I wrote this article about one month after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Please keep that context in mind as you read it.
As we watched the towers burning we had hope that the loss of life would be minimal. Those hopes were dashed as we watched the towers, one then another, collapse and take the lives of those inside and outside on the ground. A large loss of human life was now unavoidable.
All I could do was mumble, “Oh no… all those people.”
I had to sit down and fight back the tears. I am fighting the tears now while reliving that moment. The loss of life weighed heavily and the Humanist in me cried for those that were lost in the carnage.
Like most Americans, I sat glued to my TV, flipping between the cable news channels to get the best coverage. Each new clip of the impact and each new story of bravery and sadness deepened my angst. In a few days, it became necessary to get friends together and get out of our homes and hotels. Unfortunately, there was no escaping the images – every bar had their TV’s on CNN instead of ESPN.
As swords are being rattled and rhetoric is flying there is another aspect of this tragedy that is seeping out of the cracks of America. The aftershocks are just beginning and they may do more damage to America than the attack itself.
With every tragedy, there is an increase in Fundamentalism during the days and weeks following the event. This is recognizable on a local, national, and global level. I fully expected this increase but I have to admit that I underestimated it. We are witnessing a rise in religiosity and religious fervor that jeopardizes the ideals of America and what American stands for. This phenomenon, at this grand scale, could do more damage than the attack did.
The fervor started small but it increased so rapidly that it was a giant blur. It took all of us by surprise. We expected the typical comments about guardian angels and God protecting this person over another and we expected prayer vigils. Of concern is what we did not expect.
Guardian Angels and ‘God Protected Me’
We hear them all the time after disasters, “I had a guardian angel looking over me”, “God must have a special purpose for me,” and “God was watching over me”.
These are normally trivial items but this time they were the predecessors to increased religiosity. As people glued themselves to their TV screens, they were looking for hope amid the despair. When rescuers found survivors, they called it a “miracle” instead of a mathematical statistic. Audiences wanted to forget the bad and embrace the good. They quickly forgot there was three thousand plus people that did not have guardian angels looking over them. God forgot about three thousand people.
After a tornado, it can be easy to forget about four or five deaths when thirty-two talk about guardian angels. How can you forget about sixty-three hundred people when “guardian angels” saved only five? This clinging to “miracles” and guardian angels was more desperate than I had ever seen.
The religious fervor was beginning…
Congress and “God Bless America”
Many non-religious people that I have talked to say they wanted to gag when Congress started singing God Bless America. I was watching it live and I did not feel this urge to gag. The reason that it did not bother me is because they did not stage it. Several of the congressional representatives had already started walking away. One congressional representative in back started singing and everyone else joined in. Those that had already walked away scrambled to get back and join the chorus.
The singing of God Bless America was patriotic – not religious. What Congress did not know is that their innocent singing of God Bless America would act as a catalyst that would effectively replace the Star Spangled Banner with God Bless America as our national anthem. They had no idea that singing God Bless America would herald the tune to a new level and that they had effectively created a new battle hymn.
Baseball saw the singing of God Bless America during the seventh inning stretch. Other sporting events heard God Bless America before the national anthem. Signs popped up across the United States declaring, “God Bless America!”
God Bless America had lost its patriotic meaning in less than twelve hours and had become a religious rallying cry.
Candlelight Turns To Prayer
They started out innocently enough – small gatherings of people in front of fire departments and small parks in cities across the United States. Within 24 hours they were everywhere on TV and they moved from candlelight vigils to prayer vigils. The small independent crowds grew and clergy led them and churches organized them.
It started out as gatherings of heartfelt people trying to show support for those that had lost their lives – an attempt to show some form of solidarity. These gatherings quickly turned into a means for religious leaders to organize and increase the religious fervor – and increasing their coffers at the same time.
Pictures of early candlelight vigils simply showed people standing together holding candles and shedding tears – reflecting on the moment and confronting their own emotions. The next day’s video showed choirs, clergy and the singing of highly religious songs as attendees waved their hands in the air in charismatic fashion and said their prayers aloud while invoking Christ.
President Bush even declared a national day of prayer and every politician attended church. To their credit, the Imams and Rabbis around the United States kept their speeches and prayers very generic. The only clergy that were evoking a particular god and particular dogma were the Christians. The national day of prayer and the increase in outspoken Christian clergy created larger prayer vigils and they were becoming increasingly fundamentalist in nature.
Corporations and organizations have now joined the cause. Commercials show burning candles with words of offered prayers – then the company’s logo appears with “God Bless America” underneath. The state of Connecticut is running an ad with burning candles that lists all the names of every Connecticut citizen lost in the attack. God Bless America plays quietly in the background and the words, “We offer our prayers for those that are lost.”
You know it is getting bad when the “blue states” are accepting Fundamentalism without question.
The Rhetoric War and Swords Made Of Words
The war of words began and quickly escalated to sword rattling and a careful choice of adjectives. The adjectives that we use play a crucial role in propaganda and perception. Politicians are careful to avoid the word “religious” when talking about the terrorists – they use adjectives like “extremists” and “fanatics” instead. Blaming religion from a political standpoint would be severely detrimental to the coalition that President Bush is trying to build and would be political suicide for any politician.
We can expect the use of “soft words” and the careful selection of adjectives from politicians. The problem really comes up when they slip and say what is really on their mind instead of what their public relations advisors want them to say. The best example is President Bush calling this campaign a “crusade.”
When trying to build a coalition with Muslim nations the last thing you want to do is call your military efforts a “crusade.”
What became more obvious during the days after the incident was an increase in religious rhetoric. Religious catch phrases and sentiment began to permeate almost every statement made from Washington DC and around the world.
The rhetoric quickly turned to religion across the United States. Most politicians were careful not to push the religious idea in the camera because they wanted to avoid breaking up the coalition that coalesced after the attacks. The public, however, is a different story…
Onward Christian Soldiers
As I monitor newspapers across the United States, I see an overwhelming number of letters and editorials invoking prayer and a “return to God”. Many letters beseech the public to demand that prayer and Bible-reading return to public schools. Words convey a threat to the ACLU, atheists, liberals and others that do not agree with Christian dogma and doctrine and increased nationalism.
I take some solace in the fact that some letters and editorials have blasted Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and others are calling for unity among believers. However, the one thing that people miss is that there are non-believers here, as well. Prior to the attack, people called me a godless heathen. I did not have a problem with that because I am, in fact (by definition), a godless heathen. Now my atheism makes me an unpatriotic and un-American godless heathen.
Here are some of the things that people are saying across the United States (taken from newspapers and magazines):
“Thank God [politicians] are praying and not letting the ACLU run the country in this terrible time of distress.” – Mary Ann Sims
“Prior to the attack on America, the ACLU and other anti-faith organizations have been in the forefront of the news with their demands to eliminate public expression of religious faith. Today is a different day in America. […] The American people must now stand up to the enemy within, the ACLU and others that are working to destroy America.” – Donald Dunlap
“It is great to see that prayer and our Pledge of Allegiance of one nation under God have come to the forefront of our daily lives in this time of national need. “God Bless America” is the No. 1 song in America. Our forefathers would be proud.” – Paul Long
“The hope we need has been embedded into the foundation of this country by Christian men and women who believed in an absolute truth, and knew the difference between right and wrong. It is a foundation based on Christianity. During these trying times I am thankful we have Christian men like Bush and Ashcroft leading our country.” – Tal Kelley
“America still retains a vestige of her Christian heritage, for in times like these, the word “prayer” comes back into our vocabulary, and the name of God is used as a blessing rather than a curse. It is significant to note that the atheist has nothing to offer during such trying times.” – Joseph Kennedy
“[President Bush] will help us to restore this as a Christian nation. We’ve gone astray and I pray that Christ will reign.” – Marie Williams
“Another phenomenon that stands out in the aftermath of the tragedy is the expression of belief in God and prayers asking for His help by the president and every person and politician. (The Atheists, ACLU and certain members of the Supreme Court are probably losing sleep over this.)” – Earl Hargroder
“Now is the time for Americans to put prayer back in our lives. We need prayer in our schools and all school and public events.” – Virginia Pinkley
“However, we need to return to the true roots of this country – the Judeo-Christian beliefs of those who founded this country.” – Don Kumpunen
“I know [the ACLU] are eager for this crisis to end so they can get back to the business of protecting schoolchildren from all the evils of prayer!” – L. Calhoun
“I pray for President Bush and his advisers as they will indeed need the wisdom of Solomon, the courage of David and the mind of Christ in order to lead us.” – Rhonda Upton
Those are just a very small sampling of what is going on across the United States. Schools are holding mandatory prayer sessions for students and getting away with it. City Councils and other public officials are invoking Christ, leading visitors in prayers, and getting away with it. Separation violations have increased drastically and no one seems to be doing anything about it.
We find ourselves in a straw hut on a beach watching Religiosity, a category five hurricane, make landfall right on top of us. For the first time I found myself at a loss for what to do. How do I react to this and protect my civil liberties and the civil liberties of all Americans – even those that want to take mine away?
Where Do We Go From Here?
As I already said, I found myself in a situation where I did not know what to do. Suddenly the online debates seemed superfluous. Countless numbers of letters fell to the wayside without rebuttals. Even if we did rebut letters from before the attack, the newspapers would be unlikely to print them because the tragedy and the religious fervor have taken center stage.
The other issue I was dealing with was anger. I was furious with religion in general. The fact that these particular Muslims were extremists, fanatics or fundamentalists (choose the adjective of choice) does not take away from the fact that they were religious. I was so mad that I had to pull myself away from debates and activism for a few days. I had lost my objectivity. I was worried that my emotional state would cause me to say something that I would regret later. Reading the newspapers and watching the news, I wish more Americans had done the same – withdrawn until they calmed down and could approach this situation with a logical and more sober mindset.
“United We Stand” is becoming more visible – but we are not united. The mindset of Christian America constantly reminds us that if you are not Christian – you are not part of the “united”. People will say we need to be united as Americans in prayer but fail to remember that many Americans (possibly as high as 27 million) are not believers and do not pray.
All across the United States, we are hearing about acts of discrimination against anyone that does not tote the party line. Anyone that dares speak out against Christianity, President Bush, nationalism (that is another column all by itself) and emotional patriotism is immediately harassed and ridiculed. There were several incidents of people attacking Arab-Americans and vandalizing mosques.
Three independent polls found that 49% (average of the three polls) of Americans would endorse a requirement for Arab-Americans to wear special identification badges and receive special ID cards. Can anyone say Nazi Germany? What makes this Christian mentality any different from the Taliban demanding that Hindus wear yellow armbands?
If anyone thinks that terrorism is just an Islamic issue they are severely naïve or ignorant. Terrorism exists in “Christian America”. Will President Bush and his minions go after domestic terrorists? Will they arrest the leaders of Army of God for aiding and abetting terrorists that blow up abortion clinics and assassinate physicians that provide that service? Will they launch a tomahawk cruise missile into the training camps of the religious militia groups that are planning to overthrow the government?
Will they take down the terrorist groups such as Christian Identity? Will they take down the IRA and people in the United States that support the IRA with funds and weapons? Will the targets of anti-terrorism simply be Arab-Americans and worldwide Muslims? Will the targets of anti-terrorism include white Christian males in the United States and abroad?
What Can We Do?
Many atheist groups are collecting funds and sponsoring blood drives, providing counseling and other good deeds. This is great and needed. However, we need something else, now more than ever – activism.
Write your local newspaper addressing your concerns and let the public know that atheists and freethinkers do care. Let them know that we are concerned about civil liberties and religious and non-religious freedom for everyone. Let them know that we should unite as a nation under the ideals of America – not its religious majority.
Do not let separation violations go unanswered. They can be overwhelming, but we must at least speak out against every one. If they feel there is absolutely no opposition then there is no incentive to slow it down and think the issue through.
If there is no opposition and we do not impede theocratic progression then we will surely see the beginnings of a theocratic nation. We must stand firm and insist upon the separation of religion and government – ensure that no one tramples upon the Constitution during these times of heightened religiosity and unthinking emotionalism.
Is America Lost?
America has always prided herself on her freedoms. Freedom of speech allows Jerry Falwell to make stupid comments and allows people to agree or disagree with him openly. Freedom of religion allows people to worship or not worship as they see fit.
With the massive calls for prayer, God and Bible, are we losing our way? The hampering of freedom of speech is already beginning. Many are afraid to speak out against this religious fervor in fear of reprisals. Many atheists have returned to the closet for fear of harassment and discrimination. America’s religious have targeted people that have questioned the hyper-patriotism and nationalism for harassment and ridicule.
The hampering of freedom of religion is underway, as many non-Christian groups have toned down their religiosity so that they do not become targets. Arab-Americans are removing their turbans to make themselves less conspicuous targets of physical and mental abuse from Christians. Schools are forcing religion and making prayer sessions mandatory for all students.
The terrorists have succeeded far more than they could have ever imagined. They have managed to turn this country into a religious state that seems hell-bent on robbing us of our basic freedoms. Congress or an act of legislation does not need to repeal the freedoms we have. America’s religion can remove these freedoms by simple overwhelming harassment, pressure, isolation, ridicule, discrimination and countless other methods.
The question becomes, are you that one person who will refuse to bow their heads in a room of 1,000 people bowing their heads – all looking at you as if you were a poisonous viper? Consider me a viper if you must – but I will not bow my head and I will certainly not lose my freedoms without a fight.