It turns out that 80% of the French citizens who joined ISIS come from non-religious families. These converts to Islam and jihadism describe it in terms of religious liberation, a putting away of meaningless materialism to find personal meaning and transcendent purpose. Can it be that human beings have an innate need for transcendence, and that suppressing and denying the religious impulse causes it to break out in extreme, violent, and twisted forms?
Ross Douthat discusses the phenomenon in the New York Times.
From Ross Douthat, The Joy of ISIS – The New York Times:
The deep reality here (a reality not unlike the one that’s playing itself out on certain college campuses right now) is that many human beings, especially perhaps young human beings, still crave a transcendent purpose, even in a society that tells them they don’t really need one to live a comfortable, fulfilling life. And more than that, many people experience both a kind of liberation and a kind of joy in submission to these purposes, even — as is the case with ISIS — when that submission involves accepting forms of violence and cruelty that rightly shock the conscience of the world. . . .
“Nothing costs enough here,” Huxley’s Savage complains about the brave new world. If ISIS costs, a certain meaning-starved cohort in our world thinks, maybe that just means it’s real.
That cohort is still mercifully small, and unless radical Islam acquires a lot more intellectual cachet it’s likely to remain so. But if the West’s official alternative to ISIS is the full Belgium (basically good food + bureaucracy + euthanasia), if Western society seems like it’s closed most of the paths that human beings have traditionally followed to find transcendence, if Western culture loses the ability to even imagine the joy that comes with full commitment, and not just the remissive joy of sloughing commitments off — well, then we’re going to be supplying at least some recruits to groups like ISIS for a very long to come.[Keep reading. . .]
See also this discussion from my former student Gracey Olmstead, who says,
While ISIS has given people a story of transcendence, Western churches have settled for “rationalism and do-goodery.” We’ve cheapened our Gospel by cutting out the supernatural and the difficult—by making it primarily about this life, and about pleasing people, rather than refocusing on the eternal and on God. . . .
We religious people in the West are far too quick to secularize our conversations, focusing on the material and not the spiritual. We focus on the societal, political, and personal implications: on the worries of this life. And in so doing, we sell our religion cheap. We cut the heart out of it, and only strengthen the Islamic State’s cause. We show that we are not as devout as they—that we offer no equal (or superior) path of devotion to follow. We offer only the comforts of this world, and in the process, cut off the lost and alone from both the temporal and supernatural comforts they are craving.