Two beams of light in nighttime sky commemorate the 9/11 attacks


Religion after September 11: Scholars and Policymakers Look to the Next 20 Years at Berkley Center Event

By: Henry D. Brill

September 22, 2021

The twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks represents an opportunity to rethink the challenges and possibilities of religion in world affairs, according to a Berkley Center panel held earlier this week.

“One of the remarkable long-term impacts of September 11 has been the mobilization of religious communities around global issues—not just violence and peace, but broader global agendas such as health, climate change, and migration,” said Berkley Center Director Thomas Banchoff, who introduced the event. 

Panelists—center scholars José Casanova, Jocelyne Cesari, Rev. Drew Christiansen, S.J., and Katherine Marshall—built on a series of Berkley Forum reflections to explore the past, present, and future of religion and world affairs. The discussion was moderated by author and literary critic Paul Elie, a senior fellow at the center. 

Religion Goes Public 

Casanova, a sociologist of religion, considered how the September 11 attacks highlighted the resurgence of religion in the public square, reflecting on his book Public Religions in the Modern World (1994). 

“It confirmed the thesis of Public Religions in the Modern World, namely that religion was becoming deprivatized,” explained Casanova. “Religion was going public not on the nation-state level, but on the global level—this was the real impact of September 11.”

The 9/11 attacks forced secular institutions to rediscover the power of the sacred, but the newfound interest in religion often stemmed from fear of religiously linked violence, according to Casanova. 

“I was trying to say that there is something else that religions can provide,” the sociologist said. “Religion is something that transcends the structures that we have and allows us to think beyond the present, beyond the things we take for granted.”

Faith in Development

Marshall, who works at the intersection of religion and global development as executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue, noted the complexities of faith engagement in gender-related issues after 2001.

“There are some religious traditions that have led, to my mind, the greatest transformation in social history: changes in the relationships between men and women,” explained Marshall. “But there are some that are distinctively uncomfortable with this changing role.”

The development expert highlighted a wide range of gender-related issues where religious communities often play ambivalent roles, including girls’ education, domestic violence, and child marriage. 

As Marshall looks toward the next 20 years of global development, she sees strategic engagement with faith leaders as a top priority:

We’re still groping for meaningful ways of strategic religious engagement that look both at the diversity of religious contributions and their dynamism, as well as simply taking them out from the shadows.

Toward Social Solidarity

The panel also emphasized the need to engage religious voices toward the promotion of social solidarity, a critical priority in the aftermath of 9/11.

“The twentieth anniversary had the unfortunate effect of canonizing some simple ideas about the attacks on the World Trade Center,” said Elie. “The one that came to mind for me most obviously was this idea of extraordinary unity that followed the attacks.” 

Cesari, a political scientist whose work focuses on religion and nationalism in global perspective, highlighted the important role religion can play in shaping different understandings of group belonging, commenting, 

Religion is not just a collective of religious individuals. It is about the building of not only an identity but also a way to live together.

The challenge going forward, according to Cesari, involves taking a broader view of how religion can contribute to the social contract in the public sphere. 

“It is about time to revisit the secular narrative to make room for people who also have a sense of community that is not only based on the nation,” she explained. 

The Future of Global Governance 

Religion can also contribute to social divisions that have serious implications for world peace, according to the panel. Christiansen, a Jesuit ethicist, explored how 9/11 highlighted the historical and contemporary divide between urban and rural populations. 

“You have tribal warrior cultures on the margins of metropolitan societies that when they feel threatened in one way or another will become violent,” he said. 

Christiansen pointed to the international community as a potential check on challenges such as religiously linked violence, commenting, 

When there is this level of distance between tribal societies and our own, to some extent the reaction has to be international policing. 

As the Berkley Center looks toward the next 20 years of religion and world affairs, the thoughtful engagement of faith communities on global agendas will remain critical to the promotion of peace worldwide. 

Opens in a new window