Pop nihilism and the allure of ISIS
News broke recently of two beautiful teenage girls from Austria, aged 15 and 16, who became burka-wearing recruiters for the terror group known as ISIS, or the Islamic State. And their journey to radicalism is not an isolated case.
In my own state of Colorado, a 19-year-old female just pled guilty to trying to join ISIS, too. And then there are the two young American men who died in Syria fighting for ISIS.
Why are young 21st-century Westerners converting to a brutal form of Islam? Why would young people, with seemingly so much to live for, leave the West for terrorism?
This question came up last month in a panel discussion with radio hosts Hugh Hewitt and Dennis Prager, as well as Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute and myself. We all agreed that the answer was not the radicalism of Islam, but the current emptiness of Western materialism.
The idea that matter is all that matters pervades everything young people see and hear these days. They hear it in science class, from the new Cosmos television series, and even, and as I added especially, in advertising and other media messages. Nearly every commercial message tells us that we’re born to be consumers, that stuff will make us happy and save us from our misery, and that there’s nothing beyond the immediate gratification of this world to live for.
As Dennis Prager said that night, “Secular society produces a lot of bored people . . . Secular society is a curse because ultimately life is meaningless if there’s no God.” The materialistic salvation sold to us promises to fill what Pascal called the God-shaped hole in our hearts … with stuff. But many see the meaningless of secular salvation, and they become bored; others become angry, even murderous.
Remember Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, who killed 13 people at Columbine High School? They weren’t Muslims. Then there’s T.J. Lane, a 19-year-old serving three life sentences for shooting to death three high school students in 2012. At his sentencing, in which he taunted his victims’ families with expletives, Lane opened his blue dress shirt to reveal a T-shirt on which he had scrawled the word “killer.”
We’ve always had young murderers, but the nihilism of today is different. Writing in Time several years ago, Harvard’s student body president called it the “Rude Boy” culture. The tough guy of the ‘60s and ‘70s, he observed, would say, “I’m better than you, I can beat you up”—but the tough guy today says, “I flip you off; you don’t matter and neither do I.”
And that’s a whole new level of brokenness. That’s the cultural shift toward nihilism. A few years ago, the rock band Switchfoot hit the nail on the head when they sang, “We were meant to live for so much more. But we lost ourselves.”
This sort of empty pop-nihilism, to borrow a term from Baylor’s Thomas Hibbs, makes even the evil radicalism of extremist Islam look attractive to some. And parasitic ideologies like these find folks in despair easy prey.
Might it be that ISIS finds this shallow ground as fertile soil from which to harvest young souls for its deadly agenda?
Decades ago, even before the Internet and social media took over so much of our lives, Aldous Huxley warned of the capacity of the media to exploit “man's almost infinite appetite for distraction.” Could it be that even ISIS looks attractive to those who, after having their fill, still feel empty inside?
Wait a minute, you say, that’s just a small minority. Not every kid flees to ISIS or thinks of murder as a way to meaning. Well, true, but how many others are living shriveled up lives of perpetual boredom? What addictions and distractions are they fleeing to in pursuit of meaning and purpose? How can Christians point our culture to the One we were made for?
Well, the panel discussion I mentioned earlier can start that discussion. Come to BreakPoint.org to find out how to watch or listen to my conversation with Dennis Prager, Hugh Hewitt, and Steve Meyer on this and other topics relating to God and culture.
Reprinted with permission from BreakPoint.org.