By now many of you have surely either read or seen mentioned Graeme Wood’s cover story for The Atlantic, “What ISIS Really Wants.” It’s a monumental piece of journalism and analysis that comes at a crucial time in the fight (a generous term, perhaps) against the Islamic State. I commend the piece in its lengthy entirety to you. Of especial interest, though, is Wood’s careful yet unequivocal corrective to those who, like President Obama, are quick to dismiss ISIS’s Islamic religion so as to absolve the non-violent Muslim community of guilt by association.
Well-intentioned as these efforts might be, they fundamentally misunderstand and even distort, according to Wood, what ISIS really is and why it is waging such devastating terror. ISIS is driven by a particular interpretation of Islamic eschatology that bestows upon it the responsibility to usher in an impending apocalypse, facilitated by the establishment of a new caliph and the “purification” of Islam (eg, mass killings of fellow Muslims and non-submissive religious minorities).
Why have progressive politicians failed to reckon with ISIS’s theological DNA? Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry says the answer is that Western liberals have sold out to “Vulgar Marxism,” a worldview in which religious and philosophical concepts are reduced to meaningless creations of the warring upper and lower classes:
According to this view, religions, philosophies, ideologies, worldviews, and even culture at large are simply illusions, embraced after the fact to justify this or that move in our class warfare. Marx’s views of history were influenced by 19th-century evolutionism. Think of the idea that we’re just genes trying to reproduce: You may think that you’re in love, or that you do your work for some higher purpose, but really it’s just your genes tricking you into thinking that to increase their odds of spreading. Hence, for example, his notion that religion is just “the opium of the people” (a quote that is much kinder to religious believers in its context than is usually thought, by the way): beliefs have no influence on history.
I think Gobry is absolutely correct here. Contemporary secular progressives simply do not trade in the marketplace of metaphysical ideas. Consider the state of American higher education, an institution nearly monopolized by Vulgar Marxism. Studies like philosophy, literature and religion are in decline and increasingly viewed with utilitarian contempt, while gender studies and psychology are the disciplines of choice for vast swaths of students who demand an endless supply of “trigger warnings.” Social sciences are conducive to Vulgar Marxism because they can be reduced to interpersonal tensions of race, class, and privilege, while Plato and Thomas Aquinas are too busy talking about invisible realities that bind the entire human narrative together.
Gobry’s term Vulgar Marxism reminds me of a similar term coined by philosopher Michael Novak, “vulgar relativism.” In his 1994 acceptance speech for the Templeton Prize, Novak identified vulgar relativism as “nihilism with a happy face,” and said that its noxious effect on both the mind and the heart was a symbolic red carpet for brutal oppression:
For [relativists], it is certain that there is no truth, only opinion: my opinion, your opinion. They abandon the defense of intellect. There being no purchase of intellect upon reality, nothing else is left but preference, and will is everything. They retreat to the romance of will.
But this is to give to Mussolini and Hitler, posthumously and casually, what they could not vindicate by the most willful force of arms. It is to miss the first great lesson rescued from the ashes of World War II: Those who surrender the domain of intellect make straight the road of fascism. Totalitarianism, as Mussolini defined it, is la feroce volanta . It is the will-to-power, unchecked by any regard for truth. To surrender the claims of truth upon humans is to surrender Earth to thugs.
In other words, embracing the secular atheistic worldview is in fact laying out a welcome mat for terrorists like ISIS. Of course, not all atheists are aggressively relativistic or Marxist, but it is indisputable that the overwhelming majority of such articulations come from atheistic voices. Crank atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris write glowingly about a future sans religion, which will supposedly signal the impending disappearance of violent oppressors such as ISIS. These writers conveniently ignore the fact that Europe, having spent now more than a generation as a post-Christian secular fantasy, is impotent to drive Islamic extremism from its culture. The idea that atheism disarms the forces of oppression and violence is no more credible than arming our anti-ISIS forces with water guns.
Islamic terrorism is fueled by worldview. Failure to acknowledge this basic fact stems from a latent acceptance of vulgar relativism, the idea that transcendent ideas like religion and philosophy are excuses for the racial and geopolitical stuff that’s actually REAL. Declaring religious ideas irrelevant or off-limits will continue to put the West into the vulnerable stupor that ISIS has already taken advantage of. To take ISIS seriously, we have to take its religious convictions seriously, which means taking religion per se seriously, which means, in the end, taking secular progressivism out to the trash heap.