Ayaan Hirsi Ali's powerful conversion

Richard Dawkins (l) and Ayaan Hirsi Ali (r) discussed her conversion to Christianity in a discussion moderated by Unherd editor Freddie Sayers (c).(Photo: X)

It was the first public meeting between infamous atheist scientist Prof Richard Dawkins and his friend Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Last year the author and activist announced that she had become a Christian after years of rejecting religion and the Islam that she grew up with in her native Somalia.

Organised by internet magazine Unherd and moderated by editor Freddie Sayers, the extraordinary discussion and its transcript is available online.

Despite a friendly hug at the beginning, Dawkins did not pull his punches and put to rest the recent misunderstandings about his own claim to be a "cultural Christian", rattling off a series of insults about "nonsense" and "bullsh**t" Christian belief.

Ayaan began with her personal story and how she had felt suicidal before her conversion. "I lived for about a decade with intense depression and anxiety and self-loathing, I hit rock bottom," she said. Then a therapist suggested she might be experiencing "spiritual bankruptcy" which resonated with her.

"Having reached a place where I had absolutely nothing to lose, I prayed and I prayed desperately," she told the crowd. "And for me, that was a turning point. And what happened after that is a miracle in its own right. I feel connected to something higher and greater than myself, I feel I... my zest for life is back. And that experience has filled me with humility, I have to say it and it is something that's very subjective, it's extremely difficult to explain."

Although she did not experience "big banging lights" or "spectacular experiences", she repeatedly affirmed her faith.

Dawkins described her story as moving, but went on to ridicule her beliefs. "You go to church now and 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? That Jesus rose from the dead? Jesus was born of a virgin?"

Ayaan said that while Dawkins had been a "mentor" to her, "for me God turned me around. I think what the vicar is saying no longer sounds nonsensical, it makes a great deal of sense... it's also layered with the wisdom of millennia. I did mock faith in general, probably Christianity in particular. But I don't do that any more."

Dawkins replied: "I've called you a political Christian, but from what you've just said.. it sounds as though you actually believe it."

Ayaan said that it was subjective and that she had made a choice to believe. "I choose to accept Jesus Christ, the teachings of Jesus Christ, the story of Jesus Christ."

The pair agreed on their dislike of Islam and there was some discussion of the merits of Christianity as a bulwark against the spread of Islam.

However Dawkins was incredulous that Ayaan could not see that Christian doctrines of original sin or the atonement of Jesus were "obvious nonsense". "This is all theological bulls**t," he said. "The idea that humanity is born in sin and has to be cured of sin, by Jesus being crucified, Jesus being punished for all our sin is a morally very unpleasant idea."

Ayaan gave a powerful response that Christianity had led to the "flourishing of Western civilization". "I find that Christianity is actually obsessed with love," she said. "That is in the figure of the teaching of Christ. As I see it, and again, I'm a brand new Christian, but what I'm finding out is that this is the opposite of growing up as a Muslim and the message of Islam.

"The message of Christianity I get is that it's a message of love. It's a message of redemption. And it's a story of renewal and rebirth. So, Jesus dying and rising again for me symbolises that story. In a small way I felt I had died and I was born. That story of redemption, and rebirth, I think makes Christianity actually a very, very powerful story for the human condition and human existence."

She pointed out that when she mocked religion, she needed protection from radical Muslims, but that Christians wrote to her saying they were praying for her. Her concerns about and severe criticism of militant Islam have not changed, and she expressed alarm at how young people are adopting the religion.

She said young people now have a "vacuum of God" due to the rise of atheism in Western society, and "there are very awful forces today out there that are claiming the hearts and minds and souls of these young students.

"Everything that we inherited from [Christian faith], it's just too casual to cast that aside. When we've done it, I think we have caused ourselves a great deal of damage."

She went on: "You have this amazing civilization, you have this amazing society and it is pretty frightening to see that the best and the brightest are converting to the mind virus of woke-ism and the mind virus of Islamism. And that as atheists no one even seems to have woken up to the idea."

This refers to the widespread protests on university campuses and elsewhere in support of Palestine recently, that in places have broken out into support for the terrorist group Hamas or taking part in Islamic prayer.

Ayaan said she now has many friendships with moderate Muslims who dislike militants and do not want to impose their religion on others, and who cannot understand why the West is not defending its civilisation. "If the world is ruled according to Sharia, if the people who are advanced in this cult get what they want, we are going to see women caged up, we are going to see beheadings, we are going to see civilization go down the drain.

"They've demonstrated it over and over again. Al Qaeda has done it. ISIS has done it. Hamas is doing it today. I think that we need to come out of denial and see as plain as daylight and as plain as they hold. They keep showing us all the time. If they prevail, this is what they're going to do."

Heather Tomlinson is a freelance journalist. Find her at www.heathertomlinson.substack.com or on twitter @heathertomli