Secular Society and the Allure of ISIS

In an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, just prior to his address to the White House conference on extremism, President Obama noted that ultimately the battle against religious extremism like that of ISIS is a battle “for hearts and minds” to prevent people around the world from being radicalized to violence. Vice President Biden, speaking at the opening of the conference, also emphasized the importance of addressing deeply imbedded economic and social issues that provide fertile ground for those who seek to recruit supporters for ISIS in Western societies.

Although having a greater stake in one’s own community may help to deter some from experiencing the kind of alienation that can lead to the embrace of radical ideologies, the fertile ground for religious terrorists coming from the West is far more likely to be the secular character of Western culture itself.

A culture that reduces, or tries to reduce, religious belief to the realm of personal, subjective experience rather than recognizing that religion is more than some private world-view, is a culture that marginalizes religion, and thus alienates those believers for whom religion always addresses the whole realm of human experience. Too often Western culture affirms an exclusively secular realm of public discourse – and hence of public policy. Into such a realm, religious views are neither welcomed nor, in some cases, even tolerated.

Secular culture can be as blindly ideological and intolerant of divergent views as any religious fanaticism. Those who disagree with prevailing secular standards, on social issues, for example, are often dismissed as ignorant bigots whose ideas are not to be taken seriously. Examples of such smug dismissal and the chilling atmosphere of secular conformism are easy to find in Western nations. If we are to battle for the “hearts and minds” of others, we need to be open to the hearts and minds of others, including those who do not accept a secularist view of reality. Intolerance breeds intolerance.

The Islamic terrorism of organizations like ISIS is not justified because Western culture is itself often intolerant of religion. The barbarism of ISIS is not on some continuum with the intolerance of secular society. Yet if we wish to understand the fertile ground in the West in which Islamic terrorism begins to have an appeal, we need to think more clearly about the secular creed that is so pervasive in the West.

Jihadi brides: Two Austrian girls who joined ISIS in Syria [Daily Mail]
Jihadi brides: Two Austrian girls who joined ISIS in Syria [Daily Mail]
ISIS, of course, has first of all attracted young Muslims in the Middle East, and that attraction involves religious motives within Islam as well as the real and perceived corruption of Muslim societies. But its attraction for youth from the West has much to do with the way Western culture is perceived.

However perverse ISIS is, its appeal reveals a fundamental truth about human beings and their motivations. In the modern world, especially in the West, there has been a progressive loss of any sense of transcendence, any sense of a realm of values and truth that exists beyond the mundane world of economic, social, and personal realities. This loss of a sense of transcendence leads to a culture that has no opening to any realm beyond itself – to no grand purposes or projects beyond this-worldly goals.

In the midst of a prevailing culture that is hostile to transcendent values, individuals react in diverse ways. Some simply accept secular standards that embrace a kind of ethical relativism according to which whatever one chooses to value is valuable because he or she chooses it to be so. Others seek to resist the encroachment of secularism by trying to maintain traditional religious practices. The human need for a connection to the transcendent does not disappear because society either denies the existence of the transcendent or seeks to re-define it as a purely subjective preference.

The longing for transcendence is an innate human desire that can be and has been perverted throughout history. Secular society offers counterfeit types of transcendence in the form of satisfying physical needs, and then not always very effectively. History is full of false prophets who promise a liberation from the merely mundane. That these prophets exist, and succeed for a time, is evidence that they speak to something deep in human nature. Not every appeal to the transcendent is worthy of respect, as ISIS certainly proves.

But by ignoring, marginalizing, or dismissing those who look to religion as a transcendent source of truth, societies help to provide fertile ground for those who invite young people to consider a different kind of transcendence.

We must be careful in examining claims about ultimate values, and here rational discourse is crucial. We need even more, however, to reject the view that rational discourse somehow excludes claims to truth based on religious faith. Once we separate reason and science from religious faith, we allow any kind of “faith” to have an appeal. It is ironic that the more secular society seeks to keep religion out of the public square, the more it may be enabling barbarous perversions of faith like ISIS.

William Carroll is Thomas Aquinas Fellow in Theology and Science, Blackfriars, University of Oxford.