Not long ago, the Obama administration claimed that any long-term resolution to the problems in the Middle East must primarily address the social, political, and especially economic systems that give rise to fanaticism. This is a step in the right direction, and certainly an advance from the ideology that says we should just “bomb them back to the stone age.” But the problems being addressed and the solutions brought to bear upon them are only partly right.
There is a consistent short-sightedness in western secularism that struggles to understand why people would give their lives for anything other than essentially material gains. This is hardly surprising given its basic assumption that virtually all human behavior is fundamentally reducible to political and material explanations. After all, when all that exists is matter and energy in its various forms, why look for something beyond the physical to live for and find hope and happiness in?
For secularism, any claim to a religious or metaphysical motivation can only be a smokescreen for the real reason for human behavior, namely the craving for possessions, passion, and position. In the contemporary vernacular, we call this the pursuit of money, sex, and power.
There’s no question radical Muslims are interested in obtaining such things for themselves. But to reduce all rationales solely to the physical is to miss critical aspects of humanity that are very often much more important than merely material ones. In short, stuff is not enough because social, political, and economic systems have distinctly religious and spiritual components that cannot and must not be passed over as incidental or unimportant.
Because secularists often ignore or badly underestimate these determinative factors, they tend to “thin out” and miss the deeper and more complex features of human life systems. If you disallow spiritual explanations because you do not think the spiritual realm is real or important, you will have a hard time explaining why someone would give their lives for the greater glory of their God (or gods). And you will not appreciate the deeply spiritual side of human nature.
In view of this, it is tragically ironic that in the current conflict, Islamic militants are very clear about their distinctly religious motivations. And yet, these motivations are frequently ignored or reinterpreted in socioeconomic terms in an attempt to provide more plausible secularist explanations for how thousands of young men and women can be so readily convinced to give their lives for essentially non-material gains. But in the minds of these Muslims, they are not terrorists. They are faithful followers of Allah, offering up their lives in unsullied service of him.
Western secularism has a hard time understanding fanaticism in part because it does not see an ultimate non-material set of reasons for living and dying for anything or anyone beyond this life. Consequently, very few in the secular west are genuinely fanatical about anything. As long as we can maintain a reasonable level of personal peace and affluence we remain anesthetized to the greater things beyond this life.
If there is any counterpart at all in the west today, it is the proponents of the “new sexuality.” They are not terrorists, of course, but they are fanatics and will stop at nothing until absolutely everyone—to the last man, woman, and child—is either convinced or cajoled into affirming that the LGTBQIA movement is not merely permissible, but morally right. But moral rights are not material; they are transcendent. They lay claim to you whether you agree with them or not.
Thus, to permit a perspective and set of activities is one thing. To demand acceptance and celebration of them is wholly another. Fanatics are not interested in plurality. They are interested in conformity. But they want conformity because they think they are right, not merely because it offers certain material and social advantages. Similarly, in Islam, the resolution to any moral question is clearly a religious and ideological one that cannot be settled by or reduced to purely pragmatic and material concerns.
G. K. Chesterton puts it best in The Everlasting Man when he states that secular socialists are “always stubbornly and stupidly repeating that men fight for material ends, without reflecting for a moment that the material ends are hardly ever material to the men who fight.” He goes on to astutely observe, “There is a religious war when two worlds meet; that is when two visions of the world meet; or in more modern language when two moral atmospheres meet. What is the one man’s breath is the other man’s poison. . . .” Which is poison and which is breath and why? The ultimate answer is not determined in a laboratory, through political showmanship, or even in the marketplace. No, the solution that we seek must be sought and found elsewhere.
Yes, we live in a world at war, but contrary to secularist views, the enemies we engage are not merely material. Ephesians 6:10-20 reminds us that our struggle with evil is not against flesh and blood. It is, at its root, a spiritual battle. The sooner we understand and embrace this, the better equipped we will be to face our real enemies with clarity, resolve, and effectiveness, using weapons that are not of this world but instead are divinely powerful for the destruction of godless fortresses and false ideologies—our own included.