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. Jeremy

    Adolph Hitler was not a Christian in any sense of the word. Please do some research on this man before making a comprehensive statement about his religious orientation.

    September 11, 2011 at 7:18 am |
    • apostate

      "My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them."

      September 11, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • Reed Crane

      Hitler was a Catholic, but Catholicsm is not a Christian religion

      September 11, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • shortie

      Did he also want to get rid of christians also?

      September 11, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
  2. Krishna Pendyala

    We see loss around us all the time, but it doesn't impact us unless we attach meaning to it. The value we attach determines how much pain we experience. If we shift our perspective, we can cope with loss without creating too much inner turmoil.

    Our experience with simple ice cubes can point us towards inner peace. To read more about this perspective http://krishnapendyala.wordpress.com/2011/09/10/celebrating-life-coping-with-death-ten-years-after-911

    September 11, 2011 at 12:37 am |
  3. RillyKewl

    I was ready to hate this article, and it turns out I was wrong. Its a good account of whats going on now.
    9/11 showed me what was wrong with religion. Atheists are the reasonable ones. If you like believing in a God, fine. Thats your business. But twisting your religion, or anybody else's, to justify your own hateful, fearful conclusions? Well, that just makes you a fool. Or worse...

    September 10, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
    • Jeremy

      I would like for you to elaborate on your statement: "The Atheists are the resonable ones". Please tell us all how Atheism is "reasonable".

      September 11, 2011 at 7:14 am |
    • apostate

      We don't have a need for imaginary friends.

      September 11, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  4. NYAkmed

    Islam is in a "Holy" war against Israel and the US. 9/11 really opened up the eyes of America to the craziness of the Qur'an and the twisted beliefs that many Muslims follow in the name of Mohammed. Islam will not stop until all have converted.

    September 10, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
  5. Blogson

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

    That has played well with supposed U.S. "Christians" who already were infused with the concept that God had ordained the U.S. to carry out their idea of "mission" worldwide. That "mission" generally has fused their distorted "Christianity" with capitalism and with worldwide domination. The reaction in target areas has been predictable, and the backlash in places such as Iraq actually has resulted in the persecution of Christians there.

    September 10, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • Bundro

      If you want to know the true face of Islam, you have to ask someone who grew up in a Muslim country, like myself. Islam is the most evil thing that happened to mankind. A "peaceful" muslim is either a deceiver or a muslim by name. The genuine muslim is the one who hates, kills, and destroys – according to the Koran – "prepare against them all the power you can, to terrorize the enemy of Allah and your enemy" (Qur'an:8:60). On the other hand, someone who hates or "crusades" and claims to be a Christian knows nothing about the Gospel. Christ's commandment is to deny yourself and carry your cross and follow Him (Luke 9:23)

      September 10, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
  6. Ihsan Khan

    Time to move on from hate and wars to building peace – Muslims the world over have nothing to do with such an act of hate and destruction that drove the 9/11 bombers.This attack has been used to falsely accuse our cherished religion of Islam – a religion of humanity. Terrorism is a crime and the perpetrators are not representatives of any faith, colour or race.

    September 10, 2011 at 4:24 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Any opinions on the Israeli Embassy attacks last night in Egypt?

      September 10, 2011 at 4:43 am |
    • 911truth

      Muslim is a religion of devil. World would be safer place without this religion.

      September 10, 2011 at 6:04 am |
    • chris

      so you believe israel has a right to exist? yeah,chaka khan....put up or shut. i spit on the koran and your pedophile leader mo.it's okay for you guys to burn bibles. i say we start burning your lies known as the koran.....go back to the middle east....oh, that's right....under muslim dictatorship...it kinda sucks.

      September 10, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • 4islam

      @ihsan khan well said!!! As for the comments....love to see you live in the middle east!!!!

      September 10, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
    • whatever

      To Chris who replied to Ihsan Khan's comment. You need to shup up and stop with your words of discrimination. Ihsan was just trying to make a point. Words of discrimination and hate is what drives all of us, as humans, crazy. Whether you are Muslim or not, religion shouldn't have to define acts of terrorism. Telling all Muslims whether in America or not is just plain rude. Learn your manners before telling a Muslim to go back to the Middle East. By the way, most Muslims are in Indonesia.

      September 10, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
    • Muna

      Islam is a religion of hatred? And what do you have to say abt the Christianity & the Christian who killed millions of Jews (HITLER) and the Christians who bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki & the Christians (BUSH) who destroyed 2 countries to revenge for two towers – even when the innocent Muslims of those 2 countries Afghanistan and Iraq had nothing at all to do with the EVIL twin tower attacks?

      I dont think hatred is associated with Islam or Christianity, it is present in some people who have nothing to do with religion.

      September 11, 2011 at 6:47 am |
    • Mariam

      I agree with Muna! It is time for chris to rethink who to spit on 🙂

      September 11, 2011 at 6:54 am |
  7. zzzz

    Religion is complicated.

    September 10, 2011 at 1:32 am |
    • squiddy79

      religion is what causes atrocities like 911 and so many others throughout time.

      September 10, 2011 at 9:43 am |
  8. octopuss

    "More Americans know about Islam than ever before, but that hasn't stopped the post-9/11 Muslim backlash..."

    Umm... why "BUT"?

    September 9, 2011 at 11:56 pm |
  9. CSX

    Interfaith is cool? Actually it is a dead faith, that missed the part about Sanctification. Why mettle or mix with false religions or Satan's counterfeits?

    September 9, 2011 at 11:28 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      >>>”Interfaith is cool? Actually it is a dead faith, that missed the part about Sanctification. Why mettle or mix with false religions or Satan's counterfeits?”

      So, how long have you been a member of The Westburo Baptist Church.. and where did you get that ultra cool 700 club bumper sticker on the back of your car. 🙂

      Interfaith is only not cool to those that want to see it destroyed. If you find yourself on the side opposed to people of diverse backgrounds finding peace and co-existence, then think of how many horrible folks agree with you. From Nazis to the Militant Black Panthers to Pat Robertson to Terry Jones.

      "There is only one God and He is God to all; therefore it is important that everyone is seen as equal before God. I’ve always said we should help a Hindu become a better Hindu, a Muslim become a better Muslim, a Catholic become a better Catholic. We believe our work should be our example to people. We have among us 475 souls – 30 families are Catholics and the rest are all Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs—all different religions. But they all come to our prayers." Mother Teresa

      September 10, 2011 at 4:40 am |
  10. dumb ppl

    Did anyone ever learn the expression "If you have nothing nice to say, DONT SAY IT AT ALL?" Seriously.....get a life!!!!

    September 9, 2011 at 11:20 pm |
    • Muna

      Very well said! 🙂

      September 11, 2011 at 6:49 am |



    September 9, 2011 at 11:13 pm |
    • CSX

      Here is the truth........

      September 9, 2011 at 11:31 pm |
  12. FedFraud

    9/11 = result of America's foreign policy. End of story.

    September 9, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
  13. Jason

    Jesus Christ was the son of God. He died on a cross for our sins. Read the Bible. Talk to Him. He does amazing things, but according to atheists.....those are what you call "coincidences". LOL

    September 9, 2011 at 10:27 am |
  14. The NetProphet

    I can find no where in the bible Where Jesus called his disciples to hate any one, He taught to forgive your those who hate you and to bless them that attack you. the exact words are in Matthew 5:44 " But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you." I am so sorry that the name of Jesus has been used by some Christians to further there own selfish desires. We who are followers of the teachings in the bible spend so much time not doing what the Lord clearly teaches. To the world I say stop hating each other and do good help those in need, feed people who are hungry, do good to all you meet, Jesus never spoke out against any one except to the religious people at that time and it is not any different now ! From Gods perspective we all are guilty of crimes against GOD and man. I pray that all people stop and think does hate, greed,selfishness solve any thing?
    And to the Christians ? can you really say that you are walking in the truth, when you lie cheat and steal or act like the world around you? we are called to be a light but yet we are no different that the rest of the world, is it any wonder the world see you as hypocrites Does not the Jesus warn about the "yeast of the Pharisees" in Luke 12:1 Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees which is hypocrisy!

    September 9, 2011 at 8:28 am |
  15. Carmen

    I go every day to Mass, I see now that Islam wants to destroy my values and religion, I follow knews about Islamisation of the West, I have cut with friends that are muslim, I pray more, and I see how blessed I am for being an American and believer of Jesus and His Mother.

    September 9, 2011 at 1:19 am |
    • Grimviolet

      Were you born a bigot or did you just, like, grow into it?

      September 9, 2011 at 6:14 am |
    • Syed

      I think he was born a bigot :\

      September 9, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • Surely

      No I think she/it contract RIV (Religion Incompetence Virus). It allows one to exist in a world their whole life without truely being born. Here's a bright idea, instead of being born again, why not try just growing up???

      September 9, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • 4islam

      @ Carmen...You follow the media about islam??? Sorry that is ur problem right there....and by the way, we love jesus too!

      September 9, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
    • levend

      We even going to mention the Norway terrorist? He was like you!

      September 9, 2011 at 9:07 pm |
  16. Jesus lover

    America is a Christian nation..... all other religion needs to get out !

    September 9, 2011 at 12:41 am |
    • Smile21

      No, actually, People like you need to get out.

      September 9, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • dumb ppl

      How christian of you!

      September 9, 2011 at 11:18 pm |
  17. Jason

    Why a cross, not any other religious symbol? Did only Christians die that day?

    September 9, 2011 at 12:10 am |
    • Subas

      Well said, n there were not only Americans who died that day!
      So much went unsaid and unseen but the countries that are still been affected due to the hatred for shown towards them know better.

      September 10, 2011 at 9:30 am |
    • shortie

      Because this is a Christian nation, that allows others to practice and believe what they want.

      September 11, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • Know What


      The U.S. is not a "Christian nation". It is a country of free and independent people, many of whom choose to practice the Christian religion.

      September 11, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  18. Abhishek

    On the 10th anniversary of the tragic and cowardly 9/11 attacks against the hapless citizens of the US in New York, I offer my deepest sympathies and prayers to the families who are still grieving over the loss of their near and dear ones

    May God continue to bless the United States of America

    September 8, 2011 at 11:45 pm |
    • Anne Prescott

      Thank you, thank you.

      September 9, 2011 at 1:13 am |
  19. Dean

    Every one of these things has something at least slightly positive to say, like how interfaith and tolerance in increasing, or how more people are learning about something that used to only be a subject that the unfortunate credit-lacking college student need study, except for the atheist section. religion has caused many bad things to happen, but it has also saved civilization countless times. after the roman empire collapsed, it was the church that held the people of Europe together, and it was the only source of stability for the region for hundreds of years. just because you don't believe in something doesn't mean you have to speak out against it and make it a mission to make the people who do hate you. i am not Jewish, but it doesn't mean i will have billboards made that say, "The Holocaust; the Jews had it coming." learn to be tolerant people.

    September 8, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
  20. SpiderCNN

    Stop the boring smoke screen of religion. Initiate investigation of 911. Stop Betrayal of your won country by passively ignoring the legitimate unanswered questions that exist surrounding 911.

    September 8, 2011 at 6:21 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.