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France's atheism explains the difference

Reader comment on item: Weak Brits, Tough French

Submitted by Sean H. (United States), Jul 13, 2005 at 16:59

That was an interesting and very well-done -- not to mention counter-intuitive -- piece on the French and British reactions to militant Islam. But I think Dr. Pipes may be missing one explanation for the difference: France's post-WWII evolution from a Catholic country to a militantly atheistic one. It's more willing to crackdown on religious radicals than the U.S. or England because it is much more hostile to religion in general.

For example, when France banned the headscarf it banned crucifixes and skullcaps as well, arguing that any religious symbol in public was offensive. Of course the ban was aimed mainly at Muslims, but the broadness of the ban enabled France's leaders to plausibly argue that they were not singling any one religion out.

The U.S. by contrast has a vibrant and diverse religious culture which makes any effort to limit or target religious groups inherently difficult. For example, as Pipes notes on his blog, the prosecutor in the Virginia case of Ali al-Timimi had to walk a tightrope to claim that the case was not based on religious bigotry.

The strength of Christian and Jewish groups in the U.S. may provide a bulwark against Islamism generally but their existence ironically also places limits on what law enforcement can do because religion has a special place under U.S. law.

Britain has the worst of both worlds. It has an official church, but an exceptionally weak one, with few and mostly aging worshippers and clerical leaders who seem to value tolerance and diversity above religious devotion. The result is a culture terrified of appearing intolerant towards any religion but lacking any serious faith of its own.

It's hardly surprising that religious extremism is flourishing in this environment. What's to stop it?

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