In the wake of the tragic Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, the Public Religion Research Institute (PPRI) called attention to a 2011 survey they conducted, which found that Americans generally give Christianity the benefit of the doubt when it comes to violence carried out for religious motives. According to the survey, Americans are much less likely to accord Islam the same benefit of the doubt when Muslim adherents carry out violence in the name of Allah.
“More than 8-in-10 (83 percent) Americans say that self-proclaimed Christians who commit acts of violence in the name of Christianity are not really Christians,” says PPRI. “In contrast, less than half (48 percent) of Americans say that self-proclaimed Muslims who commit acts of violence in the name of Islam are not really Muslims.” To the powers-that-be at PPRI, this represents a “double standard when evaluating violence committed by self-identified Christians and Muslims.” While PPRI may see a “double standard” in the survey, I would argue that such a disparaging comment regarding American public opinion is unwarranted.
Let me first say that I do not hold all Muslims responsible for violence carried out in the name of Islam. Almost every time a violent act is carried out by a self-professed Muslim, there are a rash of retaliatory attacks against Muslims by people who fail to (or who refuse to) make similar distinctions. Most Muslims live their lives in peace and do not support terrorism. And many Islamic leaders have appropriately condemned what happened at the offices of Charlie Hebdo.
While I do not blame Islam as a whole for the violence carried out under its banner, I nevertheless reject the insinuation (often made at times like these) that Christianity is equally responsible for its own share of violence and extremism. And I utterly reject the intellectually lazy and rhetorically tired accusation that religion “in general” is to blame for such atrocities as what we just witnessed in France. This tendency to lump all religions together and blame them all en masse for incidents like the Charlie Hebdo shootings should be rejected. And what PPRI sees as a “double standard” in its 2011 survey of the American public is encouragement (at least to me) that such a rejection is taking place.
The PPRI conclusion that Americans have a “double standard” rests upon the unsubstantiated premise that all religions are basically the same. If all religions are the same, then it would be arbitrary and unfair to hold one religion more responsible for violence and/or extremism than any other religion. The premise, however, is patently absurd, and (if the PPRI survey is indication) it would seem most Americans understand this. Most people who spend any time considering religions recognize very quickly the following irrefutable fact: All religions are not the same. What’s more, not all religious beliefs are created equal. Sure, the world’s various religions overlap in some of their beliefs (the supernatural is real, there is an afterlife, good deeds are preferable to bad deeds, etc.), but they also make mutually exclusive and wholly contradictory claims. Christianity, for example, maintains that Jesus is the Son of God. Islam says he was merely a prophet. Christianity says Jesus was crucified for our sins and then rose from the dead. Islam says Jesus never even died on the cross! The point is that Islam and Christianity, like the other religions of the world, embrace beliefs that are quite often irreconcilable. While it may be popular to say “all religions are basically the same,” it’s simply not accurate to do so.
A variation of the sloppy “all religions are basically the same” supposition is that violence and/or extremism should be laid at the doorstep of religion in general. In other words, extremism is the culprit and all religions must accept equal responsibility for such extremism, especially that which leads to violence or terrorism. Once again, this argument – though often heard – is fallacious and frankly incoherent. It would be like saying “science” is responsible for the barbaric experiments many Nazi doctors and scientists conducted on Jews during the Holocaust. Science was not responsible for that. Hitler and his Nazi regime were responsible for those evil acts, among many others. Yes, a great many despicable things have been done in the names of various religions over the years, but that hardly merits a blanket attack on all religious adherents. Once again, not all religions are the same.
The reason why Americans, by and large, give the benefit of the doubt to Christianity when it comes to surveys like the one conducted by PPRI is because of the founder of Christianity. Most Americans are at least remotely familiar with the teachings of Jesus (“Love your neighbor,” “Love your enemies,” “Do good to them who persecute you,” “Go therefore and teach…” as opposed to “Go and slay the infidel,” and so forth). And anyone who is at least remotely familiar with Jesus’ teachings immediately sees the disconnect between Jesus and an abortion clinic bomber or some other terrorist claiming Jesus’ name. When someone commits a hateful or violent act, while naming Jesus, that person sets himself (by his actions) apart from the legacy of Jesus — and most people recognize this intuitively and immediately. Thus, the reason most Americans believe true Christianity isn’t to blame for most of the violence committed in the name of Christianity is because of the legacy of Christianity’s founder.