During the recent White House Summit to Counter Violent Extremism, President Obama dismissed the idea that the countries fighting terrorism are actually fighting Islam. “The notion that the West is at war with Islam is an ugly lie and all of us — regardless of our faith — have a responsibility to reject it,” Obama said. The president instead claimed that he and other Western leaders are attempting to confront “the warped ideologies espoused by terrorist like al-Qaeda and ISIL, especially their attempts to use Islam to justify their violence.”
Those are rational statements for a time in which ISIS is growing stronger and Islamophobia is growing in Europe. It’s also an extremely different approach for the United States than we saw in the years following 9/11. Then, with Bush at the helm, it very much seemed as if there was a war taking place between Western, Christian values and the Islamic culture of the Middle East. Bush, of course, avoided those accusations and played the same safe political game Obama is playing. His statements like “Islam is a religion of peace” ensured the world that he was fighting terrorism rather than religion, but he dropped the bombs nonetheless.
In 2015, the ideological warfare (and its violent byproduct) seems to be more science vs. religion than Christianity vs. Islam. In the United States, Christianity has been on the decline while atheism has been on the rise. From 2007 to 2012, there was a 12% decrease in Americans that identified as Christian, as well as a 0.8% increase in Americans that identified as Atheist, a 1.2% increase in Agnostics, and a 2.3% increase in people who listed their religion as “Nothing in particular.” Those are small but significant statistics, especially considering it's unlikely that Christianity will have any sort of resurgence in the near future. There will be those that disagree, but the country seems to be on a path towards non-religiousness rather than the other way around.
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In France, which has recently become the epicenter of both anti-religious sentiment and violent religious extremism, views on faith are much different. President Hollande is a self-described agnostic. Atheism is the highest religion (for lack of a better word) in the country at 31%. That contrasts with Frances Muslim population (9%) and their Jewish population (1%), both of which have been plagued by backlash to the recent shootings in Paris. The war between religions is an ancient one, but the war between science and religion is relatively new.
As Western countries increasingly transition away from Christianity, groups like ISIS continue to fight to defend their own religious values. The extremism with which they defend themselves is inexcusable, but it’s understandable for those adhering to traditional values to be threatened in countries where faith is not valued at all. There’s still a religious war going on, but Christian faith hasn’t manifested itself in the same extreme manner as Islamic faith has. Whether or not that says anything about the respective religions is debatable, but it seems more likely that Western countries simply don’t value their faith as much as Islamic ones do. The Crusades may never end, they'll just change.
There is also a slight pushback taking place amongst Christians in Western countries that don’t want to see their faith slip away from dominance. Congressman Ted Yoho (R-FL) argued today that the United States is losing the current religious war because of our own lack of religion. He cited the opinion of former Illinois Republican Congressman Michael Flanagan. “Congressman Flanagan said we’ve got to get God back into a lot of these principles in our country that we were founded on, and I agree,” Yoho said, “We’re taking God out of this country, they’re fighting for their God, and all I can say is the person who has God on their side is going to win this. And I think we all need to huddle around and get back to some basics in this country.”
Yoho’s statement reflects the same kind of fallacies commonly espoused by celebrities accepting awards speeches or athletes winning championships. If there is a God, he’s probably doesn’t care who wins. But using science, rational thought and atheism as a justification for ignoring segments of the population that ascribe to Islam, Christianity, Judaism or any other religion is just as dangerous as using religion to promote anti-humanist values.
By definition, the United States is a non-religious country. Yet it was founded by Christians, Christianity is the dominant religion and all of the nation’s leaders have been some denomination of Christian. There is no question that Christian values have informed our politics and foreign policy. Both Bush and Obama have made numerous references to God while approving military campaigns in Islamic countries. That is not a coincidence. As Western nations slowly transition away from Christianity and towards atheism or agnosticism, however, it’s vital that we not forget the importance of freedom-of-religion. We need to fight religious extremism, but we need to foster a culture and environment in which all religions can also peacefully thrive. In that sense, Obama's rational statements today might be the most important first step towards winning this war.