Thursday, March 12, 2015

ISIS is Just a Normal Religious Frenzy

After reading the already classic Atlantic piece on “What ISIS Really Wants” by Graeme Wood, you can understand why the liberal response to Islamic terrorism has been so inadequate. The problem is that liberals completely misunderstand the nature of the last two centuries. Take this mind-blowing statement of ignorance and misunderstanding.
Centuries have passed since the wars of religion ceased in Europe, and since men stopped dying in large numbers because of arcane theological disputes.
Oh dear, liberals. Where to begin? First of all, it may be convenient for liberals to write off the Protestant Reformation and the little matter of the French Huguenots and the Thirty Years War as "wars of religion," but the notion rather elides what was going on.

Centuries ago there was a fundamental transformation in the culture and economics and power in Northwest Europe. Not surprisingly there was a mighty clash between the various actors at all levels of social interaction, political, religious, economic, military. Marxists might even call it a "class struggle."

Now what on earth do you call the convulsions of the 20th century and its two world wars? I'd call it a monster religious war of the ages between at least three secular religions: communism, fascism, and democracy. Each of these secular religions has a different idea of the meaning of the modern age and the way to organize human society and to live in community.

Of course the worst convulsions occurred in countries like Russia, China, and Germany where the people experienced military defeats and a collapse of the old order. What on earth would you expect in the wake of collapse and ruin? I tell you what I'd expect. I'd expect a profound turn to religion. Only, of course, in the modern age, I would expect secular religions to burst forth.

Now, according to sociologist of religion Rodney Stark in books like The Future of Religion, when people get the religious bug they go in one of two directions. They either attempt go back to the tried and true, as in going back to basics, or as in recovering the true meaning of the gospels. Stark calls this kind of approach a "sect," meaning a religious group that breaks away from a mainstream church looking for the original meaning of the religion.

The other approach is religious innovation, forming a group that looks forward to the truth rather than backward. Stark calls this kind of group a "cult." In practice, many groups combine a backward and a forward look. Nazism combined nationalism and socialism, which we will stipulate as forward-looking, with a return back to blood and soil. Communism imagined a glorious future of perfect community that seemed oldly nostalgic to a mythical past of "primitive communism."

Now let us turn to the Middle East. Just like China and Russia in the 19th century, the Middle East is in crisis. Nothing works, and the people are desperate. Not surprisingly many Muslims have turned to Islam and tried to discover where things went wrong. ISIS, on the report of Graeme Wood, is an attempt to recover the original truth of Islam from its founding texts. According to Islamic expert Bernard Haykel, ISIS "is trying to re-crate the earliest days of Islam and is faithfully reproducing its norms of war" and the caliphate and slavery and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all.

On the view of Rodney Stark this is completely understandable and normal. Let's look at another authority, William G. McLoughlin, who has studied religion and politics in the US in Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform. He argues that the US has responded to perceptions of social crisis with repeated Great Awakenings in religious enthusiasm followed by political reform. The First Great Awakening in the mid 18th century was followed by American Revolution. The Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century was followed by the Civil War to end slavery.

Of course, we Americans look at our history and nod in appreciation at the successful upheavals where we went from a bad place to a better. But the opposite can happen. We conservatives would argue that the rise of communism as a solution to political crises in Russia and China and elsewhere have yielded nothing but disaster. At any rate, Russia and China aren't going the communist route right now.

So the question is whether ISIS and the Iranian Revolution are going to usher in a political and economic and cultural revival in the Middle East or whether they will bury their peoples in a maelstrom like the maelstroms of Soviet Russia and Maoist China. For us in the West the answer is obvious. ISIS and Iran are leading the people of the Middle East off the cliff.

But the ISIS enthusiasts don't agree, and chaps like Rodney Stark would say that they are doing what the West did five hundred years ago when in the Protestant Reformation it attempted to distill the original true essence of Christianity with the benefits of the printing revolution that let any middle-class person conduct their own independent study of the Christian scriptures.

A chap like Ken Wilber has a slightly different take. His "integral psychology" is based on a number of stage models in developmental psychology: stuff like Piaget, Maslow, and Kohlberg. On Wilber's view, when a people experience a disaster, like the Germans in World War I, they respond by stepping down a level in development; they go back to the developmental stage that worked in the past. Thus the most advanced country in the world, the nation that came up with German philosophy, relativity, and quantum mechanics, predictably returned to the idea of race and land, and invaded the empty wastes of Russia to acquire more "living room."

So what will happen with ISIS and Iran? We cannot know, of course. But I think that my view, distilled from thinkers like Stark, McLoughlin, and Wilber, are a much better way of understanding the Islamic threat than tired liberal talk about "wars of religion."

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