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From the Sublime to the Ridiculous: Two Vastly Different Perspectives on Religion
Mike Johnson represents the most laughable sort of religious true believer. Ayaan Hirsi Ali not so much.
(Photo by Maciej Toporowicz, NYC/Getty Images)
This week, I posted an article in Quillette describing the ridiculous fundamentalist beliefs of the new Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Mike Johnson:
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Not since the days of Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee under Trump’s administration has such a strongly evangelical Christian fundamentalist been a major figure on the US political stage. The term “Christian nationalist” seems tailor-made to describe Johnson, who recently told Congress that the separation of church and state was designed to stop state incursion into religion, not the other way round.
Johnson has argued that to understand his political views, you just have to read the Bible. Unsurprisingly, he wants to recriminalize homosexuality and criminalize abortion nationwide. These are standard tropes of the religious right, about which informed debate is possible. But fundamentalism of any sort, be it religious or secular, is a dangerous worldview that ultimately produces divisive and counterproductive public policies. An unshakable belief that the details of biblical myths are historically accurate is deeply irrational.
Johnson has made his perspective very clear. He helped secure public funding for the Answers in Genesis Ark Encounter theme park, designed by Australian creationist Ken Ham. The Ark Encounter and its Creation Museum contain life-like displays of humans cavorting with dinosaurs. Ham and Johnson handwave away all of modern science to dogmatically insist on a 6,000-year-old Earth, without evolution, which began with God, not the Big Bang. As Johnson put it in a podcast he hosts: “The Ark Encounter is one way to bring people to this recognition of the truth, that, you know, what we read in the Bible are actual historical events.” This is outlandish.
It is worrisome when a public official, second in line for the Presidency apparently doesn’t distinguish myth from reality. But it is possible for people to compartmentalize their beliefs so one can hope that when it comes to other big issues facing the world, his views might be slightly more grounded in reality.
This piece came out late yesterday, and coincident with that was the release this past week of a remarkable statement by my friend Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ayaan will be familiar to Critical Mass subscribers, as she appeared on one of our early podcasts. Her history is remarkable. A refugee from Somalia, she became a Dutch politician critical of Islam, and collaborated with Theo van Gogh on a film about islam, for which he was murdered in the streets, with a note on his body saying she was next.. She wrote the bestselling book Infidel, and became an outspoken and highly regarded atheist. As a result of her writing and speaking, she required full time protection for many years. She is a remarkable woman, writer, and speaker.
All of this makes her recent statement more surprising. A piece entitled, “Why I am a Now a Christian” appeared late last week in Unherd. One can read it here in Free Press. It was written in some sense in response to the famous 1927 essay by Bertrand Russell entitled Why I am Not A Christian.
I expect many people will be shocked, and some in the atheist community may be angered or at least disappointed by Ayaan’s newly announced conversion. Knowing Ayaan as I do, I am less so.
One must remember that Ayaan comes from a deeply religious background. It was a very significant, and I am sure, intellectually demanding effort to give up those spiritual roots, and for someone like Ayaan, I expect the term “loss of faith” had profound meaning. For some like me, whose religious background was a best cursory, the connection to a personal deity never really took hold.
As I have written before, for me “losing faith” is actually a net gain. Understanding that we have a brief moment in the sun, and that our evolution on a remote corner of a random galaxy in a potentially infinite universe makes us cosmically insignificant, but at the same time enhances my own wonder and joy at being here at all. While everything I know about the universe suggests our existence is a fortunate accident, I think we should make the most of that accident to experience everything we can about the Universe, learn about it, and wisely guide our future to preserve the existence of consciousness on our planet, or perhaps eventually elsewhere.
When one reads Ayaan’s essay, one cannot help but be struck by her disappointment with the secular community, for good reason. Organized religion has been replaced, for many, by the secular religion of fundamentalist wokeism, about which I have written before. One set of dogmas has been replaced by another.
Ayaan is a thoughtful and kind person, whose experience of the worst of Islam turned her away from that seemingly often-violent religion. She rightly credits the Judeo-Christian religious legacy as being an important precursor to the enlightenment. While I would argue it has as often hindered enlightenment as much as it set the groundwork for it, Ayaan feels otherwise.
Her decision is a deeply personal one and she is up front about it.
Yet I would not be truthful if I attributed my embrace of Christianity solely to the realization 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?
For me, the answer to this question is that there is no fundamental meaning, and that we make our own purpose in the world, which makes the experience of living even more precious. But I recognize that this answer doesn’t satisfy everyone. I find solace myself in science and the scientific method. But I understand that Ayaan is coming from a different place. She, like many others, appears to have turned to religion because of a deep quest for meaning, and not because of a dogmatic insistence on truth of fairy tales. I wish her the best in her new journey and it will be interesting to see what roads she takes. I expect that wherever those roads lead, the results will be thoughtful, generous, and non-dogmatic.