At first, it looked like 9/11 was having an enormous spiritual impact. Atheists, "seekers," lapsed Catholics, secular Jews and seemingly everyone else poured into churches and synagogues. Evangelist Franklin Graham predicted that Americans were committing themselves to God in an "enduring" way and Pat Robertson predicted "one of the greatest spiritual revivals in the history of America."
Then the flood of new worshipers receded. Church attendance went back to normal, and polls began to indicate that people were no more likely to pray, read the Bible or attend worship services than before. Nine out of ten Americans reported that 9/11 had "no lasting impact on their faith," according to a study released this week by Barna Research.
But both those who predicted a religious renaissance and those arguing that 9/11 was a spiritual non-event are missing some of the dramatic effects 9/11 had on the spiritual landscape.
9/11 Starkly Revealed the Limits of Organized Religion
The place to start is with what didn't happen. The fact that people initially went to houses of worship -- and then stopped -- should be viewed as a huge story, not a non-event.
For decades, clergy have sought ways of luring back the "spiritual seekers," people who have a strong interest in matters of the soul but weren't satiated by worship services. 9/11 gave houses of worship an extraordinary opportunity.
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.
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."
A mainline Protestant might view it slightly differently. "You cannot gauge spirituality by worship attendance alone," says the Rev. Wayne Dreyman, pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church in Summit, NJ. "A lot of people have been asking deep spiritual questions about the meaning of life and the mystery of suffering in the world. But we are in a post-Christendom world where many people are experiencing a spiritual renaissance outside of institutional religion."