My transition into Atheism was not only a transition away from faith in the Divine Father, but away from the institution of religion all together. For me to discuss my loss of faith, and eventual open hostility towards religion, I am forced, against the prickings of good taste, to begin with September 11th 2001.
I was fourteen years old, a freshman in high school, when the Towers came down. I remember nothing else of that day, and in fact very little of that year, but I remember 2nd period Algebra Class. There were no lessons that day, at least not in mathematics. The teacher sat behind his desk, watching the news coverage of the attacks on the television at the back of the room. All eyes faced the television, fixated on the billowing smoke. Being the good student I was my seat was near the front of the room, and so I was one of the few students who heard the teacher say, “This is history kids. Remember this. When you are my age people will want to know what it was like.”
I distinctly remember one boy in class, after the shock had worn off and chatter began to creep around the room, say, “How long do you think it will be before they make a movie about this?” Laughter is often used to defuse tense situations and that is what is did for our 9th Grade Algebra class that morning. None of us really knew what we were seeing that day. It would take weeks for us to realize what really happened, it would take years for us to see the damage on our culture play out, and now, just months shy of a full decade later, those of us in that 9th Grade class are old enough to begin to reflect on the impact that event has had on our lives.
I have given long and earnest thought to what beliefs I would hold had I not spent my most significant developmental decade in a post 9/11 world. I have the utmost confidence that I would still be an Atheist. None of the thoughts, arguments, or logical deer-trails which lead me to the conclusion that there is no God involve the September 11 attacks in any capacity. It is also true that I had been wrestling with a crisis of faith since age 11 when I was faced with the mental and spiritual anguish of preparing myself for the Age of Accountability at which time I would be responsible for original sin and subject to punishment in Hell should I die unsaved. There is a chance however that had I grown up in a different decade, a decade in which the vulgar nature of Religion was expressed only far away on distant shores, I may have grown up to be only Atheist and not Anti-Religionist, or perhaps as Christopher Hitchens says, Anti-Theist.
In the first months and years following the September 11th attacks, moral outrage cascaded down upon the Muslim world in ugly torrents. Christians rallied against the evils of this foreign and pagan religion. The words “extremist” and “terrorist” applied only to swarthy men in turbans and dirty robes. The Churches of the West stood as a shining example of Godly goodness while the religions the Middle East crawled up out of the darkness of a demonic ancient Persia to threaten everything.
It took nearly half a decade for this spell to begin to wear off. As we looked at the terrors of the Islamic faith we began to realize that their Holy Texts were really no different than the Jewish and Christian texts. The only difference was that the “terrorists” were devout enough to actually do as their book commanded. We could not help but be reminded that only a few hundred years ago the Christians behaved in a manner just as atrocious, and their cruel arm wielded a far wider and stronger grasp than any “terrorist” could ever hope to achieve. We could not ignore the organized criminal behavior that had become an integral part of the definition of the Catholic Church as it conspired to cover up child torture and molestation on a global scale. Our critical eye, fixed on the wickedness of the Islamic Faith, could not help but wander to North Africa where Christians committed indirect mass-murder by spreading lies and misinformation about condoms to AIDs ridden tribesmen. We could not resist the urge to revisit newspaper articles from just a decade prior, and read of the genocidal rampage of religious zealots in Rwanda.
These Islamic terrorists certainly struck a blow against the United States. The politics of the Bush administration and the handling of the War on Terror are worth an entire book on their own, but regardless of what you feel about the Just War, the Taliban succeeded in grievously wounding a peaceful and complacent United States and ushering in a new era of divisiveness in our country. But their act had unforeseen consequences. They awoke the practice of Religious criticism from a long history of quiet whispering in academic halls, and brought it center stage. It became ok to criticize the Islamic faith. It became ok to seek out flaws, logical inconsistencies, and to openly state your moral outrage over the abominations contained in the text. The dams broke, and this flood of critical thought, burst the banks of Islam and spilled over onto all modern religions. For a long time Atheist thinkers had remained isolated and eccentric figures that were not regarded as being particularly potent, but overnight they appeared on the scene with a library of powerful books, television series, debates, and lectures. Suddenly the writings of Hume, Paine, Russell, and Voltaire were not only relevant but popular. All the while the general respect that had always been granted to religious belief crumbled, and the ideas of the religious were dragged down out of the Governor’s Box into the gladiatorial arena where all other beliefs and ideas must prove themselves.
The second half of the first decade of this century saw an explosion of Atheist thought and literature that has become known as the New Atheist movement. The philosophical consistency of this new breed of Atheist, Scientific, Humanistic, Rationalist thinker was tested against a dynamic and difficult world. This was the world of Hurricane Katrina and evangelical preachers claiming that the disaster was judgment from on high. This was the world of murdered Cartoonists, and the fear-driven censorship that resulted. This was the world funeral protests and the stark contrast between reviled speech and the freedom of it. This was the world of Creationism in the classroom, and the long difficult battle to keep it at bay. This is the world where a Black man was elected President of our country while other countries passed blasphemy laws and orders to execute or imprison homosexuals.
This is the world I grew up in. This is the furnace in which my world-view has been forged. This is the world in which I still exist and am challenged every day. This is the world that served as a backdrop to the development of a new generation of Atheist, seeded by the crumbling of religious integrity following September 11th. I do not think that the time line of the past decade would have been very different had the 9/11 attacks never occurred. The West and the Middle East would still have eventually clashed. Hurricane Katrina still would have struck, and preachers still would have interpreted it as divine judgment. The Westboro Baptist Church would still have protested, Danish Cartoonists would still have been murdered, and just as our country took a great step towards racial equality, other countries would still have taken a giant step back from human rights.
No, September 11th did not define the time line of the decade, any more than perhaps accelerating the inevitable, but September 11th did drastically impact the way we thought during the that decade. It was always there in the background, reminding us of the worst case scenario, reminding us of what terrible deeds religion could drive people to commit, and what terrible things religion could compel people to believe.
One of the most powerful images I recall from the months following September 11th, 2001 was the image of the Ground Zero wreckage, with a bit of rubble standing erect amongst the ruins in the clear shape of a cross. I remember teary-eyed preachers and hope-filled personalities parading this image across the media and proclaiming that God was still with us even in our darkest hour. At that young age I did not understand why I was so offended, but now I do. I still sometimes stumble across that image on the internet, of the twisted wreckage crowned by a defiant cross. I feel both relief and terror at once. If the hand of God truly was at work that day, then I am relieved there is so little cause to believe such a terrible being exists, but the image of the cross reminds me that the same religious zealotry that inspired the attackers also supplied solace to the victims. I shiver when I contemplate what people may be capable of if they can see the hand of God in the blood-soaked ruins of Ground Zero and still think him perfect, kind, and worthy of worship.