Sohrab Ahmari grew up in Iran. Then as a teen, he immigrated to America, and became an atheist and a Marxist. But as a young man, his path took another twist: He found himself interested in Christianity. Ahmari, author of the new book “From Fire, by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith,” joins us to share his complicated path. Read the transcript below or listen to the podcast.
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This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. The full interview is available on the podcast.
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Katrina Trinko: Joining us today is Sohrab Ahmari, author of the new book “From Fire, by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith,” which details his life beginning with his childhood in Iran and ending with his conversion to Catholicism while living in England. Sohrab is also the op-ed editor at the New York Post and a contributing editor at the Catholic Herald. Thanks for joining us today.
Sohrab Ahmari: Thanks for having me, guys.
Trinko: Let’s start from the beginning. You write about being interested in the U.S. and Western civilization as a child in Iran—why did you have that interest and how did it start for you?
Ahmari: It started with things like those Ronald Reagan-era action cartoons like “G.I. Joe” and “The Transformers” and also “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones.” Obviously all of those things represented what I found sort of refreshing about American civilization, which was its individualism, and in contrast to where I was, which was an Iran that had recently overthrown a relatively benign autocracy and replaced it with an Islamist police state, so I was growing up in this milieu …
My parents were very kind of 1968-ish liberal bohemians who had supported the revolution and then come to instantly regret it, so they hated the regime, and we had this contrast between our inner world of what went on inside the house and what went on outside it. And what went on inside, it was very much pro-Western, surrounded, like I said, by Western books, movies, music, and ideas, and to me, in a very superficial way, the Western was better.
And it came down to things like Western products when you could get your hand on them. A Mars bar is just … its packaging, the way it smells, it’s just sort of modernity.
It was this very shallow idea of what’s really best about the West. I still, by the way, have that same kind of instinct or intuition, but now, what the West means to me today is completely something different.
Daniel Davis: You were living under the ayatollahs, growing up under that Islamic regime, and you became an atheist as a teenager. What drove you to atheism?
Ahmari: When I was very, very young, it came naturally to believe in God and to pray the way children do, and I was even moved by some aspects of the Shiite Islamic faith, which is the official religion now under the Islamic Republic. For example, in Shi’ism, there’s a great tradition of these martyrs, who are sort of revered as saints who laid down their lives for, let’s say, their truth or what have you.
And I always found those bits deeply moving in a way that I couldn’t explain, the mourning for rituals for the Shiite saints.
But then, by the time I was 13, I had had it as a whole with Islam. We’d had one too many encounters with what’s called the morality committee, which is the morality police, where we would be out with my parents, and we would have alcohol on us because my parents liked it, to have a drink or whatever, and that’s technically illegal, and those encounters made me think, if God is just pure law governing every element of life, and law in a way without reason or certainly without mercy, on the one hand, and yet he also requires a police state to enforce his whims—at the same time by the way, the agents of that police state are so pliable.
In other words, people think that if you get caught with alcohol in Iran, because it runs against Sharia law, you’ll get flogged, and that’s technically true, and there are people who are unlucky who get caught with alcohol and get flogged, but there are also plenty of people who, like my parents, you could bribe the morality police. Give them $20 and they leave you alone, and the hypocrisy of that made me think, “If this is God, I want nothing to do with it.”
At 13, I tried out saying I cursed God, and I said, “If I’m … zapped, well, then he exists,” but I didn’t get zapped, so I was like, “There is no God.” Of course, I did get zapped in a less visible way over the 20 years that followed of living without God, but it wasn’t cartoonish zapping.
Trinko: Interesting. You came to the U.S. when you were around 12, 13?
Ahmari: About to turn 14.
Trinko: What did you think of the United States at first? Did it live up to your expectations, or was it very different?
Ahmari: My expectations were that the United States is a place of deep secularity because I always associated the secular with the Western as opposed to the society that I grew up in, secular and almost hedonistic, and so behold my surprise when we took a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flight from Tehran to Amsterdam. Then we took another flight to a city called Salt Lake City, but we didn’t stop in Salt Lake City. We then took a car ride with my uncle who lived there an hour and a half north to a town called Eden, Utah, population 600, at the heart of Mormon country.
That came as a profound shock because contrary to what I thought about American culture, we were in a pocket of deep religiosity.
Now it’s true that America’s elite culture is largely secular, or can be very secular, but as you well know, there are these pockets of religiosity, of cultural conservatism, of communitarianism in various ways, and I just found that revolting. So my reaction was to pick up my rebellion against God, against authority, against, let’s say traditional morality, exactly where I had left it off in the old country and apply it here.
Only now, it was no longer directed at the mullahs. It was directed at initially the Mormon culture but then later more broadly against the Judeo-Christian ideals that still, in some ways, shape American society.
Trinko: Those poor Mormons. I’m just thinking so different than the Iranian police, these nice Mormon people, and all this rebellion.
Ahmari: I used to make a very obscene and unfair—morally obscene because it’s not true—I would say, “I’ve moved from one theocracy to another.” But of course then it wasn’t true because, yes, Mormons enforce their own kind of norms about drinking, about coffee, and all sorts of other things, but it’s all voluntary. It’s all sort of democratic … There’s no flogging, as far as I know.
Davis: Not only were you an atheist though, you became a Marxist, or at least you dabbled in that, so how did that occur? Was that just an intellectual consequence of your atheism that you embraced that world view?
Ahmari: Basically, it was. I initially read Nietzsche as many 17-year-olds do, and so I read “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” And obviously that bit where early on Nietzsche—
Davis: Genealogy of morals?
Ahmari: Yeah, the genealogy of morals, but especially the part where he proclaims God to be dead and that God, and especially the Judeo-Christian God Nietzsche says, is the product of slave-like men and women, who because they themselves aren’t virile, aren’t strong, their God prescribes virility and strength.
So therefore, all these sort of moral absolutes aren’t really moral absolutes. They’re created by different types of characters and different types of people. Depending on who they are or their strengths, they will create different kinds of moral rules, and I just thought, “Yes,” and with Nietzsche, I have to sort of demolish those moral absolutes and create my own, whatever that meant.
A little bit later then I picked up Marxism because Marxism … is deeply egalitarian whereas Nietzsche is very much elitist. Nevertheless, they both share this idea of you can create your own values because there’s no absolutes. All kind of moral rules, the way people think, in some ways just reflect material conditions or who they are.
One last note is that Marxism, in a way though, was also my ongoing search for truth and even for God because although I had declared myself atheist in this very shallow way, Marxism has this very religious structure in the sense that history moves in a pre-determined direction, culminating in this apocalyptic event of the revolution that ushers in essentially heaven on earth, and history itself wipes every year.
As I write in the book, even as I had declared myself an atheist in some ways, I was groping in the dark for God.
Trinko: One of the things that struck me is I think we all know high schoolers or young adults who say, “I’m Marxist,” but never do anything about it, and I was struck that you actually went to the trouble of joining a group and selling the newspaper, but you eventually left, so why did you become disenchanted?
Ahmari: I just became disenchanted because they’re so humorless, and I had thought that on the far side of the death of God would be this freedom to do what you want. And then within a year or two, I had found myself enslaved to another group that had very sort of totalistic views … and claimed to have answers to nearly everything or everything, so my immediate excuse was that what I told them was, “I’ve been starting to read the post-modernists, and I’ve discovered that you guys, the Marxists, don’t pay enough attention to race, gender, and sexuality.”
Trinko: You’re saying you became too woke for the Marxists?
Ahmari: Exactly. By the way, obviously leftist intellectual history had made that shift in the 1960s and ’70s as the Soviet Union became a sort of discredited process. They abandoned class struggle for the sort of more identitarian race, gender, sexuality, and I made that shift much later in the early 2000s. … I was following essentially continental philosophy from Marx to post-Marxism to post-modernism, and I was taking it all very seriously.
Davis: What ended that for you? I mean, clearly you began to get more exposure to Christianity. Where was the turning point, and what was going through your mind?
Ahmari: Well, one was I had a pair of Mormon roommates at one point, and I just picked up their version, the King James Bible, and I read the Gospel of Saint Matthew, and it sounds like I read that and said, “Oh, I’m a Christian,” but I just thought, “This is very moving, and it recalls for me my own childhood’s shared background.” Remember, I said there were those saints who laid down their lives for the truth.
Here is God himself making of himself a sacrifice, so this great reversal of the very, very powerful, in fact the omnipotent, trading places with the very weak and allowing the very weak even to humiliate him, to crucify him. I found that very moving in a way that I couldn’t put my finger on it.
But then the more important thing initially was after my undergrad, I joined Teach for America, which is this program that brings recent college graduates to needy classrooms, and that, first of all, being responsible for other people’s children has a way of kind of making you serious about the world.
A lot of the nonsense that clouded my mind just went away just by having to be an adult and responsible, and then I watched. I noticed I had colleagues who were incredibly good at what they did. They were also good human beings, and I kind of was looking at myself, and I was an only child, very much wrapped up in myself, selfish, and those contrasts made me think that there’s a sort of objective morality that’s true for all people, that there are things that are true about all people.
And there was this voice inside me that would constantly tell me that what I did was wrong or sometimes would encourage me to do good things, which was the conscience, and that began to make me think, “Where does the conscience come from?” I can agree with various sort of neuroscientists that everything in your brain is the product of synapses firing, blah, blah, blah, but that explains the how. It doesn’t explain the why or the sort of origins questions.
I did essentially some growing, both in real life and then reading … and certainly I read some proper history of the 20th century and was horrified by Marxism’s real life effects, so I quickly abandoned that.
Trinko: You’ve mentioned both the Islamic martyr and I think you wrote in the book that when you were reading the Gospel of Matthew and you just said the passion of Christ really affected you. I found that so interesting because in some ways, I think part of religion and especially Christianity’s hardest sell right now in the West is the embrace of suffering, the reality that if you do this, you are going to suffer or have to endure suffering. Why do you think this appealed to you rather than alienated you?
Ahmari: Well, because I think every society, both pagan and monotheistic, has sacrifice. There’s something embedded in us that needs redemptive sacrifice because we’re aware of how lousy we are. … As I recount a little bit later in the book, in my early 20s, professionally speaking, I’m successful, going essentially from strength to strength in the material sense, and yet I have these moments of either failure or the personal need, and I need something to wipe away my shame or my sense of failure.
And only a kind of sacrifice can do that, and there’s no sacrifice without blood. I can’t think of one, whether that’s obviously the sacrifice in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, whether that’s Islam has the sort of slaughter of either the martyrs or symbolic slaughtering of the lamb.
We need expiation, something that’s deep in the human kind of condition that you need sacrificial expiation for—I say lousiness, what I mean is sin.
Davis: When was your first encounter with the church?
Ahmari: On one such occasion when I was feeling lousy, this is after a sort of disastrous weekend of drinking too much in New York City, I was then walking around waiting to catch a train at Penn Station.
As it happened, there’s a Capuchin monastery and church right by Penn Station, so I kept circling about, and then I just went in as the Sunday evening mass was about to begin, and to secular ears, it’ll sound crazy, but I have no better explanation for it than that I was providentially pushed to go in because otherwise, I didn’t really know what the Catholic Church teaches about the mass.
I still at that point hadn’t read the whole Bible, and yet I went in, and I found tremendous peace out of that experience and came to feel that there was a holy presence at the altar, and so my imagination in a way consented to God.
My emotions had already kind of assented to God through my need for sacrifice, but it took me few years after that to intellectually say, “Yes, actually, it’s also compatible with reason to believe in the God of the Bible.”
Trinko: You mentioned that you had a night of drinking, and you talk about the drinking in your book, and you say that sometimes in college—and not judging here, I drank too much in college and afterward at times—but you would feel really terrible after having had a lot, and that would be a rare time that you would pray.
And then you also talked about it I think in somewhat of a spiritual sense in other ways. Is this something that we should be worried about—how much college kids are drinking? Or how do you think it affected your life?
Ahmari: I don’t have the statistics for it, but certainly it seems to me like a crisis, and I think not just with alcohol. I think all substances in a way are cheap substitutes for real communion in the sense that you get together and you think that you’re trading profound insights, whether it’s over alcohol or weed or whatever. You think that you’re onto something. Usually, you’re not. You’re clouded. You’re—
Trinko: I’m just remembering certain college conversations.
Ahmari: Spouting nonsense. Exactly. But is there a link between the two? Yes, drugs, among other things. There are lots of other cheap substitutes for God. Politics can become a cheap substitute for God.
I think sort of wellness kind of ideology … What is it Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says about taking wellness time? … She says something like taking a self-care break. You know what I mean? An obsessive self-care sense of taking care of your body can itself become a substitute for religion, so as long as you don’t have God, you’re going to be searching … It’s not like if you give up God, you don’t end up worshiping idols, you know what I mean?
You end up worshiping something. It just will be not the true God.
Davis: You also write about how you became convinced of the fall of man, and you mentioned a little bit about our lousiness and our sinfulness. Just flesh out a bit more, how did that become truly believable for you that there was a fall, that that is obvious from our nature?
Because … it really comes out in a lot of the controversies that we see these days, of how we look at crime, explaining things based on personal evil and responsibility versus other structural forces, just all poverty causing this. How did you become convinced that evil was real and that man has fallen?
Ahmari: First of all, reading the Bible itself. In my mid-20s, I sat down and read the five books of Moses, the Torah, and first of all, Protestant theologians called it the self-attestation of the Bible, the fact that you read it, and you’re like, “This is true. I don’t need to take it to be literally true, but it speaks truth across 2500 years or more.”
So, for example, when God says to Cain, “What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground,” you take three concrete elemental things, blood and soil and the act of crying, and transfigures them into a metaphor for conscience, again.
And every one of us hears that voice inside you in a way. I mean, we’re not committing murder all the time, but you’re still hearing, “What have you done? What have you done?”
That’s a deeply human experience that is reflected really plausibly in the Bible, and then G. K. Chesterton famously said that the fall is the only aspect of divine revelation for which we have constant empirical experience, both in yourself and in the world, so part of my moral growth and intellectual growth was to dispense with that world view that you just described, that takes away man’s responsibility for various things, that people do things because of structural oppression.
By the way, there may be structures of oppression, but those themselves are created by men and women who have agency.
I felt that I was free enough and therefore that I had responsibility, and yet I constantly failed that inner voice, and that is the story of the fall in a way.
Trinko: Why did you end up becoming Catholic and not returning to Islam or exploring another religious tradition?
Ahmari: Islam, as I write in the book, was ruined for me by the experience of living in the Islamic Republic, and I go into it in more depth, but for me, beyond the certain age I started thinking about serious stuff. Islam for me was a political problem of how do we humanely and intelligently come to terms with the Islamic world? By the way, sophisticatedly and not in a crude way, but at any rate, it never spoke to me.
But Catholicism—look, I had those what I consider providential encounters with the mass. Then, I read Pope Benedict’s book “Jesus of Nazareth,” which is really rich. I mean, it’s his attempt to convince you that what the gospel writers wrote is reasonable and credible, and he does a masterful job of it. If you’re at all skeptical … he doesn’t write with necessarily a believer’s point of view in mind.
Intellectually, my whole sensibility was sort of shaped by Catholicism, and then finally, when I took the decisive step, I was living in London at the time, and I walked by a Catholic church, and I was attending an evangelical one before that, and it was a church called the London Oratory, which is very well-known for its traditional liturgy.
I went, and the experience floored me. I thought that the beauty and the mystery of the liturgy was linked up with its truth. Now, that’s a very abstract thing but which I unpack, I think, pretty well in the book, but it’s hard to compress in a conversation like this.
I just said, “This is it.” I said, “This is all I want. I don’t want to seek anymore in life,” so I went to what’s called the Oratory House, which is the rectory. It’s where the priests live. I knocked on the door, and this very wizened old priest opens the door with a very posh English accent, and he’s like, “Yes, may I help you?” And I said, “I wish to become a Roman Catholic,” and he didn’t miss a beat, and he said, “Very well. I shall instruct you.”
Trinko: Lastly, I just wanted to ask you—lots of people know people who aren’t Christian or who don’t go to church at all. I mean, we all see the data. More and more young adults are not going to church, do not believe. Would you have any advice to people who are trying to reach out to folks who are atheists or essential atheists?
Ahmari: It’s hard to generalize. I think if a friend who’s an atheist but somehow open, I think there’s nothing like encouraging them to come to … I’ll say service, not necessarily mass. Whatever your denomination’s liturgy is called, I think there is nothing wrong with inviting people, and you have to believe in the gospel, that it will touch people, so don’t assume that they’ll think, “Oh, this is so awkward. Why am I even coming along with it?”
You never know what level of need that person is at and maybe going through a personal crisis or whatever, what have you, and they’ll be touched.
But for some others who are really hardened, I think you’d have to start at a different level. C.S. Lewis’ books, I think, are very good for a kind of young skeptic because he bats away a lot of the easy, stupid arguments against the existence of God and gives you some really good ones. I mean, for example, mine, which is I came to believe that there is a personal God through the proof of conscience, which is one of several proofs for God. There are others, and C.S. Lewis articulates it really well, that proof for God.
Davis: Which book did he do that in?
Ahmari: “Mere Christianity.” I think that’s a really, really good book for the very skeptical.
Davis: The book is called “From Fire, By Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith.” Sohrab Ahmari, thanks for being in the studio with us.
Ahmari: Thank you for having me.