Portraits of Belief: Religion in a Post 9/11 World

Christopher Vecsey

What has 9/11, and its aftermath, taught us Americans about religion?

The last 10 years have reinforced a lesson that we were forced to confront directly on that morning in September 2001: people care deeply about their religious identity. Something like six of the roughly seven billion people living on earth today construct their individual and col­lective lives around the theological teachings of their religious traditions. And as unsettling as it is to consider, religious ideas and precepts clearly provide a significant number of these pious ad­herents with a divine impetus for which to die and to kill. Academics who espoused forms of secularization theory, which held it inevitable that religion would wither in the face of mo­dernity, have been forced to think again since 9/11. And policymakers who looked out at the world and saw an international system domi­nated by territorially defined states pursuing their material interests have been revealed by the events of the last ten years to have had terribly limited vision.

Needless to say, many commentators observ­ing related but distinct phenomena have derived a variety of other religious lessons from 9/11. Hyper-critics of religion, the so-called new athe­ists, have drawn attention to religion’s violent tendencies, employing the Islamist hijackers of 9/11 as primary archetypes of demonic believ­ers who negate human rights, subvert freedom and undermine conventional modern notions of morality. At the same time, religion’s defenders from across a broad ecumenical spectrum have pointed out the good deeds of religious believers, emphasizing, for example, the faith-driven activi­ties at Ground Zero where volunteers counseled, cleaned up, repaired, lent funds and offered shel­ter, all in the spirit of self-sacrifice and the Golden Rule common to most religious traditions. Still, others have reflected on the spiritual challenges posed by 9/11, asking where God was on that day, or in a related sense, expressing a desire for God’s justice and a need for human repentance. And of course, the all-pervasive American civil religion refocused itself around the public drama of 9/11, with its rituals of trauma and commem­oration, its heroes and villains, its sacred space at Ground Zero, its remembrances of victims and its search for patriotic and transcendent meaning tied to the rhetoric of freedom.

In a fundamental sense, what we have learned about religion over the last decade de­pends largely on who “we” are. 9/11 has been just as likely to confirm beliefs about religion as it has been to change minds. Americans who were suspicious of Muslims before 9/11 are now ever more so.

Those who saw the world in divinely ordained binaries of good and evil, us and them, have be­come only more defined by that worldview over the last decade. The rhetoric of the “Culture War” and the “Clash of Civilizations” took a stronger hold on many Americans after 9/11, including some Amer­icans who occupied the White House and other citadels of American political and cultural power. Some saw the horrors in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania as evidence of an inevitable strug­gle between the Judeo-Christian West and Islamic civilization, and they resolved to prevail in that conflict at any cost…with the grace of God. Other religious leaders, those we might call contemporary jeremiahs, saw in 9/11 the withholding of God’s protection from an America soiled by debauched secularism, and they called for spiritual renewal. At its most fundamental base, however, our struggle to understand the role of religion in 9/11 and its after­math has meant a confrontation with basic, com­mon assumptions in the U.S. about how religion and politics ought to mix in the modern world.

Many Americans from across the political spectrum seem to be saying over the last decade that if only Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Paki­stan, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka or, for that matter, the Orthodox settlers on the West Bank would start to act like moderate Reform Jews or nominally committed “cafeteria Catholics,” then the world would be a much simpler and safer place. This seems to us to be an almost willful misreading of the true religious lessons of 9/11.

To be sure, many Muslims are deeply dis­trustful of Islamism, and many religiously moti­vated political groups around the world eschew violence and seek to gain power and influence through democratic means. But if the last 10 years have taught us anything, it is that Ameri­cans should not hold our collective breath while the world’s religious believers reform themselves in our progressive, suburban image.

Indeed, that self-image itself has also been called into question by 9/11 and its aftermath, as we have been forced to learn more about how religious people outside the U.S. view American culture and the role of religion in it. Focused as we are on the pervasive secular­ity of our central cultural referents in Europe, we comfort ourselves that we are the “religious people” of de Tocqueville’s nineteenth-century observations. But for many Muslims in distant lands, we are instead the “satanic people” of their worst imaginings.

This troubling disconnect between how we perceive ourselves in religious terms and how many outsiders perceive us is a profound con­tributor to our persistent failure to understand the conflicts we are engaged in with Muslim peoples in so many settings. We comfort our­selves that “they hate us for our freedom,” when in fact they may hate us for pervasively imposing our cultural values on what they believe to be their religious freedom.

Finally, the experience of being attacked by religious people for religious reasons has chal­lenged, in a myriad of ways, the balance struck in the U.S. between pervasive individual re­ligious belief and secular political and social structures. That balance was always a tenuous one, and the tension inherent in a liberal de­mocracy populated by a religious people was always a central aspect of the unique American national story.

But that balance is now much more dif­ficult to maintain in a world where religious principles and religious conflicts have moved so prominently to the center of our national life. Looking back over 10 years, it turns out that the religious lessons of 9/11 might be as much about our diverse selves and our con­tested national values as they are about the religious fervor of those who oppose us.

Contact Christopher Vecsey at [email protected]

Contact Timothy Byrnes at [email protected]