Four ways 9/11 changed America's attitude toward religion
Construction workers move steel beam pulled from ground zero rubble into its permanent home at the 9/11 Memorial Museum.
September 3rd, 2011
10:00 PM ET

Four ways 9/11 changed America's attitude toward religion

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) - David O'Brien couldn't help himself. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, he became obsessed.

O'Brien read the stories of 9/11 victims over and over, stunned by what he was discovering.

He read about the firefighters who marched up the smoke-choked stairwells of the World Trade Center, though many knew they could die; the beloved priest killed while giving last rites as the twin towers collapsed; the passengers on hijacked planes who called their families one last time to say, "I love you."

"I was obsessed with these stories," says O'Brien, a Catholic historian at the University of Dayton in Ohio. "There were so many stories of self-sacrifice, not just by the first responders, but by people fleeing the building. There was this revelation of goodness."

O'Brien saw an Easter message in 9/11 - good rising out of the ashes of evil. Yet there were other religious messages sent that day, and afterward, that are more troubling, religious leaders and scholars say.

September 11 didn't just change America, they say. It changed the nation's attitude toward religion. Here are four ways:

1: A chosen nation becomes a humbled one.

One man died because he arrived early to work. A woman died because she decided to take a later flight. The arbitrary nature of some of the deaths on 9/11 still sticks with many Americans today.

Yet this is what life is like for billions of people on the planet today, some religious leaders say. A random event - a car bomb, a stray bullet - can end their lives at any minute.

Most Americans had not lived with this vulnerability until 9/11, says Mathew Schmalz, a religion professor at the College of the Holy Cross  in Massachusetts, who once lived in Karachi, Pakistan.

"We had this sense of specialness and invulnerability that 9/11 shattered," he says. "Given that a large section of the world's population deals with random violence every day, one of the outcomes of 9/11 should be a greater feeling of solidarity with people who live in cities like Karachi in which violence is a part of everyday life."

Recognizing that vulnerability, though, is difficult for some Americans because of how they see their country, Schmalz and others say.

They say Americans have long had a triumphalist view of their place in history. Certain beliefs have been engrained: Tomorrow will always be better; we're number one. The term "American" even reflects a certain arrogance. It casually discounts millions of people living in Central and Latin America.

The 9/11 attacks, though, forced many Americans to confront their limitations, says Rev. Thomas Long, a nationally known pastor who has been active in post 9/11 interfaith efforts.

"We're losing the power of the American empire and becoming more a nation among nations," says Long, a religion professor at Emory University in Atlanta. "The world is a much more dangerous and fragile place economically."

How Americans cope with their loss of power is ultimately a theological question, Long says. It's the same question the ancient Hebrews confronted in the Old and New Testaments when they faced national calamities.

The chosen people had to learn how to be humble people, Long says. Americans face the same test today.

"The challenge for every faith tradition is going to be helping people grieve the loss of an image of America that they once had," he says, "and acquire a modern understanding of ourselves on the world's stage."

2: The re-emergence of "Christo-Americanism."

Before 9/11, if you asked the average American about Ramadan or sharia law, they probably would have given you a blank look.

Not anymore. The 9/11 attacks prompted more Americans to learn about Islam. Books on the subject became best-sellers. Colleges started offering more courses on Islam. Every cable news show suddenly had their stable of "Muslim experts."

More Americans know about Islam than ever before, but that hasn't stopped the post-9/11 Muslim backlash. The outrage over plans to build an Islamic prayer and community center near ground zero; the pastor who threatened to burn the Quran; conservative Christian leaders who called Islam evil - all occurred as knowledge of Islam spread throughout America, scholars says.

"One of the sobering lessons of the decade since 9/11 is that religious prejudice is not always rooted in raw ignorance," says Thomas Kidd, author of "American Christians and Islam."

"Some of America's most vociferous anti-Muslim critics know quite a lot about Muslim beliefs, but they often use their knowledge to construe Islam in the worst possible light."

Many of these public attacks against Islam were encouraged by conservative Christian leaders such as Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of Rev. Billy Graham, who called Islam "wicked," and Pat Robertson, the Christian broadcaster who declared that "Islam is not a religion," says Charles Kammer, a religion professor at the College of Wooster in Ohio.

Kammer says Graham and Robertson helped fuel the rise of "Christo-Americanism," a distorted form of Christianity that blends nationalism, conservative paranoia and Christian rhetoric.

"A segment of the religious community in the United States has been at the forefront of an anti-Islamic crusade that has helped to generate a climate of hatred and distrust toward all Muslims," says Kammer.

Other strains of Christo-Americanism have swept through America before.

After 9/11, some political leaders said terrorists hated the U.S. because of "our freedoms." But America's record on granting those freedoms to its citizens is mixed, says Lynn Neal, co-editor of the book, "Religious Intolerance in America."

In the 19th century, the U.S government passed numerous laws preventing Native American tribes from practicing their religion. Mormons were persecuted. Roman Catholics were once described as disloyal, sexual deviants, Neal says.

"Religious intolerance is not a new feature of the American landscape. Despite being the most religiously diverse nation on earth, despite having a first amendment that protects religious rights...we as a nation and as citizens have often failed to live up to those ideas."

3: Interfaith becomes cool.

Interfaith dialogue - it's not the type of term that makes the heart beat faster.

Before 9/11, interfaith efforts were dismissed as feel-good affairs that rarely got media coverage. The 9/11 attacks changed that.

Interfaith events spread across the country. Mosques and temples held joint worship services. Every college campus seemed to have an interfaith dialogue. The Obama White House launched a college interfaith program.

Becoming an interfaith leader is now hip, some say.

"A generation of students is saying that they want to be interfaith leaders, just like previous generations said they wanted to be human rights activists or environmentalists," says Eboo Patel, who founded the Interfaith Youth Core in 2002.

Patel says at least 250 colleges have signed up for the White House interfaith program, which he helped design. The program encourages students of different faiths to work together on service projects.

"These young leaders will make interfaith cooperation a social norm in America, similar to multiculturalism and volunteerism," Patel says.

These new leaders include people like Sarrah Shahawy, a Muslim-American medical student at Harvard University and the daughter of Egyptian immigrants.

After 9/11, Shahawy says she felt the responsibility to educate people about Islam. She became an interfaith leader at the University of Southern California,  where she noticed a steady increase in student participation in the years after the attacks.

Shahawy says her generation is drawn to interfaith efforts because 9/11 showed the destructive potential of any exclusive claims to religious truth. The 9/11 hijackers carried out their attacks in the name of Islam, but Muslim religious leaders and scholars said that the terrorists' actions did not reflect Islamic teachings.

"For one religious group to claim a monopoly on truth should be obsolete," she says. The interfaith movement doesn't teach people that all religions are the same, she says.

Shahawy calls herself a proud Muslim. "But for me, there's beauty and truth to be found in many different religions."

4: Atheists come out of the closet.

There's one group, however, that sees little beauty in any religion.

Before 9/11, many atheists kept a low profile. Something changed, though, after 9/11. They got loud.

Atheist leaders such as Richard Dawkins, author of "The God Delusion," and Sam Harris, author of "The End of Faith," wrote best-selling books. Atheist groups launched national media campaigns with bold billboard messages such as "Christmas is a myth."

The pugnacious journalist Christopher Hitchens became the public face of a more combative form of atheism as he went on talk shows and lectures to defend not believing in God.

Criticism of all religion, not just fanatical cults, was no longer taboo after 9/11, says Daniel Dennett, a philosophy professor with Tufts University in Massachusetts.

"Atheist-bashing is now, like gay-bashing, no longer an activity that can be indulged in with impunity by politicians or commentators," Dennett says.

Atheists were driven to become more vocal because of the 9/11 attacks and America's reaction, says David Silverman, president of American Atheists. He says many atheists were disgusted when President George W. Bush and leaders in the religious right reacted to the attack by invoking "God is on our side" rhetoric while launching a "war on terror."

They adopted one form of religious extremism while condemning another, he says.

"It really showed atheists why religion should not be in power. Religion is dangerous, even our own religion," Silverman says.

Atheists are still the most disparaged group in America, but there's less stigma attached to being one, he says.

"The more noise that we make, the easier it us to accept us," Silverman says. "Most people know atheists now. They knew them before, but didn't know they were atheists."

Many Americans knew the people who perished on 9/11 as well, but they didn't know they were heroes until later, says David O'Brien, the Catholic historian who compulsively read the 9/11 obituaries.

O'Brien was so moved by the stories he read that he decided to write an essay for America magazine, a national Catholic weekly, entitled, "9/11 Then and Now."

He wrote: On 9/11, "Our people, my people, were tested and, for a shining moment ... they were found worthy."

He said many 9/11 victims didn't panic as their end drew near. They "thought not of themselves, but others ... when the chips were down." They saw themselves not as individuals, but as members of a "single human family."

So should we, he says, as we face new challenges 10 years later. The 9/11 victims aren't just heroes; they're our guides for the future, he says.

"The story is not over, not by a long shot," O'Brien wrote. "Look at all the love that day. Love can still write another chapter and keep hope alive for a better future. The meaning of 9/11 lies ahead, and it's in our hands, and maybe in our hearts.'

- CNN Writer

Filed under: 9/11 • Atheism • Christianity • Faith • Interfaith issues

soundoff (2,180 Responses)
  1. Garry

    Intolerance fanned to hate and violence is the real culprit. Human beings are going to differ; there has always been differences. The solution is not to out blame and shame each other but just accept that fact. We hold diverse beliefs and we need to respect that reality. Ideology or religion or belief or lack of belief can all be turned into a platform for intolerance, hatred and violence. But, hopefully, more of us humans are coming to a real tolerance of diversity regardless of difference. Forming new 'tribes' (with whatever label we call ourselves) which seek to 'destroy' the other is not the answer. Nonviolence, respect and tolerance is what is needed.

    September 4, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  2. SDM

    "Criticism of all religion, not just fanatical cults"....

    All religions ARE fanatical cults!!....

    September 4, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  3. Sal

    Kimsland, don't you recognize an icon or symbol when you see it girl?  I don't need MWBytes.

    September 4, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
    • kimsland

      Then you need clarity in your life
      Religion is ignorance

      September 4, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
  4. Idol Girl

    My beliefs were changing even before 9/11 happened. I've become more liberal and now identify as an agnostic deist.

    I believe that the existence of God is unknowable, but I want to believe that there is something bigger than us.

    Any God that does exist would have to require me to question him in the absence of absolute knowledge of his existence, and I am here to question rather than be lead like sheep blindly by the wolves.

    September 4, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • Idol Girl

      I think the whole point of religion, which is to be spiritual in nature and lead a good life, has been taken too literally and now broken down into relics, miracles and prohpecies.

      September 4, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
  5. Erik12874

    Man made God, God did not make man. Religion is the direct result of ignorance and mental weakness and fear. It has been the cause of over 90% of all of the wars and conflicts in history. It was devised to control people that were poor and weak minded that had no where to turn. All of the ridiculous comments above proves that. Religion breeds hate and hypocrisy. If you are a good person and strive to help others and not yourself than that is all that matters. Anyone that believes in religions of any kind are a danger to me and our society.

    September 4, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • kimsland

      Best comment so far

      September 4, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • Geeman

      Well said...

      September 4, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  6. Sal

    What spam pics are you talking about? Are you a member of the internet police? 

    September 4, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • kimsland

      Do a free updated Malwarebytes scan Sal,

      September 4, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
  7. Religious Sects

    "Atheist ... sees little beauty in any religion" ... "They got loud" Wow, how prejudicial are those statements!?
    911 was a wake up call to how insane and actually dangerous unchecked religion can truly be. Atheists just realized that keeping silent has consequences too!

    September 4, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • Nah

      religious: '911 was a wake up call to how insane and actually dangerous unchecked religion can truly be. Atheists just realized that keeping silent has consequences too!"

      What does this even mean?

      Are you proposing that people who are religious should be silenced or kicked out of politics?

      Should the government also prohibit what is politically unorthodox? Different? Scary or unknown?

      How tolerant and open minded of you.

      September 4, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • Religious Sects

      Nah .. sorry you didn't understand my statement, it seems all you really wanted to do was attempt an insult. Your response is more of a fruedian statement your your intolerance.
      I wasn't proposing anything, just pointing out that Atheists, like the religious, can not keep silent about what they feel is right.
      You need to try harder to comprehend what's being stated minus your paranoia.

      September 4, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
  8. Sal

    Religion is a crutch, but that in itself isn't a bad thing. If it helps a person cope then it is good and beneficial. 

    September 4, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • kimsland

      And stop posting those silly spam pics

      September 4, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • Religious Sects

      Sal .. opinion, followed by a fair statement... nothing wrong with that!!

      September 4, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  9. Human Bondage

    Jesus was the biggest lie ever sold.

    September 4, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • kimsland

      There are still people called jesus in the mid east, its a common name, then and now.
      He must have been smart, but not the son of god, that's just ridiculous.

      September 4, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  10. Brian

    People need to stop acting like this one was a lone solitary event that has somehow transformed all the people in the country and will forever be a marker of change. This is simple a culimination of previous events that simply manifested intself into a bigger explosion (pun not intended). To think that this event will have such a lifelong impact on the ancient religions is arrogance at best and hybris at worse.

    September 4, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  11. jdrfks

    Religion is man's view. Look to Jesus Christ. He will set you free. Read John 3:16.

    September 4, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • TB

      Cooking is everyone's view. Look to Jesus Gonzalez. He will set you up. Read: Cooking with the Seasons at Rancho La Puerta: Recipes from the World-Famous Spa

      September 4, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  12. Sal

    Yeah my god can beat up your god..........

    September 4, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  13. Dennis

    The difference between athiest and agnostics is that they base their lives on what is real. Not dogmatic faith in miracles and fantasy.
    Religions brainwash people to the point they can't tell the difference, looking for answers that are unknowable. Have you ever ask yourself why there are so many religions?

    September 4, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • Chris

      Agnostics are just atheists without the gonads to admit it. An agnostic wants to be able to say " well yeh there might be a god somewhere, but it is not relevant to me". It's like placing an amount of money on a certain team to win then the same amount for the team to lose. Whenever atheists have obtained absolute power only dictatorship, loss of freedoms and millions of deaths have occurred. Like Stalin and atheist communism, Mao in China, Pol Pot in Cambodia, and the Kim's in North Korea. Hitler took atheist evolution to it's ultimate goal.

      September 4, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  14. raymon


    Isn't it funny how people always make it about religion vs. atheists... both are often focus on HATE...Anger...Bitterness... Greed.. Self Absorption... everything that Jesus stood against... He stood for Love..Joy, Peace, Patience , Kindness, Gentleness, Faithfulness, Goodness and "SELF CONTROL"... and was Crucified by the "religious" people of His day... Christianity in the world for the most part is a Fraud... Christian used to mean being like Christ... in which I have never heard anyone say His morals were wrong... Now at best especially in America it means "Oh Yeah I like christ" (small c)... I even use it as a cuss word... If the world would just live like Jesus said to, everyone would get along... no one would do without... there wouldn't be all the lies of what the world calls christianity or muslim or atheists... True Christianity is about being Honest with yourself... without pride or ego... about putting "EVERYONE ELSE" before your"SELF"... making sure that no one does without... giving all you have expecting nothing in return... but this World doesn't like TRUTH... most care of no one but themselves... A False sort of Freedom that is destroying mankind... Jesus is about TRUTH... about TRUE LOVE... about a RELATIONSHIP not religion (of any kind)... but that is not what the world wants... they like Hate, Evil, Violence, War...just look at the Movies that make the most money... the violence of kids video games... and especially the BLAME GAME... "It's His/Her Fault"... if people had to be Honest they would be lost... Most every religion on this planet claims Jesus as someone of importance... even science acknowledges Him... So why are people so afraid of what He really stands for... because they do want to face the Truth that He said would set them free... yet isn't that what we all are looking for ?

    September 4, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • kimsland

      I agree, religion made being christian a bad name.
      Since they are now both associated, we must rid the world of all this religious stuff

      September 4, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  15. Sal

    But how would we have morals and values", well in answer to your question you don't need religion to be taught to become a good, honest and decent person. It's up to the parents to teach their children well. 

    September 4, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  16. alan

    My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev.19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? Lev.24:10-16. Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

    September 4, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • Redneck louie

      is one of them crops corn
      i likes my corn squeezed onct you oft em will ya fix me up with some squeezins al

      September 4, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  17. LarryMoniz

    The amazing hypocrisy is that almost every nation claims to have god on its side when it wages war. And: More people have been killed in holy wars than by all the diseases and vehicular accidents in the history of this planet.

    September 4, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • Shahmir Sanni

      That's a MASSIVELY bold statement, is it not?

      September 4, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  18. James

    The increase of Atheism is wonderful news. It means Americans are finally growing up and putting away childish things, like Santa Claus and his sidekick Jesus. It would be nice to live in a world where the religious nut jobs aren't constantly banging the war drums!

    September 4, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
  19. alan

    Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?

    September 4, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • Redneck louie

      how many folks you aimin to kill al

      September 4, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • alan

      just having fun redneck. i drank a whole pot of coffee this morning!!

      September 4, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • James

      Oh I am sure the Religious nut jobs don't care how he dies, they just want to be there to watch, like in the Dark Ages when the Christians Ruled the World. They tortured and murdered anyone who didn't accept their Jesus (think of Cheney on steroids) as entertainment! Want to know what America would be like if it were ruled by the Christians? Study the Dark Ages or ask Dick Cheney, I think he was there! Then you will understand why I cringe when I hear Candidates talk about their delusional beliefs in the God of the Dark Ages!

      September 4, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • captain america

      Are you aware ,sir, that you are slandering a former Vice President of this great country?

      September 4, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • Grampa Moses

      When you say America, "captain america", be damn sure you CAPITALIZE America you low-down piece of filth!
      Cheney is one of the worst disgustingly pathetic human beings ever to walk on this planet. He sucks the big one.
      That's not slander. That's the unvarnished truth.
      If you want to argue for America, you little piece of trash, you'd better learn to capitalize America or look the fool you are.
      Good thing for you I can't kick your ass from here. You'd feel it. You'd feel it good.

      September 4, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • captain america

      @grandpa moses
      bite me grandpa

      September 4, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  20. John10:10

    My theology will never change: Jesus Christ is alive.

    September 4, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • James

      Next time you talk to him, tell him he left his bones in a crypt in Jerusalem. He must be having a heck of time walking.

      September 4, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • Grampa Moses

      Jesus is dead. DEAD!
      His rotten filthy bones are well-hidden. You will never find them now. His bones are safe from the likes of you at least.

      September 4, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • herbert juarez

      I'm with you John! Hey ,James , habeas corpus...produce the body!

      September 4, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.