ISIS, Evil & the Crisis of Moral Relativism

Lucifer by Gustave Dore (Dante’s Inferno)

“The finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.”

- Charles Baudelaire

“For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind.”

- G.K. Chesterton

“That’s my boy!” A beaming father tweeted a photo of his seven year-old son. But this tweet was not about his son’s game-saving catch or fierce landing of a king salmon or even his strong finish in the local spelling bee. No, Khaled Sharrouf attached this praise to a picture of his smiling son holding a severed human head by the bloody hair.

Welcome to ISIS. If you have not heard about them yet, you will. ISIS [the Islamic State in Iraq & Syria, or the Islamic State in Iraq & the Levant (ISIL), or simply the Islamic State - hereafter called ISIS] is the most ruthless, brazen jihadist army the world may have ever seen. For further description, please see my previous posts here, here, and here. Khaled Sharrouf found ISIS compelling enough to leave Australia with his family to arrive in Syria and partake in particularly vicious bloodletting in the name of jihad and the cause of re-establishing the worldwide Islamic Caliphate. With a large cache of money and weaponry at their disposal, ISIS has unleashed a lightning speed butchery in Iraq and Syria unprecedented in scope, fury, and success (with the closest comparison being the 1940-41 National Socialist onslaught in Western Europe and against the Soviet Union). And their achievements are difficult to ignore.

Well over one million refugees have fled their homes and cities fearing certain death if they refused conversion to Islam. Thousands have been tortured, raped and murdered via gruesome means including beheadings, crucifixions, stonings and mass shootings. The culture being erected includes women and girls sold into sex slavery, female genital mutilation, and draconian rules outlawing tobacco, alcohol, and revealing attire. Absolute and fierce adherence to ISIS’ vision of Islam is the unbending law and a hair’s deviation earns pitiless punishment. And this is all being enacted by a group that is awash with money, oil reserves, territory, weapons and a rabid following.

Now the point of this post is not simply to reiterate the unparalleled viciousness unfolding before our eyes day after bloody day in Iraq and Syria – though this, unquestionably, would be reason enough. Rather it is to call attention to a crisis that is being forgotten or, more likely, conveniently ignored: The Crisis of Moral Relativism in the face of Naked Evil.

We are observing the wreckage of ISIS from positions of great privilege. From our convenient perches in the West, we can wear several layers defending against an autumn chill, warmly sip a cappuccino, peer through our half-moons at the full expanse of the Sunday New York Times and shake our heads at the larger world we live in. As we consider the groceries we’ll order or our next iPad upgrade, we find ourselves jarred by the image of a refugee child, a grown man on his knees pleading for his life before execution (in vain) and a woman our mother’s age navigating a rocky mountain with a walker. Whether we know it our not, in this moment – in this very moment – we are being confronted with a truth that shatters all the “enlightened” theories we have been dreamily nursed on for years.

In the post-modern world, we have been led to believe that truth is relative to person, place, time and culture. This notion has led many to approach different faiths, cultures, nations and people with the exalted virtues of open-mindedness and tolerance. By allowing our “firmly-held” principles to be subordinate to the principles of others, we are commended as being enlightened and unofficious. But there are two important logical conclusions that follow from this practice. First,

In extolling the virtues of everyone else’s “truth”, we may soon find ourselves denigrating truth.

As G.K. Chesterton aptly noted,

“These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own.”


If the truth is relative, then there is no truth.

Or to paraphrase Fyodor Dostoyevsky,

“If there is no [Truth], everything is permitted.”

With all relative and nothing absolute, there is no standard. There is no right or wrong, fair or unfair, good or evil – just gentlemanly differences of opinion. But in the end, absent a guide such as right, wrong, fair, unfair…what will guide the direction a person, a culture, or a society goes in? Power. So the unholy alliance in a morally relative world is between aggressive entities ruthlessly executing their will and their passive observers falling all over themselves asking “Who are we to judge?”. That famously sophisticated line, “Who am I to judge?” has been the accomplice to many horror stories.

Ah. Well then.  

But ISIS and the brute nakedness of their evil unnerves even the most “enlightened” observer. Try as one might, it is impossible to defend ISIS as simply another religious-cultural iteration deserving the right to practice their own version of the truth. I challenge anyone to tell me how a father standing over a son gleefully holding a severed head is acceptable. I ask anyone to explain the nuance necessary to understand forcing 1400 men with bound hands onto their bellies and machine gunning them. I request the enlightening didactic about the cultural peculiarities of pre-teen daughters stripped from their parents to serve as child brides and sex slaves to grown men. Is all this relative? 

Enough nonsense. We are all reviled by this. Even when the Soviets massacred 22,000 Polish soldiers in the Katyn forest in 1940, they denied responsibility and shifted it to the Nazis. Likewise, the Nazis blamed the Soviets. Even for movements as nefarious as these, there seemed to be some degree of embarrassment (unlikely, shame) at such butchery. Meanwhile, ISIS posts its mass executions on YouTube. Can anyone claim with a straight face that ISIS’ worldview and practice is simply one truth among many? Is their belief system and its implementation simply a cultural expression that requires sensitivity and deference?


Perhaps, then, we can agree on something. Perhaps we can agree that what ISIS is doing is…unsettling? Okay. Maybe we could go further and call it…wrong? And is it possible, just possible, that we may find ourselves naming their untethered sadism…evil? You see, once we have moved from a cozy, theoretical, dispassionate, anthropologic interest in a human affair to a true understanding of what is happening, we find ourselves stirred by a deeper sense of inviolable (perhaps, even sacred) human dignity and justice. We have moved from the realm where all truth and morality is relative (where ISIS can do what it wants as long as it has the power to do it because ‘who am I to judge?’) to the realm where there is an absolute standard of truth and morality (where human life is dignified, ought to be respected and the violation of this dignity demands justice be served).

By calling the actions of ISIS unacceptable, we have shattered relativism for all time. Because we have invoked an absolute standard: Right and Wrong. How novel that we live in a world where this should be controversial? As Winston Churchill once said,

“It is an important thing to diagnose the evil…”

Yes. Indeed.

But first we must believe in evil.

Toppling ISIS & the Tyranny of Guilt
"What Have You Done With My People?" - The High Calling of the Church & Cardinal George
ISIS, President Obama & One Simple Truth
Why Pope Benedict XVI Matters to Me
  • Liz

    Great article. But, just calling a person or culture evil does not get down far enough to explain the behavior. When we simply label something evil we leave it at that and stop exploring the ‘why’s’ of the motivation to perpetrate suffering upon others. Why? I always ask myself, why would someone do this? Does their heart never whisper anything to shake their resolve? I think we need to consider the shackles the ego has on a person’s mind. Who am I? This is the question that leads us, ultimately, down one of two inevitable paths. Am I inherently good? Am I worthy of love? If so, how do I define myself as a person? Am I inherently bad or do I believe that I am a victim of something bigger than me? If so, how do I define myself now? It is our ego-identity that we need to look at more deeply.

    • Cincinnatus1775

      What? No, Liz, it’s not that complicated.

      • Liz

        It’s not complicated at all if you know what the ego is and how it operates within all of us.

    • Mike Blackadder

      OK Liz. Evil is here in plain sight. We aren’t saying that the individuals involved are inherently evil, but that the ‘culture’ is certainly evil.

      You are standing here asking ‘why is there evil’, which you already know as a substitute for ACKNOWLEDGING evil when you see it. WHY is it offensive to acknowledge that this radical Islamic culture is evil? What explains the behavior? Yes it is men blinded by pride. Yes it is idolatry, it is a plain violation of EVERY one of God’s commandments. Does that satisfy your need to philosophize about the mindset of perpetrators of such evil?

  • Cincinnatus1775

    It’s true that moral relativism has impaired the ability of many people to call an evil thing evil. But beyond that is a desire to avoid the consequence of recognizing evil — you must then actively oppose it or acquiesce to it. There is no neutral ground. For many people, the easier course is to wish it away, and moral relativism is a way to do that while convincing yourself that you hold the moral high ground.

    • Liz

      So, we label ISIS evil. OK – I’m on board. But, what does that even mean? What do we do now that we’ve deemed it so? Kill it? That has been humanity’s approach thus far…have we eradicated it yet?…..

      Why do people kidnap, rape, and murder children? BAM! They’re evil. Case closed. We HAVE to ask what it is that makes the evil person feel that doing this evil deed will bring about some kind of pleasure. No one does anything that does not inevitably lead to some perceived benefit. You have to understand human psychology for this issue to make any sense. It’s all in the formation of identity and attachments. We naturally seek to avoid pain and suffering and, without awareness, we associate things like food, shopping, gambling, drinking, rape, and murder with outlets for and distractions from our own negative emotions.

      Teaching each other how to deal with these feelings CONSCIOUSLY is the very first step…otherwise, you’ve left the shattered ego to build itself back up unconsciously, usually in self-destructive ways.

      • Liz

        I also would like to add a caveat. I am not saying that ISIS should not be fought. How far would Hitler have gone had the Allies not intervened? Some egos are far too powerful to be converted to reason. All I am saying is that we must retaliate, but look to solutions for the future that are more proactive rather than reactive.

        • Mike Blackadder

          Yes, and the proliferation of relativism is exactly the kind of sociological problem that prevents us to deal with evil proactively. It seems that it isn’t until peoples are being forcefully conquered and literally being crucified and posted to Youtube before we can gain consensus to recognize evil!

          911 was the wakeup call and within months we had NO WILL to actually persist in the Long battle with this evil ideology.

  • Christian LeBlanc

    I don’t get any sense that anyone considers ISIS less than evil incarnate. But I do sense that the West has lost the existential will to kill its enemies.

    • Joesph Tumasian

      By doing so, do we not become as evil as our enemies? Our challenge therefore must be to love our enemies. Now don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place to defend ourselves and to stand up for the persecuted, but the idea of wantonly dealing death to those the West considers enemies is nothing short of spouting Sharia wrapped in the American Flag.

      • Christian LeBlanc


      • Tuco

        No, we do not. Killing evil, overt and heinous evil, is not evil, it is good. The time and place is NOW.

  • felixcox

    I have never seen any western journalist/pundit support the depraved violence of ISIS. Straw man.

    Christians themselves exercise moral relativism all the time when defending some of Yahweh’s evil actions in the old testament. The excuse is usually something that God just used the standards of the time; or since god approves it, it’s not really immoral. These do not hold up to scrutiny and instead reveal the believer is simply making up rhetoric to reconcile the evil sides of god depicted in the Bible. I could go on about the immorality of Jesus damning unbelievers for an eternity of suffering, but I’ll stop here for now.

    • John Warren

      Jesus didn’t damn unbelievers to an eternity of suffering. The translation of the Greek word aionios to everlasting is completely wrong.

      • felixcox

        Well, that just adds to the case that there is nothing divine about christianity. A perfect, good god would ensure that his words and intentions were carefully preserved for future followers. That’s clearly not what we have here.
        Thanks for responding.

        • John Warren

          Why would He ensure that? Why should He make it easy? We’re better off because we have to struggle a little.

          • felixcox

            It’s just common sense. I am a reasonable person who sees no reason to believe ancient hearsay accounts of miracles are true. If God cared about me and wanted me to believe, he would have to show me good evidence (ancient hearsay does not count as good evidence for supernatural claims; for ordinary human actions, it’s better than nothing though) to make Christianity appear more believable than Mormonism or Hinduism. But they all rest on ancient hearsay. Not good enough for a court of law, and not good enough for me. So God does not care, or he’s incapable of doing better.

          • John Warren

            Or He isn’t drawing you to Himself yet, for His own reasons.

          • felixcox

            Nope. No evidence, not gonna draw someone like me in. And we know there is no forthcoming evidence supporting ancient miracle claims.
            I believe you believe, and that’s fine. But from my perspective, you are yet another in a sea of sincere but contradicting religions with contrary beliefs.
            Without evidence, you all appear equally unbelievable.

          • John Warren

            Okay. God bless.

          • Josephs girl

            well we were given free will as a punishment because of adam and eve

          • felixcox

            sure the bible says that. But as I said, there is simply no good reason to believe that is anything other than legend, just like all other creation tales.

          • Nivver

            Umm, Adam and Eve had free will… that’s how they were able to CHOOSE sin…

          • Linda Almaraz

            I guess the millions upon millions who believe in God without the evidence you require is not itself some form of miracle? No one comes to God unless he is called. That someone named Jesus, a man in ancient time could have such an influence by selecting a tiny group of men is itself a miracle. No One and I mean no one has ever accomplished what this one individual did. How did he do it? Immerse yourself in this amazing true deed (Jesus is historical) and just maybe Truth might fine you.

  • tony

    Totally agree Catholic Thinker. But has anyone actually defended ISIS? I haven’t heard anyone in the media, online, or in just small talk defend them. I’m just asking cause it honestly surprises me that some people try to defend their actions. Even Al-Qudea kicked them out for being too crazy.

  • Melinda Selmys

    It’s a cute argument — but ultimately not one that’s likely to convince anyone. Why? Because ISIS kills, maims, tortures, and rapes for the sake of a very extreme kind of moral absolutism which is incapable of tolerating dissent. It’s one of the great paradoxes of Western thought, that where belief in the absolute nature of truth prevails there is a tendency for people to harness that absolutism in order to commit horrific atrocities. Sadly, our Church is not among the pure of hand, and therefore not really in a position to hold the moral high ground. Perhaps it’s best seen as an opportunity for greater penitence for all violence inflicted in the name of “religion” and “truth.”

  • independantThinker

    calling the actions of ISIS unacceptable, we have shattered relativism
    for all time.” ?? If the cultural reality of a given individual or
    groups actions are not taken in to consideration, how does Mr Worner
    interpret the meaning of “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
    ?? I am not a student of “Relativism, just asking.

  • captcrisis

    If there’s someone in the West calling ISIS’s action “acceptable” I’d like to know who that person is.

    This is post attacks a straw man.

    As for “evil”, calling it evil might describe it but does not explain it. Well let me explain it to you. It’s one of many instances in history of a radical faction filing a power vacuum. Here, they have access to a large area where civil authority has broken down but which still has resources intact. So this fire is going to burn for a while before it either burns out or someone puts it out.

  • Slocum Moe

    I assume moral relativist is reactionary, pro Zionist neocon, fundamental Christian, religious code, for anybody with liberal or progressive political and religious views.

    It’s you guys and your Islamic doppelgangers that do all the child rape, hating and killing. You are no better than them. That you think you are is mental defect. At least with big oil, one can understand the greed. What is your motivation?

  • John Warren

    Pray for ISIS, that God would grant them repentance and faith and a new heart, save them, and turn them around.

  • Josephs girl

    Honestly put faith in a bucket for a second and think for a minute is killing someone really right?!?! what have they done wrong besides sticking with their values. What gives any person the right to rape a girl or women, to behead somebody that well was living out their life and believing in what they were taught to be right.

    • felixcox

      Killing like that is disgusting. Unfortunately for bible-believers, God ordered exactly the same butchery in the old testament. Not all the time, but one genocide is too many, and according to the Holy Bible, God has committed a few. No amount of hand-waving can hide the fact the holy book, considered by believers to be the INERRANT word of god, depicts a murderous god. And it’s disgusting.