New York Times Op-Ed: Where Does Religion Come From?, by Ross Douthat:
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an ex-Muslim critic of Islamic fundamentalism and longtime champion of Enlightenment liberalism, has announced that she now calls herself a Christian — a conversion that she attributes to a twofold realization.
First, that atheistic materialism is too weak a base upon which to ground Western liberalism in a world where it’s increasingly beset and the biblical tradition from which the liberal West emerged offers a surer foundation for her values. Second, that despite the sense of liberation from punitive religion that atheism once offered her, in the longer run she found “life without any spiritual solace unendurable.”
Her essay, not surprisingly, attracted a lot of criticism. Some of it came from Christians disappointed in the ideological and instrumental way that Hirsi Ali framed her conversion, the absence of a clear statement that Christian claims are not merely useful or necessary but true. The rest came from atheists baffled that Hirsi Ali had failed to internalize all the supposedly brilliant atheistic rebuttals to her stated reasons for belief.
I have no criticism to offer. Some sort of religious attitude is essentially demanded, in my view, by what we know about the universe and the human place within it, but every sincere searcher is likely to follow his or her idiosyncratic path. And to set out to practice Christianity because you love the civilization that sprang from it and feel some kind of spiritual response to its teachings seems much more reasonable than hovering forever in agnosticism while you wait to achieve perfect theological certainty about the divinity of Christ.
But as I read some of the criticism, it struck me that the Hirsi Ali path as she described it is actually unusually legible to atheists, in the sense that it matches well with how a lot of smart secular analysts assume that religions take shape and sustain themselves.
In these assumptions, the personal need for religion reflects the fear of death or the desire for cosmic meaning (illustrated by Hirsi Ali’s yearning for “solace”), while the rise of organized religion mostly reflects the societal need for a unifying moral-metaphysical structure, a shared narrative, a glue to bind a complex society together (illustrated by her desire for a religious system to undergird her political worldview). ...
People want meaning, societies need order, our minds naturally invent invisible beings, and that’s why the intelligent, rational, liberal Ayaan Hirsi Ali is suddenly and strangely joining a religion that asks her to accept the miraculous conception of a first-century Jewish holy man.
But here’s what this closed circle leaves out: the nature of actual religious experience, which is just much weirder, unexpected and destabilizing than psychological and evolutionary arguments for its utility would suggest while clearly being a generative force behind the religious traditions that these theories are trying to explain. ...
One way to get at this weirdness ... is to read about U.F.O. encounters — because clearly the Pentagon wants us to! — and consider them as a form of religious experience, even as the basis for a new half-formed 21st-century religion. ...
[T]he U.F.O. phenomenon may be revealing some of the raw material of religion, the real place where all the ladders start — which is with revelation crying out for interpretation, personal encounter awaiting a coherent intellectual response.
And if that is where religion really comes from, all the evolutionary and sociological explanations are likely to remain interesting but insufficient, covering aspects of why particular religions take the shape they do but missing the heart of the matter.
Given the existence and influence of Christianity, it makes sense that some intellectuals in a decadent post-Christian society would be drawn back toward its consolations. But why were we given Christianity in the first place? Why are we being given whatever we’re being given in the U.F.O. phenomenon?
The only definite answer is that the world is much stranger than the secular imagination thinks.
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