Converting to the the religion of the future
Ayaan Hirsi Ali and John Stuart Mill
I made a new chatbot Life Advice from Samuel Johnson that can answer all of your questions about life with advice from England’s greatest moralist.
I also made a GPT that gives you advice on How to Read the Canon.
There has been a suggestion for a meet-up in London to discuss Mill’s Autobiography. Let me know if you are interested. The next bookclub is on 26th November, 19.00 UK time. We are reading The Origin of Species.
The former politician and writer, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, has become a Christian, because she wants to preserve Western culture against the forces of China, Russia, Islamism, and woke ideology. To fight these forces, she thinks, we must be united in “our desire to uphold the legacy of the Judeo-Christian tradition.” Hirsi Ali also “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?” Rather than reaching the plateau of enlightened rationalism, she says, atheism replaced the old religion with a new one: “modern cults prey on the dislocated masses, offering them spurious reasons for being and action.”
Many have found her essay hugely irritating: Christians because she doesn’t mention Christ, atheists because, in Stuart Ritchie’s words, she made “terrible arguments.” Neither side has space for “cultural Christianity”. Hirsi Ali was one of the New Atheists, a sect as dogmatic as any believers. So her conversion is especially interesting. That background is no doubt part of what irritates atheists: they believe they are right, about a very big question, and one of their own has left the fold. Heretics cannot be tolerated.
Of course, cultural Christianity is nothing new. Nor is the sympathy of great liberal and rational minds to the usefulness of religion. In his final essay, “Theism”, published posthumously, John Stuart Mill, perhaps the most secular philosopher of the nineteenth century, became markedly more sympathetic to religion. His supporters reacted in much the same way as atheists are reacting to Hirsi Ali.
Mill is often claimed as a pure atheist, raised to be secular by his father, and thus one of the few people at the time who didn’t lose their religion but instead never had any. But in fact his mother was a Christian, and he attended church as a boy. His sisters were religious, despite having Mill himself to educate them. One, Clara, was even married to a man in a Calvinist sect. And Mill retained his interest in the church as an adult. When he went to Rome in 1856 his letters were full of his church visiting and service attendance.
Mill had long seen that religion could be, and often was, a force for moral good. He said that aiming for a morality “based on broad and wise views about the good of the whole species”, where individual freedom was preserved, and which relied not on the reward of heaven but the valuing of this life was truly a religion.
The essence of religion is the strong and earnest direction of the emotions and desires towards an ideal objective which is recognized as being of the highest excellence and as rightly superior to all selfish objects of desire.
This is an optimistic view of what mankind could become, wrote Mill, and is a Religion of Humanism, not a supernatural religion. This is cultural Christianity, in all but words. In “Theism” he expanded on this idea:
There is a battle constantly going on between the powers of good and those of evil. Even the humblest human creature can take some part in this battle, and even the smallest help to the right side has value in promoting the very slow progress by which good is gradually gaining ground from evil.
We see the battle of good and evil on our screens every day. But we also see it in our daily lives. I spent yesterday morning at a Remembrance service. My daughter carried the flag for her Scout troop. We sang hymns, and heard Bible readings. What objection can there be to a service of remembrance that takes the form of Christianity even though many in attendance might not be true believers? My uncle died serving in the RAF when his children were small. My grandfather served in the North African desert in 1942. My atheism gave me no qualms to this gospel reading yesterday: “This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.”
Mill wrote that the “most animating and invigorating” thought a person can have is to make some difference, however small, to the battle of good and evil. He believed that his religion of humanity, whether supernatural or not, was “destined to be the religion of the future.” But Mill went so far as to say that accepting the “possibility that Christ actually was… a man charged with a special, explicit and unique commission from God” could be useful to furthering the religion of humanism.
This is exactly the position some atheists have been unable to take—religion, whether to do with God or cultural, can be a positive force in liberal progressivism. But in a similar way to Mill, I find it hard to discredit Hirsi Ali’s decision, even if I am not about to convert myself, and even though I probably don’t agree that “woke culture” is a threat to the West.
Maybe whether or not God really exists is not the important question. As a wise vicar once said to me, the question is not whether the Bible is true, but whether there is truth in the Bible. Or, as Mill had it, “it’s perfectly conceivable that religion is morally useful without being intellectually defensible; and it would be a very prejudiced unbeliever who denied that this has sometimes been the case.”