This speech was delievered for a secular September 11 memorial service hosted by the Atheist Community of Austin.
After September 11 a year ago, for a short period of time -- maybe a few days, maybe a couple of weeks -- the United States really seemed to be unified. We were a nation in mourning; we all had a grief that we shared, even though most of us didn't personally know anyone who died in the tragedy. Everyone seemed just a little more sympathetic towards each other. People went out of their way to call old acquaintances and make sure they were okay. My wife even said she noticed that drivers were a little less rude in traffic. They wouldn't cut each other off, they would slow down to let you change lanes, and they wouldn't honk and gesture so much.
Human nature being what it is, it's not really surprising that this camaraderie didn't last very long. The first crack I noticed came from an unsurprising source: Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Instead of offering moral support and positive suggestions, they began casting around for someone to blame. It was on September 13, just two days later, that Jerry and Pat appeared on "The 700 Club" to offer these words of support and comfort to our nation: "...what we saw on Tuesday, as terrible as it is, could be minuscule if, in fact, God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve."
Falwell then went on to explain why we deserved what we got. It would seem that it's all the fault of a laundry list of groups: the American Civil Liberties Union, pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays, and lesbians. They all make his God angry.
At the same time, something else was happening in America. Reports of hate crimes against people of Arabic descent started coming in. We all heard the reports about assaults, death threats, and general harassment against people who looked middle-Eastern. They were directed against innocent people who weren't involved in the attacks, who would never dream of such an action. In many cases, the victims weren't even the RIGHT ethnicity -- they were Pakistani or Indian; they practiced Hinduism rather than Islam. Racial prejudice isn't known for its logic.
To Ann Coulter it's obvious what the solution is to Islamic terrorism. In a column on September 14, she wrote that "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." OBVIOUSLY the problem is that the assailants were Muslims; if they had been Christians, they would never have done such a thing, because there are no recorded instances of people killing each other in the name of Christianity, right?
The news about racial hate crimes has diminished in more recent times, but it has been replaced by a general undercurrent of anger against Muslims. As recently as last month, we've heard Billy Graham's son, Franklin, tell us that all Islamic people scare him, saying, "the silence of the (Islamic) clerics around the world is frightening to me." In reality, there are hundreds of Muslim leaders from around the world who have issued public statements denouncing the actions of the terrorists, and yet Graham ignores this fact and asks: "How come they haven't come to this country, how come they haven't apologized to the American people?"
Ashraf Sabrin, a medical technician who volunteered for the relief efforts at the twin towers and the Pentagon, said: "We've had so many different events -- open houses, candlelight vigils, national press releases. What's it going to take exactly?" Ironically, Franklin Graham's false sweeping generalization about Muslims came up shortly after the publication of a book he wrote which included the following claim: "Islam - unlike Christianity - has among its basic teachings a deep intolerance for those who follow other faiths."
Meanwhile, popular radio commentators and news editorialists can be heard daily making sarcastic mockeries of Arabs, saying "If they don't want to be frisked at every checkpoint and looked at with perpetual suspicion by all American citizens, then they shouldn't come here and blow up our buildings." That is, of course, absurd. Most of the people we are talking about are American citizens themselves, who watched in horror along with the rest of us as the twin towers collapsed; but unlike the rest of us, they received the additional insult of being harassed and targeted by angry people looking for revenge on someone, anyone. The reality is that the peaceful American citizens of Arab descent who walk among us in our cities are NOT the same ones who attacked us.
We atheists have also received a bit more than our fair share of the blame for an event that didn't involve us at all. Kathleen Parker wrote an editorial for USA Today on October 1 that begins by saying, "One can't help notice the silence of atheists these days." The general idea of this article was that it would be a very good thing if atheists would all shut up about that irritating "separation of church and state" and go away so we could get back to the business of giving our children proper values. It concluded by saying, "If we're to win this war -- sure to last into our children's futures -- we have to reweave the rituals of God and country into our institutions."
Well, obviously atheists haven't been keeping silent -- here we are, after all -- but they've been marginalized as much as possible ever since last year. We've become convenient bogeymen representing everything that's wrong with American values, which led God to decide that we're not worthy of being protected anymore.
So, whose fault was September 11? On the one hand, we hear that the reason we're being targeted by terrorist attacks is because we deserve it, thanks to all the atheists and evolutionists and ACLU members and gay people and so on. On the other hand, we hear that it's all the fault of every single person who has a certain ethnic background, especially if they are presumably too foolish to recognize that one religion is inherently evil and violent while another religion is noble and good.
Human beings are pattern-seeking animals. When we see something that interests or scares us, we look for a way that we can generalize the experience. Sometimes this is simply good survival instinct; after all, if you recognize the circumstances when you make a mistake, then hopefully you won't make the same mistake again. But as a method of dealing with other people, sometimes it's just bad policy.
A common thread that we see in all this is Americans attacking other Americans, looking for easy rules of thumb to tell them who the bad guys are. No such rules exist, of course, especially in a pluralistic society where many different ways of life are represented. We're letting generalizations get in the way of thinking.
Unfortunately, atheists are sometimes guilty of this habit too. How many of you were listening to what I said about Robertson, Falwell, and Graham, and thinking to yourselves "See? That just goes to show that you can't trust those religious people"? It's very easy for non-Christians to take the worst examples of Christianity and use that as a substitute for the religion as a whole. But in fact, it's not that being a member of a particular religion makes you a bad person, any more than being a member of no religion. There are some fine and wonderful Christians out there, just as there are fine and wonderful Muslims and atheists.
The danger that any religion poses occurs only when its members become entrenched in the idea that "Our metaphysical truth is right, and theirs is SO WRONG that there is no possibility that we can even communicate." Jerry Falwell said it about large numbers of Americans. Franklin Graham said it about all Muslims. And Osama bin Laden said it about us. In that sense, when fundamentalism is practiced to extremes in this country, it mirrors the sort practiced in Afghanistan.
We shouldn't do that. We're supposed to be the country that values diversity, and we're proud of our freedom to choose to believe whatever religion we want, including none at all.
But we are, each one of us, about more than just our religion. We are not our set of beliefs. We are not the groups we join or the people we associate with. Each one of us is an individual, someone who is worthy of respect and appreciation for our unique qualities.
Let's not join together in groups as a way of shutting out the rest of the world. If we do join groups, it should be because we want to feel close to each other and have friends. Study the examples of the Taliban and al Qaeda, and understand that they're bad not because they practice Islam, and not because of their dark skin, but because they've come to a place where they can't accept anyone having different beliefs than their own. And then let's try not to follow their example.