“Fascism is psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life … Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them, ‘I offer you struggle, danger, and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet … We ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.”
The assessment of George Orwell in the early 1940s, reflecting on the world that brought World War II into being— and the final words of the brilliant essay in the Atlantic which everyone everyone should read, “What ISIS Really Wants.”
We are, in the analysis of the sociologist Peter Berger, “a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes.” What he meant is that we are a very religious people whose leaders are very secular. Most of our leaders have a very difficult time understanding that religious beliefs matter— because to them and their peers, they don’t. Or in another image, Berger wrote that we imagine ourselves living in “a world without windows” to the transcendent, i.e. that everything that really matters is “sensible,” accessible to our senses touch and taste, scale and sight, missing the profoundly religious reality that is at the heart of the universe, and the heart of every life. We are “homo religiosis” as human beings, or “homo adoramus,” sons of Adam and daughters of Eve that we are. We will adore something, or someone, making it what matters most, of absolute and supreme importance. As Augustine said so many years ago, “What do you love?” is the most important of all questions, as it is that question that goes to the core of every human heart; and that love at the heart of our hearts will form us— everything else is made “sense” of in the light of that love.
We can, as the author of the Atlantic essay argues, publicly protest the Islamic nature of ISIS, insisting otherwise; but he writes, “Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature… are rooted in an ‘interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.’” Of course he is nuanced, and careful, with painstaking effort showing that most Muslims have “zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment.” But he also insists that to disregard the deeply religious character of ISIS is to misread it profoundly, with disturbing and far-reaching consequences— as our most public and influential political leaders are doing now, i.e. “if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul.”. Yesterday’s mass beheadings of Coptic Christians was reported by the White House as the “killings of Egyptians,” which was true, but that was not the point that ISIS was making. We will to be blind because we will not see.
Do we have eyes that see? It is one of the most perennial of all questions, which is why “naming” is at the core of our identity as human beings. Knowing what things are, and what they aren’t, reaches back into the Garden, and courses its way across history— and so is essential to our humanity, and therefore to our flourishing as human beings. To see truthfully, and to understand what we are seeing, is at the heart of our humanity.
I have my own deeply personal reasons to care about this, but that is beyond what I will write here. Getting this right, at least seeing this rightly, matters immensely; it is of critical importance if we are going to understand the world in which we live and move and have our being.