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Why We Fight: ISIS & the Psychology of Radical Evil

Kyle Roberts

The link between violence & eschatology

Schilling Professor of Public Theology and Church and Economic Life, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities
April 24, 2015

In a recent Atlantic essay, “What ISIS Really Wants,”2 Graeme Wood cuts right through the thick anxiety of Western political correctness, demonstrating that modern secular bias has clouded our perceptions of reality when it comes to understanding the Islamic State. Obama, representing the modern secular establishment’s uneasiness with reality, has asserted that ISIS is not true Islam. Of course, everything depends there on what “true” means.

Wood argues that ISIS is, in fact, enacting a return to the earliest form of Islam, grounded on the most literal interpretations of the Koran and the most fastidious applications of Sharia law, replete with “justified” violence against infidels and brutal punishments of Sharia offenders and apostates. In its own proclamations and practices, ISIS consistently makes the claim that it is in fact the only valid expression of Islam. As Wood readily and rightly acknowledges, however, there are plenty of other claimants to authentic Islam, which are—to the majority of peaceable human beings—much preferred to the horror that is ISIS. These alternatives differ in their understanding of the nature of Islam and in their interpretations and applications of the Koran. All religious and ideological groups make choices regarding how they are going to interpret their religious texts and, most crucially, how they are going to practice their religion. ISIS has clearly made their choice. As abhorrent as that choice is to the majority of the world (and to the majority of Muslims today), Wood argues it is simply inaccurate to claim they are “not Islamic.”

“Wars and persecutions are, at bottom, expressions of rivalry between contending claims to immortality and ultimate spiritual power.”1

Robert Jay Lifton, The Broken Connection

Understanding What ISIS Is, What It Wants, and Why

Wood is making a plea for realism and for understanding what exactly ISIS is and what ISIS “really wants.” If this is not adequately understood and appreciated, then policies and strategies for eliminating or even minimizing their threat will fall flat. I can only offer a brief summary here of Wood’s conclusion (the full article is well-worth the read). Wood shows that, to understand ISIS, we have to understand the theology—and in particular the literal eschatology—that undergirds it. ISIS is energetically motivated by a view of the purpose (or telos) of history as well as their particular role in history’s fulfillment, and is inspired by an anticipation of the apocalyptic end of this world and emergence of the new one. For all this to happen, the “Caliphate” must be established, its territory marked out and governed by Sharia law (which they see as now happening), and a final battle must be waged –  a battle, by the way, which will initially require the near defeat of the army of Islam, but subsequently its final, victorious re-emergence.

Wood suggests that in trying to understand radical Islam—and ISIS in particular—pundits and policymakers have missed the boat. In their squeamish reluctance to shine a critical light on Islamic religion, they have focused on other factors, including those that are economic and geo-political. Surely the religion itself isn’t to blame. Wood acknowledges that while these environmental and social factors tell part of the story, for too long we have neglected to consider the theological contours of ISIS, based in literalist interpretations (some might say “straightforward readings”) of the Koran, and which are believed, preached, and much-loved by its militant adherents.

The Allure of ISIS

Wood’s contribution is exceedingly important. Toward the end of the piece, he begins to push the issue further into the very heart of the matter: Why, in a world of WiFi, fast-food, and smart phones, has the theology, ideology, and agenda of ISIS been so deeply motivating and compelling? Why have thousands of Muslims streamed in from outside of Iraq and Syria—including Great Britain, the U.S., etc.—to join this fanatical, apocalyptic sect? He suggests that the “allure” of the Islamic State is that its adherents “believe that they are personally involved in struggles beyond their own lives, and that merely to be swept up in the drama, on the side of righteousness, is a privilege and a pleasure—especially when it is also a burden.” Wood teases us with the psychological motivation, but we need to go deeper in order to understand the connection between religious ideology and the psychological pull toward violence.

“Why, in a world of WiFi, fast-food, and smart phones, has the theology, ideology, and agenda of ISIS been so deeply motivating and compelling?”


ISIS, as the most expansive, radical religious sect we have seen in some time, offers its adherents both literal immortality in the next life and a dramatic meaning for this current one. Join this group and you will have significance beyond your wildest dreams: you can join the fight against the powers of darkness, wage war against nihilism and materialism, join the battle on the side of the righteous underdogs for whom victory is certain, because it is written.

Immortality Projects: Avoiding Death Anxiety

ISIS represents, in vivid detail, what psychologist Ernest Becker called an “immortality project.”3 For Becker, to be human is to experience a continual anxiety about our mortality, bubbling just beneath the surface of consciousness. Humanity is deeply motivated to attempt to stave off both physical death (for as long as we can and to the extent we can) and our conscious awareness of it. The anxiety always underneath the surface has catapulted us toward all manner of endeavors—both individual and collective achievements (whether “healthy” or “unhealthy,” “constructive” or “destructive”). The very existence of culture is, for Becker, a testament in large part to the collective human experience of death anxiety.

For Becker, it is not just the fact of death itself, but a particular facet of or implication of death that deeply bothers us: its capacity to render us permanently insignificant. As he says, what human beings really fear,

is not so much extinction, but extinction with insignificance. [Humanity] wants to know that his life has somehow counted, if not for himself, then at least in a larger scheme of things, that it has left a trace, a trace that has meaning. And in order for anything once alive to have meaning, its effects must remain alive in eternity in some way.4

The Buffer of Religion

Through the development of culture, human beings provide ourselves all sorts of avenues for attaining significance, for achieving a level of self-confidence or self-esteem, which functions as a buffer against the otherwise overwhelming death anxiety haunting us just under the surface. We develop cultural and religious worldviews to buffer against that anxiety. We construct immortality projects and create immortality ideologies, which persuade us of the enduring significance of our lives—enduring beyond the limits of physical death.5 For the vast majority of us, the immortality projects we join or adopt are mostly harmless, and some can be rather productive. Religion is, of course, the most common and prominent of our immortality projects. And this is not to say, by the way, that all religions and their content are false, it is simply to argue that they do perform this function. But religion, particularly when it becomes religious ideology—a hardened, dogmatic system of belief that has a primarily anxiety-denying and worldview-defending mechanism, can be a particularly insidious medium through which death anxiety is buffered.

It can work really well to give people a sense of their own immortality and invincibility. They will die in this life, and probably even in battle, but because they are on the “right side,” they will live on forever in the realm of the blessed. The destructive implications are obvious: their own sense of immortality is won at the expense of the lives and well being of others. For them to be immortal, and for them to assuage their anxiety about their mortality, others must be eliminated. For them to have true meaning in a meaningless world, others must be rendered insignificant and worthless. Everyone—but them—becomes dispensable.

Why We Fight: Terror Management Theory

An important body of psychological research, known as Terror Management Theory (TMT), which refers to the human need to “manage” the existential terror/anxiety of death, has empirically demonstrated Ernest Becker’s theories. TMT has provided extensive evidence that death anxiety is in fact a significant psychological motivator for human activity, both for good and for ill. When we pursue the question, “why do we fight?” we are faced with the reality of anxiety about our frailty and mortality. We fight because if we don’t, we might die (because they might kill us). Or, we fight because in doing so we eliminate the existential threat which is posed by the mere existence of another who believes and behaves very differently than we do. We also fight, according to TMT, because waging war can be a way to garner self-esteem. When we join a patriotic cause, we wed ourselves to a (supposedly) transcendent cause that gives us a sense of immortality, invincibility, permanence, and meaning. As the authors of In the Wake of 9-11: The Psychology of Terror, write,

In fact, all wars are fought by people who are in many ways just like ourselves, who see themselves as part of a virtuous struggle to promote good and banish the world of evil. Those who fight without such conviction are unlikely to make the sacrifices to be successful and are likely to be riddled by anxiety and guilt. Those who are willing to risk their lives for a cause are inevitably convinced of the righteousness and intrinsic value of that cause, whether that cause is sanctioned by a deistic or secular ideology.”6

Defending Ideologies

When the ideology in question is buoyed by deep religious (and emotional) conviction, and the cause has eternal meaning and presumably eternal consequences—and when that cause is carried along by a literalist eschatology and dramatic apocalypse—the limits to self-esteem achievement are seemingly endless. But for fundamentalist, apocalyptic sects like ISIS, the cause is also existentially fragile. Generally speaking, fundamentalism is well known to be hard on the outside and soft (or weak) in the middle; to sustain believability in any rigidly fundamentalist worldview requires “constant validation.”7 Rigid fundamentalism is far more brittle than it appears. One “sure” way to deal with that brittleness and to attain that validation is to aggressively eliminate any who would oppose it.

Wood is right that we dare not skip over the theology (and eschatology) that undergirds the horrendous phenomenon of the Islamic State. Literalist apocalyptic beliefs about the destruction of the world, the salvation of the elect, and the damnation of the rest all have an insidious quality. But when those beliefs also include the requirement that an actual physical, military state be established to usher in the final days, then you have the recipe for absolute disaster—you have the recipe for ISIS.

But we also need to explore why it is that some are given to interpret their sacred texts in such a way as to seemingly require the dehumanization of others, the justification of violence, and the attempted elimination of all but themselves. Whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or anything else, our sacred texts can become—indeed have become—vehicles or instruments for evil, an evil that lurks within the core of our very selves. We cannot just examine the theology; we must also seek to understand what is going on beneath the surface of dogma and ritual. What is the link between theology, or ideology, and destructive evil? If TMT is right, the potential for violence lies within us all.

So the question is not just, How do we deal with ISIS?

But also, How do we guard against ourselves?