Domestic right-wing terrorists, like the man accused of the shooting last weekend in El Paso, are not so different from their radical Islamist counterparts across the globe — and not only in their tactics for spreading terror or in their internet-based recruiting. Indeed, it is impossible to understand America’s resurgence of reactionary extremism without understanding it as a fundamentally religious phenomenon.
Unlike Islamist jihadists, the online communities of incels, white supremacists and anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists make no metaphysical truth claims, do not focus on God and offer no promise of an afterlife or reward. But they fulfill the functions that sociologists generally attribute to a religion: They give their members a meaningful account of why the world is the way it is. They provide them with a sense of purpose and the possibility of sainthood. They offer a sense of community. And they establish clear roles and rituals that allow adherents to feel and act as part of a whole. These aren’t just subcultures; they are churches. And until we recognize the religious hunger alongside the destructive hatred, we have little chance of stopping these terrorists.
Now more than ever, the promises religion has traditionally made — a meaningful world, a viable place within it, a community to share it with, rituals to render ordinary life sacred — are absent from the public sphere. More and more Americans are joining the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated. There are more religious “nones” than Catholics or evangelicals, and 36 percent of those born after 1981 don’t identify with any religion.