The events of September 11th, 2001 are arguably the worst thing that has ever happened to America – worse even than Pearl Harbor – but not for the reasons you might expect. What makes them worse is the grand irony that’s been piled on top of the insult and injury, for ten years now, it’s now clear that the biggest blow we received that day was neither the loss of innocence nor the loss of life but rather the government’s hysterical reaction to it all, spearheaded by the Neocons and other fear-mongers of the Far Right. This has done far more to destroy our civil liberties and way of life than anything the terrorists ever accomplished on their own.
Think how much things have changed since then: It will sound fantastical to our grandchildren that we used to meet our loved ones right at the gate as we stepped off an airplane; that we used to be able to arrive five minutes before takeoff and be ushered hurriedly onto the plane, carrying, if we wanted to, a bottle of water, or strike-anywhere matches, or even a pocketknife with up to a four-inch blade. It will seem absurd that for most of the country’s history, there was no massive fence separating the U.S. from Mexico, no passports required to visit our peaceful neighbor, Canada. They will never have known a world without biometric scanners and drone surveillance, or an Internet free from Homeland Security keeping tabs on every Facebook comment and every tweet.
If the Republican party continues down the Bible-paved path that it’s currently heading on, and if it somehow manages to gain enough momentum between now and election time to actually unseat Obama, then one day it may likewise seem unbelievable that there was ever a time when atheism was not illegal; that the Bill of Rights once defended the right of citizens to criticize religion without being arrested for blasphemy; that women were once able to choose whether or not to have an abortion; that homosexuality was not always a capital offense, and that education used to involve the teaching of science.
If this sounds far-fetched, more like the ninth century than the twenty-first, it shouldn’t, for the exact same thought system that caused so much misery back then is still very much alive and thriving in the present day. You hear it in the constant stream of rhetorical bile that emerges from the mouths of the Santorums and Limbaughs and Perrys out there; they’ve made it abundantly clear that such dystopian scenarios as outlined above need no longer be confined to the realms of history or fiction, for if they had their way, we’d all be on a one-way trip straight back to the Middle Ages. It’s not our brightest moment as a nation, to say the least.
Is it possible though, that behind all this doom and gloom lies hidden a tiny spark of hope? Is there, in fact, a silver lining to these dark storm clouds gathering ominously on the horizon? I, for one, firmly believe that there is. I think that the unhinged lunacy of the Religious Right currently on full display can be turned to our advantage, becoming a catalyst for positive change. Here’s how:
Religious zealots love nothing more than to expound loudly and publicly upon the craziest aspects of their ideology – religious political zealots even more so. But this strategy is quickly beginning to backfire on them. By making themselves into real-life straw men who represent all of the bigotry, xenophobia, and oppression inherent in their underlying beliefs, they inadvertently swell the ranks of all those who prefer reasoned discourse to ranting and diatribe; of those who believe in evidence, in rationality; of those who look upon unfounded dogma as something that must be challenged, and who view the right to question as the most sacred right of all. To put it bluntly, these politicians of the Far Right have themselves become the atheist factories that they accuse colleges of being. All they have to do is open their mouths.
Every time Santorum speaks of bombing Iran to stop their evil theocracy, he unintentionally makes the case for stopping his own Christian theocracy right here at home. After all, the U.S. possesses the second largest stockpile of nuclear weapons on Earth – enough to destroy the planet many times over – and there is a small but vocal segment of the population who would love to see it employed in order to bring about Armageddon and usher in the blessed Second Coming of Christ. Every time Gingrich rails against “creeping Sharia Law” or when Limbaugh calls an innocent young woman a “slut” and a “prostitute” for suggesting that birth control should be widely available, we’re reminded of the barbarity of forced veiling, genital mutilation, and of so-called “honor killings.” And every time Perry and others push for prayer in schools, it’s all too eerily reminiscent of the Wahhabiist madrassas spread throughout Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, churning out fresh batches of the very same fundamentalist whack jobs who turned passenger jets into cruise missiles and who can imagine no greater glory than to die in the service of jihad.
September 11th changed more than just the landscape – it changed an entire worldview. The sight of three thousand people falling, burning, and being crushed to death under the collapsing rubble of what had just-hours-before been the tallest skyscrapers in the richest city in the most powerful nation on earth – that was mind-numbing. It was like a low-budge sci-fi movie, unreal. It was everything the twenty-first century was supposed to be leaving behind. And then to realize that all of the senseless carnage playing out live on television screens around the world was done in the name of the invisible Lord of the Universe; that its ultimate, direct cause was none other than nineteen devout religious believers taking the tenets of their faith to its logical extreme… it made people reconsider certain fundamental assumptions.
It’s not just fanatical Muslims driving this change, either. Islam may have provided the initial spark but now it’s Christianity who’s fanning the flames, and every attack on modernity only spreads the conflagration. With the recent upsurge in militant, right-wing Christianity and what appears will be a never-ending War on Islamic Terror, the writing’s on the wall. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to sort out why there’s been such steady growth in atheism over the past decade, as more and more people have begun waking up to the fact of religion’s increasing incompatibility with the modern world. And that’s exactly what it is; dogmatic religions are simply not compatible with seven billion people learning to get along on a single planet of finite size and resources.
I can hear the cries of indignation already. Apologists and sympathizers will say that I’ve cherry-picked the most extreme examples of religious wrongdoing. Moderate and liberal religionists will claim they see nothing of themselves in the seemingly caricaturized portraits I’ve painted here, disavowing the actions of the lunatics while still themselves howling at the moon. Ask yourselves this, then: Where do you think the fanatics get their ideas from? Care to guess? They get them from the very same books you use as your guide to morality and the basis of all of your feel-good notions about God and souls and seeing Grandma in heaven. And why is it that we’re always treating the symptoms of religious extremism without ever addressing the underlying source of it? It’s because to do so would mean upsetting the fragile foundations upon which so many people have uncritically built their lives, their hopes, their dreams – and that simply won’t fly.
But what, beyond falsehoods, can religion truly offer? Why is it deemed so important that we as a society maintain an organization whose sole mission is convincing credulous people that they have an imaginary illness so that it alone can offer them the cure? What questions does religion answer that can’t be better answered by science or philosophy? What dilemmas does it solve that are so intractable that only the unique insights of first century desert dwellers will suffice to address them?
There are myriad logical, philosophical, historical, linguistic, biological, cosmological, psychological, and ethical reasons why atheism is the worldview that best fits the observable facts of the universe we live in, and I realize that I’ve barely skimmed the surface of them here, as to go deeper would take us far beyond the scope of one brief essay, but the behavior of both America’s Religious Right and that of our radical Islamist enemies should give pause for consideration that perhaps faith-based religion is not the best path forward to peace on Earth and goodwill towards men. Perhaps, like leeches and bloodletting in the days before science took charge of medicine, religion is not only not the solution, but in fact the problem itself. It’s a problem that’s not going away overnight; it will take time for these “heretical” ideas to take root in the collective consciousness of our species. Until then, let us pray that those who pray are not the ones steering the ship of state, for our freedom and survival may very well depend on it.