Ideological fight club as a millennial religion

(COMMENTARY) What forces motivated young men and women dressed in black, wearing bandanas and helmets to pummel the conservative gay, Asian journalist Andy Ngo with their fists, their feet and weapons recently in Portland, Oregon?

Were the forces similar to those that motivated young men in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 to chant “the Jews will not replace us” to fight with Antifa protestors and for one man named James A. Fields Jr. to drive his car into a crowd, injuring more than two dozen people, killing a 32-year-old woman named Heather Heyer and earning a life sentence in jail?

We often hear discussion about whether religion causes violence or makes the world more violent. But maybe we should discuss if, in the absence of true religion, violence can become a religion.

While these groups may not fit the first definition in Merriam-Webster for religion being a worship of God or the supernatural, they certainly fit the secondary definition: “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.” And weekend clashes of chants, yelling and street-fighting seems to be where they like to put their faith into action.

A Blow To Non-Violence

That religion of political rage doesn’t seem to mesh with Henry David Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience. The moral force of Mahatma Gandhi seems of little interest to these practitioners because it does not involve bruising and bleeding the opposition. Even Martin Luther King Jr.’s use of rhetoric and peaceful protest seems to strike them as weak sauce.

MLK wrote in his first book, Stride Toward Freedom, that true pacifism or nonviolent resistance, is “a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love.” He believed the Christian doctrine of love operating through Gandhi’s nonviolence was a powerful weapon “available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.” 

King read Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” when he was a freshman at Morehouse College. “As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest,” King wrote in his autobiography.

Perhaps members of Antifa and Proud Boys are not going for a revolution for positive change in society. Rather, their religion is a revolution of anarchy and winner-takes-all “gangsmanship”. Violence seemingly gives them (and anyone) a euphoric high. Perhaps the decline of religion in America and the absence of religious meaning causes some to turn to the fellowship of Antifa or the camaraderie of the Proud Boys. Violent groups, including those who start out opposing fascism, begin to demonstrate fascism or resemble jihadists by their failure to tolerate other viewpoints. 

The spectacle is an ugly, nihilist blight on America. Other countries demonstrate a much more civil way to protest. Last month when I was covering street protests in Brazil for Religion Unplugged, I observed much larger crowds acting much more peaceably. They were protesting the Bolsanaro administration’s proposed cuts to education funding. Youth were dancing, playing drums and chanting. They were also smiling and hugging and spreading joy as they did so. 

The Brazil protest was arguably more effective than the angry faces and flying fists of Antifa, Proud Boys and other ideological groups in America.

The Religion of Violence

Pacific northwest writer Chuck Palahniuk creates a nihilistic character named Tyler Durden in his book Fight Club, a character brought to life on the big screen by actor Brad Pitt. His lines perhaps animate and explain ideological Gen Y better than it did Gen X. “I don't want to die without any scars,” Durden said.

Violence is alluring whether in the form of wildlife in nature, combatants in a boxing ring or religious-motivated hostility. In modern American life, the millennial ideological extreme on the left and right practice verbal blood sport on social media and sometimes physical violence in real life. 

Perhaps this fits in the category of new religious belief and practices taking shape in western countries even amid apparent secularism. New York Times columnist David Books wrote about how belief in astrology and the occult is increasing with roughly 29 percent of Americans believing in astrology according to a 2018 Pew Research poll. Neo-paganism in the form of Wiccans are increasing to more than 1 million practitioners in America. And the spiritual force of “mindfulness” is also on the rise. Political wokefulness that some call the “Great Awokening” is also on the rise as a religion of political correctness. 

“People are always saying we live in a more secular age, but secularism never really comes,” Brooks writes in a column last summer. “Humans are transcendent creatures who have spiritual experiences and instinctively appeal to supernatural powers. Even in the most secular parts of society, there is great and unfulfilled spiritual yearning.”

Dr. Clay Routledge, a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, wrote in a New York Times essay in 2018 that religion used to provide “institutional and social scaffolding for a life of meaning.” He acknowledges that Americans, especially young adults, are less likely to attend church or identify with a religious faith. But “as my research has shown, the sense of meaningfulness provided by religion is not so easily replicated in nonreligious settings. When Americans abandon traditional houses of worship, they increasingly search for alternative religious-like experiences (including those involving ideas about ghosts or space aliens) in order to feel as if they are part of something larger and more meaningful than their brief mortal lives.”

Rules of the Ideological Octagon

It also seems each group relishes being attacked by the other side, wearing battle scars like a badge of honor and showing physical evidence of the other side’s brutality and hypocrisy. They often film the encounters and revel in receiving and delivering injuries, splicing up video clips to use as evidence and polemic to later attack the other group on social media, rallying support from friends, family and sympathetic media. Again, here, their religion sounds like Fight Club. 

“Only after disaster can we be resurrected. It's only after you've lost everything that you're free to do anything. Nothing is static, everything is evolving, everything is falling apart,” said Tyler Durden in Fight Club. That seems to articulate some of Antifa’s approach to tearing down constructs and institutions of Western Civilization. There are much better formats for physical and ideological spats. Most religions have doctrine and rules one most follow. And perhaps that’s also what millennial combatants need in their religion of violence. 

Perhaps the UFC should open up an ideological division that pits an Antifa member against a white nationalist in the octagon? Let’s see their faces and their fight skills in a format where a winner and loser emerge but innocent bystanders are not at risk for serious injury and where referees can stop the match when it gets out of hand? 

Better yet, perhaps the two sides could participate in a sport called Chess Boxing. Created by Dutch artist Iepe Rubing in 2003, participants spend one round boxing and a second round playing speed-chess and alternating each subsequent round. The first person to check mate or knock out wins. (Note: I had the privilege of training with Rubing and his chess-boxing club in Berlin in 2011-2012 and can attest it is a fantastic exercise of mind and body). The battle measures both brain and brawn and even has hosted world championship fights. 

Maybe the millennial brawlers of 2019 could alter the concept and alternate a round of boxing with a tweet and meme contest? 

Lasting Victory? 

Would any of these methods help channel the desire for a physical fight between people with extremely different ideas? 

Is it enough to score a victory over an ideological or physical opponent under a system of rules and in a format that displays honor and courage? Do these modern ideological combatants prefer chaos, disorder and inflicting suffering and harm on themselves and others? Is that how they become a champion on their community? Is this how they become a warrior in their ideological crusade, someone willing to fight for what they believe? Is that how they might even become a martyr? 


As Albert Einstein once said": “Older men start wars, but younger men fight them.” 

When the current culture war combatants are older and wiser, perhaps they will realize their defense of their ideological religion was childish and shameful. Like the characters in Fight Club learn, the religion of nihilism often leads to self-destruction.

B.R. Nanda wrote about Gandhi’s logic for non-violence on the web site of the Gandhi Research Foundation. 

“He objected to violence not only because an unarmed people had little chance of success in an armed rebellion, but because he considered violence a clumsy weapon which created more problems than it solved, and left a trail of hatred and bitterness in which genuine reconciliation was almost impossible.”

Paul Glader is executive editor of Religion Unplugged.