If terrorists are searching for meaning, it is found not in fanatical religion but in everyday acts of kindness—like those of Mancunians last nightby Julian Baggini / May 23, 2017 / Leave a comment
The point at which my eyes started to water this morning, listening to the news of the Manchester atrocity, was when the radio reporter started to talk about how Mancunians had opened their homes to the victims, offered lifts, cups of tea, glasses of water. There was something deeply touching about such ordinary kindness in the face of extraordinary (as such attacks thankfully remain) violence.
At such moments, it is natural to see a stark conflict between light and darkness. Human society is about love, life and goodness, while terrorists embody the opposite.
There is much truth in this—but commentators have, I think, often mischaracterised Islamist terror. Islamic State has, apparently, claimed last night’s attack as the work of one of their own. Although details will doubtless continue to emerge over the next few days, it is worth pointing out that their message specifically referred to the target as the “shameless concert arena.”
We might pause at this fact. Some describe Islamic extremist movements such as Islamic State as nihilistic death cults. Janet Daley, for example, wrote in the Daily Telegraph that the Paris Bataclan attacks were “carried out for the sheer nihilistic thrill of it” by those belonging to a “hysterical death cult.”
Terrorism, however, is more a—deeply misguided—response to the threat of nihilism than an expression of it.
For decades now, the accusation of nihilism has been directed most frequently not at radical terrorists but at godless and materialistic western society. It is viewed as shallow, lacking spirituality, consumed by materialism and empty hedonism. The Japanese philosopher Nishitani Keiji, for example, described nihilism in 1949 as “the historical actuality of Europe.” His concern was that the decline in traditional Japanese spirituality and the rise in western values was creating a crisis of nihilism in Japan too. On this analysis, nihilism does not threaten the west from without but from within.
This is no more than what many western intellectuals have argued. The French existentialists recognised a long time ago that the death of God created a crisis of meaning. The original nihilistic killer was Meursault, the anti-hero of Camus’s L’Étranger, who senselessly kills an Arab man in French Algiers. Meursault had no values, no meaning, no purpose. Our situation today is a strange inversion of Camus’ allegory. The Muslims now killing Europeans could not be more different.
Meursault’s murder was meaningless, but the terrorists believe that their killings create meaning. They do what they do precisely because they reject the nihilism they see in the society that produces Meursaults.
For some in the west, attacks such as these ought to serve as a wake-up call, a warning that we need to recover our spirituality. The argument goes that human beings need a higher meaning and purpose and if we don’t offer them a benign version in the form of traditional religion, more virulent variants will thrive in their place.
The response of Mancunians to the bombing last night suggests another alternative. Their caring was the opposite of nihilism. Some were religious, some were not, but at their responses were deeply humanistic. Their concern was for nothing more than the suffering and welfare of their fellow human beings in the here and now. Their acts served no higher transcendent purpose, only the earthly needs of all-too mortal humans.
That I was not the only one who found this so touching points to how the antidote to nihilism does not require any appeal to the transcendent or the divine. Those who do not see how there can be wholly immanent value and meaning and look for something transcendent instead are making a terrible mistake, squinting at distant stars rather than what is clearly in front of them.
Tragically, it’s a mistake that in its most extreme form can have deadly consequences. I’d take the values expressed by all those who opened their doors in Manchester purely out of human compassion over the futile search for a higher meaning any day.
Western culture can be shallow and empty, but that is not because it lacks religiosity. It is rather because we are too easily seduced by the superficial and don’t prioritise the people and things around us that really matter. Terrible events shock us into seeing more clearly. The difficulty is retaining that acute awareness that nihilism does not need a God to be defeated, only ordinary human love and compassion.