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Religion is Social
Aayan Hirsi Ali's Conversion to Christianity is Jewish
Outspoken New Atheist Aayan Hirsi Ali has converted to Christianity, but her arguments are more psychological and consequentialist than fundamentalist—she makes no mention of Christian dogma or creed. Instead, she focuses on her own need for meaning and her appreciation for the legacy of Christian culture and civilization when compared to other alternatives. Her conversion story thus bothered Christians and atheists alike. The former, because they felt she had failed to address the question of the truth of Christian doctrine; the latter because they felt she had failed to address the untruth of it. Ross Douthat wrote a compelling piece on her conversion that points to a lacuna in her conversion story, aside from the truth question: “the weirdness of religious experience.” She didn’t just convert because religion is a source of meaning, he says, but because the strangeness of religious experience provokes a recognition that the world itself is strange.
Speaking from a Jewish perspective, the hardline distinction between the truth of a religion, its practical civilizational value, and its psychological import falls away. Both Ali’s Christian critics and atheist critics take too shallow (though possibly an appropriately Protestant) view of religion. In the story of Ruth’s conversion to Judaism, now the paradigmatic script for all Jewish converts, we note that her motivations are primarily social and relational. “Wherever you go, I will go…your people will be my people.” Ruth converts, as does Ali, not because Naomi convinces her that Judaism is doctrinally right, but because she is impressed by Naomi’s character and wants to join her culture.
Jews read the story of Ruth on Shavuot, the Holiday that celebrates the Revelation at Sinai, because the distinction between divine revelation and interdependent communal formation are two sides of the same coin. Some people join because of supernatural experience, per Douthat’s point. But some join because they like the people who have supernatural experience. Or better yet, sitting at the table of deeply kind, deeply thoughtful, deeply inspiring people can itself be a kind of supernatural experience — even if it requires no belief in virgin births or split seas. In the middle ages, Maimonides pushed to shore up Jewish theology along 13 principles of faith, but historically Judaism has drawn friends and converts not because people agreed with these logical and abstract principles but because it has impressed them as a way of life.
I don’t know Hirsi Ali and the depths of her soul’s journey—but the following line of reasoning seems like a legitimate reason to convert:
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.
What she presents — and you can disagree with her analysis — is a kind of negative anthropology, a correlate to Maimonides’s negative theology. We can’t know the best way to live—we can’t know the best system through which to worship—but we can know which ones are off the table. Once we accept that we have to serve somebody, that there is no way not to pick a horse, the question remains are we betting on secular scientism or moderate religion combined with classical liberalism? I couldn’t help but connect Ali’s choice to Peter Singer’s recent defense of bestiality. Secularism ignores culture to its own detriment—and Singer’s willingness to defend bestiality is a symptom of a culture that sacrifices EQ on the altar of IQ. Even if you like many of the core tenets of classical political liberalism as I do, you have to ask if the best way to maintain a commitment to these liberties is secularism. Skeptics say that this just instrumentalizes religion, but a religionist might counter that it suggests there is an actual “there there” to religion, even if we can’t talk about it in the most convincing terms.
Both Rousseau and Burke understood that modern political movements would not be efficacious without “civil religion.” Ali’s point really continues this thread: if you are patriotic to Western values you need more than just an intellectual framework to transmit them; you need deep buy-in formed through a way of life. It’s not a coincidence that patriotic sentiment and organized religion are both down while polarization and fragmentation are up. These trends reinforce one another.
To put it back in the Biblical frame no single reason for conversion need dominate. One reason to convert is the experience of Exodus and Sinai (religious experience), but another is the teaching of Deuteronomy (religion as the creation of a good society). Sinai needs to be transmitted. Both books belong to the same Torah, and reinforce. Converting on the basis of a civilizational thesis is, from a Jewish perspective, a legitimate move. Not only that, but the kind of reasoning Hirsi Ali displays should be thought of as a religious experience in its own right.