Articles of Faith: The Importance of Understanding Religion in a Post-9/11 World

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A memorial service for the victims of Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks takes place at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., on Sept. 20, 2011.

It’s hard to remember now, but in the days immediately following the attacks of 9/11, a spirit of religious unity reigned. Shocked political foes gathered together at the Washington National Cathedral for a prayer service that included a Muslim imam who read verses from the Koran. Just a few days later, George W. Bush quoted from the Koran himself at the Islamic Center in Washington, and told the country that “Islam is peace.”

It didn’t take long, however, for the tender feelings of togetherness and tolerance to be replaced by division and hostility. Some thought leaders and policymakers embraced Samuel Huntington’s idea that the West was engaged in a “clash of civilizations” with Islam. Meanwhile, neo-atheists led by Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens put forward their own theory of a world split between civilized secularists and dangerous religionists. Secular academics and other thinkers have predicted and hoped for decades that as societies become more advanced, religion and its institutions would become less relevant. To them, 9/11 was further proof that religion is incompatible with modernity.

But while the last 10 years have inspired many difficult discussions about the relationship between religious communities and democratic societies, they have also proven that the decline of religion is not inevitable in modern society. Trust in religious institutions and leaders has fallen, as it has for secular institutions as well. But Americans continue to value religion–85% consistently tell Pew pollsters that religion is an important part of their lives. And the relocation of religious immigrants to the U.S. and parts of Europe has insured that the West is by no means a civilization in which religion is invisible.

We read most often about the conflicts that occur in our modern communities over religion: the banning of hijab in France, fights over plans for an Islamic center in lower Manhattan, debates over the teaching of evolution in public schools. But in our focus on these conflicts, we too often miss something fascinating that is going on. Ancient religious traditions are not fading away in the face of modernity. They are adapting–and forcing modern societies to adapt to them as well. High school football players in Dearborn, Michigan, schedule midnight practices during Ramadan. Conservative Christians study political theory and snag competitive internships in Washington. Christian Scientists lobby Congress and win provisions to cover their practitioners in health reform.

And the wishful thinking of the neo-atheists ignores the fact that a little religion often does a lot of good. The British psychiatrist Russell Razzaque, a Muslim, has studied jihadists and discovered that many came from families that were not terribly religious. Their lack of familiarity with the Koran and Muslim teachings left them vulnerable to the distorted version of Islam that radicalists preached. By contrast, those potential recruits like Razzaque who grew up in religious homes knew enough about the Koran to recognize that something was off about the jihadist message.

A little knowledge about religion benefits us all. More than that, the West’s continued ignorance is inexcusable given the fact that religion is not fading into extinction. It was bad enough that on 9/11, Americans had virtually no understanding of one of the world’s major religions. On the eve of the invasion of Iraq, political leaders were proud of the fact that they knew there were Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims. Mumbles and blank stares followed if you asked them the difference, however.

Ten years later, American leaders still know astonishingly little about Islam. The FBI’s training about Islam taught its agents that modern Muslims transform cultures back to 7th century civilizations. In public opinion polls, few Americans can correctly identify basic details about Islam. (To be fair, they also have a hard time naming the writers of the four Gospels or any Supreme Court justice.) Politicians behind efforts to ban sharia law have trouble answering questions about what sharia is or how it has ever been referenced in the American legal system.

One obvious fix–some simple education about religious traditions–shouldn’t be so difficult. And yet it is. Conservatives support the idea of teaching religion in schools–but they mean Christianity and they mean their interpretation of Christianity. Liberals make the same assumption when they hear about proposals to teach religion–they assume classes will involve students practicing religion, not learning about religion. Just a few years ago, a proposal to introduce a religion course requirement to Harvard’s core curriculum caused an uproar among faculty who opposed forcing students to learn about “irrational” subjects, and was quickly squashed.

Our imagination has been impoverished. Instead of dividing the world into what was rational and what was faith-based, instead of waiting for a time when religion ceased to matter and a completely secular society could proceed unabated, we could have thought through versions of modernity that were influenced by–and influenced, in turn–religion.

An important legacy of 9/11 is that we cannot afford to ignore or misunderstand religion. The briefest of glances at recent American history turns up major social, political, and cultural developments that can’t be understood without looking at religion: the civil rights movement, the Jim Jones massacre, the Iran hostage crisis, the Christian Right, abortion wars, and religiously-motivated terrorism. The prayer services, the tributes, the remembrances on this anniversary have their place. But a national religion teach-in might do us more good in the long run.

Amy Sullivan is a contributing writer at TIME, and author of the book The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap (Scribner, 2008). Articles of Faith, her column on the intersection of religion and politics, appears on every Friday.