14 October 2014
Religion as a last resort
The soldiers of the self-styled Islamic State are unapologetic about the atrocities they commit. They provoked a fresh wave of outrage this week, not with any new beheadings, but with the publication of the latest issue of their English-language magazine, Dabiq, in which IS writers reaffirm their right to slaughter alleged idolaters and enslave the women they capture. Browsing through the issue myself, I was struck by how these guys argue that it's better to take slaves -- for sex! -- than to commit adultery. But if it all adds up to an appalling system of values, it's still a system of values; the IS justifies it all by saying this is what God allows or orders them to do. That's why I think Thomas Friedman is wrong to characterize the IS as a force of disorder, or to say, quoting from a Batman movie, that the IS fighters just want to watch the world burn. They want to create order in their little caliphate, but on the basis of such authoritarian violence that many liberals simply refuse to recognize it as order. The desire for order is at least as much a factor in the appeal of the IS as the desire for violence. That desire for order is why so many people turn to religion in bad times. For a while during the 20th century it looked like people might look to themselves, or at least to Marx, Lenin, Stalin or Mao, to create order in the world, but Communism as collectively authored by the last three was "the god that failed." In the underdeveloped world especially, young people whose parents or grandparents vested their hopes in socialism or communism now turn to Islam, Pentecostalism, a more assertive and chauvinistic Hinduism, and so on. Why this seeming relapse? Is it because people still hope a god will provide for them when the man-gods of Marxism-Leninism failed? That's probably true to some extent -- it'd be the extent to which the desire for a god reflects people's feeling that they should be provided for, and that the power to provide for them must be out there somewhere. But there's more to religion's enduring appeal than that. It may be that, compared to the Market, the Party or even the State, a religion is something that can always use more people. The Market doesn't need all of us; it tells us to make ourselves useful or rot. States and parties too often sacrifice people's livelihoods, if not their lives, to austerity or competitiveness. Religions are no better, inherently, at providing for people than markets or states, but they promise everyone a place in an eternal order on what look like relatively easy terms -- especially, in the case of the IS, if you're a man. Those who worship the Market as a different sort of god make no such promises because they think it would encourage freeloading. Religions know better because, as I wrote, they can always use more people. Their promises lost their appeal not so long ago, but while the failures of the recent past loom large people around the world forget the lessons of the more distant past and assume that the old gods never failed. As some have suggested for some time now, it may take something like a Thirty Years War in the Middle East -- something that seems ever more likely lately -- to break the spell of Islamism, while we probably won't need anything so drastic to break the spell of Pentecostalism in the Third World. But where will the poor and all the people who feel that they have no place in the world look then? Somebody better have an answer.