People have flocked to the Islamic State for different reasons and one of these is the religious experience it offers. That religious experience runs much deeper than its apocalyptic hopes for “the end times”.
Atheism, not anti-theism
I am an atheist and deplore the immeasurable damage “religion”, both organised and personal, has wreaked upon so many lives. At the same time I cannot deny that many people find deep spiritual meaning for their lives in religion. (I use the word “spiritual” for convenience and sometimes use “religious” as a synonym. Normally I’d prefer to speak of the rich emotional life many find through the awe of existence and experiencing the universe, and as well as through companionship and the arts, music, and so forth.) It is for this reason I cannot bring myself to be an anti-theist. If it is true that “it takes religion to make a good person evil” it is also true that “it takes religion to turn bad person good”. I personally wish people could find some other idea or experience to make them good or in which they can find personal fulfilment, but that’s how people are.
Why are people like this? To help us with answers we have our own experiences to draw upon and works like Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the spell : religion as a natural phenomenon (2006), Scott Atran’s In gods we trust : the evolutionary landscape of religion (2002), Newberg, D’Aquili & Rause’s Why God won’t go away : brain science and the biology of belief (2001) and especially Pascal Boyer’s Religion explained : the evolutionary origins of religious thought (2001), along with dozens of others on fundamentalisms, new atheist critiques, and more.
Merely attacking religion’s unscientific and illogical beliefs and moral failings is entirely misdirected energy. That approach only advertises the barrenness of the author’s understanding of the psychology of religious belief. Perhaps some New Atheists who are the most savage of critics of religion would modify their approach if they paused to investigate what some of the literature has to say about the origins of religion and why it is so deeply embedded in the human experience.
When jihadis aren’t fighting — which is most of the time — they enjoy storytelling and watching films, cooking and swimming. The social atmosphere (at least for those who play by the rules) is egalitarian, affectionate and even playful. Jihadi life is emotionally intense, filled with the thrill of combat, the sorrow of loss, the joy of camaraderie and the elation of religious experience. I suspect this is a key source of its attraction. (Soft Power of Militant Jihad)
In seeking to understand the world of jihadis Hegghammer made it his business to understand everything they do, delving into “autobiographies, videos, blog posts, tweets and defector’s accounts”, and what he found he overviews in his NYT article which he titled The Soft Power of Militant Jihad.