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. The Dude

    I see Theists like I do smokers. When I see a religious person or a smoker I know I am dealing with someone with sub-par intelligence.

    September 4, 2011 at 12:29 am |
    • earth2loons

      The Dude
      Only an idiot would day something like that.

      September 4, 2011 at 12:37 am |
    • twiddly

      I'm an atheist and an ex-smoker. Religion and tobacco are both addictions, and both can be broken but not always easily.
      Arrogance and condescension will not help to combat either of these afflictions.
      Calling someone stupid only serves to close their mind more.
      If you have any real intelligence you will try to be more compassionate.

      September 4, 2011 at 12:44 am |
    • me

      Smoking and atheism have something in common – they tend to be more common among young people.

      September 4, 2011 at 12:48 am |
    • Dave836

      What a dumb comment...

      September 4, 2011 at 12:49 am |
    • jamesquall


      actually, atheism tends to be more common among educated people.

      September 4, 2011 at 12:52 am |
    • me

      jamesquall, atheism is emotional and psychological, just like fundamentalist religion. Young people think that it's cool. It has nothing to do with intelligence. More educated people will question religious dogma, but that doesn't equate with atheism. There may be a weak to mild correlation at best. I'm college educated, and I'm licensed to teach life science for middle and high school students. Before you ask, no, I don't teach intelligent design.

      September 4, 2011 at 12:56 am |
    • Carrey

      Oh my goodness that's awesome.

      September 4, 2011 at 1:08 am |
    • Dave836

      @jamesquall Actually agnostics and people with a faith are more educated than atheists. Atheists are more common among people with a high school education. But this could also be because atheists are more prevalent with younger people.

      Here's a short report on it. It's pretty interesting seeing how so many Atheists designate themselves "intellectually superior" to others...

      September 4, 2011 at 1:23 am |
    • tallulah13

      Here's another study that says the opposite, Dave.


      Frankly, with something this arbitrary you can find a study to support any opinion.

      September 4, 2011 at 1:40 am |
    • Jumper

      So most of the world is sub-par intelligence to you. . . nice. You managed to insult nearly everybody alive. Your arrogance is both appalling and laughable.

      September 4, 2011 at 1:54 am |
    • Julie

      what's wrong with you?

      September 4, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • harmonynoyes

      you so knowledgible,, you god or somethin'?

      September 4, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
  2. The Dude

    You know you are in a cult when you let its organizers diddle your children and you keep going back for more.

    September 4, 2011 at 12:27 am |
  3. aaaaa

    Islam is truly a disgusting belief system. Christianity is almost as bad. Nobody takes Judaism seriously, so no worries there.

    September 4, 2011 at 12:27 am |
  4. TheRationale

    "For one religious group to claim a monopoly on truth should be obsolete,"

    Then why the heck believe one thing or another?

    It's like there's a court case over who shot the other person first. You either have the monopoly on truth or you don't. It's the same with religions. They all claim to be the right one, and now we're saying...what?

    Such a waste of time. The simple answer is that none of them are real because none of them can show that they've got any sort of reasoning to back them up.

    September 4, 2011 at 12:26 am |
    • aaaaa

      Religion is a very poor tool for finding truth. Philosophy is a little better, but science delivers results.

      September 4, 2011 at 12:28 am |
    • Mr. Pelican Pants

      "Religion is a very poor tool for finding truth. Philosophy is a little better, but science delivers results."

      Oh please. Science can't decide from one week to the next whether eggs are healthy or deadly. And half of what science does succeed in creating is explosive.

      September 4, 2011 at 12:37 am |
  5. aaaaa

    Unless Islamism is eradicated, civilization will be destroyed.

    September 4, 2011 at 12:26 am |
    • Andre

      Unless ALL religions are eradicated, civilization is doomed.

      September 4, 2011 at 12:27 am |
    • Corse

      Unless sanity can be guaranteed, the human race will become extinct very soon.

      September 4, 2011 at 12:38 am |
    • Corse

      "very soon" meaning within a thousand years or so. My bad.

      September 4, 2011 at 12:39 am |
  6. Lenny Pincus

    BTW, according to GW, what was Bush's first thought after the 2nd plane hit? "Who the heck would do this to America?" How about the people they told you about one month before? Maybe them? Are you so dense that you were unaware that we had enemies? What a maroon. And you all who defend him?

    September 4, 2011 at 12:24 am |
  7. Amanpreet Kang

    Really speaking, I 'm not a muslim, hindu, christian, jew, persian, turkish, I don't follow buddism, not a korean, not an iraqi and all that stuff. I 'm a human. My question to CNN is " Why the 10th anniversary co-inside or deliberately co-inside with religion ??? CNN, please reply amanpree001@gmail.com.

    September 4, 2011 at 12:22 am |
  8. notreligious

    most people fall in middle.the problem is that the media and the talking religious heads portray Christianity and other major religions in such a negative light that it is a wonder why atheists and agnostics can't help but to attack those with faith. If all I saw on TV is yelling, judging, warring, images of "religious" people, I too would have a bitter taste in my mouth. But assumptions of many Christians and Muslims are wrong. Many of us are pretty secular. I actually don't go to church that often because I don't think you need to go to church to prove your love and faith . Neither do my Muslim friends. I go to church for community not to prove anything. I live my life that way, there's a difference. Not all of us are ignorant baffoons who refuse to accept anything other than creationism....or who shun gays....I'm all for the advancement of science...I accept gays...and I believe in evolution......but I'm a Christian. hmm....

    September 4, 2011 at 12:21 am |
    • Lenny Pincus

      Unfortunately, a large percentage of Christians would say you are not one of them. It's not the media, it's them.

      September 4, 2011 at 12:32 am |
    • nkrempa

      Please tell me then, if the "media" is at fault, why were my children persecuted during their primary and secondary school years for not regularly attending and identifying with some organized religion?? Our tiny area is home to about 9,000 people, but has approximately 20 different "churches." The town has three traffic lights altogether, but a church on every other street corner. For years, I had to deal with my children asking why we didn't go to such-and-such or so-and-so church... and why their friends couldn't play with them anymore because we didn't. Yeah, it's all the media and talking heads, right? NOT.

      September 4, 2011 at 12:51 am |
  9. BG

    Here's a little 'military' slide show, courtesy of Maj. Hasan.


    Check his recommendation on the last page.


    September 4, 2011 at 12:20 am |
  10. Will_H

    Once again this author is, like so many others, too afraid to question Islam. Nobody dares ask the question, "what if Islam really is bad?" And people also seem to think by saying Islam is bad, that means that all Muslims must be bad to. I think it's not the case at all. I know a few Muslims my self and they're nice people. However, I think the faith they follow can be dangerous. I also think the Catholic church is corrupt but that doesn't mean Catholics are. Separate people from the religion they follow and don't be afraid to take an honest, politically incorrect look at things.

    September 4, 2011 at 12:19 am |
    • Andre

      What if christianity really is bad ?

      September 4, 2011 at 12:26 am |
    • Lenny Pincus

      No, fundamentalism and the belief you have a direct line to God are what's bad, which makes some 15-20% of Americans borderline nuts. They seem to concentrate, oddly enough, in the Republican party.

      September 4, 2011 at 12:28 am |
  11. mydogsays

    9/11 definitely change my views on many things. Most of all I educated myself of the US's foreign policies and their use of FALSE FLAG OPERATIONS to use them as an excuse to invade Muslim countries in order to steal their natural resources. It has been scientifically proven that the three World Trade Center buildings that fell on 9/11 were brought down by explosives (controlled demolition). Don't scoff. Instead open your eyes and mind and visit Architects and Engineers For 9/11 Truth for the FACTS. Stop being the ridiculous government fairy tale. It's time to WAKE UP!

    September 4, 2011 at 12:16 am |
    • harmonynoyes

      don't believe everything you read, even if it's written by an architect

      September 4, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
    • Maani

      "Don't believe everything you read, even if it's written by an architect."

      Oh, so it's okay to believe everything you read only if it comes from the government and corporate-controlled media?

      You REALLY need to wake up...

      September 5, 2011 at 12:49 am |
  12. Lenny Pincus

    American exceptionalism–destroyed by the 19 hijackers? Really, 9/11 proves how vapid the exceptionalists and the Christianists really are. It gave both an opportunity to spew, and spew they did. For you wingers, consider the last 100 years of America: the robber barons, WW1 followed by the Roaring 20's, the great depression, WW2 followed by relative prosperity based on New Deal/GI Bill governmental support, Vietnam, 70's inflation and energy crisis, Reaganomics/Bush recessions, the tech bubble/Clinton persecution, 9/11 and the lost Bush years. Does that sound exceptional? The same dolts of the silent majority who bellowed "Love it or leave it" are now chanting "secession."

    September 4, 2011 at 12:16 am |
  13. Tim

    9/11 only changed the views of ignorant fools. Most of them just jumped at the chance to blame the Muslim faith, which is incredibly close to the old testament and Judaism. People with any intelligence understand that you can't blame over 1.5 Billion people for the actions of a few. If they want to, they should realize that every religion has had people do things that oppose the religion, in the name of that religion and some fools will always believe those few represent it. That said, plenty of people buy into the "all regligions are bad" view, because of how many weirdos that are ignorant and say and do bad things claim they are of those faiths, including wars. That's not actually true entirely, since those still oppose what those faiths teach and it's still an action of men (not what is taught). Point is, bad people find excuses to make things look bad, so long as there are ignorant people that will be convinced those bad people represent that faith. End of story. Good and bad people are both religious and agnostic.

    September 4, 2011 at 12:07 am |
  14. Diane

    Is the author of this article serious? Does he really believe this drivel he has written?

    September 4, 2011 at 12:06 am |
    • Corse


      September 4, 2011 at 12:41 am |
  15. Just the Facts


    September 4, 2011 at 12:06 am |
    • Tim

      A link to someone's personal wordpress blog? Seriously? Clearly, that proves it doesn't take anything to convince stupid people of ridiculous and irrational views as being well founded. Moreover, that in spite if that initial weak evidence, people will argue it for years, until they are dead in the ground believing it, all because it better suits an underlying issue or prejudice.

      September 4, 2011 at 12:10 am |
  16. Shawn Irwin

    "They adopted one form of religious extremism while condemning another" Exactly.

    "Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile." Kurt Vonnegut – Author of "The Burden of Guilt". Kurt Vonnegut wrote about and understood the causes of the rise of Adolf Hitler. Hitler advocated belief in god, invoked god, and even prayed in some of his speeches.

    While at times, atheism seems correct, I mostly consider myself an agnostic, in the form described by Thomas Henry Huxley . . . for some athiests are just as bad as the christians . . . they claim to know . . . that which is unknowable.

    September 4, 2011 at 12:03 am |
    • mike

      To be an atheist, you don't have to "claim" to know. Sure, some atheist do it, but they bug even other atheists. Fact is, Agnosticism and Atheism are not mutually exclusive. Most atheists, such as my self, and even Richard Dawkins, do not believe in any gods at the current time. That's it. That's the part that makes us atheist. But we're also agnostic in that we don't claim to know, as the concept of god is contestable. You'll hear Dawkins use words like "probably", but he'll never say "There are no gods, at all". So basically, if you don't currently believe in any gods, but you also don't claim to know with 100% certainty, you're both agnostic and atheist. I'm both. Dawkins is both. Most of the people on the Atheism subreddit are both.

      September 4, 2011 at 12:24 am |
    • Allan

      I am afraid that I shall be unblae to play at the Paignton Congress, which is most frustrating. I should like nothing better than to match wits with Michael Adams, because there is nothing like learning from the best. I know he would obliterate me. I would pay good money for the privilege of being obliterated by Michael Adams.

      May 19, 2012 at 7:57 am |
  17. glu

    You 2 should be shot.

    September 4, 2011 at 12:03 am |
  18. C'mon

    Why is the the religion blog an atheist circle jerk?

    September 4, 2011 at 12:02 am |
    • Atheist

      Didn't you read the article? It is because "They [we] got loud." Move to another country Jesus boy.

      September 4, 2011 at 12:17 am |

      good one

      September 4, 2011 at 12:23 am |

      Because they feel this strange inner guilt, this emptyness that is constantly trying to be filled, wether it be materialism or congregating on the Belief Blog on CNN. Hopefully one day, they will realize that it is God calling, urging them to come home.

      September 4, 2011 at 12:25 am |
    • jamesquall

      what is with these ironic CNN screen names? i feel no "inner guilt", i feel no emptiness mentally, and im pretty sure an abrahamic god of war isn't calling me to "come home". now please, if it truly makes you happy, continue to base your life on an iron age myth that offers nothing mental enslavement. otherwise, do yourself a favor and, THINKKKK!!!!

      September 4, 2011 at 12:45 am |
    • Awkward Situations

      What's the equivalent to a circle jerk for females? Let's be fair here.

      September 4, 2011 at 9:22 am |
  19. hAHAA

    they didnt even mention how it made the world hate muslims

    September 4, 2011 at 12:00 am |
  20. Momwithaplan

    This story enrages me. We ARE THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and we should not SETTLE for being "just another country who has to live with this crap". Wake up people, you say these things but you enjoy the life that the good ol' USA has given you. We are who we are because of what we are-never settle. And as a small aside to PhilG-ummmm, we bankrupted America with the ingenious idea of spending trillions of dollars for NADA-got tired of keeping count of the "green jobs" companies that have gone bankrupt with our (that means mine and yours, not Obama's) money-nicely done Prez, take another bow and get the heck out of town-your damage is done.

    September 3, 2011 at 11:59 pm |
    • ryan

      well said!

      September 4, 2011 at 12:17 am |
    • Andre

      America is a pile of sh1t.

      September 4, 2011 at 12:25 am |
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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.