The Real Spiritual Impact of 9/11

Americans don't go to church more often now, but 9/11 was still one of the most important spiritual moments in recent history.

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But church attendance and other religious behaviors went quickly back to normal. What's more, according to Barna Associates, the percentage of people who said "moral truth is absolute" actually dropped from 38% in January 2000 to 22% in the fall of 2001. This was surprising since President Bush and others have talked of the attacks as a war between good and evil, a clash of absolute moral principles.

There were other signs that come 2002, Americans didn't view organized religion as much help. Only 11.2% of Americans sought advice from a minister, priest or religious leader, according to a study by the University of Chicago. Indeed, while the pews were emptying out, psychologists' offices were filling up. Drinking and pill use increased, Beliefnet found, at the same time formal worship declined.

Barna, an evangelical Christian, offered this bleak assessment: "Churches succeeded at putting on a friendly face but failed at motivating the vast majority of spiritual explorers to connect with Christ in a more intimate manner. The September 11 tragedy was another amazing opportunity to be the healing and transforming presence of God in people's lives, but that, too, has now come and gone, with little to show for it."

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Perhaps Americans experienced 9/11 much in the same way as a death in the family. For many, worship services provide powerful, comforting rituals that help them get through short-term crises but don't aid in the long run.

Explaining that he wasn't surprised that the pews emptied, Richard Mouw, the president of the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary, speculates that the seekers left after a few months because real religion is too challenging. "The religion I care about is a serious matter. God wants us to confess our sins on a regular basis, and to plead for the grace to live in obedience to the divine will. I suspect that some of the people who returned briefly to traditional places of worship realized that they were entering spaces in which much is required of them. They realized that they could not just dip briefly into the spiritual resources available there without making a new commitment to a life of faith. So they left with a resolve never to return."

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