September 11 is a day that we remember how much our world has changed. On September 10, 2001, I would have had no doubt that I was relatively safe anywhere in North America, at least from terrorist attacks. September 11 changed everything. We now know that we are vulnerable everywhere. If a small group of terrorists could bring down the World Trade Centre, if they could attack the Pentagon, then anything can happen. We will never be the same after September 11.
As much as we talk about the political and military effects of 9/11, there is another change that has taken place. If you look at the new atheism and the harsh attacks on religion, most of it has taken place in the years following 9/11. Sure atheism has been around for a long time, but atheism took on a new form after 9/11. Not only have atheists become more active, people are more open to their message. When atheists say that religion creates violence, it is no longer about ancient history and distant memories of inquisitions and crusades. We all watched as a group of religious people killed thousands of people in the name of God. Religious violence has a ring of truth that it has not had, at least for people in North America, for a long time.
Does 9/11 demonstrate a link between religion and violence? September 11 actually had very little to do with religion. It was not as if a group of Muslims decided they had some theological differences with the “Christian” west and that many people needed to die as a result. September 11 was more about politics and foreign policy than anything. There is a complex history that involves the activity of the colonial powers, independence movements, as well as the state of Israel. These would have been the primary motivations for the people who planned the attack. No doubt they used religion as a tool to manipulate their followers, but September 11 was not about religion. I have no doubt that if religion was removed from the world that we would continue to see terrorist attacks and other acts of extreme violence.
What if religion was a strong motivation for 9/11? Would that still prove that religion naturally leads to violence? How many people were responsible for 9/11? A couple of dozen, perhaps? How many religious people stepped in after the attacks and worked hard to help those who were hurt or trapped or in need? What about the work of the Salvation Army and other organizations who worked so hard to make a difference? Does the evil work of a few people really cancel out the good work of many people?
What do we learn from 9/11? I would suggest that the primary lesson is not that religion is evil and that it must be stamped out for the safety of our world. What we learn is that religious people are like people in general: some are good and some are bad. Religious people, like non-religious people, can be manipulated by those with evil intentions to do bad things. Religious people, like non-religious people, can be confused by charismatic and zealous leaders that are passionate about a vision. What we learn is that religious people are human.
We will continue to remember September 11, and hopefully we will see that tragic day as a moment when we saw not just the worst, but the best of people as well.