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The loss of ethical meaning in public, civil communities feeds religious extremism. People will search for meaning, sometimes leading to life, sometimes leading to death.
After the recent terrorist attacks in Brussels, news reporters are again raising the agonizing question of why so many young people who have grown up in Europe are being radicalized and joining ISIS or other extremist religious organizations.
The statistics are truly disturbing. One reporter claims Belgians are joining extremist organizations at a rate of almost 42 per million, so that over 500 Belgians have joined violent extremist organizations from a population of only about 11.2 million. In contrast, a diplomat from Indonesia is very happy that only a few hundred of his fellow citizens, a population of some 200 million, of whom 87% are Muslims, have deserted their communities to fight for the Islamic State and its allies. If Indonesians went to fight for ISIS at rates similar to Belgians, there should be over 8,000 Indonesians in the ISIS armies. But why are so many Europeans joining ISIS?
There is, rather obviously, significant religious, cultural, relational, and ethical content that lies upstream from the decisions of the many young European Muslims who join extremist organizations. Some of that content is likely to be found in immediate personal or family matters, whether a conflict within the family, a romance gone sour, or a fight at school. And the lack of education, good jobs, and full acceptance of Muslims in Europe surely plays an important role. If young men are fully engaged in developing careers, romance, friends, and families, and feel esteemed as good Europeans while doing so, they will have something they do not want to leave behind to become suicide bombers. However, the largely secularized character of our education, as western observers, may blind us, so we do not perceive a crucial dimension of the complex phenomenon of religious extremism. It would be a mistake to only perceive the social/economic roots of religious extremism and terrorism. To grasp a depth dimension of the problem, I believe we should apply the observations of Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl articulated in his powerful book from two generations ago, Man’s Search for Meaning.
Frankl, who was an Austrian Jew trained as a psychiatrist, noticed in some detail who, from among his fellow prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp, survived the ordeal, even though the harsh conditions should probably have killed them. His answer was that those prisoners who found meaning in life often survived the Holocaust under conditions that should have killed them, while those who lost any meaning usually died. Meaning was a source of life. This is a foundational observation about human life that should inform our considerations of religiously motivated violence and extremism.
I wish Frankl had more strongly emphasized that meaning is not only a source of life, but that meaning can also become a source of death. Think of the National Socialist political and military machine that was itself a gigantic collectivist search for meaning filled with quasi-religious slogans, symbols, and mythology. One of my colleagues describes the Nazi movement as a “War Religion.” Maybe we could call National Socialism a “Death Religion.” The Nazis found meaning in life in the wrong way. Appropriate meanings support life and keep people alive through circumstances that should have killed them; inappropriate meanings lead to death and the destruction of entire societies. We humans simply cannot avoid the search for meaning, whether it turns us into saints or demons.
This should inform our responses to the Islamic State’s global recruiting efforts. It is not only a lack of social integration, education, and jobs that drives young Muslims into the arms of ISIS; it is also a quest for meaning. And the promise of a caliphate fills this meaning vacuum in a truly dramatic manner. It fills their hearts! Meaninglessness and anomie are gone! They have a purpose in life! What could be more spiritually and morally satisfying! (I suppose convinced Nazis had a similar experience.) And, therefore, if we want to truly reduce the attractiveness of ISIS in a serious manner, we simply must address the meaning question, however difficult it will be. And addressing the meaning question in relation to ISIS throws us into the confused border zones between public ideology and religion.
Most of us who have read even one news report about ISIS have immediately noticed that at the center of the problem lies the relation between a religion and a state or a state-like entity. If ISIS were only a religious movement that invited people to become members, such that it did not have a state-like entity (including military force) controlled by its ideology, it would no longer be so very threatening. Indeed, the attractiveness of ISIS as a meaning-providing movement comes, in part, from the way in which it combines an ideology for shaping the public life of a state with a radical type of religion. But how can we respond to the overpowering quest for meaning without confusing the type of ideology needed for shaping a state with those deep human needs which are purely religious? How do we respond to the quest for meaning without ourselves confusing the need of a state for an official ideology and the need of many humans for a religion? Can we respond to the need for meaning without confusing religion and the realm of the state?
The solution, I believe, is that we truly must clarify the types of meanings related to faith communities and the types of meanings related to civil communities, as well as how faith and reason have different relations to the meaning of life in both faith and civil communities. I will use myself as an example. I am a Christian apologist who argues that the ultimate meaning of life is properly found in dialogue with the God of the Bible, the central theme in Christian churches; I am also a social philosopher who argues that there are multiple secondary meanings that are properly practiced and communicated in our multiple civil communities. And a proper relation between ultimate meaning and secondary meanings in life is crucial to overcoming religious extremism (the immediate background for religious terrorism), regardless of the faith community to which one belongs.
In our civil communities, such as stores, schools, hospitals, banks, factories, sports teams, research institutes, media outlets, government agencies, and humanitarian aid organizations, we should both practice and teach important secondary meanings. These secondary meanings include practicing justice, honesty, diligence, loyalty, and mercy, while talking about both universal human dignity and duties. These secondary meanings are real and address, in part, the human search for meaning, while directing the ultimate level of the search for meaning in a constructive direction. Religious extremism is, I believe, a response to a perceived meaning deficit in our multiple civil communities; the religious extremist perceives civil communities as not being filled with values and, therefore, as valueless. Pure secularism does not only empty the heavens of ultimate meaning; pure secularism can easily empty all of life of meaning, including the life of our civil communities, furthering the meaning deficit that invites an extremist response. But this deficit of meaning can be addressed in ways that do not destroy the needed boundaries regarding church/state relations, though it will require much careful effort.
In the western world we have spent centuries of blood, sweat, and tears to develop somewhat peaceful patterns of church/state relations, but it would be a terrible tragedy if we interpret these church/state relations in such a manner that we empty life in our civil communities of ethical meaning. The loss of ethical meaning in public, civil communities feeds religious extremism. People will search for meaning, sometimes leading to life, sometimes leading to death, so that the quest for meaning is not only a private, personal matter. The lack of meaning has consequences for entire societies.
Obviously, addressing the need for meaning is a central task of faith communities, but within faith communities, to the extent of my experience and observation, the emphasis naturally falls on ultimate meanings. Within Christian churches we talk constantly about the hope of eternal life, about grace and forgiveness, about faith in “the gospel.” Within churches we sometimes talk about how God’s grace should equip us to become salt and light within the civil communities, but, honestly, we must improve both our talk and our walk in this area. We can do better, in words and in practice, in our efforts to demonstrate how the ultimate meaning found in dialogue with God bears fruit in the secondary meanings appropriate to the civil communities. I think other faith communities face a similar problem, and this is more extremely true of those religious communities which turn in an extremist direction.
To avoid misunderstanding, I should say that in the part of the Christian community in which I live, ultimate meanings and faith are not seen as a leap into a realm of irrationality, such that ultimate meanings are irrational and secondary meanings are rational. Again on Easter I heard that there are rational reasons to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. But there is a difference in the relation between faith and reason, depending on whether we are talking about ultimate or secondary meanings. In the realm of ultimate meanings, I believe it is far better for all of us (regardless of faith community) if we do not completely leave rationality behind. And in the realm of secondary meanings, when we are talking about ethical principles that should provide meaning to civil communities, it is simply foolish if we pretend to leave our respective faith identities behind. Our use of reason to articulate ethical meaning in the civil realms is always influenced by our faith identity, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Atheist, Hindu, or Buddhist.
Nevertheless, there is an important difference in the relation between faith and reason, depending on whether we are discussing ultimate meanings in faith communities or secondary meanings in civil communities. In a faith community, it is far better if we never forget rationality while discussing ultimate meanings; in our civil communities, we should not forget the role of faith while using reason to articulate secondary meanings. But it will continue to be self-destructive if western society does not use reason to articulate the secondary meanings, the ethical principles, needed for the healthy life of civil communities, most of which (both secondary meanings and civil communities) we share with people from many faith communities. (Such a use of moral reason is possible because God’s natural moral law provides the necessary pre-condition for moral reason, even if sin tends to make us misuse or misinterpret God’s natural moral law.) We must fully engage our minds and all of the best ethical reasoning we have at our disposal to articulate and apply the moral meanings of all our civil communities.
At this point in history, I believe our two greatest dangers are either that we neglect the need for meaning as a background cause for the attractiveness of religious extremism or that we neglect the need to articulate authentic secondary meanings within our civil communities. We must respond, using our roles within both our faith communities and our civil communities.
Religious extremism cannot be fully addressed by acting as if man can live from bread alone, without addressing the deeper human needs that lead to extremism, and these needs include the search for meaning. But we must not only address the need for ultimate, religious meaning; we must also address the need for secondary meanings in our civil communities. Otherwise we will hardly touch the existential needs being addressed by ISIS and similar movements. And unless the response to religious terrorism includes religious, moral, and ideological responses, it will be very difficult to defeat.
 Prof. Agdurrahman Mas’ud, General Director of the Ministry of Religious Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia, in a public discussion in Brussels on March 19, 2015, held jointly by the Robert Schuman Foundation, the Forum Brussels International, and the Hanns Seidel Foundation. See Bonn Profiles 347, http://www.bucer.org/resources/details/bonner-querschnitte-112015-ausgabe-347-eng.html
 Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, first English translation under the title From Death-Camp to Existentialism, 1959, first published in German in 1946. Various editions are now available in English.
 Thomas Schirrmacher, Hitlers Kriegsreligion, 2 vol. (Bonn: VKW, 2007).