Many Americans who crowded pews and bought new Bibles in the aftermath of Sept. 11 have settled back to their routine religious beliefs and practices -- with one significant shift. We're less likely to believe in absolute good or evil, according to a new survey by Barna Research Group. In January 2000, 38 percent of adults agreed there are absolute "moral truths or principles (that) do not change according to the circumstances." By last month, that number fell to 22 percent.

The Rev. Barry Howard of the First Baptist Church in Corbin, Ky., sees the links in the survey results: "On Sept. 11, a lot of people's absolutes were shattered. They were shaken. And they wondered what other absolutes could be shattered as well. They turned to churches and Bibles looking for reassurance." Howard tells his congregation that the absolute truth of God is an eternal promise, not an earthly shield from tragedy.

At United Church of Penacook, a Concord, N.H., neighborhood, the Rev. John Westhaver Jr. says a September boomlet in worship attendance quickly faded. But the spirit inside the church feels different now. Doubting and questioning, rather than accepting absolutes, has a positive twist. Westhaver says: "People are asking more questions, moral questions. 'What is right? How should we react?' Everyone seems involved in raising questions about faith. They're taking it more seriously now."

Most measures of religious belief and behavior, however, showed no change from a similar Barna telephone survey in August. (Four in 10 people still say they attend church on Sunday.)

Some key findings in the new survey, based on a national random sample of 1,010 adults (margin of error 3 percentage points):

  • 68% say their religion is very important.
  • 85% pray regularly to God.
  • 39% say they read the Bible outside of church, but only 13% say they rely on it for moral guidance.
  • Researcher George Barna of Ventura, Calif., who reported his survey results this week (, says Sept. 11 gave churches an amazing opportunity "to be the healing and transforming presence of God in people's lives," but there was little to show for it as few people "experienced anything that was sufficiently life-changing to capture their attention and their allegiance."

    "It proved the old saying: People came back to church and rediscovered why they didn't come in the first place," says pastor Rod Loy. At the First Assembly of God Church in North Little Rock, Ark., post-Sept. 11 attendance bumped up from the usual 1,600 people at Sunday worship, but it went flat by October. "People like to acknowledge the existence of God, someone or something in control, at Christmas or Easter or in a crisis, but to keep coming, they have to be convinced that the church is relevant to their everyday lives," Loy says. "That's where absolutes matter."

    There are new crowds at his church, however -- a 50% increase in people seeking counseling for depression. Those may include port-in-a-storm parishioners who "retreated into their cave of depression and despair" last month, Loy says. "Some of these people need church now more than they ever did on Sunday, Sept. 16."

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