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9/11 Changed the Face of Atheism

It has become almost cliché to say that the attacks on September 11, 2001 were the Pearl Harbor or Kennedy assassination of our generation.  Ten years later, nearly all of us remember what we were doing the moment we heard the news.  The day is seared into our collective memory not simply due to the emotional impact of the moment, but because of the startling realization that our lives would never again be the same.

The events of that day profoundly affected our way of life. Not just foreign policy or airline safety standards, but also our sense of security and our relationship to fellow human beings. For many people, it even changed their relationship with their god and religion.

The American Humanist Association’s most recent newsletter features one woman’s story of how 9/11 influenced her journey from Catholicism to Atheism. Diqui LaPenta, a biology professor in northern California, tells of losing her boyfriend, Rich Guadagno, on Flight 93, the flight that crashed in Stonycreek Township, Pennsylvania.

…My parents arrived two days later, having driven all the way from San Antonio, Texas, and we flew to New Jersey for a memorial service for Rich. Some very religious relatives planned to meet us in New Jersey. I asked my parents to ensure that those relatives refrain from religious platitudes. I didn’t want to hear that Rich was in a better place or with God or that it was all part of some plan that God had for us. From the moment I heard that Rich and thousands of others had been killed, I knew that the all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God of childhood stories absolutely could not exist. Rich was not in a better place. There was no place he would rather be than with his dog Raven, me, his family, and his friends. I would never see Rich again, as there is no afterlife. Pretending that I would see him again would make it impossible to heal.

Before 9/11, I’d never considered myself an atheist. After that day I was, and I let people know it. When asked what church I attend, I reply that I don’t. If prompted to explain why, I say that I’m an atheist. Some people say, “But you have to believe in something!” I do. I believe in the power of rational thought and critical thinking. I believe that we should live thoughtful, peaceful, moral lives because it’s the right thing to do and not because we’re afraid of punishment or hopeful for a reward beyond the grave. We have this one life, and we should make the best of it for the short time we are here.

Diqui isn’t the only one that felt compelled to be more forthright about her atheism after 9/11. As the CNN Belief Blog points out, the religious nature of the attacks provided the impetus for many atheists to come out of the closet and openly criticize previously unassailable religious beliefs.

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.”

In fact, atheists have gained so much public acceptance that David Silverman gave a public address this morning on the main steps of the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, in an event hosted by the PA Nonbelievers.

While some atheists began speaking out, others began writing. As Newsweek reports, Sam Harris began writing his bestselling The End of Faith on September 12th, 2001 – directly in response to the attacks.  Harris’s recent blog post on the 10 year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks succinctly summarizes his perspective on the distance we have left to travel:

Ten years have now passed since many of us first felt the jolt of history—when the second plane crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. We knew from that moment that things can go terribly wrong in our world—not because life is unfair, or moral progress impossible, but because we have failed, generation after generation, to abolish the delusions of our ignorant ancestors. The worst of these ideas continue to thrive—and are still imparted, in their purest form, to children.

On the other hand, while some atheists began speaking out in public and openly critiquing religious ideas, others saw the attacks as a call for greater unity and love.  Chris Stedman, a Fellow for the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy, will be honoring those lost by spending today packaging 9,110 meals to be distributed to hungry children in Massachusetts.  As he stated recently in Washingtion Post’s On Faith:

9/11 will live on forever in our nation’s memory. We suffered an incomprehensible loss at the hands of extremists who believed that religious diversity must end in violence. But as people of diverse religious and secular identities, we can counter them with our unity. By building bridges of understanding, we can act on our shared values and learn-from and with one another-how to be our best selves.

No matter the reaction, the attacks on September 11th caused the public face of atheism to drastically change.  The 10 years since that day has seen many changes in way the world community approaches religion, but no one can say that religious beliefs are as protected from criticism as they were a decade ago.

Many non-believers have very strong opinions about the best way to prevent similar attacks in the future. Despite the ongoing debates, it seems clear to me that the courage to work with religious community groups in areas where our interests overlap, paired with the freedom to directly and openly criticize bad ideas wherever they occur in the public sphere, will be the tools that we must use to build a safer, healthier, and happier future.