Ayaan Hirsi Ali tells Richard Dawkins: ‘I used to mock Christianity ... I regret it'

Ayaan Hirsi Ali with Richard Dawkins and Freddie Sayers
Ayaan Hirsi Ali with Richard Dawkins and Freddie Sayers | Screenshot/X

Women’s rights activist and author Ayaan Hirsi Ali expressed regret for her previous critiques of Christianity at the inaugural Dissident Dialogues conference in New York over the weekend. Ali, a former figurehead in the New Atheism movement, openly recanted her past assertions that all religions, including Christianity, were equally damaging.

During a lively discussion with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins on Saturday, Ali elaborated on her transformation, revealing that her past belief — that religions were uniformly destructive — was misguided.

“I do regret doing that,” she confessed to Freddie Sayers, editor-in-chief of UnHerd and the moderator of the event. She admitted to the unintended consequences of her advocacy, which included promoting skepticism over faith without offering a viable moral alternative, thereby leaving a void in the cultural and moral framework that she now believes Christianity beneficially fills.

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“What you value in Christianity is something that really is absolutely necessary to pass on to the next generation,” she said. “And we have failed the next generation by taking away from them that moral framework and telling them it’s nonsense and false. We have also not protected them from the external forces that come for their hearts, minds and souls.”

She explained, “You’re coming from a place of ‘there’s nothing.’ And what has happened to me is, I think I have accepted that there is something. And when you accept that there is something, there’s a powerful entity — for me, (that’s) the God that turned me around.”

Ali added, "Like you, I did mock faith, in general, and probably Christianity in particular, but I don't do that anymore. ... I have come down to my knees to say that the people who always had faith have something that we who lost faith don’t have.”

Ali said she met a woman who told her, “You’ve tried everything and you’ve lost hope, you’ve lost faith. Try it … pray.” Ali added that there’s so much wisdom in what she was told.

Hannah Long, an editor from HarperCollins, wrote on X, “… Last night she revealed what happened: a spiritual awakening after suicidal depression. Dawkins probed, highlighting ‘nonsense the vicar says’ and Christianity being ‘obsessed with sin.’”

Ali replied, "I think what the vicar is saying no longer sounds nonsensical. It makes a great deal of sense. ... I think Christianity is actually obsessed with love.”

Ali’s pivot from atheism to a declared Christian identity hasn't been without controversy, especially among her former peers in the New Atheist community, which rose to prominence in the early 2000s for its critical stance on religion.

Her announcement last year, also in UnHerd, underlined Christianity’s role in preserving Western civilization, a viewpoint that initially drew skepticism from Dawkins. He challenged her newfound faith, questioning the sincerity of her belief in Christian doctrine. “Seriously, Ayaan? You, a Christian? You are no more a Christian than I am,” Dawkins responded in an open letter, doubting her acceptance of fundamental Christian beliefs like the Resurrection of Jesus.

However, the dialogue on Saturday revealed a softening of Dawkins’ stance. Confronted with Ali’s personal testament to her faith, Dawkins conceded, “I came here prepared to persuade you, Ayaan, that you’re not a Christian,” he said. “I think you are a Christian, and I think Christianity is nonsense.”

The conversation also tackled the broader implications of religious belief on society. Both Ali and Dawkins agreed on the problematic aspects of Islam, which Dawkins described as a “nasty religion.” Dawkins, who recently said he identifies as a cultural Christian despite his criticisms of Christianity, discussed the potential of using Christian beliefs as a “milder virus” to counteract the more harmful ideologies present in other religious movements.

Sayers, who shared highlights of the debate on the social media platform X, encapsulated the event as a “thrill to moderate.”

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