any other is the one that equates being moral with being selfless. It’s the assumption that says: to live a fulfilling, moral, meaningful life, you must serve a cause greater than yourself. I call this the dictum, and you hear it everywhere.
“The richest men and women possess nothing of real value if their lives have no greater object than themselves,” said the late senator John McCain.
“It’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential and discover the role that you’ll play in writing the next great chapter in the American story,” Barack Obama told students at Wesleyan University.
“Purpose is that sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves,” agreed Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.
“Get out of the shallow waters of selfishness and give yourself to causes greater than yourself,” Mitt Romney told Coe College graduates. “Launch yourself into the deep waters of great causes.”
To serve a cause greater than yourself is to act “in ways that are beyond personal concerns and direct personal gain.” In the terminology of psychological anthropologist Richard Shweder, it is to embrace an ethic of community or of divinity. Meaning is to be sought in the group or in God—in society or the sky. Not the “I.”
And who could disagree? The alternative, we’re taught, is to be self-centered: to be, in Urban Dictionary’s trenchant description, “The asshole that won’t offer a hand to anybody.” And assholes aren’t happy. They project, not joy, serenity, or confidence, but fear, touchiness, and neediness. They can, if clever and ambitious, achieve the trappings of success: money, status, power. But there is nothing to them.
What the “self-centered” fail to recognize, and what lends the dictum plausibility, is that you do need to live for something. You do need to set your sights beyond your transient desires and fears. You do need to aim at the highest possible good. In short, you need to live for a moral ideal. In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, psychologist Jonathan Haidt hints at the issue:
Aristotle asked about aretē (excellence/virtue) and telos (purpose/goal), and he used the metaphor that people are like archers, who need a clear target at which to aim. Without a target or goal, one is left with the animal default: Just let the elephant graze or roam where he pleases. And because elephants live in herds, one ends up doing what everyone else is doing. Yet the human mind has a rider, and as the rider begins to think more abstractly in adolescence, there may come a time when he looks around, past the edges of the herd, and asks: Where are we all going? And why?
It is a moral ideal that helps you answer these questions: Where am I going? And why? It is what sets your proper aim and establishes the virtues that will realize your aim. It helps you decide what kind of person you should strive to become by outlining an inspiring and ennobling vision of what is possible to you—a vision that you acquire first and foremost through art.
You hear Cyrano de Bergerac declare that he has “decided to be admirable, in everything, for everything” . . . You witness a fugitive declare in open court, “I am Jean Valjean” . . . You listen as Scout is exhorted, “stand up. Your father’s passin’” . . . You gaze at Michelangelo’s David or David’s Death of Socrates . . . You are swept away by the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto or the last movement of Rachmaninoff’s second.
These experiences, and the deep, soul-changing emotions they evoke, elevate you. “Elevate” means: inspire you to live for a moral ideal.
Philosopher Allan Bloom argues the point eloquently in The Closing of the American Mind, writing that idealism
should have primacy in education, for man is a being who must take his orientation by his possible perfection. . . . As it now stands, students have powerful images of what a perfect body is and pursue it incessantly. But deprived of literary guidance, they no longer have any image of a perfect soul, and hence do not long to have one. They do not even imagine that there is such a thing.
This is tragic. And it explains, at a much deeper level, the “self-centeredness” that you see in those who do not live for a moral ideal. Their failure is not that they attend only to their own desires—it’s that they do not attend to their own souls.
And so you do not see in such people the ambitious self-improvement of Ben Franklin, the proud dignity of Abraham Lincoln, the principled courage of Harriet Tubman, the indomitable will of Winston Churchill, the all-consuming curiosity of Bill Gates, the intense passion and demanding quest for beauty of Steve Jobs.
The “self-centered” have no self on which to be centered—only a hazy canvas of self-doubt and a palette of pretense. What we call their desires are only the unexamined impulses given to them by nature or copied from neighbors. What we call their “ego” is precisely the cloak that conceals an empty hole where genuine self-respect could have grown. They cannot show gratitude, appreciation, or admiration because those are marks, not of humility, but of spiritual abundance.
Art has the power to show us what it looks like to live up to a moral ideal and give us the spiritual fuel to seek the ideal in our own lives. What art cannot do is validate any particular ideal or elucidate its principles. That is the task of ethics.
What ideal should you pursue? Should you live for God, as religion says? Should you live for pleasure, as the hedonists say? Should you live for society, as everyone today says?
I believe that the moral ideal you should strive for is an ideal of self-interest or egoism. The full argument for that claim will have to wait. For now, it’s sufficient to observe that the very reason you have for seeking an ideal gives a clue as to what kind of ideal to embrace. For if it is your happiness that is at stake in deciding whether to pursue a moral ideal at all, then that suggests that your happiness is the proper goal of morality.
Today “happiness” has been castrated and no longer carries deep meaning. We equate it with momentary satisfaction or an ephemeral sense of “feeling good.” Jordan Peterson calls happiness “fleeting and unpredictable,” like “cotton candy.”
This is deeply wrong. Happiness is not weather—it is climate. It is the emotional undertone of a life well-lived. Happiness is not something you lose when life gets difficult: happiness, and the promise of it, is what sustains you in choppy waters.
Even worse than confusing happiness with fleeting satisfaction are the false idols of happiness: an addict getting his fix, a preacher shouting hosannas, an Instagram “influencer” hash-tagging a sunset, a self-help guru sporting a phony perma-grin.
Years ago I took my six-year-old swimming. She was petrified—then she became brave. She stopped clinging to the side of the pool. Eventually, she would doggy paddle as I held her. When I let her go, she at first reached for me in fear. The next time, she tried.
“I’m swimming! I’m swimming!” She could not stop yelling it. “I’m swimming!” I cannot communicate that tone of voice, except to say that it was ineffable in the literal meaning of that term. I cannot communicate what I felt, except to say that only once had I felt it in so intense a form—when, at the climax of The Miracle Worker, Annie Sullivan ecstatically cries out, “She knows!”
That is a glimpse into happiness. Happiness is a life of unadulterated joy in existence, in your capacity to live, and in your worthiness of living. And it is the conviction, in those moments when you suffer terribly, that suffering is not your proper state but an aberration to be fought, endured, conquered, and forgotten.
This rich, enduring concept of happiness was endorsed by Aristotle as our proper moral end, to be served by the cultivation of virtue. Virtue, he and other ancients held, is not a detour sign leading you away from your interests, but a golden road showing you the way to happiness.
What virtues do lead to happiness? The ancients’ list included reason, courage, honesty, justice, pride. They, however, had not lived through the Industrial Revolution but in aristocratic societies reliant on slavery. This masked for them the role of production in human life—production as the central rational activity allowing us to flourish.
This was one of the gaps filled in by Ayn Rand. Building on the Aristotelian tradition, Rand emphasized that the pursuit of creative, productive goals should not be relegated to some amoral “practical” sphere of life. It is at the heart of a moral, flourishing, happy existence.
The virtue of Productiveness is the recognition of the fact that productive work is the process by which man’s mind sustains his life, the process that sets man free of the necessity to adjust himself to his background, as all animals do, and gives him the power to adjust his background to himself. Productive work is the road of man’s unlimited achievement and calls upon the highest attributes of his character: his creative ability, his ambitiousness, his self-assertiveness, his refusal to bear uncontested disasters, his dedication to the goal of reshaping the earth in the image of his values.
That is the path to happiness: to live for an ideal—but an earthly ideal that treats your life as sacred and teaches you to thrive through your own thought and effort.
The most important question you face in life is not what is its meaning? It is: What do I want? And that question is to be answered, not by staring blankly at your desires, but by examining them. Are they consistent with reality? Are they consistent with each other? Do they reflect the highest aspirations of which you can conceive? What are the virtues required to achieve them?
For most moralists, this is blasphemy. “It’s not all about you,” begins the best-selling Purpose Driven Life.
Religion’s contribution to ethics was to declare that when you ask, “What do I want?” about your life, you are asking the wrong question. As philosopher Onkar Ghate has pointed out, religion replaces an earthly father demanding blind obedience with a Heavenly Father demanding blind obedience. Morality isn’t about doing what you want, it’s about doing as you’re told.
Jordan Peterson has made the point that even atheists believe in God, if judged by their actions. I half agree: most atheists believe in God if judged by their ethics. They accept a secularized form of the Christian morality, wherein it is not God who issues commandments that trump what you want, but other people. Auguste Comte called this “altruism,” meaning “other-ism.” It means self-sacrifice: placing other people and their demands above your own personal happiness.
Whatever the differences, religious ethics and social ethics agree on one thing: the good must be some form of subordinating the self to an outside authority’s orders.
The ugly meaning of this doctrine—that what matters to you doesn’t matter—is whitewashed by equating religious morality and altruism with love, benevolence, and generosity.
This is madness.
Other people are very obviously an enormous source of pleasure. Aristotle devotes two chapters in his ethics to friendship, and Rand viewed romantic love as life’s greatest reward. That has nothing to do with the anti-self moralities of religion and altruism. Who would want to be considered a friend or a lover not for the personal pleasure that we give our companion, but out of charity or duty?
The central issue in ethics is not whether to love and help others. It is whether you are committed to achieving personal values—or whether you are committed to surrendering personal values and serving impersonal causes because some external authority says so.
Serve a cause greater than yourself? Creating a self that is worthy and capable of happiness is the greatest cause there is.
The Moral Treason of the New Atheists
My friends and I have been saying for more than a decade that the New Atheism project would fail so long as it refused to challenge Christian morality. We are now seeing the fruits of that failure.
It saddens me that someone with the courage of Ayaan Hirsi Ali has capitulated to religion once again. But it doesn’t surprise me. Human beings do need a moral ideal to give their life direction and meaning, and not one of the New Atheists stepped up to provide one.
Fine. Let the dead bury the dead. The secular world needs new intellectual leadership—leaders who refuse to surrender the field of values to mystics preaching self-sacrifice.
The path is clear. Who is going to step up?
Effective Egoism 101
The conception of earthly idealism I champion was defined by Ayn Rand. Here are three key works that summarize her perspective:
Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World by Ayn Rand
Causality vs. Duty by Ayn Rand
The Objectivist Ethics by Ayn Rand
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