A baby born on September 11, 2001 can now walk into a bar, and order its first legal drink. And we still haven’t learned the primary lesson of the atrocity. Which is the staggering menace posed by religious ideas.
The deadliest attack by a foreign power on US soil since 1812 eclipsed even Pearl Harbor. 9/11 claimed 2,996 American Lives. Pearl Harbor was 2,403, The War of 1812 was roughly 15,000. The Mexican War only killed about 1,700 American soldiers in battle. So the loss of life on 9/11 is of historic magnitude. An unnamed journalist in Morocco ominously wrote an article calling the attack “The Battle of New York,” and it’s a battle the US lost. It’s also a battle that pulled us into two major wars we didn’t decisively win.
Like Pearl Harbor, 9/11 spawned wide-ranging conspiracy theories that members of our own government were complicit–or at least aware of the plot. The conspiracy theories are detestable. That last sentence will alienate somewhere around one-third of Americans who still harbor long-debunked suspicions about the event. Anyone who thinks that way, is already immune to rational argument. I discussed this at length in my article “We’ve All Fallen For At Least One Conspiracy Theory.”
Time offers perspective. In the 21 years since that terrible day, it’s become even more clear to some of us at least, that what caused 9/11 wasn’t a bunch of fanatics with box cutters. It wasn’t even their fanaticism. It was a specific set of ideas they held. And those ideas continue to wreak havoc across the world.
When I started this blog in 2001, I wrote numerous articles discussing the religious connection to 9/11. So it’s altogether fitting that on this 21st anniversary of the attack, I revisit some of that material in hindsight. I’ll post the links at the end of this article.
Decline in American religiosity
The 9/11 attacks occurred near the midpoint of a dramatic decline in American religious observance. In the 1950s, 95% of Americans attended church, with less than 5% unaffiliated. By 1990, the unaffiliateds were up to 8%. By 2000, 14%. Today, the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans is nearly 1-in-3, or 29%. This secularization of America has many causes that are beyond the scope of this article.
Most Americans recognize that without Osama Bin Laden’s brand of self-justifying Islamic religious Jihad, the twin towers of the World Trade Center would still be standing. It’s much less well-understood by Americans that Christianity has done far greater damage to their own nation than 9/11 did, or that any Jihad ever could. And the damage is ongoing.
One of the most rational post-9/11 voices was Sam Harris, who wrote The End Of Faith. In that book, he articulated two points that have only grown in importance. The first point is that matters of faith are claims about the nature of the universe, and should be subject to the same scrutiny as other claims. The second point is that there’s no separating moderate religious belief from extremism. Further, it’s the moderates who simultaneously shun the worst aspects of their beliefs, yet make the world safe for the extremists.
Needless to say, religious believers don’t like these implications. And it produced a predictable backlash. Harris also made a third, indefensible claim in the book, which weakened what was otherwise an airtight case: He proposed that under threat of mass-casualty terrorism, torture could be ethically justified to prevent a future attack. I won’t argue that case here, except to say that whatever your feelings may be about torture, it doesn’t always produce reliable information.
The legacy of Harris’ work has been further tainted by his lurch to the right in the late 2010s. In his Making Sense podcast and other writings, he’s become something of an “anti-woke” ideologue, taking positions that put him squarely on the wrong side of social justice. Yet his original warning about the danger of religion remains unchallenged. In spite of the dramatic rise of religious non-observance in America, the political power of Christianity has only grown. In the 2020s and beyond, we face the looming threat of a newly muscular Christian nationalism that aims to not only overturn secularism, but the very concept of political self-determination. Fully 20% of white Americans–about 30 million people–have turned their backs on democracy in favor of Christian dictatorship.
When six conservative Supreme Court justices overturned Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, they did so for explicitly religious reasons. But the important thing is that religious conservatives are absolutely hell-bent to develop rationales that obscure their religious motivations. Instead of admitting they’re ruling on the basis of their beliefs, they’ve found a fig leaf: the pretense that the Dobbs v. Jackson decision was about preserving the “original intent” of the Constitution, which is silent on abortion.
When they use this rationale, the conservative justices are also signaling their intent to reverse every other right absent from the Constitution, but granted by the courts. There’s voluminous case law which has been decided since our nation’s founding, and our modern system of rights depends on all of it. This includes all the specifics of church-state separation, the right to contraception, federal voting rights, interracial marriage, gay marriage, and any other special rights granted to women, minorities, or the disabled.
Cancelling rights not specifically enumerated in the Constitution is a diabolical power grab by itself. You have to ask yourself, “who wants to take away these rights, and why?” Who or what is behind “Constitutional originalism?” We can’t fight an enemy we refuse to identify. It’s not that people don’t see the threat. It’s that they believe that the threat is religious extremism, rather than religion itself. This is dangerous. It’s left liberals flat-footed, and unwilling to mount a full-throated defense of justice, equality, and rational public policy, where any of those things conflict with their beliefs about Christianity.
And the consequence of this confusion will be this: Just at the moment Americans are finally rejecting religion in large numbers, we could be forced back into the pews against our will. Figuratively speaking, of course. Christian nationalists won’t drag you to church, because they won’t have to. They’ll just impose their laws on everyone, whether you believe or not. And they’ll indoctrinate your children. Such a takeover would be an absolute nightmare for anyone who’s not white, male, straight, cis, and Christian–or a collaborator with same.
So how did we get here?
Every faith makes false claims about the nature of the universe
Religious freedom protects your right to believe nonsense. And it must. Because that’s the nature of freedom of conscience. In any free society worthy of the name, you have the absolute right to be wrong, and to passionately defend that wrongness with speech, assembly and the press. There’s no way to separate the four basic freedoms from each other, and we shouldn’t try.
But here’s the problem: people act on their beliefs. People vote their beliefs. People legislate and adjudicate based on their beliefs. People knock down buildings, and start wars based on their beliefs. So we need Constitutional guardrails to prevent people from voting their beliefs into laws, that impact members of other religions or nonbelievers. This is the basic principle of secularism. But that’s not the only issue. If we want to solve any social problems caused by beliefs, we’re going to have to take those beliefs as seriously as the people who act on them. That means we have to accept that the 9/11 hijackers fervently believed they would receive a heavenly reward for their actions. Most people reading this can agree that’s risible. What kind of God would reward mass-murder with a trip to paradise?
But when you laugh at the ridiculous beliefs of Islamist terrorists, you’re laughing at yourself, too. Because it doesn’t matter what religion you are, or if you consider yourself “spiritual,” you definitely believe in some nonsense. And you’ve undoubtedly done some really questionable things based on your beliefs. And this is where it gets tricky. Your reluctance to publicly criticize someone else’s beliefs, is strongly rooted in your desire to protect your own. It’s hedging. And it’s a race to the bottom. Because for effective governance, we need strong evidence-based policy. The question of how to manage false beliefs within a democracy while maintaining religious freedom and pluralism, is an unsolved problem.
In a world inhabited by a large majority of people who believe in gods and disembodied souls, ghosts, fairies, aliens, hell, devils, reincarnation and other cartoonish concepts, who’s to say that the 9/11 hijackers were more unhinged than anyone else? Check your own belief system: What about Moses and the burning bush? Casting demons into swine? Oops, “we’re out of wine, we’ll just use water.” Not enough food for 5,000 people? We’ll just multiply the food! Where’s Jesus today, when there’s a famine? Did starving children do something to offend Yahweh, other than being born in the wrong part of the world? These are tough questions for anyone who believes in a benevolent god or universe.
What about that guy walking out of his tomb three days after he was tortured to death? That same guy–a human being who Christians believe was actually physically born, without any sperm to fertilize Mary’s egg. Catholics believe they are eating the actual body and blood of that impossible immaculately conceived guy, not a cracker and wine, when they take holy communion.
So who is any Christian, to mock Muslims for their beliefs about Jihad? Jihadis are willing to die for those beliefs, and that’s kind of scary. But it’s by no means unique to Muslims. And the key belief that predisposes someone to want to die for their beliefs, is a soul separate from the human body. Think of what kind of mental strength it takes to overcome the self-preservation instinct. The only rationale that would make sense is that person believes they will live on in another form, to see a benefit from their actions. It’s scary to any normal person who values their life. The old cliche, “there’s nothing more dangerous than someone with nothing left to lose.”
Life is cheap, when you have “eternal life” in your back pocket. And that goes for Christians, too.
About 60% of Americans believe that their soul survives death. There’s no scientific evidence that this is true. And lots of evidence that it’s not. But survival beyond death remains the stubbornly prevalent opinion. I’ve written extensively on the subject, but whenever I talk to a new person about it, they start me over at ground zero, with the same set of weak fallback positions. They rely on personal experience (often “near-death-experiences“), argument from ignorance, the god of the gaps, and the argument from the limits of scientific uncertainty, an extension of the argument from ignorance. And they’re usually damn hostile about it. I suppose the hard science, reductionist position is a threat to their “eternal life.” One guy in particular, many years ago, took to calling me an “annihilationist.” In these conversations the soul-believer always accuses me of being “closed minded” and “overly certain” for suggesting that they must recognize the preponderance of scientific evidence, that death is final: That cognition and identity cease when metabolism stops. The conversation then often derails into side-conversations about the nature of consciousness, and even misunderstandings of quantum physics. It’s exasperating.
I don’t get it. What makes people flogging their own immortality think they have a leg to stand on–other than desire and hubris?
So to recap, unsupportable claims about the existence of an immortal soul are foundational to a host of other social and political problems. These very much include suicide terrorism, and the curtailing of abortion rights for religious reasons. What I’m proposing here is that none of these problems will ever be definitively solved, without striking at the root of the false belief itself.
There’s no separating ‘moderate’ faith from extremism
What defines so-called moderate religion? Let’s consider Christianity. There are 45,000 Christian denominations in the world, a staggering number. That’s a lot of differing interpretations of the same scripture. If scripture was clear and decisive on points of doctrine, there would be no need for doctrinal schisms. There would only be a single Christianity.
But scripture itself leaves much to be desired. There are numerous translations and versions of the Bible. Christians believe in the Old and New Testament, while Jews reject the New Testament. There are preposterous stories and doctrines in both volumes, that beggar belief. Religious people often respond to these obvious tall tales with “no one really believes that, those stories are metaphors.” So then why are they uncritically taught to children? Why aren’t those pages ripped out? Why don’t moderate religions print new Bibles along the line of Thomas Jefferson’s? He had the right idea: Get rid of the nonsense, and keep what’s helpful and ethical and worthy. But then again, if you’re going to pick and choose, what’s the point of scripture in the first place?
There are so many cruel and violent and misogynist Biblical passages, and contradictions. And this goes for the Quran, too. The Skeptic’s Annotated site is absolutely devastating, and it also includes the Book of Mormon. If I had a nickel for every time someone said, “well you can’t just take that statement at face value, you have to read it in context.” What if the statement, even in context, is still false or offensive? Unfortunately, even moderate believers have an answer for everything, and their answer is never to remove an offending passage from scripture. It’s always somehow to rely on a particular church authority to mediate that scripture in some way that makes it less egregious. And that’s dangerous, because the next day, another denomination can split off, that will insist that the statement be taken more literally, on pain of excommunication or eternal damnation.
Remember, the fundamental claim religions make about scripture is that it’s valuable because it is more or less the actual word of God. But historians know this isn’t true. For the Bible, there are specific known human authors. Many of the books of the Bible are named after them. So how can the authorship be divine and human at the same time? How can we rely on translations that differ in meaning? How do we know any of it is historically accurate? Why do we give so much weight to words written by people who didn’t understand celestial mechanics, gravity, evolution, or the germ theory of disease? Why are events and teachings that all took place within about a 1,000 mile radius of the Mediterranean Sea relevant to the entire world?
These questions don’t have any good answers.
And that’s why the idea of moderate religion is a pipe dream. You can’t take something that’s false, and make it better by backing away from it slowly. And that’s what moderate religion tries to do. It turns out that the more extremist religious denominations are the most faithful to scripture, as Sam Harris has repeatedly pointed out.
Religious moderates also tend to imagine that there is some bright line of separation between extremist and moderate religion. But there isn’t. Scripture itself remains a perpetual engine of extremism: because, while He may be many things, the God of the Bible and the Qur’an is not a moderate. Reading scripture more closely, one does not find reasons to be a religious moderate; one finds reasons to be a proper religious lunatic—to fear the fires of hell, to despise nonbelievers, to persecute homosexuals, etc. Of course, anyone can cherry-pick scripture and find reasons to love his neighbor and to turn the other cheek. But the more fully a person grants credence to these books, the more he will be convinced that infidels, heretics, and apostates deserve to be smashed to atoms in God’s loving machinery of justice.
Religious moderates invariably claim to be more “sophisticated” than religious fundamentalists (and atheists). But how does one become a sophisticated believer? By acknowledging just how dubious many of the claims of scripture are, and thereafter reading it selectively, bowdlerizing it if need be, and allowing its assertions about reality to be continually trumped by fresh insights—scientific (“You mean the world isn’t 6000 years old? Okay.”), medical (“I should take my daughter to a neurologist and not to an exorcist? Seems reasonable…”), and moral (“I can’t beat my slaves? I can’t even keep slaves? Hmm…”). There is a pattern here, and it is undeniable. Religious moderation is the direct result of taking scripture less and less seriously. So why not take it less seriously still? Why not admit that the Bible is merely a collection of imperfect books written by highly fallible human beings?–Sam Harris, Letter To A Christian Nation, Afterword
The late Bishop John Shelby Spong effectively agreed. His 12-point plan for the reformation of Christianity involves throwing out much of Christian doctrine, and all belief in the supernatural. He comes about as close as possible to rejecting Christianity outright, as you could without becoming an atheist.
Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.
Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.
The Biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.
The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ’s divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.
The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.
The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.
Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.
The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.
There is no external, objective, revealed standard written in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.
Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.
The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.
All human beings bear God’s image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one’s being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.—John Shelby “Jack” Spong (June 16, 1931 – September 12, 2021)
As you can imagine, Spong’s plan got a mixed reception from Christian theologians, and has no chance of having an impact on Christian extremism. Because the essence of modern Christianity is extremism. It demands reinforcement of the conservative moral hierarchy, with God at the head of the table, and powerful men in charge of interpreting His words to believers. So there will be no 21st century reformation along these lines. Because it would represent the abdication of a trillion-dollar industry in the United States alone. Not to mention that industry’s designs on political power. No industry of that size is going to fold its tent and put itself out of business. And even if it wanted to, without its current level of power, who would implement the reforms?
Why don’t Christians act more like Jesus?
This brings me to a point of frustration with liberal Christians. Not enough are taking the threat of Christian nationalism seriously. The problem of Christian nationalism isn’t the nationalism part, it’s the Christian part! American Christianity can’t be saved in its current form. It’s become, effectively, a fascist political party. You can read story after story about how liberal pastors have been chased out of their churches. Or resigned after their congregations migrated away to more MAGA-friendly destinations.
You’ll read quotes and memes all over social media wondering why “Christians aren’t acting more like Jesus.” Christianity hasn’t been about Jesus for a very long time! And, of course, which Jesus? The one who gave the Sermon on the Mount? Or the one who would send his “angels” to cast people into a “furnace of fire?” The money and the power and the congregations are chasing the fire. In America, Jesus is now a Trumpist republican.
This burgeoning movement threatens not only secular Americans, but religious freedom and pluralism itself. In an interview on American Progress, Amanda Tyler of The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty put it this way:
–Amanda TylerChristian nationalism is a political ideology and cultural framework that seeks to merge American and Christian identities. It heavily relies upon a mythological founding of the United States as a “Christian nation,” singled out for God’s special favor. It is not a religion, but it intersects with Christianity in its use of Christian symbols and language. But the “Christian” in Christian nationalism is more about identity than religion and carries with it assumptions about nativism, white supremacy, authoritarianism, patriarchy, and militarism.
Since Baptists have been historically extremely conservative, it’s remarkable that a Baptist is sounding the alarm about this. But Tyler makes the same mistake here that liberal Christians do, of pretending that the problem of white supremacy, authoritarianism, patriarchy can be separated from the religion itself. It’s all right there in the Bible. And the extremists have everything they need right within scripture, to justify everything they’re doing. It only takes a few tweaks to the Bible to reframe the United States as the “promised land,” and white, heterosexual Bible-thumping Christians as the “chosen people.” Along with that comes all the biblical condemnation of sinners, who are defined as anyone who opposes the intention of the Christian nationalists to fully take over family, religion, education, media, entertainment, business, and government. This Seven Mountains Mandate has been the game plan of the Christian right since 1975. And it’s working.
Unless liberals wake up to this reality, and soon, Christian nationalism will deliver a blow far more consequential than the Islamist hijackers did on 9/11. And when you really drill down to understand the goals that Jihad and Christian nationalism both share for America, they are to deliver to our shores a Saudi-Arabia-style totalitarian theocracy under “God’s law.” Which is just about the most terrifying combination of two words that exists in the English language.
Abortion rights are already gone in half of America. Public schools are under furious assault, everywhere. Books are being yanked off library shelves. And now the God-squad is attacking free elections in many states. The 6-3 Christian conservative Supreme Court has already agreed to hear a case in the next term, Moore v. Harper, that may allow state legislatures to overrule the popular vote. And 30 state legislatures are currently under control of an almost entirely Christian nationalist republican party.
It’s far later than you think.
Further reading on 9/11 from Black Sun Journal:
Organized Religion: The Slippery Slope
The Roots of Fanaticism
Coming to Grips with the New Realities
9/11: TV Review
So We Torture Prisoners Now?
Terror Taunts On 9/11 Anniversary
The World Trade Center: In Memoriam +5
9/11 Anniversary Filled With Moral Illusions