2016-07-29
This article was originally published in September, 2003.

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.

In fact, if you look at other signs, it appears that 9/11 was, spiritually-speaking, one of the most important moments in recent history.

  • 9/11 Starkly Revealed the Limits of Organized Religion
  • The Attacks Affected Character and Soul
  • Americans Have Begun Turning Against Islam
  • Evangelicals Got a Dramatic New Cause
  • Anti-Semitism Got New Life
  • An American Style of Islam Grew
  • 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.

    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."

    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."

    One result of this questioning may be, for some, a fundamentally different view of God--one not often spoken of from the pulpit. Bishop John Shelby Spong, the liberal former Episcopal Bishop of Newark, wrote shortly after the attacks, "The image of hijacked planes crashing into buildings killing thousands of people gives us no hiding place for theological pretending. The skies are empty of a protective deity ready to come to our aid. God defined theistically has died." This does not mean atheism, Spong argued, but that "God is rather the power of love, which flows through each of us, calling us to life, inviting us to step beyond whatever binds our humanity."

    For many closest to the tragedy, there is still clearly some anger at God, enough so that they might not be inclined to visit church.

    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.

    Americans Have Begun Turning Against Islam

    One might have expected that after 9/11, rage-filled Americans would have lashed out against Islam, and then gradually adopt a more modulated view as they learned more about the religion. Instead, the opposite has occurred.

    Americans started out with a remarkably tolerant view of Islam (considering that a war had just been declared against the country in the name of Allah). An October 2001 ABCNews/Beliefnet poll found that 47% viewed Islam favorably, compared to 39% who viewed it unfavorably.

    But that "favorability rating" slipped to 41% in a December 2001 ABCNews/Beliefnet poll and to 38% according to an April poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

    Why? The tempered attitude toward Islam in the early months was likely influenced by President Bush, who declared in his first major speech to the nation, "Islam is a peaceful religion." He made a point of being photographed reading the Qur'an and inviting Muslim leaders to the White House.

    Even religious conservatives who disagreed with Bush kept quiet initially, in deference to the president. But starting in the beginning of 2002, their irritation become evident. "We don't believe Islam needs validating at the highest level of American government," David Crowe, director of Restore America, a grassroots conservative Christian political organization in Oregon told Beliefnet in December. "A lot of people think Bush has bent way too far over backward to say nice things about Muslims."

    Then Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, described Islam as a "wicked, violent" religion--and the floodgates broke open. A steady parade of conservative Christians followed. Criticizing Islam itself - as opposed to "Islamic fundamentalists" or terrorists - went from being taboo to acceptable to downright popular in conservative circles, including influential secular figures like William Bennett, Gary Bauer, and Anne Coulter. Significantly, President Bush has apparently decided not to counter this overwhelming criticism against Islam.

    At the same time, it should be said, the defenders of Islam probably way overstated their case by repeatedly asserting that Islam is a "religion of peace." Clearly, the Qur'an, like the Bible, includes passages that can be used to justify violence. Many Islam defenders, failing to acknowledge that initially, may have lost credibility.



    Evangelicals Got a Dramatic New Cause

    One sector of Americans--conservative evangelical Christians--views the attack in starkly different terms than the rest of the country. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell were mocked when they blamed the attack son America's misdeeds but they were expressing a sentiment with some broad appeal.

    Evangelicals are also more likely to view this as a sign of the apocalypse or end times. As Beliefnet member Dicks77 put it: "I admit, as I saw Manhatten in flames from across the river in NJ, the scripture came immediately to mind: Revelation 18:9 - 'When the kings of the earth who committed adultery with her and shared her luxury see the smoke of her burning, they will weep and mourn over her. Terrified at her torment, they will stand far off and cry: 'Woe! Woe, O great city, O Babylon, city of power! In one hour your doom has come!'' Makes you think, at least."

    Just as important, evangelicals increasingly view the battle against Islam as the defining article of their faith--on the same level of importance as fighting abortion or communism was during the Cold War.

    Fighting Islam--or, more to the point, converting Muslims--had been a major Christian cause even prior to 9/11. The Southern Baptist Convention four years ago reorganized its International Missions Board to focus on the part of the world where Muslims live. That year, the Convention published a guide for use when praying for the conversion of Muslims. This year, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary even created a master's degree program to help students minister to Muslims. Some called this the "10/40 Movement", a reference to the latitude and longitude of the Middle Eastern and Asian parts of the world with biggest Muslim population.

    The 9/11 attacks gave great new energy to the cause and provided a focal point for millions of evangelicals. A new video, "Radical Obedience: Beyond 9/11," shows Southern Baptists around the world responding to the Sept. 11 attacks -- and reminds them that God's work is not yet finished. "Scripture has called us to be radically obedient, to go beyond language and cultural walls so that all peoples may know Him," said International Mission Board spokesman Mark Snowden. "Many Southern Baptists have already committed to become radically obedient by praying for the Muslim people of the world. Others have displayed their radical obedience by going, in peace, to make disciples in Jesus' name."

    And though we are taught to believe that anger can only eat holes in our innards, a study conducted at Bowling Green State University found that those people who viewed the 9/11 attacks as part of a theological war--and that the attacks were Satanically-driven - actually experienced greater "spiritual growth," becoming closer to God and Church.



    Anti-Semitism Got New Life

    Jews, ironically, may have been less shaken initially because so much of current Jewish theology attempts to deal with the horrors of the Holocaust. "The idea that people are capable of evil things is not news," says Rabbi Mark Margolies of Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley, Pa. What really upset Jews more was seeing the proliferation of ant-Semitic rhetoric.

    But the apparent rise in anti-Semitism and constant turmoil in Israel have left Jews reeling. Many people, Muslims and non-Muslims, were quick to link the terrorist attacks to U.S. support for Israel. Though initially focusing his wrath on American troups in Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden soon began saying his attacks were punishment against Israeli treatment of Palestinians. In Arab countries, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the classic anti-Semitic treatise, gained new life and credibility. Rumors that the Israeli intelligence service, the Mossad, had actually planned the attack gained alarmingly widespread credence.

    In October, Salam Al-Marayati, a respected American Muslim leader prominent in national efforts to promote interfaith dialogue, said in an interview on a Los Angeles radio talk show that Israel should be on the "suspect list" of those who carried out the attacks. A few days later, another scandal emerged: Imam Mohammed Gemeaha of New York's prominent Islamic Cultural Center had fled to Cairo, where he gave an interview in Arabic stating that "Jews planned those terrorist attacks."

    A report from the American Jewish Committee claimed anti-Semitic speech in the Arab world was measurably on the rise. "The stream of vitriolic and verbal imagery extends from Morocco to the Gulf states and Iran," the report said. "It is as strong in supposedly 'moderate' Egypt as it is in openly hostile Arab nations such as Iraq, Libya and Syria." They cited cases in which reputable Arab newspapers printed reports that Jews use the blood of Christian or Muslim children in their holiday celebrations.

    For many Jews, the rise in anti-Semitism in the Muslim world was most horrifically symbolized by the brutal kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Islamic terrorists in Pakistan slit Pearl's throat after forcing him to announce the fact that he was a Jew. "My mother [or father] is a Jew, and I am a Jew," were Pearl's last words. For Jews who had doubted the prevalence of anti-Semitism before, Pearl's murder brought new feelings of insecurity.

    But the rise of anti-Semitism doesn't seem limited to Arab or Muslim countries. In December, the French ambassador to Great Britain, Daniel Bernard, reportedly said during a dinner party that Israel was "a shitty little country," adding, "Why should the world be in danger of World War III because of those people?" During the past year, anti-Semitic violent acts have become much more widespread in many western European countries, including France, Germany, Belgium, Scandinavia, and Italy. Incidents have included the vandalizing of many Jewish cemeteries, attempts to destroy synagogues, and attacks on individual Jews. Anti-Semitic acts in France are widely viewed as being at the highest levels the country has seen since World War II.

    An American Style of Islam Grew

    While much attention has been focused on Islamic leaders overseas--What are they saying? Are they denouncing terrorism?--something dramatic has been happening within the American Muslim community. Respected Muslim writer Michael Wolfe puts it this way: "Privately, in our mosques and in our homes--away from the judging ears of the world--we began talking to each other with an honesty born of urgency. We knew something had to be done or our religion was going to be tarnished, even corrupted. In the year since September 11th, American Muslims began to do something extraordinary. WE began to take back Islam."

    Wolfe's comment, in "Taking Back Islam," a collection of essays by prominent American Muslims, is just one example of a year-long, spontaneous effort by many American Muslims leaders to energize their faith.

    Other examples include the group Muslims Against Terrorism, a group of young Muslims who mobilized in the aftermath of 9/11 to fight terrorism in the name of Islam.

    W.D. Mohammed, the leading African American muslim in the United States, condemned the terrorist attacks and used Qur'anic verses to explain why the destruction of innocent civilians and property was un-Islamic. "[T]hey are really out of the circle and framework of Islam with their conduct. So we are talking about terrorists,not Muslims," he wrote in the "Muslim Journal."

    Beliefnet members were active in defining what this new American style of Islam would be. Muslims struggled with their post-9/11 Muslim identity. Member mnn wrote, "Despite our problems in the U.S., this is a great country to be Muslim. Our freedoms to worship are guaranteed by the constitution...our freedom to NOT worship is also guaranteed. In these other Muslim countries where ritualistic adherence to Islam is the law, I could never live there." On message boards dedicated to "Defining an American Islam," Muslim members wrote about the unique challenges of being Muslim in America, such as wearing hijab, raising Muslim children, and dealing with the growing diversity of the American Muslim population.

    Though it's too early to tell how significant this movement will become, it's possible that one of the most significant effects of 9/11 will be the creation of a vibrant new form of Islam in the United States.

    * * *

    Will these developments last? Any one of these incipient trends could reverse. American Muslims may prove unable or unwilling to chart a course dramatically different from that of their overseas brethren. The positive personality traits may continue to drop and anti-Semitism may return to its familiar status as persistent low-grade fever. Or something else may emerge not even being considered now. But it is clear that at least in the last year, the 9/11 attacks had profound spiritual significance.