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. emirzad

    no wonder hundreds of thousands of americans, majority women, having read quran (koran) and known what actually Islam stands for accepted it as their way of life.

    September 4, 2011 at 6:08 am |
    • emirzad

      This is after tragic incident of 9/11 and despite fully paid smearing Islamophobia campaign rampant in the country. Find out what Islam is by what Koran says yourself and not what CNN/FOX says. At least politeness begets further politeness, unreasonable disrespect is even better so we may forgive.

      September 4, 2011 at 6:11 am |
    • BlackSheep

      The quran, torah and the bible all say, murder non-believers.

      September 4, 2011 at 6:20 am |
  2. isis1moon

    are you two hooking up, or what!?

    September 4, 2011 at 6:07 am |
  3. samuel

    Some dictators control some of the people; religious dictators control all of the people, in the name of religion and God.
    An scorpion sitting on the bank of the river, thinking how to cross it, he sees a frog and asked him if it will be kind enough to give him a ride to the other side of the river, the frog answers to the scorpion, but you will sting me, and the scorpion answered , I will not, if I sting you I will die, so the frog being naive believes to the scorpion and agrees to carry him on his back, middle of the river the scorpion stinged the frog, and the poor frog asked the scorpion , you promised me, that you will not sting me, now both of us we will die, and the scorpion answered to him, I know I will die, but I cannot help my action, ITS IN MY BLOOD TO STING YOU. The moral of this story is , no matter how the west believes, trusts, thinks that there are good Muslims, they are wrong, they will ride on them to get where they want and even half the way they will sting them, it’s just in their blood, Wake up west.

    September 4, 2011 at 6:04 am |
  4. Airmail56

    So, your conclusion is: Islam should hate & attack the West, and we should understand; however if we defend ourselves, or get angry, we are just hateful and racist?

    Islam has been attacking America since the 1780's

    It is not our fault they hate us.

    Please free yourself from the 'blame America first' mindset.

    September 4, 2011 at 5:56 am |
    • MIkeH


      September 4, 2011 at 6:18 am |
  5. Ron

    God is dead, can we please stop killing in his name?

    September 4, 2011 at 5:54 am |
    • MIkeH

      Hate to break the news Ron, but He's not. Even if He was people would simply find something else to kill over, God has nothing to do with it. Fear, arrogance, greed and oppression do.

      September 4, 2011 at 6:20 am |
  6. Jman

    Good people do bad things and bad people do good things. We are all the same, religious or not.

    September 4, 2011 at 5:30 am |
    • harmonynoyes

      we are not all the same

      September 4, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  7. Jman

    I believe JESUS CHRIST was a prophet and the Son of God. I don't care what you believe, but this is my belief. Awesome.

    September 4, 2011 at 5:29 am |
  8. Sassan

    As the great American physicist and Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg has said, "With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion".

    September 4, 2011 at 5:21 am |
    • Airmail56

      So, for the evil to do good things takes a miracle?

      September 4, 2011 at 6:01 am |
    • MIkeH

      and smart though he may be, I don't think I will consult a theoretical physicist on the intricacies of religion and more than I would consult my MD on problems with my car.

      September 4, 2011 at 6:24 am |
  9. Enlightenment

    The INTERNET killed YOUR favorite RELIGION

    September 4, 2011 at 5:19 am |
  10. Gypsy Roots

    As a scientifically Minded Agnostic/Atheists can I say that some of these other atheists on this board need to chill out. Attacking Religious people is pathetic and just becuase you and I do not find validity in their beliefs does not mean its ok to belittle these people. If you expect to be taken seriously or be accepted for our lack in their beliefs the answer is not to run down their beliefs or call them backwards or whatever, it's just further divides us as a people.

    Next To the religious out, there, I know your beliefs, I have read the Bible, The Quaran, Buddha's Treatise's and so on. You telling me about how I am gonna go to hell is not going to work. I respect you beliefs or more importantly your right to have you beliefs, just quit trying to shove them down my throat or tell me how evil I am for choosing not to believe in your particular beliefs.

    9/11 was horrible, more so I think for us that were there and saw it and tried to help with the cleanup, but I understand how scared every became and how they turned to those things which they find comfort in. I understand and accept that, but I think the fervor has to be dialed down on all sides. Calling for people to be walled up becuase they believe in the same religion as the highjackers, blaming all people of any belief for the crap we have got ourselves into. These things are not only divisive they are counter productive to helping us as a people move on and rebuild our society. We can all be human to each other and rise above and become the 21st century we used to imagine when we were children watching saturday morning cartoons. We just have to stop trying to control and kill each other.

    September 4, 2011 at 5:08 am |
    • Jman

      In a perfect world. I believe, as a human race, the ego is the problem.

      September 4, 2011 at 5:35 am |
    • Enlightenment







      September 4, 2011 at 5:59 am |
    • MIkeH

      Thanks Gypsy, I generally agree with you with one caveat. When you state "you know my beliefs" because "you have read the bible", is kind of like me saying I know particle physics (which I don't) because I read a book on it. Most religions are much deeper and more complicated than simply "reading the book." Unless of course, you read it in it's original greek, hebrew and aramaic texts 🙂

      September 4, 2011 at 6:29 am |
  11. Xenia

    Americans, view the world from every angle. Though you are the most powerful and prominent, you are not the main character on Planet Earth. 9/11 did not change you much. If you have no knowledge on the world history or nations' conditions, picking up the pieces may be difficult for you. Stop hating Christianity your own conscience and listen to Christians humbly. You let loose evil villains in your society too much. Down with your filthy freedom.

    September 4, 2011 at 4:40 am |
    • Freedom

      "Down with your filthy freedom."

      No, Madame Mao, you will not rule.

      Your song is identical to hers... same tune and beat, different lyrics.

      September 4, 2011 at 4:47 am |
    • Xenia

      Mao = an atheist, and the future picture of American atheists

      September 4, 2011 at 4:50 am |
    • Freedom

      Mao = tyrant and dictator

      Exactly like your wishes for complete control.

      September 4, 2011 at 4:52 am |
    • Xenia

      Freedom, get some decent morality first to exercise true freedom. R-a-p-ists and murderers think they only exercised their freedom until they get caught. What you have is a moral chaos and filthy rights to blaspheme, not freedom.

      September 4, 2011 at 4:58 am |
  12. Wassim

    In the name of Allah, most gracious most merciful; This was a very informative article. I enjoyed reading it and it really touches a cord with me. Just like a great athiest doctor has scientifically proven" a person of faith lives longer then an athiest" really wraps up some of the comments displayed on here. I am ok with who I am. I love who I am as a person and in turn can love my fellow human beings. There ignorance, is my steping stone to great reward. If nothing I am optimistic and that can lead me to a happier and healthier life. Interpretation of words is that of the beholders eyes. I pray to ellah that all the athiest will see with their hearts open, and even get ahead in this life and the life after. ameen. Salaam,shalom,peace

    September 4, 2011 at 4:36 am |
    • In the name of Allah, the Merciful

      you are on your way to atheism

      September 4, 2011 at 7:25 am |
  13. Xenia

    9/11 wasn't for America; it was for Muslims.

    September 4, 2011 at 4:35 am |
  14. p. ramsey

    The doubt still surrounding the truth about the 9/11 "attacks and war on America" are not edifying. Those most fundamental of christian services, the CIA and FBI, are seen by many non-Americans as modern day Crusaders and Freemasons bent on creating holy conflict and cultural exclusivity.

    The bible punchers are taking over the "remembrance" ceremonies, while the effects of 9/11 have been more about cultural polarization than about spiritual unification.

    I hope George W. Bush attends in person the 10th year anniversary so we can again look into his eye balls for that obvious sign of implicit complicity which he could not disguise when it all happened.

    September 4, 2011 at 4:30 am |
    • Roadrun63

      Tinfoil hat on a little tight?

      September 4, 2011 at 4:32 am |
  15. Roadrun63

    Any one of these a good thing?

    1.) Sounds a little like " America's chickens have come home to roost"...doesn't it?

    2.)Ooooh Those evil christians!

    3.) Er...only if you bash chrtiianity

    4.) The worst of all...these so called atheists all seem to have invented a new religion in the name of no religion...They worship Obama and the almighty government.

    September 4, 2011 at 4:28 am |
    • isis1moon

      what do you worship?

      September 4, 2011 at 6:11 am |
  16. Xenia

    atheism = mental disaster

    September 4, 2011 at 4:21 am |
    • Farscape1

      Yea, why can't all of those atheist nutjobs just be normal and believe in our 2000 year old carpenter who is his own magical, everywhere at once, invisible father and a separate holy ghost at the same time and only asks for our total supplication through weekly rituals where we symbolically eat his flesh and drink his blood.

      I mean seriously, it's just self explanatory.

      September 4, 2011 at 4:40 am |
    • Xenia

      @Far-, God hates magic. The flesh and blood is a symbolic thing. Atheists cannot comprehend anything because you never passed any literature class.

      September 4, 2011 at 4:48 am |
    • tautietis

      As a matter of fact, religious peopela and atheists are not that different. Religious people think they believe in God while they actually might just observe some traditions. Atheists think that there is no God but still agree that there is a lot of unexplained phonemona out there. So just by having these two main ideas from the two opposite sides it seems rather silly to think that any side would prevail righteously as a victor.

      September 4, 2011 at 5:04 am |
    • Enlightenment

      Even god hates christians!

      September 4, 2011 at 5:21 am |
    • joshua

      The flesh represents his body that died on the cross. The blood is for forgiveness of our sins. God can break the laws of physics and time.

      September 4, 2011 at 5:33 am |
    • Farscape1

      @Xenia Apparently you never passed a literature class either since half your argument there is pointing out how the flesh/blood thing is symbolic when i specifically mentioned it as such. "where we symbolically eat his flesh and drink his blood"

      Also notice how my "argument" is based specifically on the tenants of Christianity and you for some reason went on a baseless generalized/personal attack about peoples grades in school...

      September 4, 2011 at 5:33 am |
    • isis1moon


      September 4, 2011 at 6:12 am |
    • Farscape1

      Wow, according to the quiz on that site the bread/wine aren't even symbols, the actual belief is that the truly become the body/blood.

      So i amend my statement, the magical 2000 year old carpenter who is his own father and a ghost at the same time asks for your supplication by actually asking you to eat his body/blood. My bad.

      September 4, 2011 at 7:34 am |
    • joshua

      Come on, I am giving you a lot of credit here. You really think we are suppose to eat his body and drink his blood. How are we suppose to do that. We accept what he did for us that is all.

      September 4, 2011 at 8:25 am |
  17. Mike

    Religion is a mental disorder.

    September 4, 2011 at 4:06 am |
    • Enlightenment






      September 4, 2011 at 5:22 am |
    • MIkeH

      Actually it is specifically not a mental disorder, name calling and expressions of intolerance may be but the jury is still out on that. As for it = ignorance, well that is unlikely as some of the most educated people in the history of the world were religious.

      September 4, 2011 at 6:33 am |
  18. Barry

    Everyone should try the church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. He's a cool god who doesn't care if you don't worship him. He's not like that other god that will torture one for eternity because you didn't get on your knees and bow down. And communion is not a dry wafer but a plate of spaghetti and meatballs. Very filling and fulfilling.

    September 4, 2011 at 3:56 am |
    • FSM


      September 4, 2011 at 4:25 am |
    • Xenia

      Thieves and murderers like atheists should be jailed permanently for polluting the planet and killing infants and Christians and promoting immorality. It's justice. God takes care of innocent humans in ways the stupid and evil atheists have no idea about.

      September 4, 2011 at 4:34 am |
    • Enlightenment

      84% of the USA prison population is christian thus proves which group is the most evil in ths USA

      September 4, 2011 at 5:23 am |
  19. Sassan

    As an atheist, I want to state, why all of a sudden is this loser, no-body always being asked to go on television programs and is cited in articles as a "representative" of atheists. Whom am I talking about? The jacka$$ David Silverman. For example, not too long ago he was trying to have the cross removed from the World Trade Center site when it was not a cross that was man-made – it was simply there since metal beams are positioned on crosses. Away from that – this jacka$$ Silverman assumes that atheists think like one another or are are lefty liberal like him. As Christopher Hitchens has demonstrated, many of us support the war on terror and consider the liberations of Afghanistan and Iraq as a noble act by President Bush. While I will criticize him on his decision on stem cell research; President Bush was quite a pragmatic President and in fact, NASA was becoming further advanced under the previous administration. We atheists are supposed to have our own brain and use logic and rationality, and Silverman never does that and every single time he speaks "for atheists" it agonizes me for what stupid thing he is going to say/do next.

    September 4, 2011 at 3:54 am |
  20. Xenia

    This article is not precise. The fact is: America didn't get the sig-ni-ficance of the 9/11 and as a whole only further corrupted its at-ti-tu-de towards God. The whole West has been that way for the last 10 years. Learning nothing from lessons but just declining but increasing electric toys meanwhile. It's Muslims who got opened up after 9/11. USA was not center of the Planet Earth. USA did not change; she just kept taking her course.

    September 4, 2011 at 3:48 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.