For those of you have not been following this bizarre story I will recap.
Last May two 12 year old girls stabbed a classmate 19 times. The stated motivation for this behavior was to attempt to summon the "Slender Man" whom the girls felt was real and was being denied by classmates. They felt that the attack in the woods would be sufficient to gain the attention of the being.
Let us start with the basic problem: Slender Man is fictional. Fictional. Not mythic. Not legendary. Fictional. As in it is a character created on June 10th, 2009 on the Something Awful Forums by user Victor Surge (real name Eric Knudsen) as part of a contest to produce realistic looking photos of the paranormal. He and other users continued to build on the mythology of the Slender Man figure until it became an internet phenomenon spawning web series, blogs, fiction, and (eventually) the belief that the creature was a legitimate paranormal phenomena. I could not do a better job than detailing all the examples than Know Your Meme's Slender Man Page.
So, why am I talking about this here, on a page dedicated to discussing religion?
We have a body of work pertaining to the appearance and activity of a supernatural being. We have belief and conviction in the authenticity of those sources that leads to action. Even to the extreme action of attempted murder.
Sounds like religion to me.
That may seem simplistic, or even offensive, to some of you, but I am putting on my anthropologist's hat today. Religions develop out of stories told in community. Whether they be about real or simply perceived phenomena is irrelevant. What is important is that the stories take on a life of their own within the community, being told and retold, gathering details and interpretations. Being refined over time. What may have been symbol or metaphor takes on a reality of its own.
It is easy to dismiss the belief of these girls, or at least one of them (in some of the accounts there seems to be a clear leader and follower), as mental illness; but I think it is something more than that. It is a fundamental mind set common to humanity, or at least some humans, that creates a need for spirituality or religion. In the absence of compelling, relevant, and meaningful faith, faith systems are created.
Thus, young girls take stories on the internet which they do not have the qualifications to interpret and make them a faith system. Or someone who feels like they have been labled as "evil" starts calling himself Pazuzu. Or the Church of the Fonz. It is going to happen more often as global culture continues to fragment.
It happens within existing faith systems when those called upon to interpret and apply the stories with authority lack the perception or education to do so within the historical frame work of their faith. Instead they create an overly cultural or anti-cultural version of their faith, particularly apocalyptic ones, using the trappings of an existing system with very little connection to it. I don't have to look far to point out lots of examples of that in numerous faiths.
It is an interesting and important phenomena. Creating ephemeral religions that form and pop like soap bubbles. Or become ingrained in a large faith system and rot it from the inside. It is worth out attention and discussion.
So, in a way, maybe ISIS did start out like those two Wisconsin girls.