Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero

I missed its first airing on PBS so, at my brother’s suggestion, I recently checked out a video tape of the Frontline special “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero” from the public library and watched it. I’ve seen other programs related to the events of 11 September 2001, but this one is particularly interesting to me because it deals with the role that religion played in those events and in the lives of those who were most effected by them. Questions that many Americans considered abstract, theoretical or of little relevance suddenly became very real and important on that day. This presentation is very well done and is worth watching and thinking about. So I’ve been thinking about it since watching it. I’ve thought quite a bit about the questions it raises before that Sept. 11 and in the years since.

“What did America see on Sept. 11? And how did it affect our notions of God, of evil, and of the potential for darkness within religion itself?” These are the questions that the program attempts to explore. It’s the last part of the second question that is particularly interesting. Those who hijacked the four passenger jets and used them to destroy important buildings and thousands of people’s lives did what they did in the name of God. They believed that they were martyrs doing the will of Allah. Evil motivated by religious belief is not new, rare or isolated to one particular religion, especially among the big three: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Questions of why a good God would allow such evil have been wrestled with for centuries. Sept. 11 made us realize how vulnerable we really are and how important such questions raised by the program can be.

There was a poll on the PBS web site that asked people how the Sept. 11 events affected their faith. Did it change whether or not they believe in God? Did it strengthen or weaken that belief or unbelief? Interestingly, for both believers and unbelievers, the events either strengthened or had no effect on the position of the great majority of people. Thinking about my own answer to those questions, I’d have to say that the experience deepened my faith. I wasn’t effected directly. I don’t know anyone who was killed on that day. But I was in the middle of an earthshaking experience of my own. I had just left a job after 21 years with an employer that was once the largest, most secure and stable company in the world. I enjoyed my work very much, but during the previous five years I saw the company unravel and become very unstable. It was a very scary and depressing experience for me. It showed me how little we really have to take for granted in this world. My relationship with God changed. (Books like When God Interrupts by M. Craig Barnes and Water from Stone by M. Wayne Brown describe the shift pretty well.) I realized that God doesn’t necessarily protect us from danger, tragedy or loss. He doesn’t give us the life we want in exchange for our devotion to him. I had known that before, of course, but it really hit home for me then. The events of Sept. 11 reinforced that experience on a much larger scale. As I sat at home with my daughter watching the news coverage, I couldn’t help but wonder what was happening to our world. How could life ever be the same again? I hasn’t been. The feeling of temporality and diminishment underlies even the happiest experiences that I have had since.

So, in what way did my belief in God become stronger? I guess a better way to describe it is that it became more real. We live in a world where the potential for disaster exists all around us. Our advanced technology increases the magnitude of that potential even as its benefits make our lives more livable. It’s easy to become distracted from the implications of our own vulnerability and mortality. Life is short and very difficult for many. Suffering and death are ultimately unavoidable. Whatever we accomplish or acquire here will be left to someone else. “Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish” (Psalm 49:12, ESV). What real significance do our lives have beyond “eat, drink and be merry?” How do we face the fact that it could all end so suddenly?

God offers meaning and purpose for our lives in spite of suffering and loss. That can be a hard pill to swallow but, in my opinion the alternatives are much worse and far more incredible. The PBS video only hinted at the possibility but some would actually argue that since so much evil seems to be motivated by religion, religion must be a primary cause of evil. I (of course) disagree and think this is a very shallow view. I think that evil is a common human failing. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said that, “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either–but right through every human heart–and through all human hearts” (The Gulag Archipelago, vol. 2, p. 615). I think the same applies to religious beliefs. Religion is a moral magnifier. Evil people use it to justify their ends and means with a transcendent authority. The fault is not in the authority, but in the abuse of it. Eliminating religion will not eliminate evil. Quite the opposite, I think. Religion has been more of a hindrance to evil and promoter of good than anything else. Take it away for its potential abuse as a transcendent justification of evil and you do the same thing for good. What is left? Dinesh D’Souza has recently argued that, “Atheism, not religion, is the real force behind the mass murders of history.” Daniel Eran makes a similar argument against the supposed virtues of atheism in his response to Scott Adams’ suggestion that Bill Gates run for president: “Bill Gates for President? No Thanks.” Why is it that some people think religion seems to justify the evil that believers do, but the evil done by nonbelievers isn’t attributed to their lack of it?

The ethical dilemmas that I see for atheism are pretty well explained in Philip Yancey’s articles, “Nietzsche Was Right” and “Dark Nature“, published in Books and Culture in 1998. But I wonder more about what motivates and inspires all the good in the world. I think religion has had more to do with that than it does with promoting evil.

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One Response to Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero

  1. Paul Dubuc says:

    Today someone pointed out to me a recent editorial by National Review Online editor Jonah Goldberg entitled “Are You Certain About That?” This, I think, makes the point well that I was trying to make about religion being a “moral magnifier”. The moral certainty that religion supports isn’t itself the problem. Most people display such certainty on various beliefs whether they draw support from religion for it or not. It’s the content of such certainty that matters.

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