How America's Faith Has Changed Since 9-11


Research Releases in Culture & Media • November 26, 2001

Social analysts point out that people turn to religion in times of crisis and instability. The terrorist attacks on September 11 certainly shattered the stability and comfort of American’s lives, leading to a surge in church attendance and Bible sales immediately after the attacks. But what is the lingering effect of the attack and continued tension on people’s religious beliefs and practices? Those questions are answered with startling clarity in a new survey released by the Barna Research Group of Ventura, California. Using 21 indicators of the nation’s spiritual climate, the study gives a comprehensive look at how people’s faith has changed in the aftermath of the terrorist attack.

Concern for the Future

Not surprisingly, there has been a significant upturn in people’s concern about the future. In August, 73% of adults said they were concerned about the future; by November, that figure had increased to 82%. The population segment that expressed the greatest concern was adults 35 and younger, among whom nearly nine out of ten said they were concerned. The biggest increases in concern were registered among people 55 and older (up 17 points from the pre-attack level) and atheists (also up 17 points).

Self-Image Remains Unchanged

Three aspects of people’s self-image did not change in the wake of the attacks. The first factor, regarding adults’ description of their sociopolitical ideology, remained static. Overall, 31% said they are mostly conservative on social and political issues while just half as many – 14% – said they are mostly liberal on such matters.

A second factor tested was the descriptor “Christian.” In August, 86% of all adults said they thought of themselves as Christian. The percentage was statistically equivalent in the post-attack study, with 84% embracing that label. The surveys also showed that the proportion of Americans who think of themselves as Muslim or Islamic remained stable, as well, at less than 1% of the aggregate adult population.

Adults were also asked to rate their level of commitment to the Christian faith. Using a four-point scale, in the late summer survey 42% of adults said they were “absolutely committed” to Christianity. That number remained virtually unchanged (44%) after the eight weeks after the attacks. There was a significant increase among adults who were 55 or older, but their relatively low incidence in the population rendered that eight-point jump (from 56% to 64%) nearly invisible in the grand scheme of America’s faith commitment.

Truth Views Radically Altered

The most startling shift has been in people’s views about moral truth. Given the nature of the terrorist attack, one might have expected Americans to become more convinced of the presence of good and evil, and that there are absolute moral principles that exist regardless of cultural realities and personal preferences. However, Barna’s research showed exactly the opposite outcome.

Prior to the attacks the most recent inquiry concerning truth views was in January 2000, some 20 months prior to the terrorist activity. At that time, people were asked if they believed that “there are moral truths that are absolute, meaning that those moral truths or principles do not change according to the circumstances” or that ” moral truth always depends upon the situation, meaning that a person’s moral and ethical decisions depend upon the circumstances.” At the start of 2000, almost four out of ten adults (38%) said that there are absolute moral truths that do not change according to the circumstances. When the same question was asked in the just-completed survey, the result was that just two out of ten adults (22%) claimed to believe in the existence of absolute moral truth.

The people groups least likely to believe in absolute moral truth were Baby Busters (i.e., those 36 and younger – only 13% embrace absolute truth), Catholics (16%) and adults who are not born again Christians (15%). The groups most likely to endorse the existence of absolute moral truths include Baby Boomers (i.e., people 37 to 55 years of age – 28% of whom embrace absolute truth), adults who attend non-mainline Protestant churches (32%) and born again individuals (32%).

Interestingly, when people were further queried as to the source of the principles or standards on which they base their moral and ethical decisions, the post-attack survey discovered that only one out of eight adults – just 13% – cited the Bible. The most common sources of guidance regarding moral decisions trusted by Americans are feelings (25%) and the lessons and values they remember from their parents (14%).

Religious Activities Explored

Seven religious behaviors were studied to assess the impact of the 9-11 events. The surge in church attendance has been widely reported, and while current levels of adult attendance are higher than before the attack, they are not statistically different than the numbers recorded last November, thus reflecting the usual seasonal increase. It appears that attendance, which nationwide increased by perhaps 25% immediately after the attack, is back at normal levels. The November survey found 48% of adults attending on a typical weekend.

The types of adults who seemed more inclined to be attending church services two months after the attack were women (up eight percentage points since August), people 55 or older (+10 points), Catholics (also up 10 points), and atheists, whose church participation tripled from just 3% in August to 10% in November.

The other six measures of religious behavior were at identical levels to those noted in August. Bible reading remained at 39% of adults pursuing the Bible, other than at church, during a typical week. Church volunteerism, after an initial outpouring of involvement, is back at pre-attack levels (23% invest some time in church-related service during a typical week). Prayer, also alleged to have escalated, is currently at its normal level, with 85% praying to God in a given week.

Adult Sunday school attendance moved up slightly (to 22%) but not enough to be considered a statistically significant change. Participation in a small group other than a Sunday school class that meets during the week for Bible study, prayer or Christian fellowship remained static, as did having a private devotional time during the week.

While Christian churches throughout the nation have encouraged believers to reach out to others during these difficult times by sharing the wisdom, spiritual necessity and personal benefits of having a deep and personal faith in Jesus Christ, few individuals have heeded that call. In fact, among the born again adults surveyed before and after the attack, there was a slight net decrease in the percentage of believers who had shared their faith with a non-Christian at any time during the past year.

Measures of Religious Belief

While changes might have been expected in people’s beliefs, the surveys show that little has been altered by the terrorist attacks and subsequent war efforts. An examination of five core beliefs that might have been expected to change in light of the attacks reveals minimal movement in people’s core theological profile. The number of adults who strongly contends that the Bible is accurate in all of its teachings was statistically unchanged, at 40%. The percentage that said their religious faith is very important in their life was also stable; two out of three adults (68%) strongly affirmed the centrality of their faith.

While some religious leaders posited that the attacks had caused many to turn their lives over to Jesus Christ, the survey found that the pre- and post-attack statistics of those who have made a “personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in your life today” were identical: 68%.

The two sentiments for which there was minor change concerned people’s views of God and Satan – and the change was in the opposite direction of that expected! When asked to describe their idea of God or the nature of God, those who view Him as “the all-powerful, all-knowing perfect Creator of the universe who still rules the world today dropped from 72% to 68%. Although that decline is barely significant from a statistical vantage point, it is quite significant from an emotional standpoint. The types of people most likely to shift away from an orthodox view of God to a more postmodern view included men and Baby Boomers.

The other incredible shift was the decline in people who firmly reject the notion that “Satan, or the devil, is not a living being but is just a symbol of evil.” The five-percentage point decline on this measure is not enormous by statistical standards, but it is quite meaningful in terms of people’s general perspective on good and evil, and regarding the nature of spiritual conflict. This shift in theology was most common among women, atheists and Catholics.

Beyond core beliefs, the survey also evaluated the general faith commitments of people. For two decades, Barna Research has used a series of survey questions to classify individuals as “born again Christians” and “evangelical Christians” based upon their theological views, without regard to how people’s self-descriptions, religious practices, or church affiliations. The current survey showed that there was no change at all in the percentage of adults who could be considered to be “born again” (defined as those who have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is important in their life today and who say they know they will go to Heaven after they die solely because they have confessed their sins and accepted Christ as their savior). Similarly, the nine measures used to classify a person as an “evangelical Christian” remained unchanged.

Making Sense of the Results

Responding to the disappointment of Christian leaders who have been exposed to these findings, George Barna, who directed the study, explained that, “after the attack, millions of nominally churched or generally irreligious Americans were desperately seeking something that would restore stability and a sense of meaning to life. Fortunately, many of them turned to the church. Unfortunately, few of them experienced anything that was sufficiently life-changing to capture their attention and their allegiance. They tended to appreciate the moments of comfort they received, but were unaware of anything sufficiently unique or beneficial as to redesign their lifestyle to integrate a deeper level of spiritual involvement. Our assessment is that 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 or intense manner.”

Barna noted that the post-attack measures emerging from his research are remarkably consistent with the levels recorded each quarter since the beginning of 2000. “Christian churches have had two incredible opportunities to instigate serious transformation in people’s this year. Earlier, the faith-based initiative proposal by President Bush afforded a great chance to impact millions of lives, but that opportunity was squandered. 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.”

Barna stated that he hopes churches can learn some sobering lessons from these events. “These situations, especially the terrorist attacks, bring to mind Jesus’ teaching that no one knows the time and day when God will return for His people, so we must always be ready. These two events are a wake up call to church leaders, emphasizing the particular need to enhance their efforts in the areas of outreach and discipleship. We may never again have such grand opportunities to reach the nation for Christ – but then, we may have an even greater opportunity tomorrow. How many churches have leaders and believers who are poised to take advantage of such a pending opportunity?”

Survey Methodology

The data on which this report is based are from telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of 1010 adults conducted in late October and early November 2001. The pre-attack research was also a national random sample survey among 1001 adults, conducted in late July through mid-August. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All of the interviews were conducted from the Barna Research Group telephone interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. Adults in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. adult population. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of adults.

“Born again Christians” were defined in these surveys 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 were not asked to describe themselves as “born again” or if they considered themselves to be “born again.”

“Evangelicals” are a subset of born again Christians in Barna surveys. In addition to meeting the born again criteria, evangelicals also meet 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; 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 has no relationship to church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church they attend. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

The Barna Research Group, Ltd. is an independent marketing research company located in southern California. Since 1984 it has been studying cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. This research was funded solely by Barna Research as part of its regular tracking of the social, religious and political state of the nation.

If you would like to receive a bi-weekly update on the latest research findings from the Barna Research Group, you may subscribe to this free service by typing your e-mail address in the field above located at the top of this page on the left-hand side.

A Comparison of Pre-Attack and Post-Attack Religious Beliefs and Behavior (Source: Barna Research Group, November, 2001)
perspective survey all men women ages 18-36 ages 37-55 age 56+
moral truth is absolute Fall 01 22% 20% 24% 13% 28% 24%
Jan 00 38 35 40 25 44 42
consider self to be Christian Fall 01 84 80 88 77 87 92
Smr 01 86 83 88 79 91 88
absolutely committed to Christianity Fall 01 44 35 52 26 48 64
Smr 01 42 36 48 26 49 56
read from Bible, in past week other than at church Fall 01 39 30 46 29 42 48
Smr 01 39 32 46 29 42 49
attended a church service, in past week, other than a special event (e.g. wedding, funeral) Fall 01 48 41 54 38 51 58
Smr 01 42 37 46 32 46 48
prayed to God in past week Fall 01 85 77 91 79 86 90
Smr 01 84 78 89 78 86 90
Bible is totally accurate in all it teaches (strongly agree) Fall 01 40 35 45 33 41 50
Smr 01 43 36 49 35 44 52
your religious faith is very important in your life today (strongly agree) Fall 01 68 58 77 59 67 83
Smr 01 69 63 74 61 71 78
Satan/the devil is not a living being but is just a symbol of evil (strongly disagree) Fall 01 23 26 21 21 29 21
Smr 01 28 28 29 25 32 28
God is the all-knowing, all powerful Creator, etc. Fall 01 68 63 73 65 66 76
Smr 01 72 69 74 64 75 78
made a personal commitment to Christ, important in my life Fall 01 68 58 77 61 69 79
Smr 01 68 65 70 58 70 77

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