This morning’s Age and SMH lead with reports on a special survey on the famous “clash of civilisations” thesis.

The results are very positive. Large majorities in most countries believe that “common ground can be found between the Muslim and Western cultures”, and that conflict between the two was the fault of “intolerant minorities on both sides”. People were more inclined to blame tensions on “conflicts about political power and interests” than on “differences in culture and religion”.

That’s encouraging, and almost certainly true. But a different perspective on the clash of civilisations, only briefly reported, came from an ACNielsen study released last week on attitudes to marriage. It shows a real cultural divide, but not quite where you might expect.

Worldwide, 70% were reported saying that marriage is “for life”, with 60% saying it was one of their lifetime goals. That included large majorities in Asian and Muslim countries, and also in the United States.

But not in Europe, where fewer than half said marriage was a lifetime goal, and 77% said “a stable, long term relationship is as good as marriage” — a position rejected in most of Asia, as well as the US.

Further evidence of the widening gap between Europe and America showed up in attitudes to such topics as religion, science and capital punishment. Consider also the European position on the CIA’s practice of “extraordinary rendition” for terrorism suspects, over which a number of US agents have now been charged in Italy.

America’s cultural ties link it to Europe, but an unholy combination of fundamentalist religion and unprincipled leaders seems to be dragging it away from Europe’s secular and enlightened traditions. Let’s hope that process can be stopped before a real clash of civilisations sets in.

Peter Fray

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