What prompted Ali towards Christianity? What does Dawkins make of it all? Glen Scrivener shares his thoughts on the recent Dawkins-Ali debate

Watch Glen Scrivener’s full reaction to the Dawkins-Ali debate here.

At first he doubted but now Richard Dawkins believes. He had considered the newfound Christianity of Ayaan Hirsi Ali—his old friend and former ally—to have been purely cultural. But in a public conversation held in New York last month, Dawkins converted. He came to believe truly that Ali truly believes: 

“It sounds as though you’re more than just a political Christian. It sounds as though you actually believe it…I came here prepared to persuade you, Ayaan, you’re not a Christian. I think you are a Christian. And I think Christianity is nonsense.” 

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has a habit of wrong-footing people. Growing up in fundamentalist Islam, she escaped to the West and soon came to identify all faiths with the disturbing vision of God she’d encountered within radical Islam. Her bestselling book, Infidel, was cheered on by the new atheists and she was considered by many to be the fifth “horseman of the new atheist apocalypse”, (alongside, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett.) 

Dawkins had certainly considered her to be a powerful co-belligerent in the fight against faith but her public “coming out” as a Christian last year made waves. 


Read more:

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Coming out

It happened on a stage at the ARC Conference in London in October of 2023. Jordan Peterson pushed Ali publicly on her evolving religious views. At that stage (and in that context), it came across to many as a purely political posture. “I am now proudly of the Judeo-Christian religion” she said. I remember thinking at the time: “Funny religion, what time do they meet? Saturday or Sunday?” Her words came in the context of a conversation about the West regaining its confidence to “tell a better story” about its convictions and origins. 

Interestingly, she was the member of the panel most forthrightly proclaiming the debt we owe to Christianity. And she revealed that she and her husband, the historian Niall Ferguson, attend church. 

So, from that point of view, it seemed to be a move in the right direction but was this just civilisation-speak? Was it, in fact, the sort of thing that Dawkins himself has owned when it comes to Christianity? 

Cultural Christianity 

This Easter, Dawkins once again called himself “a cultural Christian”. It’s a claim he’s been making for decades, (alongside his more vociferous denunciations of believing Christianity). He enjoys choral evensong, Christmas carols and church architecture. 

For the health of the West, he also considers it an improvement on Islam. But is that all that Ali meant — that Christianity is a strategic cultural bulwark against something worse?

There was clear evidence, even early on, that something deeper was going on with Ali. As she wrote in her Unherd article:

“Yet I would not be truthful if I attributed my embrace of Christianity solely to the realisation 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?

“…That is why I no longer consider myself a Muslim apostate, but a lapsed atheist. Of course, I still have a great deal to learn about Christianity. I discover a little more at church each Sunday. But I have recognised, in my own long journey through a wilderness of fear and self-doubt, that there is a better way to manage the challenges of existence than either Islam or unbelief had to offer.”

Dawkins was, at that stage, cynical of Ali’s motives. On his substack, he wrote an open letter in November: 

“As you know, you are one of my absolutely favourite people but…seriously, Ayaan? You, a Christian? You are no more a Christian than I am. I might agree with you (I actually do) that Putinism, Islamism, and postmodernish wokery pokery are three great enemies of decent civilisation. I might agree with you that Christianity, if only as a lesser of evils, is a powerful weapon against them. I might add that Christianity has been the inspiration for some of the greatest art, architecture and music the world has ever known. But so what?” 

What he focused on was, to be fair, what many Christians want to emphasise: the truthfulness (rather than the utility) of Christian faith.

“What matters is what you believe. What matters is the truth claims about the world which you think are true.

“For that is the whole point. Christianity makes factual claims, truth claims that Christians believe, truth claims that define them as Christian. Christians are theists. They believe in a divine father figure who designed the Universe, listens to our prayers, is privy to our every thought. You surely don’t believe that? Do you believe Jesus rose from the grave three days after being placed there? Of course you don’t. Do you believe Jesus was born to a virgin? Certainly not.” 


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This was how Dawkins processed Ali’s apparent conversion. Until, that is, they spoke in person. In New York last month, Ali opened with a vulnerability that shocked everyone—perhaps Dawkins most:

“I had a personal crisis. I lived for about a decade with intense depression and anxiety, self-loathing. I hit rock bottom. I went to a place where I actually didn’t want to live anymore, but wasn’t brave enough to take my own life. And so I was self-medicating. I had, over a long period of time, seen psychiatrists, other doctors. I was trying to understand my condition and trying to treat it with the help of pure evidence-based science. And in January, February of last year, I saw one therapist who said: ‘Perhaps it’s something else that you have.’ And she described it as spiritual bankruptcy.”

Personal story

Back in November, Ali had told Freddie Sayers (also the moderator in New York) more about these interactions. Her therapist had interrogated Ali’s views of God and invited her to think of God in different terms to the tyrant she had grown up with. 

Soon Ali realised she was describing Jesus Christ. “So instead of inventing a new god, I decided to dive into that story.” And that’s been Ali’s journey, praying, reading the scriptures, going to church and surrendering to “the God who turned me around”, also known as Jesus. 

This was all out in the open back in November. She had even written a moving note for the Free Press for Thanksgiving, speaking of the previous year’s “rock bottom” and how “it took surrender to God to get here, to allow myself to feel at peace with him…Thank God, I can say now with no shame or embarrassment, but with joy.”

This was the Ayaan who showed up in New York. She led with vulnerability and it completely upended Dawkins’ assumptions. His initial response was to emphasise the “nonsense” beliefs of Christians, certain that Ayaan would disavow them.

“Well, Ayaan, that’s a moving personal story. But to call yourself a Christian is a bit different. I mean, a Christian has to believe in something…You go to church now and you listen to the vicar. Do you notice what a lot of nonsense he talks? I mean, do you really take it seriously that Jesus is the son of God? Jesus rose from the dead. Jesus was born of a virgin. And that’s part of Christianity.”

Here is the clash that defined the entire conversation, and it represents a dividing line in the culture too. Ali brought an existential wound, a warning that atheism is insufficient to heal it, and a personal witness to the God who can. 

Dawkins brought an imperious dismissal of the existential, all in the name of a scientific truth which, for him, is supreme over all. This clash made a deep impression on those in attendance. 

Reflecting back on this conversation later, Freddie Sayers interviewed Alex O’Connor (an atheist YouTuber who was in the audience). Alex said:

“Ayaan just spoke to Richard Dawkins…and she gave a very moving account. It was almost comical the way that she talks about her incredible story of depression and suicidality, and manages to crawl out of it by praying. And then Richard Dawkins has to go: “Yes, but do you believe in the virgin birth? That’s the important thing!” That was pretty strange.”

Sayers, also not a believer, agreed. “It was tough to respond to.” Later in the New York conversation Dawkins doubled down on his dismissal of the existential: “Suppose it were true that atheism doesn’t offer anything. Suppose it doesn’t offer anything. So what? Why should it offer anything? Why should the Universe offer you anything?”  

Some applauded in the audience. Many did not. It remains to be seen how the culture at large will respond to the emptiness of this ‘new atheist’ vision. It feels very plausible to me that many more will take the path that Ali has taken. I see people taking it already. And they take it precisely because Dawkins’ vision is powerless to deliver us from the kind of pit in which Ali found herself. 

Comforting fantasy?

But is that good enough? Is faith merely a comforting fantasy for those not brave enough to face the “blind, pitiless indifference” that lies, in Dawkins’ view, at the foundations of reality? Dawkins, it seems, believes that this is the choice on offer: truth or comfort. And he has chosen truth.

He hasn’t, of course. And Ali calls him on it. She does it in the simplest language imaginable. In response to Dawkins’ incredulity she says:

“I would say you’re coming at this from a place of ‘there is nothing’. And what has happened to me is I think I have accepted ‘there is something’.”

This is deceptively deep as a framework. She is pointing to the crucial importance of foundations. Dawkins has a prior commitment to naturalism — to a view of reality which says: “Matter in motion is all there is: there cannot be anything more.” Because of this prior commitment, he is unable to process the kinds of truths which Ali is declaring. 

Ali is right to diagnose Dawkins’ problem here. He is on record as saying that nothing could ever convince him of God’s existence. In conversation with philosopher Peter Bhoggosian, he was asked: “What would it take for you to believe in God?” He responded like this:

“Well, I used to say it would be very simple. It would be the second coming of Jesus or a great, big, deep booming bass, Paul-Robeson-voice saying: ‘I am God and I created.’ But I was persuaded… that if even if there was this booming voice (and the second coming, and clouds of glory), the more probable explanation is that it’s a hallucination or conjuring trick by David Copperfield or something. I mean…a supernatural explanation for anything is incoherent. It just doesn’t add up to an explanation for anything.” 

Bhoggosian tries again: “What would persuade you?” He answers candidly:

“I’m starting to think nothing would, which in a way goes against the grain, because I’ve always paid lip service to the view that a scientist should change his mind when evidence is forthcoming. The trouble is, I can’t think what that evidence would look like.”

Two faiths 

Ali was right. Richard Dawkins begins from the position there is nothing. He has decided in advance that an in-breaking of the supernatural is impossible. He is a naturalist not because of the evidence but because of his prior commitments to naturalism — his faith, you might say. 

This is not, after all, a clash between faith (on Ali’s side) and evidence (on Dawkins’). It’s the clash of two faiths. And when you open yourself at least to the possibility “There is something”, it turns out that the evidence was there all along. As she says:

“When you accept that there is something—a power, a powerful entity, for me, the God that turned me around—what the vicar is saying no longer sounds nonsensical. It makes a great deal of sense. And not only does it make a great deal of sense, it’s also layered with the wisdom of millennia.”

It’s in this sense that Ali says: “I choose to accept Jesus Christ, the teachings of Jesus Christ, the story of Jesus Christ…I choose to believe in God.” Dawkins is clearly baffled by that kind of language (he admitted as much later). What does it mean to “choose to believe”? You are either persuaded or not, surely. There is no “belief switch” you can choose to flick as an act of the will, right?

But Ali is not talking about a stomach-crunching determination to entertain irrational thoughts. She’s talking about the posture of humility necessary to live in a world that may contain far more than was dreamt of by our philosophy. It’s the choice to receive truth from beyond. 

And it’s the sort of faith we exercise every day. Even Richard Dawkins exercises faith when he believes in an external world, beyond his own consciousness. He believes that there really are other minds — that Ali really does exist and is not a figment of his imagination. 

All of us choose to believe in that which is beyond us. Ali is saying: “I have chosen to open myself—through prayer, Scripture, church, and more—to the reality of God. And having done so I have found more than enough confirming evidence.” But it’s about your starting point. Your posture. Your openness.

This doesn’t quite compute for Dawkins, but Ali does her best:

Ali: I choose to believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

Dawkins: You choose to believe it?

Ali: Yes. And that is a matter of choice. And…I think it has to go back to “is there something” or “is there nothing”? And I think you start with “there is nothing”.  And yes, for years I agreed with you. There’s nothing. But if you come around to the idea that there might be something much more powerful than we are, something that caused everything else, then something like Jesus rising out of the dead, or these other miracles, Jesus being born of a virgin…is not a big deal. 

If Jesus is Lord, it would be an astonishing thing if he didn’t rise from the dead. Your openness to Christ, at the outset, changes everything about how you assess supernatural claims. And the Christ who turned Ali around got her attention enough to draw faith from her. 

It’s not a case of “flicking the faith switch” by will power. It’s about surrendering to the Jesus story, praying, and discovering “a little more at church each Sunday”.

This is the path Ali is walking. And yes there are other political and cultural motives and moves swirling around too. I will let others dissect those. I am not holding Ali up as a model Christian. She is very new to Christianity and her sapling faith will grow best away from the glare of public attention. I hope she is allowed (and allows herself) that time and space to grow without the searing heat of constant attention. 

But my focus is not on her, it’s on the many who seem to be treading a similar path, away from the barrenness of “there is nothing”. Such people are discovering, instead, a God who turns them around. He is a God who is still at work. And if he can turn Ayaan Hirsi Ali around, he can turn anyone. Even Richard Dawkins.

Watch Glen Scrivener’s full reaction to the Dawkins-Ali debate here.


Glen Scrivener is the director of Speak Life and the author of The Air We Breathe: How We All Came to Believe in Freedom, Kindness, Progress, and Equality.