Aug 28, 2006

From the Archives

Five Years Later: 9/11 Attacks Show No Lasting Influence on Americans’ Faith

As the United States nears the fifth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Americans are looking back at how their lives have changed in the half decade since that tumultuous day. How have their spiritual lives  been affected? A new study by The Barna Group examined data from nine national surveys, involving interviews with more than 8,600 adults, conducted right before the attacks and at regular intervals since then.

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The study shows that despite an intense surge in religious activity and expression in the weeks immediately following 9/11 the faith of Americans is virtually indistinguishable today compared to pre-attack conditions. Barna’s tracking surveys looked at 19 dimensions of spirituality and beliefs. Remarkably, none of those 19 indicators are statistically different from the summer before the attacks! (This means that the small gaps in percentage points – when they exist – are not larger than the random differences that might be expected because of using a sample of Americans rather than a census.)

The research explored three areas of religious activity, five indicators of religious belief, three pertaining to spiritual commitment, and eight related to faith identity. The most recent measurements for all of those indicators of faith are virtually identical to the norms prior to September 11, 2001.

A Temporary Surge

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, half of all Americans said their faith helped them cope with the shock and uncertainty. The change most widely reported was a significant spike in church attendance, with some churches experiencing more than double their normal crowd on the Sunday after the shocking event. However, by the time January 2002 rolled around, churchgoing was back to pre-attack levels, and has remained consistent in the five years since.

Other religious behaviors, if they were affected at all, found equilibrium even more quickly. As of October 2001, Americans’ engagement in Bible reading and prayer was no different than pre-attack levels and has been essentially consistent from that point on.

Altering Beliefs

Less publicized was the fact that several religious beliefs shifted right after the attack. But these changes were also short-lived, returning to pre-9/11 conditions by early 2002. For instance, October 2001 data showed that Americans were less likely to feel a responsibility to share their faith; they were less willing to reject the notion that good works can earn salvation; they were more likely to believe that the devil is merely a symbol of evil; and they were slightly less likely to believe God is the perfect, all-powerful creator who rules the world. These shifts in beliefs went against conventional wisdom that Americans’ were flocking to orthodox biblical perspectives. Instead, throughout the period of emotional insecurity many adults became increasingly skeptical of traditional religious views. Nevertheless, even this skepticism quickly faded to the status quo by January of 2002.

As of the summer of 2006, the five religious beliefs that were assessed in the research – beliefs about the devil, salvation, the nature of God, responsibility to evangelize, and the accuracy of the Bible’s teachings – were indistinguishable from the profile of spiritual beliefs back in the summer of 2001.

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Identity and Commitment

The research also examined eight aspects of faith identity and another three related to commitment. Each of these indicators were completely unchanged right after the attacks and have stayed at the same levels ever since.

One of the most interesting aspects of this stability is that the percent of American adults who identify themselves as Muslim has not changed since before 9/11. Adherents to Islam account for just one-half of 1% of the U.S. adult population. Osama bin Laden’s objective of using the attacks to spur conversion to Islam has not been realized.

Other elements of faith identity are also no different five years later, including: the percent of self-identified Christians as well as the proportion of adults who are evangelicals, non-vangelical born again Christians, notional Christians, atheists and agnostics, and non-Christians. (There has been slow, steady growth in the percentage of born again Christians, but this is part of a generational trend – i.e., Boomers becoming more committed to Jesus Christ. The pre-attack, post-ttack proportions of born again Christians was identical -42% in July of 2001 and 42% in October of 2001.)

Americans’ intensity of commitment to their faith did not change at all -either right after the event or since. Just months after the attacks, Americans were no more likely to be “absolutely committed” to the Christian faith, to say that their religious faith is very important, or to describe themselves as “deeply spiritual.”

Facing Their Fears

If the impact of 9/11 has been nearly indistinguishable in matters of faith, the event has affected Americans’ psyche in other areas. Nearly two-thirds of Americans (63%) described themselves as “cncerned about terrorist attacks.” Barna does not have pre-9/11 data on this indicator, but the concern about such attacks was prevalent the last time it was measured in 2004. Women, those over 40, married adults, Protestants, whites, political conservatives and moderates, and upscale adults expressed above-average apprehension regarding terrorism. Again, faith shows little connection to people’s point of view, as evangelical Christians (62%) and non-evangelical born again Christians (65%) expressed typical levels of trepidation regarding future terrorism.

Since 9/11, Americans have registered heightened concern about the “moral condition of the nation” and “the future.” Of course, the 2001 encounters with terrorism did not initiate these anxieties. Even before the attacks, three-quarters of Americans were concerned about the future and about the nation’s moral direction, but in the months following the attacks, each of these concerns became palpable to more Americans.

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Spiritually Resilient or Resistant?

The director of the Barna study, David Kinnaman, put the findings in context. “Many Christian leaders predicted that terrorism on U.S. soil would catalyze a spiritual awakening in the country. The first few weeks were promising. But people quickly returned to their standard, faith-as-usual lives: within a month, most of their spiritual fervor was gone. Within 90 days, surprisingly few people were pursuing important questions about faith and spirituality. Now, five years removed from that fateful day, spiritually speaking, it’s as if nothing significant ever happened. People used faith like a giant band – aid – it helped people deal with the ugliness of the event but it offered little in the way of deep healing and it was discarded after a brief period of use.”

Kinnaman, the Strategic Leader of the Barna Group, also offered a cautionary note for churches and faith communities to be better prepared for events that have the potential to bring spiritual renewal in people’s lives. He pointed to data from September 2002 showing that only one out of five Americans said their church or religious center did an “excellent job” addressing the attacks, terrorism, and security issues. “Most leaders – religious and otherwise – were completely caught off guard in 2001. Without intentional planning, most churches were satisfied merely to provide a safe haven for people to come together and seek comfort, but few congregations lead people to a serious and prolonged period of self-reflection and personal change. However, with significant disasters like hurricane Katrina and the threat of future terrorist attacks, there is no excuse for being unprepared the ‘next’ time.

“Preparedness is more than having a sermon handy in the event of catastrophe. It also relates to pragmatic planning. What if an emergency strikes your community? Do you have a plan of action to mobilize the believers in your church? Do you have the necessary insurance to protect your organization and facilities? Is there a clear strategy for helping people focus their faith questions and explorations – not merely to achieve short-term relief and regain emotional equilibrium – but to point them toward a process of deeper life transformation? The research underscores how elusive transformation is in people’s lives. Americans are resilient people, but they are also stubborn and easily distracted,” Kinnaman said. “The limited effect of 9/11 is a testament to these characteristics. The job of spiritual leaders is not just to help people cope with tragedy but to break through their spiritual hard-headedness and orient them towards God’s deeper purposes for their life.”

Research Details

The data in this report are based on interviews with more than 8600 adults from across the nation in nine separate surveys. The Barna Group conducted these studies through the use of telephone surveys, implemented from January 2001 through August 2006. All of these projects are based upon random samples of people 18 years of age and older living within the 48 continental states. Eight of the studies were conducted with 1000+ individuals, each having a maximum margin of sampling error of ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The sole exception to this was a survey conducted in the winter of 2002, which had 626 interviews (maximum sampling error: +4.1 percentage points). In each survey, the distribution of respondents corresponded to the geographic dispersion of the U.S. population. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of qualified individuals. Statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages.

“Born again Christians” are defined as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents are not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”

“Evangelicals” meet the born again criteria (described above) plus   seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

“Upscale” adults include those with a college degree and household incomes of $75,000 or higher.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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