The impact of 9/11 on the atheist movement

The 2015 film Spotlight, through both its background and foreground events, highlights many of the factors which influenced the modern atheist movement. The main narrative follows intrepid reporters working to uncover the (open secret of) institutional child abuse perpetrated by their local religious hierarchy, in doing so undermining that institutional deference. In the background we see adverts for AOL and the coming internet revolution that will crush the viability of such traditional journalism. The second major background event depicted is the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, 20 years ago this week.

The extent to which 9/11 influenced and has continued to influence the modern atheist and wider AHS+ movement is significant but may be more nuanced and less prominent than some narratives suggest. 9/11 was certainly the largest in a series of incidents which pushed religious fundamentalism into mainstream media debate. Without this push, mainstream publishers would not have supported Letter to a Christian Nation (2006), The God Delusion (2006), Breaking the Spell (2006), God Is Not Great (2007). But then again, these books were five years later and while all mention 9/11, this would not be surprising in any political book at the time and is a main theme in only one.

Post 9/11 western foreign policy does not explain how widespread the rise of non-religious thinking has been across almost every society, regardless of any nation’s relationship with that foreign policy.

9/11 was only one event in an interconnected series of Islamist violence and western militarism which unleashed and been used to excuse a wave of anti-Muslim bigotry which has been a major influence on the relationship between Muslims and wider society in the west. There have been genuine problems with such anti-Muslim bigotry in AHS+ spaces. We must do better at recognising and confronting such prejudices. That legitimate criticisms of Islam and Islamism is often conflated with such bigotry is a separate problem.

The aftermath of 9/11 was marked by clash of civilisations narrative used to defend western foreign policy and militarism. This was narrative was particularly popular in the early days of the ‘war on terror’, before its foreign and domestic excesses were clear for all to see. Though I don’t see any evidence that atheists were particularly susceptible to this jingoism.

The clash of civilisation narrative certainly had a huge influence on the modern atheist movement in its early days, and many saw 9/11 as a seminal illustration in a clash between rationalism and irrationalism. I think that almost everyone would now recognise that as overly simplistic.

Christopher Hitchens’ prominent support for the ‘war on terror’ was so prominent because of how much it put him at odds with so much of the mainstream atheist movement. Even Sam Harris who among the ‘four horsemen of new atheism’ was the biggest proponent of the ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative and (not coincidently) had some of the most simplistic views of Islam was not a big fan of US foreign policy.

9/11 had an indirect influence on some of the other major factors that influenced the rise of the modern atheist movement. Of these the biggest factor by far was the rise of the internet. This allowed many atheists and potential atheists to, for the first time, link up with and hear from others who shared their opinions. The role of the internet in creating the modern atheist movement and making mockery of religion possible, led to overlaps with online trolling culture that was significantly influenced by post 9/11 anti-Muslim bigotry.

If the internet expanded the atheist movement, it was the Bush Jr presidency (itself consumed by post 9/11 foreign policy) that politicised it. US cultural hegemony meant that this was true far beyond their shores. Though the Blair premiership also played a role in the UK. Pre 9/11 atheist movements leaned left and progressive, due to their humanist influences. But this politicisation was accelerated in the UK and US by the culture wars of the early 21st century, over creationism, gay rights, and state funding of religious initiatives.

If support for the worst excesses of the post 9/11 war on terror was a major motivator for the atheist movement, then why did this political polarisation turn most atheists against the political parties most supportive of those excesses?

These culture wars set the foundation for the resurgence of Christian nationalism and the modern alt-right. Anti-Muslim bigotry and online troll culture certainly made a minority of the atheist movement sympathetic to such politics.

The third major factor in the rise of the modern atheist movement was the increased public consciousness of the scale of institutional child abuse within religious institutions. It’s hard to see any link between this and 9/11.

Overstating the influence of 9/11 is part of a general trend among those critical of the atheist movement, including internal critics and many mainstream religious scholars, to not accept atheists’ self-reported reasons for their beliefs. Every single atheist I have ever met has some combination of two main motivations: intellectual or moral problems with religion. Of course, there are other factors, but it is amazing the extent to which many discourses about atheism seek to downplay these main ones.

Right-wing critics of atheists don’t want to recognise the legitimacy of their intellectual or moral concerns, so they either imagine or overstate motivations that fit their own biases: ‘atheist just want to sin or hate western Christian civilisation’. In the same way, many left-wing critics imagine or overstate motivations that fit their own biases: ‘atheists are just prejudiced’.

Liberal and centrist commentators’ bias towards ‘both sidesism’ shapes their response to the modern atheist movement. Atheists are demonstrably less sexist, homophobic, transphobic, racist etc. than their religious critics, they don’t support anti-scientific dogmas, so arguing they are ‘just as bad’ is difficult. One strategy to overstate the influence of toxic parts of the moment, another is to try to tie atheism to something terrible. Just as we see ridiculous attempts to blame atheist for Hitler or Stalin, we see attempts to blame us for a Christian led foreign policy that has killed millions.

A lot of people’s conceptions of the modern atheist movement formed in this very early period between 2003/07, where 9/11 had more potential to be an influencing factor. I first got involved in 2007 and never remember it being a major topic of debate. By 2010, the biggest divides within atheism were over social justice issues. I doubt 9/11 could possibly be a major motivating factor for anyone who got involved in the movement in the last few years. The oldest Gen Z atheists could only have been five years old at the time and are part of the least religious generations in history. On the other hand, there certainly seems to be a generational divide in the atheist and wider AHS+ movement. Older atheists who had more potential to be greatly influenced by 9/11 are generally less motivated by humanism and social justice issues.

Thanks for reading

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Photo information: View of Lower Manhattan, Thomas Svensson

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