One criticism sometimes leveled against Christianity is that it’s intellectually uninteresting, passé, and obsolete; that while it may be a comfort for the weak who are unable to cope with the hard facts of life, for those who are intellectually serious, its views of creation or the fall or heaven and hell are simplistic, even a bit silly.
Such criticisms can sometimes make Christians blush, not recognizing the force of an intellectual tradition that several prominent atheists-turned-theists have picked up on in recent years. Most recently, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who left Islam and embraced atheism decades ago, gaining prominence for her public condemnations of Islamist extremism, has – to the surprise of many – become a Christian. In an article explaining her decision, she attributes her conversion not to a private spiritual experience nor to some form of wishful thinking. Rather, she says that she found herself confronted with Christianity’s remarkable place in informing the whole development of the West’s governing ideals and institutions:
“[F]reedom of conscience and speech is perhaps the greatest benefit of Western civilisation. It does not come naturally to man. It is the product of centuries of debate within Jewish and Christian communities. It was these debates that advanced science and reason, diminished cruelty, suppressed superstitions, and built institutions to order and protect life, while guaranteeing freedom to as many people as possible… Christianity outgrew its dogmatic stage. It became increasingly clear that Christ’s teaching implied not only a circumscribed role for religion as something separate from politics. It also implied compassion for the sinner and humility for the believer.”
Intellectuals like Tom Holland (the historian, not the actor) and Anthony Flew have found their way to belief in God by a similar path, recognizing Christianity’s significance to safeguarding, not hindering, a free and just society, or finding in the theistic view of an intelligent Creator explanatory power that science itself cannot provide.
Their reasons for rejecting atheism are a good help to those of us who do find ourselves under the onslaught of critiques of Christianity as unsophisticated or irrational. However else one may criticize it, Christianity is far from intellectually boring or incoherent. It’s a remarkably cogent and vivid way of looking at reality, never failing to captivate bright minds in every age. Indeed, it engages and gives an answer even to some of the most fascinating and significant questions that atheism, for all its sophistication, cannot respond to: among them, what is the meaning and purpose of life? For people like Hirsi Ali, to live without an answer to such a question is actually what is intellectually “unendurable.”
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