No, Ayaan, Christianity Can’t Win The Civilizational War
Repackaging Christian values into a new vehicle without untenable faith claims has worked before, and it can work again.
About the Author
Joseph (Jake) Klein is the co-founder of The Black Sheep and Virginia State Director for Atheists for Liberty. He served as an executive producer on the feature film No Safe Spaces and a producer on The Politically Incorrect Guide series. He is also the author of the upcoming book Redefining Racism: How Racism Became “Power + Prejudice.” Follow him on X @josephjakeklein.
There’s a beloved Seinfeld episode in which dentist Tim Whatley, played by the now famous Bryan Cranston, converts to Judaism. Immediately following his conversion, Whatley starts telling hacky Jewish jokes. Jerry spends the rest of the episode upset, obsessively investigating his credible suspicion that Whatley converted just for the jokes. What the premise reveals is that when you convert to a religion with motives other than belief itself, you’re more likely to raise the ire of the in-group than to be accepted.
Earlier this week the renowned ex-Muslim and now ex-atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali announced her conversion to Christianity. In all 2000+ words of her essay, Ayaan not once expresses a belief in the divinity of Jesus, nor the resurrection, nor even a belief in god (although she does argue for the theoretical virtue of such a belief). Christians may be cheering a big name ex-atheist coming to the faith, but if she can’t actually come to believe, will that last?
If Ayaan is truly in the midst of a spiritual awakening, I wouldn’t begrudge her that. She writes, “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?” I agree with Ayaan that atheism can often leave a “god hole” that, if unfilled by anything else, causes emptiness. But for myself and many like me, it’s impossible to get over the fact that in the modern scientific era, evidence has demonstrated the fact-claims in the Bible to be plainly untrue.
Not long ago, I also briefly considered becoming a Christian. I went to a number of Christian friends—all of different denominations—and asked if it was possible to be a Christian if I believed the story of Christ to be a valuable metaphor, but not literally true. Every single one told me this wasn’t sufficient to be a Christian. Ayaan will have to grapple with this in time.
It’s understandable why, given the circles Ayaan travels in, she believes a cultural affinity for Christianity would be sufficient. Jordan Peterson, who heightened my own appreciation for the cultural legacy of Christianity and softened me from the heights of my angry New Atheist era—has in recent times gone further than explaining the psychological depth of Christian myth to advocating that young people begin going to church regardless of what they believe.
You can say to yourself narcissistically and solipsistically, “The church does not express what I believe properly.” Who cares what you believe? Why is this about you? Do you even want it to be about you? What if it was about others? What if it was about your duty to the past and to the broader community that surrounds you in the present?
Good luck with that strategy, Jordan; I’m sure a cultural mass of non-believers will love failing to experience benefits from praying to an entity they don’t believe in and having to lie about their belief to fit in with their new community.
I remember a conversation I had with Dennis Prager while sitting backstage at CPAC where we were promoting our film No Safe Spaces. Dennis and I both loved Jordan’s work, and Dennis—a Jew—found it hugely valuable for spreading the religious values Christians and Jews share. But Dennis wanted to let me know he had one major disagreement with Jordan: Jordan didn’t actually believe, and Dennis did.
If you’re famous like Ayaan and Jordan, religious leaders may bite their tongues about your lack of genuine belief to leverage such imperfect advocates for the purpose of evangelization. But if you’re one of the many inspired by their message to actually join a church, yet fail to convince yourself to believe, I suspect you won’t stay welcome for long.
Perhaps this is revealing of a potential better path: Secular Christianity. Secular Buddhism has already had a greater influence in the West than the tiny minority of classical Buddhists who live here—including through New Atheists like Sam Harris. Advancing an explicitly atheistic Christian-inspired movement could give true Christians half of what they want. Unmediated Christian values could be spread in an organized manner to non-believers, Secular Christians could be culturally allied with classical Christians, and classical Christians could continue proselytizing true belief to secularists, but while needing to fear less for the collapse of civilization if (and, in my opinion, when) they fail. Meanwhile, of value to atheists, Secular Christians could retain an epistemology grounded in observable fact and reason, which would leave their ideas open to future falsification.
Yet while this path would be a huge improvement from the one currently advocated by Ayaan, Jordan, and Christian leaders, I would still not count myself among the Secular Christians. Ayaan’s article mainly focuses on her belief that a Christian resurgence is a necessary bulwark against the rise of the woke-Left. While far-leftism may be a disproportionately atheistic movement, if Christianity is supposed to be a bulwark against it, it’s historically done a terrible job.
The last census conducted in the Russian Empire before the Russian Revolution showed 82.3 percent identifying as various types of Christian (with almost all of the remaining being Russia’s Muslim and Jewish minorities), far higher than the 63 percent in the United States today. Unlike the separation between church and state that had been established in the United States and France long before the Russian Revolution, the Tsar was the head of the Russian Orthodox Church and the church served numerous official state functions.
Of the African states that at one time declared themselves to be Marxist-Leninist, only Ayaan’s native Somalia is majority Muslim. The other six are all majority Christian (Angola, Benin, Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Madagascar and Mozambique). Amongst all seven of those nations, the one with the highest reported identification of “no religion” is at only 8 percent—the Republic of the Congo.
A similar pattern exists across the Americas. Before Castro took power in Cuba, an estimated 90 percent of the population was Catholic (plus an additional Protestant population). Grenada, which also fell to a Marxist-Leninist regime, both then and today is over 96 percent Christian, with only 1 percent identifying as having no religion. Christian “liberation theology” played an essential role in the formation and rise to power of the leftist Sandinistas in heavily Catholic Nicaragua. Even now, South America’s preeminent socialist regime Venezuela is over 91 percent Christian.
The allegation that far-leftism arises in secular nations because people need to find something to fill the god-hole simply isn’t true. On the contrary, far-leftism predominantly arises in Christian nations, with some notable exceptions in East Asia where both Marxism and Classical Liberalism were Western imports. Yes, atheists have commonly led the revolutions that instituted the Communist variant of authoritarianism—and I’d agree their fervor could be filling the god-hole religion left behind—but these atheists were instituting the very same values their Christian culture instilled in them. Proponents of Christianity credit the religion for molding the West and often scoff at atheists for thinking their own belief’s aren’t influenced by Christianity; why, then, do they act as if atheist Communists are uniquely removed from this influence?
In her essay, Ayaan cites Tom Holland’s book Dominion as showing that “all sorts of apparently secular freedoms — of the market, of conscience and of the press — find their roots in Christianity.” That may or may not be so, but Holland wouldn’t disagree with my analysis above. He writes in Dominion,
All [of Marx’s] evaluations, all his predictions, derived from observable laws. ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.’ Here was a slogan with the clarity of a scientific formula.
Except, of course, that it was no such thing. Its line of descent was evident to anyone familiar with the Acts of the Apostles. ‘Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to everyone as he had need.’ Repeatedly throughout Christian history, the communism practised by the earliest Church had served radicals as their inspiration. Marx, when he dismissed questions of morality and justice as epiphenomena, was concealing the true germ of his revolt against capitalism behind jargon.
Marx’s interpretation of the world appeared fuelled by certainties that had no obvious source in his model of economics. They rose instead from profounder depths. Again and again, the magma flow of his indignation would force itself through the crust of his scientific-sounding prose. For a self-professed materialist, he was oddly prone to seeing the world as the Church Fathers had once done: as a battleground between cosmic forces of good and evil. Communism was a ‘spectre’: a thing of awful and potent spirit. Just as demons had once haunted Origen, so the workings of capitalism haunted Marx. ‘Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.’ This was not the language of a man emancipated from epiphenomena. The very words used by Marx to construct his model of class struggle – ‘exploitation’, ‘enslavement’, ‘avarice’ – owed less to the chill formulations of economists than to something far older: the claims to divine inspiration of the biblical prophets. If, as he insisted, he offered his followers a liberation from Christianity, then it was one that seemed eerily like a recalibration of it.
Others have already explained brilliantly how Christian values undergird leftism (and authoritarian collectivism of all types), a criticism that goes back at least to Nietzsche. Summarized: it is the ethics of self-sacrifice, of altruism, that one should live for others rather than themselves (reread Jordan’s quote above). All Christians properly following their doctrine believe in the ethics of altruism; it’s the core “virtue” of the faith represented in Christ on the cross. It’s what separates a society of Christian ethics from its Greco-Roman predecessor. This fundamental belief ties together both classical Marxism and its modern, woke, culturally Marxist variant.
Even for the majority of Christians who are not woke themselves, its altruist ethics have been repurposed as the woke’s most powerful weapon, as I explained at length yesterday in The Black Sheep. To be sure, there is a divide in Christianity; while there is a vast phenomenon of woke Christians, and this is not a recent aberration, at this point in history belief in Christianity typically overlaps with conservative psychology. That makes sense given that those practicing it are conserving a 2,000+ year old tradition. By the merits of Christianity’s age and the faithful’s conservatism, it also tends to oppose woke excesses around gender ideology and other radical ideas that were unfathomable until recently.
Yet given the Christian ethic’s ties to far-left philosophies, as identified in Ayaan’s own source, and its tight correlation with the nations in which those philosophies have come into power, how could she so wrongly come to believe that Christianity is an effective bulwark against leftism? Ironically, there’s a chance I might have had a tiny amount to do with it, although I’ll probably never know for certain.
Earlier this year I trended on the platform formerly-known as Twitter with a thread on “why the right-wing desperately needs more atheism.” I elaborated upon my views in an essay here in Reality’s Last Stand. In short, my argument was that in the post-Enlightenment era of scientific knowledge, traditional religions have been losing adherents because their fact claims no longer hold up to basic scrutiny. In order to protect the important societal values baked into these faiths, their ideas must be advanced through a new non-theistic package.
Last June, a friend of mine named Evan Riggs, in response to our many discussions on the topic, wrote an essay taking the contrary position, arguing that “only Christianity is potent enough to defeat the cult of diversity, equity, and inclusion.” Evan’s essay directly opposed my article’s thesis, writing, “If there’s one thing the Right doesn’t need any more of, it is atheism.” While I have never met Ayaan, Evan and I both share mutual friends with her and her husband Niall Ferguson. Those mutual friends shared Evan’s article widely; I would be surprised if it didn’t come to Ayaan’s attention.
Many within the anti-‘woke’ coalition who do not belong to the ‘religious Right’ still believe that doubling down on rationalism is the most effective way to oppose the rising zealotry on the Left. This is itself irrational. Secularists have been unable to mount meaningful opposition to the ‘woke’ crusade over the past decade.
But Christians have been losing over a far longer time span, continually dropping as a percentage of the United States population while those of no religion have been rising. My piece proposed a solution that could revive the values that unite both right-of-center Christians and atheists. Repackaging Christian values into a new vehicle without untenable faith claims worked enormously well for Communism—the Classical Liberal Right should catch up.
Man is a religious animal who will demand refuge from the pains of spiritual and social isolation with a morality that, to use the phrase popularized by Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind, will first blind him from infinite choice and then bind him to a community. Many secularists believe they can provide this with a new, rational story that retains the guiding moral principles of religion but has enough clarity and force to overcome ‘wokeism’ and put us back onto the path toward the end of history. They are attempting to engage in the great embarrassment of modernity once again: creating their own values, a new, synthetic, Frankenstein narrative that can only turn on its creators.”
I’m not sure what meta-ethics Evan is thinking of where values can be created, perhaps he’s referring to Nietzsche. Nevertheless, I disagree. Values are discovered. Whether they were discovered by the ancients and encoded into Christianity, or whether they can be discovered now through reason (I believe they can), is besides the point. The point is that traditional religions—embroiled in faith claims that are easier than ever to know are untrue—are losing the next generation and becoming a smaller share of the population year after year. It’s not that we need to create values, it’s that Christianity is failing miserably at sustaining the ones we already have.
This is my biggest difference from Ayaan and Evan. They believe that because Christianity has had a two-millennia long history of spreading Western values and binding communities, it’s the best vehicle we have for continuing to do so. I believe that when you’re trying to sail across an ocean, you don’t attach yourself to a sinking ship just because it’s always sailed well in the past. You build a new ship, keeping everything that worked about the old one while removing the design flaws that caused it to sink. By the way, this isn’t dissimilar from the project of Protestantism.
But Evan argues,
Regardless, we don’t have the time to bicker amongst each other about the shape of this new story, nor can we wait around to see if one evolves on its own. The civilizational costs of ‘wokeism’ are accumulating, and there is no political, logistical, and, perhaps most importantly, psychological infrastructure that can widely implement this unarticulated dream quickly enough. … The churches have already been built, the Bibles are bound, and it has pre-existing political parties.
Quite the opposite, we don’t have time to sit aboard a sinking ship and hope for a different outcome. That’s how you die. Worse, Evan continues, “For secularists opposed to ‘wokeism,’ that only leaves one option left: submission.” Much like Jordan Peterson, it’s baffling that someone could believe a political strategy based on sitting down and shutting up could gain mass adherence. All I have to say is: good luck with that.
Another key difference between Evan and me is that I am seeking to conserve classical liberalism, and Evan—influenced by national conservatives such as Yoram Hazony and Sohrab Ahmari—blames liberalism for the downfall of civilization. Evan writes that liberalism’s “goals have collapsed inwards, unchaining us from our communities and opening us up to the infinite horizon of post-modernity.” But liberalism is what has made the West safe for non-believers like Evan, myself, and very possibly still Ayaan (regardless of what she is calling herself). In the scale of human history, it wasn’t long ago when people were burned alive in Europe for being openly atheist.
I don’t know if Ayaan shares Evan’s affinity for Christian nationalism. I would hope not, and there is certainly a massive space to ally with the classically liberal Christian majority without needing to accept their nationalist, theocratic minority. But I would warn those non-believers who think supporting Christian nationalism and living as a dhimmi is the only way to defeat the woke: if an authoritarian society influenced by Christian values comes to power—secularized or not—it wouldn’t be the first time non-believers get lined up against a wall.
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Correction: The original article claimed that the essay by Evan Riggs was written as a direct response to Jake's article in Reality's Last Stand, when it was instead responding to Jake's viral Twitter thread and other discussions they had online prior to its publication.
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