Ayaan Hirsi Ali Worships the God-Shaped Hole FREDDIE DEBOER NOV 17, 2023 I’ve written before about my distaste for the Jonathan Haidt-style embrace of consequentialist religion - the kind that says that, while the truth claims of religion are obviously wrong, periods of near-universal religious observance were periods with more social cohesion and personal meaning, so we should all worship without actual belief. (If you think I exaggerate, click through to find Haidt’s explicit words to that effect.) As has become a common and annoying response to just about anything I write, there was a set of readers who replied by saying, well, Haidt is just one guy, nobody actually thinks this way. At the time I countered that a lot of the “trad Cath” stuff that was popping up seemed to qualify, which was true. (I think those people have mostly moved on to cocaine now, and God bless.) Well, I can now say that there is definitely one other prominent person who believes in worshipping the God-shaped hole, and her name is Ayaan Hirsi Ali. There is, as the kids say, a lot going on in that essay. As many observers have pointed out, the piece is entirely silent on what most of the world’s Christians throughout history would have taken to be the only salient question - whether Christianity is true, whether the son of a humble carpenter in Judea was in fact born of a virgin as both the son of God and as God Himself, who taught his flock and performed miracles and then gave his own life as sacrifice so that those who believed in his covenant could have eternal life. Hirsi Ali doesn’t appear to go for that stuff. She instead argues that the atheism she once embraced is insufficient to fight back against the Muslim hordes that she believes, oddly, are coming to conquer the world. This was a strange thing to believe in 2001, and is an even stranger thing to believe in 2023. Al Qaeda was never trying to take territory even according to their own statements, and in fairly short order it became clear that they had exploited a very specific security failure to wreak short-term havoc. The story of ISIS is incredible, in many ways, but then again would have not been possible without the American misadventure in Iraq, and at their zenith they controlled a tiny portion of the Middle East and were opposed even by the most repressive Islamist governments of the region. Against that threat, Hirsi Ali has waged her immortal soul, with hardly a mention of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in whose name she ostensibly worships. Anyhow! The most cynical reading is that Ali is simply rebranding. Her anti-Islam stance (which is not my gloss but her explicit position) made her a celebrity in the 2000s, but has since failed to keep her in the spotlight as terrorism went from an obsession to a joke in American politics, recent events notwithstanding. New Atheism, too, is now thoroughly rejected by both left and right in large numbers. Christianity could perhaps be a new angle and open her up to new audiences. It remains to be seen whether the churchies of the world are ready to embrace postmodern religion - which is what this is, fundamentally, as it is a form of religious observance in which the truth of that religion is neither affirmed nor disputed but rather deemed not worth considering. I mean, if you’re going to try and climb aboard the lucrative American Jesus-and-guns gravy train, you probably need to at least pretend to have authentic belief, cry a bit while you talk about the beauty of being saved, the usual. If you’re just going for that anti-Muslim dollar, there are ways to do so without having to study the catechism. Hirsi Ali is a strange figure; I both completely believe in the sincerity of her anti-Islam project and have also found it to be a crusade of convenience. She is one of those lucky few whose personal passions dovetail perfectly with an idiosyncratic kind of careerism. This got her a lot of appearances on Bill Maher and a lifelong sinecure on the conference circuit, but it has not left her immune to some basic questions of consistency. Her own past is an object lesson in the limits of opposing immigration as an immigrant, after all. Many years ago, Hirsi Ali admitted to lying in her application for Dutch citizenship. Her supporters have always argued that this was justifiable because she was freeing a violent forced marriage, which is certainly compelling if true. (Her extended family in Somalia has disputed that she was ever in a forced marriage.) Either way, the trouble is not that she lied on her own visa application but that as a member of the Dutch parliament she supported an extremely restrictive immigration bill, backed by the far-right, which included provisions that mandated the automatic deportation of anyone who was found to have lied on a visa application. In much of her public engagement, she has had that exact quality of provoking a particular theory of immigration and the public good that would, if implemented, eventually result in an unwanted knock on her own door. But as you’d expect, my real interest lies in this now-unremarkable acceptance of purely instrumentalized religion. Though their ends are not the same, Haidt and Hirsi Ali share the status of embracing religion purely as a means to those ends. We lack meaning, we lack community, in the past religion has (or so the story goes) inspired meaning and facilitated community. ERGO, we need religion! Is there a God? Was Moses his messenger? Was Jesus his son? (Excuse me, Son.) Was Mohammad his prophet? Are the Shaivites right about the three-headed dominion of the Trimurti, or do the Puranas describe only various forms of Vishnu? Why did Bodhidharma come from the West? To the religious consequentialists, this is all fine print. As I will not stop saying, in its own way this is a bigger insult to religion than anything Richard Dawkins could cobble together; it treats religion as less than wrong. Dawkins and those like him evaluate the truth claims of the world’s religions and say, no, these are not correct. Hirsi Ali is so busy marching towards Armageddon that she scarcely has time to get to know what the truth claims of Christianity even are. New Atheism, truly a dead letter in 2023, took religion immensely seriously. Those who instrumentalize religion do not, and they don’t even arrange themselves on a field of argumentative contestation where that fact could be pointed out. Here’s the real question. Hirsi Ali’s particular desire is for a Western civilization capable of producing its own kind of zealots, Christian zealots who can beat back the Muslim zealots who she imagines are marching on Calvary as we speak. Setting aside the question of whether such a thing is necessary or sensible or sane… do you think people become zealots in support of a placeholder religion, in the name of a concept rather than a Christ? Religious fanatics have traditionally been fanatical because they believed their religion to be true. This is part of religion’s undeniable power; I’m afraid it just happens to be a power almost never utilized for good. In the years after 9/11 it became a conservative cliché to suggest that Al Qaeda’s operatives were willing to fly planes into buildings because they truly believed they would reach paradise and receive 40 virgins and a mule, or whatever Glenn Beck was saying at the time. And the question is, do people detonate suicide vests in the name of the God-shaped hole? Do they launch crusades to take back land that, they believe, rightly belongs to those who worship, uh, the positive sociological value of religious practice of whatever denomination? I’m skeptical! No doubt many atheists have fought and died in religious wars, whether they called themselves that or not. But at a certain point, you can only rally troops to the banner of God if they believe that God, you know, exists. This is generalizable. The trad Cath kids always say something like, “oh, the modern world is so bereft of meaning, we have no feeling of community and tradition, we are left in a mundane and lonely life squabbling online with the people we ask to bless us with approval.” I’m sympathetic! “Therefore let’s go to Catholic mass because Latin is cool and the buildings are pretty.” I’m no longer sympathetic. What I want to say to these people is, my dear fellow wanderer, you poor unhappy flower, they built the buildings and wrote the stuff in Latin because they believed that there is a deity who blessed it all and gave it meaning. What makes it eternal and transcendent is its supposed connection to the Eternal and the Transcendent! I read something somewhere years ago about a devout Catholic priest who was asked what he would do if archaeologists discovered what were indisputably the bones of Christ. He said, “I’d go out and get laid.” Meaning, that since the Gospels tell us that Christ did not die in earthly form after he was resurrected but instead ascended to heaven, if you found his bones it would prove the foundational Christian story wrong, and there would no longer be any sense in abiding by his priestly duties. All of it, the pointy hats and the incense and the tax-free donations, it all stems from the truth claims of that story. A devoted priest saying that he’d give it all up if the biblical narrative wasn’t true is sensible, rational, sane. What’s bizarre is religion without belief. (Here I will remind you all that, while Western Buddhists and certain strict adherents of Theravadin and Zen Buddhism practice what could be called atheistic Buddhism, the vast majority of the world’s Buddhists belief in a theistic Buddhism with gods and magic etc. I will also say that when people pop up and comment “hey, Jews practice without believing,” it’s as perfect an example of selection bias as I can think of - maybe the Jews you know don’t believe any of it, but I promise you that a large portion of the religiously Jewish population does. Not every Jew is a striving-class cosmopolitan urbanite.) Why do religions comfort? They comfort because the stories they tell involve divine beings who know everything and who can, often, save us all from the horror of death. We live in a world of intractable and painful moral questions that we feel that we can never resolve; religion says that there are divine beings who know the right answers, and that’s comforting. We miss our loved ones who have died terribly; many religions say that we will one day be reunited with them, and that’s comforting. We’re terrified of death and the prospect of our inevitable non-existence, if we’re being honest; religions offer various ways in which we can escape that awful fate and thus, maybe, the fear. The point is that I get why religion is comforting and offers meaning and solace in a cold world, under the belief that God/gods are real. If you think God’s magic exists, if you think that divine justice exists, then yeah, sure, I get going to church. Sadly, divine justice does not exist because there is no old guy living in the clouds deciding what’s good and what’s bad and controlling everything and being everything but also letting pain and evil exist for some reason. If you disagree with me, though, I get chasing the certainty and the meaning and the belief. If you agree with me that there’s no God, though, and you still want people to go to church because eating bread and drinking grape juice together is good for our cortisol levels, brother… I don’t know. Why not urge people to get into Dungeons & Dragons instead? In what sense is that a less meaningful version of indulging a fantasy? I don’t get it. I’m sorry folks. But I don’t get it, and I never will. If you go to synagogue purely for the community, then I hope you get all you desire. Only you can decide if that makes sense. But the question that confronts us is the continued survival of religion as traditionally conceived, and that by definition cannot be preserved through the pantomiming efforts of people who are at church to LARP. The whole foundation of religious observance is the idea that going to church is not just what’s good for you but what you are bound to do by some deeper law that’s written into the fabric of the universe. That law doesn’t exist, and whether you hide from that fact in a church or temple or mosque or not, sooner or later you will be left to grapple with its terrible consequences, alone.