© 2014 Robert Osburn

On March 3, 2014, I wrote about the connection between nihilism and inequality in society.  I argued that nihilism, the absence of meaning, reality, or purpose, feeds a sense of powerlessness to affect history.  I also made the claim that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, if it does anything, gives people a sense of power to make a difference.  The strong links between voluntarism and Christian commitment are testimony to that truth.

Today, I want to explore how pervasive nihilism, which is a product of education that insists all we can discuss are material causes and realities, is linked to the rise of foreign fighters like ISIS (also know as ISIL) in Iraq and Syria (a subject I also hinted at in my first blog post on January 3, 2014).  Before we enter the grizzly world of the new Islamic Caliphate recently declared by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, let’s review some basics about the origins of nihilism.

Nihilism is often best understood as a worldview, one whose origins lie with the 19th century genius Friedrich Nietzsche.  His central argument was that in a world where God is dead, the only philosophically honest thing to do is to admit that nothing means anything.  In many ways, modern education and the structures of modern society pump out the nihilist message that we’re all mere slugs on a random planet wobbling in the Cosmos.

Ironically—and this is very important—nihilism nurtures a desperate desire for meaning, precisely because it so desperately denies the existence of any meaning. 

Young men, especially, stripped of any hope of participating in some grand and glorious project by the tenets of Western education, are ripe targets for groups that claim to market meaning.

Today, radical Muslim groups advertise their grand and violent projects on the Internet, and, as we are now learning, thousands of young men in Western countries are signing up, hungry, avaricious to make their lives count for something.  Something.

But, this should not surprise us.  Most young men, and a few young women, seem naturally drawn to grand projects—whether it’s to valiant battles in The Lord of the Rings or to the thoroughly redemptive project called “The Kingdom of God” which Jesus advertised with complete integrity and wholesome appeal.  In an earlier day, young men flocked to Communism and its promise of a socialist utopia; now, it’s to the promise of Islamic global conquest.

But, why the hunger for meaning?  John Eldredge, author of the best-selling book Wild at Heart (2001), argues rather convincingly that authentic masculinity is wrapped up with a fierce desire to make a difference, to change human history.  The  1995 film Braveheart captures that sensibility perfectly.  If only men would stake their lives on some historic project, humanity would be rescued and they (men) would be validated. 

However, modern society says “No.”  The dragons have all been slain, God has been suitably boxed up and preserved in private sanctuaries where He can’t affect public life, and now our job is to let modern structures (schools, bureaucracies, businesses, government institutions, etc.) do their job.  The result?  Fewer frontiers to be conquered, less meaning to be cultivated, and, thus, more young men (many of them educated in Western countries) waiting to be mobilized for exciting frontier projects like those of ISIS (ISIL) in the Middle East.

Thus, the strictly naturalistic account of reality offered by educators in liberal Western societies is, ironically, a quiet breeding ground for foreign fighters, all because they are desperately looking for meaning. 

Yes, it’s true that many of those educated in the West go on to find the meaning of life in Jesus Christ or Buddha or Marxism or some other grand project or person. But, for those loosely in the Islamic orbit, the Islamic Caliphate and its promises of  bloody adventures is too appealing when the alternative is to waste away shrouded by nihilism’s relentless and dark death grip.

If I’m right, we’ve boxed ourselves into a corner by insisting that education be stripped of all transcendent meaning and purpose: damned, on the one hand, by the nihilism that fuels Islamic radicalism, damned, on the other, by militant secularists for whom any deity is one too many for our classrooms that dare not utter the Name. 

Wouldn’t you think it’s about time to rethink the whole project, if only to count the cost of the nihilism we purvey to our children?  If we don’t, Islamic Radicals may  someday force us to do so—in ways too bloody to imagine.

Further links:

“I Am Only Looking Up to Paradise” (Foreign Policy.com, October 2, 2014)