In the wake of numerous Islamist terrorist attacks, a reaction against religion is now discernible in many quarters of society. After 9/11, the sales of books by prominent atheists such as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens skyrocketed. The gradual slide into secularism that had been underway for decades prior to 9/11 accelerated after that event. In the last fifteen years, the number of people opting for agnosticism, atheism, or simply no religion has grown markedly. The massacres in Paris and San Bernardino have added fuel to the fire. After the Paris attacks, a Huffington Post article called for the “elimination of all world religions.”
The argument for rejecting all religion is that all religions are essentially the same and, therefore, all religions lead in the same direction—namely, toward bloodshed. That’s a fairly simplistic view of religion, but simplicity seems to be the order of the day. On the other side of the ledger, an increasing number of people seem to subscribe to the notion that all religions are essentially good and that all share the same peaceful beliefs and values.
In terms of discerning how to react in the face of religious terrorism, that broad view is not very helpful, either. Neither side seems willing to make the necessary distinctions about world religions. Thus, for the cynical, it’s all bad, and for the sentimental, it’s all good.
Unfortunately, one of the few institutions that has the intellectual and theological resources to make the distinctions has chosen instead to line up with the “all good” camp. In various and sundry ways the Catholic Church has let it be known that it’s okay with Islam—not with terrorism, of course, but the terrorists, we are assured, are in no way representative of Islam. We hear repeatedly from priests, bishops, cardinals, and the pope himself that Islam is a religion of peace, that Muslims are our spiritual brethren, that we worship the same God, and that we share the same values.
The Church leadership has correctly discerned that religion is under attack, but instead of responding in nuanced fashion, it has become an apologist for generic religion. In the process, Church leaders have become, in effect, defenders and protectors of Islam.
The general line of defense is to claim that violent Muslims are not true Muslims. Thus, in Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis stated that “authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence.” That, basically, is a rephrasing of the oft-heard claim that violence has nothing to do with Islam. It’s also an example of a logical fallacy sometimes referred to as the “No True Scotsman” argument. The term is attributed to philosopher Anthony Flew, and the example he gives can be paraphrased as follows:
A Scotsman reads an article about a sex crime committed in England. He asserts that “no Scotsman would do such a thing.” When confronted with evidence to the contrary, he responds that “no true Scotsman would do such a thing.”
In short, that which has to be proved is simply assumed to be true. Likewise, the defenders of Islam never offer any proof that Islam is a religion of peace. Since Islam is a religion, it is simply assumed to be peaceful. Violent Islamists, therefore, can never be “true” followers of the faith. They are always cast as “misunderstanders” of their religion who “pervert” its true meaning.
This protective attitude toward the “fellow” religion goes beyond official statements. When Pope Francis greeted a group of Muslim refugees in Rome, he told them to follow the faith of their parents—the implication being that Islam provides a valid path to salvation.
Meanwhile, Catholic leaders in America and Europe seem more concerned about the dangers of Islamophobia than the dangers of Islam. In April, Catholic Georgetown University held a conference on “Islamophobia” featuring a lineup of Islamic apologists all testifying to the threat posed by anti-Muslim “hysteria.” Last year, in the wake of Islamic State atrocities against Christians and Yazidis, the first thought of Bishop Denis Madden, the chair of the USCCB Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, was to voice his concern about “rising Islamophobia.” Indeed, it has become common practice for bishops to caution against anti-Muslim backlash following terrorist attacks. Add to this some ill-considered interreligious gestures (popes kissing the Koran and praying in mosques) and the long-standing Catholic campaign to bring Muslim migrants and refugees into the West, and you have the makings of a massive anti-Catholic backlash.
If the Church continues to identify with Islam, others will begin to identify it with all that is bad in Islam. There will be a great deal of unfairness in the comparison, but if Church leaders can’t be bothered to emphasize its differences with Islam, the critics of the Church won’t bother either. The first line of critics will be the atheists. The Church leadership’s automatic defense of Islam plays into the atheist contention that all religions march in lockstep. Atheists will argue that the Church protects Islam because it shares the same narrow-minded, supremacist, and misogynist views. Having gotten in the habit of emphasizing the similarities between Islam and Catholicism, Catholics must now face the downside of comparing their faith with the most destructive and oppressive religion on the planet.
And the backlash won’t be coming solely from the atheist amen corner. The Church’s Islam-friendly stance will begin to alienate other Christians (and a great many Catholics as well). A number of Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic friends and acquaintances have shared with me their dismay over the Vatican’s Islam policy. Similar sentiments have been expressed by various Christian columnists. Recently, Wheaton College in Illinois—the “Harvard of Evangelical Colleges”—suspended a professor for publicly declaring that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.” The people at Wheaton and other Evangelical colleges can’t be too happy about Catholic statements that we do worship the same God. Meanwhile, fundamentalist Christians are likely to be even more disenchanted. One of the distinctions Pope Francis does seem willing to make about religion is the distinction between authentic believers and “fundamentalists.” In his efforts to avoid offending mainstream Muslims, the Pope has delivered a back-handed insult to fundamentalist Christians. Judging by his statements, he seems to think that terrorists and Christian fundamentalists belong in more or less the same camp. And judging by other things he has said, the Pope seems to include many orthodox and traditional Catholics in the “fundamentalist” grouping.
Critics of the Vatican’s Islam policy don’t necessarily view the Church as a collaborator with Islam, but they see it as increasingly out of touch with reality. The overall objection to the Church’s stance is that it doesn’t comport with the evidence. Ordinary Christians who aren’t stuck with the task of defending a dubious narrative about Islam can see that there is a radical difference between the Christian faith and the religion of Islam. And they know that the blather about Islam being a religion of peace is sheer nonsense.
The result is that many Christians who are otherwise well-disposed toward the Catholic Church are losing confidence in the Church—at least in regard to the Islamic issue. At a time when the Christian world is looking for clear and forthright guidance, the Church’s leadership risks discrediting itself by continuing to identify the interests of Islam with its own interests.
Editor’s note: In the above photo, Pope Francis visits Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City on May 25, 2014. (Photo credit: AP)