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.

BY: Steven Waldman and the Staff of Beliefnet


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It is also possible that people whose minds had opened up to religion in the first two months--when much religious activity was focused on grieving, interfaith dialogue, and forgiveness--became alienated when attention shifted to the conflict between religions. Religiously-speaking, 2001 was about spiritual unity and 2002 about competition and conflict between the faiths--as Christian leaders increasingly attacked Islam and suicide bombers in the Mideast continued to remind us of the violence of some variants of Islam. It was also the time that the Catholic Church crisis exploded, shaking the faith of some of the most traditional church-going people in the nation.

The Attacks Affected Character and Soul

Though worship patterns seemed unaffected, that doesn't mean individuals weren't changed.

A group of psychology researchers had begun in January 2001 measuring the presence of certain positive personality and character traits in the population. They found that after 9/11 seven traits showed noticeable increases: love, gratitude, hope, kindness, leadership, teamwork, and spirituality. These scores have started to slip but remain much higher than pre-9/11 levels. The researchers speculate that these effects have persisted because they are self-sustaining. "Love is reciprocated; hope opens doors previously unseen; kindness begets kindness," says Christopher Peterson of University of Michigan, one of the leader researchers.

Another study, by University of Chicago scholars, indicated that Americans after 9/11 were more likely to consider their fellow citizens fair, helpful and trustworthy--an optimism that has persisted. "Rather than thinking about the acts of the terrorists," they concluded, "people reflected upon the acts of those involved in the rescue and relief efforts in New York, acts of charity, and acts of patriotism both within the country and abroad." Nationally, volunteerism increased 4.1%, they reported.

In other words, there was a spiritual impact, driven by the inspirational behavior of ordinary Americans. In effect, the book of the moment was not the bible but "Chicken Soup for the Soul".

These kinds of changes of behavior are subtle and very hard to measure, but it is clearly a common theme of posts from Beliefnet members. "It brought home clearly how tenuous life is, and how important it is to be mindfully grateful for all its gifts," wrote a Beliefnet member called freewind8383. "Because all we ever really are sure of having is this minute...and this minute...and this minute. And this minute's gifts." Many have said they have retained a sense of gratitude, a finding substantiated by the University of Chicago study.

Of course, many of those reaching out--as heroes, patriots or altruists--would say that these behaviors are religious, that this is the way of creating God's kingdom here on earth.

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