Stanford scholar Ayaan Hirsi Ali made headlines recently for an essay she wrote for Unherd, entitled “Why I am now a Christian.”
Born in Somalia and raised a Muslim, Hirsi Ali had later become, as The Free Press put it, one of “the most prominent atheists in the world,” counted among the disbelieving ranks of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens.
But in her 50s, she has come to believe that the Judeo-Christian tradition generally, and Christianity specifically, offers the solutions to what she sees as the three most pressing global threats: “the resurgence of great-power authoritarianism and expansionism” along with “the rise of global Islamism, which threatens to mobilize a vast population against the West; and the viral spread of woke ideology, which is eating into the moral fiber of the next generation.”
Civilization, Hirsi Ali wrote, “was built on the Judeo-Christian tradition; it is the story of the West, warts and all.” And she says that atheism gave her clever, fun friends, but no framework on which to build a life or society. “Atheism failed to answer a simple question: What is the meaning and purpose of life?” she wrote.
She added, “The line often attributed to G.K. Chesterton has turned into a prophecy: ‘When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”
Reading this reminded me of Bryan Johnson, recently profiled in Time magazine in an article entitled “The Man Who Thinks He Can Live Forever.”
Johnson, a tech entrepreneur who sold a company for the kind of money that allows you to do whatever you want for the rest of your life, has decided what he wants to do is have eternal life — without religion. He spends his days downing supplements and olive oil, exercising, sleeping, doing interviews and light therapy, and subjecting himself to medical tests in order to prove that his regimen, which can be charitably described as rather solipsistic, can extend human life. He says he’s unconcerned with the opinions of those of us who share the planet with him now; he is only concerned with the opinions of people who will live in the future.
“I have a relationship with the 25th century more than I have a relationship with the 21st century,” he told Charlotte Alter, the writer for Time. “I don’t really care what people in our time and place think of me. I really care about what the 25th century thinks.”
In other words, the critics will die out, and in the future, Johnson, who now refers to himself as “Zero,” will dwell among happy, grateful immortals. He wears a T-shirt that says “Don’t die,” the slogan that also is on his banner on social media.
How does religion fit into all of this? Well, it doesn’t. Although religious faith has been the major component of human hopes for immortality for millennia, Johnson appears to be putting his faith in disciplined eating, exercise and various other protocols he is promoting with his new initiative, Blueprint. There is a cost to this endeavor beyond the reported $2 million a year that Johnson spends on his quest not to age. After climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, he left his family and faith, which had, in a way, contributed to his financial success. (After serving a mission for his faith in Ecuador, he returned to the U.S. with the goal of making lots of money to help others.) He now speaks somewhat dismissively about Christianity, saying humans need to move beyond that ancient mindset.
Although Johnson has amassed more than a million followers on social media, he seems to have as many detractors as admirers, and more than one podcaster has observed his resemblance to the Cullen family in “Twilight” (a comparison that could be a compliment, given the beauty of the vampires, but which may also be a dig at the blood transfusions Johnson once got from his son to fight aging).
But there’s no need to get personal. You can find Johnson’s practices strange and even troubling, while simultaneously appreciating what may well be a sincere ambition to improve the health and lifespan of mankind. Expanding not just our lifespan but what scientists call our health span is a legitimate and ethical quest.
Johnson has said he was depressed and overweight when he walked away from his former life, and that he’s happy now and pities his former self. That is, I suppose, confirmation that money doesn’t buy happiness, and it’s great that Johnson has moved past his depression and settled in a happier place. Exercise, good sleep and careful eating has changed many a life for the better; there’s nothing negative about that, no matter your income bracket.
But Johnson’s all-too-human hubris is on display when he scorns the past and idealizes a future free from ancient wisdom, which is the opposite of how Hirsi Ali, a research fellow at the Hoover Institute, arrived at her newfound faith. And in looking at Johnson, it’s hard to see what all those extra centuries of life, if achieved, would be for, devoid of the meaning and purpose that humans have found for millennia in religious faith and in our families.
“I would not be truthful if I attributed my embrace of Christianity solely to the realization that atheism is too weak and divisive a doctrine to fortify us against our menacing foes. I have also turned to Christianity because I ultimately found life without any spiritual solace unendurable — indeed very nearly self-destructive,” Hirsi Ali wrote.
As to the big problems facing humanity that Hirsi Ali articulated in her essay, Blueprint, which Johnson calls “a public science experiment to determine whether it’s possible to stay the same biological age,” is also not an answer. Next to myriad forces that threaten Western civilization and its ideals, a preoccupation with collagen smoothies, pills and red-light therapy look even weaker than atheism.
“If you want immortality, you should go to a church,” Dr. Eric Verdin, CEO of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging and a skeptic of Johnson’s endeavor, told Alter.
That’s advice that never ages.