Yesterday was the eleventh anniversary of the massacre of Sept. 11, 2001. Today I’d like to reflect on how that event changed the way I think about religion.
As the rubble settled eleven years ago, the questions on everyone’s mind were, “Who did this to us, and why?” As details came to light, it became apparent the “who” were Muslim extremists and the “why” was because we happened to be a nation of mostly not Muslim extremists. The intent was to teach us a lesson, and the lesson was that we do not practice or enforce the right religious ideology here.
The smoking pile was intended as a reminder of what happens to people who reject a certain religion, a warning that Westerners had better repent of our wicked ways.
That’s it, really. While a portion of the world stood aghast at the loss of some 3,000 lives, another portion stood smirking and called it justice.
I sat in front of the television and tried to wrap my head around this. The fact that the perpetrators identified as Muslim became inconsequential to me. A group of religious men, for religious reasons, had committed an act of religious piety that resulted in the annihilation of thousands and the fear and misery of millions.
Did this look like anything I had seen before?
I saw trucks loaded with rubble from Ground Zero driving to Staten Island, to sort the remains at a landfill by the name of Fresh Kills. (“Kill” is derived from an old Dutch word meaning stream or brook, and is found in the name of other areas of NY founded by the Dutch, such as the Catskills.) Those trucks would carry 2 million tons of debris to Fresh Kills. From that debris, 300 persons were identified. I don’t recall any journalists making much of the landfill’s name — our wounds were too raw for irony at the time.
Did this look like anything I had seen before? A stinking junkyard as the only place to carry the pulverized remains of human beings and the artifacts of the culture they had built?
Yes, I had seen this before. I recognized the motif.
The scenes in lower Manhattan and at Fresh Kills were hellish. Just like Hell, the Christian Hell, where unbelievers go when they die.
The Christianity I had espoused was all about redemption. Redemption from Hell with a capital “H” because it is the name of an actual place. There is no Good News of Christianity without the Bad News of Hell — that our God gave his son Jesus so that we don’t have to go to Hell, but Hell is where we will go if we don’t accept Jesus.
I had said it and thought it so many times I had ceased having any emotional reaction to it. It was simply a known fact — no Jesus, no Heaven. In a primal, twisted way, I had made peace with the Christian Hell, because it was for other people. People who had been warned. People who didn’t see things my way.
Confronting the images of devastation and grief, the months and months of obituaries in The New York Times, I saw another religion’s Hell for the first time.
Another religion that thought “Fresh Kills” sounded just about right.
Another religion that could look at the massive sucking wound at the World Trade Center and give a dismissive shrug. The same shrug — the same shrug I gave when I thought about hundreds of thousands of generations of Hindus and animists and Jews and pagans and liberals and Catholics slipping down the chute to eternal torment.
Just as my mind could not comprehend the enormity of 9/11, my mind had been unable to comprehend the enormity of my own theology.
Radical Muslims shrugged. I shrugged. Hold me and the terrorists under the bright light of interrogation and we’d eventually tell you the same thing: people are expendable. Religious truth prevails.
I had secured the defensive padding against the horror of my own religion, the lines that says, “People choose Hell” and “A loving God cannot force men into Heaven against their will — Hell exists because God loves us and gives us free will”.
It had worked for me. “Ball’s in your court, sucker.”
Needless to say, I could not stand for long in this blazing daylight of personal revelation. I had to make a choice: to head down the path of invasive critical examination of my beliefs, or to double down.
For a while, I chose the latter.
I told myself 9/11 was a warning for people to repent (of their beliefs that were different from mine) and be saved (from the God who created Heaven and Hell).
I continued to teach adult Bible study classes about the Jesus who saves people (from the anger of his Father, and his own eventual wrath that will make 9/11 look like a walk in the park).
One of my students asked about the stories in Exodus: the 12 plagues, Passover, the parting of the Red Sea. “What about Egyptian culture, invention, and art? What about the people? It was all worthless?”
Yep. Pretty much.
Another student kept poking at the question of how our Bible was pieced together. He asked me to set aside at least one class to talk about that. I told him I knew very little about that, and would have to research it. What I didn’t tell him was that I’d avoided that research for decades because I knew where it would lead me.
I could already hear the floorboards creaking.
The book I had decided was the most reliable one on the planet had a sketchy background. But no bother — it tells us everything we need to know about life. And it ends with a story about unfathomable human suffering for the majority of the people who have ever lived, both before and after the time of Jesus. But not for me. I and my church friends get to go to Heaven.
When we were scrambling for something positive to say eleven years ago, it was this: that people came together, that people bravely sacrificed for one another, that people loved and were loved.
Allegedly, that’s the message of religion.
But in reality, the attack of 9/11 is the message of religion.
The thing about people coming together and caring for one another? That’s humanism.
I understood that if I took away Hell from my religion, it would cease to make sense.
I had seen Hell on TV. I had seen humanism deliver us from the Hell of religion’s purest expression.
There are many good people who can hold religion with a loose grip, who never bother with investigating the theology of their beliefs. Their religion makes them cheerful, motivates them to write checks to charities, comforts them in sorrow. I am happy for them.
Me, I’ve always been one who has to dig around under the surface, find out how things work. That’s why I studied at a Bible college. That’s why I devoted decades of research and investigation to my faith. I am not good at pretending the yucky underpinnings don’t exist.
That’s why I gave up religion for humanism. The holy books eventually make us crazy and hateful. We already know how to love. Now it’s a matter of just doing it.