Dissident Dialogue: Richard Dawkins versus Ayaan Hirsi Ali

What would you if one of your “absolutely favourite people” accepted a belief that you had both spent much of your lives fighting against? That was the prospect facing famous scientist Richard Dawkins, when he heard his erstwhile New Atheist colleague, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, had become a Christian. His response was to write an open letter to her in which he declared “Ayaan, you are no more a Christian than I am”. It was simply inconceivable to him that an atheist intellectual could ever come to believe enough to be considered a “real Christian”. Instead, he concluded, “you are just a decent human being who mistakenly thinks you need a religion in order to remain so.”

So it was not without reason that there was a great deal of excitement around the discussion between the two at the “Dissident Dialogues” conference in New York earlier this month. The fascinating exchange explored everything from truth and the merits of religious belief, to morality and what will win the hearts and minds of young people today.

Spiritual bankruptcy

The exchange started with Ali explaining how she became a Christian. The human rights activist and former politician spoke about her decade-long struggle with depression, anxiety and self-loathing. As she wrestled with suicidal thoughts, none of the “self-medicating” and counselling helped. That is until one psychiatrist suggested she might be suffering from “spiritual bankruptcy”. This resonated with her so, feeling she had nothing to lose, she desperately prayed to God. She acknowledged that what happened was subjective and difficult to explain, but she felt a miraculous sense of being connected with a higher power. The experience brought back her “zest for life”, and started her on the path to becoming a Christian. It also gave her a healthy dose of intellectual humility, as someone who had previously criticised those who believe in God.

Types of Christian

The revelation led to much discussion around what types of “Christian” there are. Dawkins confessed that he was a cultural one, in the sense that he was moved by some expressions of religious music and art. He appreciated Ali felt comforted at a time of need, but he reminded her that to be a Christian she had to believe “lots of nonsense”, like Jesus being born of a virgin or rising from the dead. Ali responded by saying that when you become open to there being a God, you can see certain ideas make “a great deal of sense”. Rather than being stupid, as she had once thought, they gave people of faith something of value that atheists lacked. Moreover, this was a layered process, backed up by the “wisdom of millennia”. So she clarified that she was not just a “moral” or “cultural” Christian, but believed what the Bible said about Jesus, as well as the possibility of life after death. Surprised by these admissions, Dawkins incredulously responded “It sounds like you believe it!”

Moral musings

Dawkins acknowledged that although he had never met a vicar he didn’t like, Christianity was morally problematic. It was, he claimed, “obsessed with sin”, whether it was original sin, the immaculate conception, or God’s son needing to die for it. He conceded that Jesus was a loving character, but said that St Paul and others had made the religion bad. Ali pushed back by saying that Christianity was not about fear and control, but was “obsessed with love”. She said this central narrative, which was connected with the themes of redemption, renewal and rebirth, was important for humanity, as well as her personally. She added that the teaching about good and evil running through every person, also made sense. Her conclusion was that Christianity offered a much-needed and powerful recipe to connect with both the universe and other people. Crucially, she said it allowed a place for reason, as well as faith and subjectivity. Dawkins’ response was that he had meaning and hope in life without believing in God, and that moral philosophy could tell people how to live.

Moral vacuum

Ali’s major concern was that secular humanists had not succeeded in making everyone good and rational, but had instead created a moral vacuum in western society. By mocking Christianity and squeezing it out of the public square – which she regretted her previous part in – they had undermined the very values that had not only shaped the culture, but made it so special. She referred to G. K. Chesterton who said that once people stop believing in God, they don’t then believe in nothing, but they start believing in anything. As a result, she saw western society as being in grave danger by allowing the spread of dangerous totalitarian “mind viruses”, such as woke culture and radical Islam. Dawkins said he believed enlightenment ideas had been a reaction against Christianity, rather than a product of it. Nevertheless, he admitted that atheists hadn’t won people over, but he insisted that the answer was therefore to push harder. He accepted that dangerous ideas were now spreading, but he insisted that he had never been too optimistic about rationality being able to replace religion anyway.

Relative beliefs

Dawkins conceded that some beliefs were better for society than others – or at least less bad. He claimed Christianity was the best of the religions and that, despite its many flaws, it had at least grown out of its violent past. He maintained, however, that it didn’t really matter whether beliefs made people feel better, were good for society or gave meaning. The key question was whether or not they were scientifically true. So even though he acknowledged that the hypothesis of theism was one of the most exciting of all, he reiterated that he believed all religions were false. Ali disagreed, and said that neither side could prove their position. She stressed that we don’t know why there is something rather than nothing, nor can we even explain a phenomenon like consciousness. She added that it is rewarding to study the hypothesis of theism academically, but we are more than just material beings.

Going viral

The discussion ended on a humorous note. After Ali spoke of the “clash of civilizations” and how radical Islam threatens to overthrow western society, Dawkins said it all came down to “two epidemiological theories”. He argued we have to decide whether it is best to combat a “vicious mind virus” by vaccinating it with a milder version of it or whether “we say no viruses at all and go for enlightened rationality”. This led to the memorable final remark from the moderator, UnHerd’s Freddie Sayers, that Dawkins had declared himself to be a “religious anti-vaxxer”!


There are many aspects of the discussion that would stand out to a Christian. One is that it’s an absolute gift for opening up interesting conversations. Speaking about God is not always easy, but this dialogue gave me the opportunity to speak to both an atheist friend and a Jehovah’s Witness who happened to knock on the door! Irrespective of what worldview you hold, it is fascinating that two world-renowned atheists have come to understand reality in such different ways, using different “planes of perception”. Indeed, Ali’s experience shows us that even the most strident advocate can change their mind. This is an important message in today’s starkly divided age, as winning over opponents can often seem like a hopeless task. Yet Ali experienced God in spite of what she previously believed.

The other striking feature of the debate was the question of whether we can live by the ideas we hold, on a personal as well as societal level. Ali and Dawkins agreed to disagree on many things, but they both accepted that we should only hold beliefs that are true. Ali’s contention, however, was that humans need more than the nothingness offered by atheism, and that Christianity offers something of great value. Her story underlined that there are many different reasons for believing in God, and that people come to faith in different ways. Ultimately, perhaps Dawkins and Ali’s most important message was that world is facing an ongoing battle for the hearts and minds of its people. That is why discussing the big questions of life will always remain both a vital and rewarding exercise. Indeed, the outcome of debates like this could well shape the very future of humanity – for better or worse.