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Mass Shootings: A Materialist Horror

Tara Isabella Burton is telling us something very, very important about these mass killers:

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 churchesAnd until we recognize the religious hunger alongside the destructive hatred, we have little chance of stopping these terrorists.

She goes on to describe how these ideological communities serve as pseudo-religions for their members. It’s hard to overstate the importance of what she’s seeing here. As I’ve been saying, Hannah Arendt says these factors are exactly the kind of thing that, when it went viral (so to speak), created 20th century totalitarianism.

TIB goes on:

It is necessary to condemn these hate groups and their atrocities. But it is simplistic, — and ineffectual — to do so in a vacuum. To characterize these killers as lonely, disaffected, disenchanted men, rebels in search of a cause, is not to ameliorate the atrocity of their actions, nor to excuse them as merely “misunderstood.” Rather, it is to envision a productive way forward — a chance to de-radicalize some of them before they commit acts of violence, to provide people with a different form of “lifefuel.”

The very trappings of interconnected, meaning-rich social life — lost in an increasingly fractured age, with a presidential administration that stokes further division — are very real human needs. Theistic or civic, institutional or grass roots, online or off, we all need to foster churches.

Read the whole thing. A political model is not the best way to understand these killers; a religious model is.

I’ve been re-reading the French literature scholar Louis Betty’s excellent study of the novels of Michel Houellebecq, Without God: Michel Houellebecq and Materialist Horror. If you’ve never read Houellebecq, I bet you’d start after reading this book. Betty interprets the bestselling French novelist’s work as a serious attempt to describe what it’s like to live in this godless world. Houellebecq’s work is not so much “religious,” in the common use of the term, but metaphysical. Betty writes:

Life whittled down to the play of atoms thus represents a kind of materialist horror, and characters unable to see the world in anything but physicalist terms are inevitably prey to depression and suicide.

Betty continues:

One of the principal contentions of this book is that Houellebecq’s novels represent a kind of fictional experiment in the death of God. And this experiment is best understood as a confrontation between two radically opposed domains: the materialism of modern science and the desire for transcendence and survival, which is best expressed in and through religion.

He points out that Houellebecq has always identified as either an atheist or an agnostic. But the novelist is also a Comtean who believes that “religious in a necessary element of social cohesion and happiness.” For Houellebecq, “a religion that does not promise victory over death is doomed; we may sanctify all we want, but without a promise of material survival, we can hope to save neither the world nor ourselves.”

More Betty:

However, the causality I propose, which does justice to the totality of the Houellebecquian worldview, is one in which materialism — conceived of as a generalized belief in matter, which in its political manifestations contributes to the rise of ideologies as diverse as communism, fascism, and liberalism — represents the true menace to human relationships and sexuality in Houellebecq’s novels.


Annabelle offers one of Houellebecq’s clearest demonstrations of materialism’s inexorable logic: there is only the body, and reason dictates that once the body can no longer be counted on to provide pleasure, it is to be abandoned. The great injustice in the Houellebecquian universe is not sexual inequality, maternal abandonment, or capitalism; the great injustice in these novels is matter, and without recourse to the promise of the immaterial — the soul, God, eternity — the injustice is final.

What brought me back to Betty’s book was fooling around on my Kindle on a flight Sunday night. I had been thinking about Houellebecq in connection with the mass killings, along the same lines at TIB’s column: that is, wondering to what extent these killers, whatever their asserted motivations, are really driven by what Betty calls “materialist horror.” When I started re-reading Without God — which, let me emphasize, is not a religious book, but a literary analysis — I began to think of it in context of this new project of mine. That is, I started wondering about whether Houellebecq’s cultural critique offers new insights into the potential in our post-Christian, radically atomizing world for totalitarianism.

If you want to read Houellebecq, start with The Elementary Particles. His book about a dissolute French scholar facing the Islamist takeover of France, Submission, is also good. Note well, that book is not anti-Islamic; in fact, Islam itself is more peripheral to the plot than you might think. The central question of the book is whether or not a society without a common sense of the transcendent can hold together. A warning about Houllebecq: his writing about sex is very direct, and not for the sensitive.

One more quote from Louis Betty’s book, explaining the Houllebecquian worldview:

The unbinding of humanity from God lies at the heart of the historical narrative the reader encounters in Houellebecq’s work: lacking a set of moral principles legitimated by a higher power and unable to find meaningful answers to existential questions, human beings descend into selfishness and narcissism and can only stymie their mortal terror by recourse to the carnal distractions of sexuality. Modern capitalism is the mode of social organization best suited to, and best suited to maintain, such a worldview. Materialism — that is, the limiting of all that is real to the physical, which rules out the existence of God, soul, and spirit and with them any transcendent meaning to human life — thus produces and environment in which consumption becomes the norm. such is the historical narrative that Houellebecq’s fiction enacts, with modern economic liberalism emerging as the last, devastating consequence of humanity’s despiritualization.

“Materialist horror” is the term most appropriate to describe this worldview, for what readers discover throughout Houellebecq’s fiction are societies and persons in which the terminal social and psychological consequences of materialism are being played out. It is little wonder, then, that these texts are so often apocalyptic in tone.

Tara Isabella Burton suggests that the apocalyptic violence we keep seeing in these mass shootings are social and psychological consequences of metaphysical materialism. She’s right, I believe.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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