"It's amazing how good religion is at mobilizing people to do awful things."
This line from Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero may be the one I will remember most. The program, part of Public broadcasting's Frontline series, considered the role of religion in the aftermath of the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The show's creators interviewed many different people, asking them to describe how September 11th affected their faith. As you would expect, some reacted to the loss of their loved ones and to the lost sense of security by increasing their trust in God and the ideal of a heaven where they will be reunited. In other cases, people described a changed sense of what God is... or even whether God is.
The two-hour program is fascinating. I was struck by comments offered by many of the people. For example, I had not heard of the Lutheran minister who was accused of heresy by his fellow Lutheran clergymen for praying with representatives of other religions during a service on September 23rd. His experience shows clearly that, contrary to a common stereotype in the US, the press for purity in the faith is not unique to Islam. As a human characteristic, it transcends religion and denomination.
The overarching theme of the program strikes at the heart of religion and the questions of belief. Religion is about connection, whether with something or someone larger than oneself, with an ultimate being, or an ultimate meaning. This point was illustrated repeatedly throughout Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero. Some found religion, this connection, with God. Others found it in a renewed sense of connection with their remaining family members. Still others describe finding connection with the sacred space that the World Trade Center site has become for them. On the other hand, the people who describe a loss of religion illustrate the loss of connection. They no longer see God as being good, or even as existing, because of the terrible loss they feel.
The sight of two people holding hands as they leapt from the upper floors of the building in order to escape the smoke and fire brought very different reactions. It prompted one person to feel a renewal in his faith, and a sense that love triumphs over a fear of death. Another witness to the same scene concluded, "If there is a God, he is a very indifferent God."
One of the people who spoke most poignantly was an Episcopal priest who candidly describes how his faith is now strengthened in some ways but shaken in others. In his experience we see the complexity that many people experience, and few articulate.
Although I wish that they had included more psychological perspectives than the depth psychologist they interviewed, Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero is definitely worth watching. In many locations in the US, you can see a rebroadcast of the program later this week or month. Check your local listings, or visit the PBS website to purchase a copy. And if you haven't read it, or not read it recently, consider reading this essay I wrote immediately following 9/11.