True Believers

By Published on .

When America was attacked last September, many people seemed to find comfort and strength in religion. President Bush used the biblical language of justice and retribution in his major addresses to the nation. Television broadcast myriad religious ceremonies and aired the views of religious thinkers. Across the country, houses of worship filled to capacity and spiritual leaders spoke of a nationwide religious revival.

A year later, many of those pews, once full to overflowing, have emptied. And the frequency of attendance at services, slightly elevated after the attacks, has since returned to pre-Sept. 11 levels. A December 2001 Gallup poll found that 45 percent of Americans were attending religious services almost once a week or more last winter. But by May that percentage dipped to 42 percent, which is on par with June 2001 figures. And according to American Demographics' own exclusive surveys, while 18 percent of Americans last October said they planned to attend religious services more regularly after Sept. 11, just 8 percent of them are actually doing so today. While recent sex scandals in the Roman Catholic Church may have played a role in Americans' decreased spiritual activity since the attacks, this slip is not unusual. In our December 2001 issue, Monsignor James Dorney of Staten Island compared his crowded parish after 9/11 with service attendance following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Just as the pews cleared out in the weeks after that catastrophe, and as they did following other cataclysmic events, so did the post-Sept. 11 flocks scatter with time.

But even as the outward demonstrations of faith have dissipated, many Americans' heightened positive attitudes toward religion, and the sense of comfort they've found in faith and community, seem to have endured. A year after 9/11, 2 in 5 people (40 percent) still say the tragedy caused them to strengthen their religious beliefs, practically unchanged from the 38 percent who said the same last October. And of those who say they plan to spend their holidays differently this year, 43 percent plan to place more emphasis on religion, up from 34 percent who said the same about last year's holiday season. “In general, patterns of religious behavior and participation tend to be more volatile than changes in religious attitudes,� says Nancy Ammerman, professor of sociology of religion at the Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Conn. “Every January 1, people decide to attend church more often, so it's not surprising that there was more volatility in these behavioral patterns than in attitudinal shifts after Sept. 11.�

In an attempt to understand whether attitudes and behavior regarding religion have changed since 9/11, in June American Demographics commissioned Greenfield Online/TNS Interactive* to execute a nationally representative survey similar to the one we commissioned on this subject last October. Both polls were conducted online with a sample of 1,000 adults nationwide. The questions asked in each survey were, for the most part, identical, though certain questions were altered slightly to gauge how actual behavior over the past year measured up to respondents' intentions.

After the attacks, many more women than men turned to religion for comfort. Almost half (47 percent) of women last fall said that their religious beliefs were strengthened by the events of Sept. 11, 17 percentage points higher than the 30 percent of men who said the same. But by this year, fewer women (44 percent) and more men (35 percent) said their beliefs had been strengthened. A similar narrowing gender gap occurred when people were asked about their attendance at services. Last October, 25 percent of women and 11 percent of men said they planned to attend religious services more regularly. As of June, only 6 percent of women and 10 percent of men said they had done so. Karlyn Bowman, who specializes in public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, isn't surprised that women's behavior didn't change as much as men's may have — mostly because women's level of participation was higher to begin with. “Women are traditionally more involved in their religious communities than are men and were likely already going to church more,� Bowman says. “So their actual activity probably didn't change as much, and their expectations may have exceeded the actual amount of time they have available.�

The difference between what people say they plan to do and what they actually do is particularly important to bear in mind when interpreting poll data on religious matters, because people tend to overstate personal observance. Similarly, it's important not to overrate the impact of Sept. 11 on Americans' attitudes toward religion. Some nationwide studies have found little evidence of lasting change. For example, in May 2001, when the Gallup Organization asked people how important religion was in their lives, 57 percent said it was “very important.� This rose 7 percentage points, to 64 percent, two weeks after Sept. 11, but by May 2002 was back down to 56 percent. (In polls dating back to 1952, the lowest this figure has been was 52 percent in 1978.)

In addition to seeking solace in faith, Americans seem to be attaching greater importance to time spent with their families, friends and neighbors since Sept. 11. When asked last October, 42 percent of adults said they planned to become more closely involved with their communities as a result of Sept. 11. In June, 20 percent said they had actually made the effort to be more closely involved. While there was a drop in that indicator, the fact that 1 in 5 Americans strengthened their community ties over the past year is significant. Again, a familiar gender reversal pattern emerges: In October, more women than men planned to get more involved in their communities (47 percent versus 36 percent). Yet men outnumber women among those who say they actually are more involved today (23 percent versus 18 percent). Women seem to harbor more good intentions, whereas men may be more likely to take action. Tom Smith, director of the General Social Survey at the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago, says there's nothing dishonest about women's answers. “Women were more likely to have optimistic, good intentions. They really felt they needed to get engaged,� says Smith. “But they also have a higher degree of dual burdens of work and family than men do, and they probably found they were less able to follow through on those good intentions.�

Americans appear to be settling into their backyards in other ways. People are relying more on their immediate circle for a sense of identity. Today, 40 percent of adults agree that they feel most closely aligned with the “people who are around me,� up from 30 percent who said so last October. At the same time, the share of those who say they feel most closely aligned with “my fellow Americans� declined to 38 percent from 51 percent. This emphasis on local community rather than national interests has increased across all regions, but most notably among Southerners, where the percentage of those who feel most closely aligned with the “people who are around me� rose to 42 percent in June from the 25 percent who felt that way last October.

The trend is also particularly strong among young people. Fully 56 percent of the younger group (up from 42 percent last October) feels most closely aligned to “the people who live around me,� compared with 40 percent of all Americans. Similarly, the percentage of young people who feel most closely aligned with “my fellow Americans� fell to 27 percent in June from 41 percent in October. “By and large, young people are less political and less concerned about Washington,� says Amitai Etzioni, professor of sociology at George Washington University and author of The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Demographic Society (Basic Books, 1998). “They're less nation-minded, and much more involved in their own immediate lives.�

The focus on civic engagement appears to have become linked with parallel increases in religious faith and patriotism. According to Melissa Rogers, executive director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, the shift marks a growing interest in a kind of “civil religion,� a lowest common denominator form of shared spirituality in which the idea of America is linked with religious faith or destiny. Rather than establishing a “profound or widespread religious awakening� in the post-Sept. 11 era, people may be rallying around political, community or patriotic ideals or symbols that have general religious overtones, says Rogers.

For example, the use of religious imagery in public discourse remains close to its immediate post-Sept. 11 levels, a development that is reflected in public opinion. In March 2002, nearly half of Americans (48 percent) told the Pew Forum that “the U.S. has special protection from God.� This link between God and country was further demonstrated by the outcry that followed the Ninth Circuit's June 2002 decision to strike the words “under God� from the Pledge of Allegiance. “If Sept. 11 hadn't happened, it would be interesting to see what would have occurred with the ‘under God’ decision and similar debates, such as the one raging about religion in public schools,� says Rogers. “I think there's definitely a link to Sept. 11, and it seems so far as if the public's estimation of a kind of ‘civil religion’ has risen.�

Perhaps this increased attention to community and a generalized “civil religion,� rather than an increase in more overt expressions of religious devotion, reflects people's need for the underlying philosophies of religion in a time of crisis. “People are looking for greater meaning in life,� says Alvin Poussaint, clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “There's been a great increase in feelings of spirituality because people want to understand why we're here as they become more aware of their own mortality. Knowing that the world and our own fate are unpredictable leads people to search for more grounding.�


* Note: Greenfield Online, the polling organization that conducted our October 2001 poll, was subsequently bought by TNS Interactive. In this article, both companies are referred to as TNS Interactive.

You've Got to Have Faith?

Nearly half of Americans are most comfortable right now with people who either share their faith or have faith of some kind.

WHICH BEST DESCRIBES YOUR ATTITUDE TOWARD OTHER FAITHS RIGHT NOW?

TOTAL OCT. 01 TOTAL JUNE-02 UNDER 26* 26-34*35-44 45-54 55+ MARRIED UNMARRIED CHILDREN UNDER 18 NO CHILDREN UNDER 18
Regardless of religion, I am comfortable with anyone who has faith of some kind. 37% 37% 33% 34% 37% 43% 41% 39% 36% 40% 35%
Other peoples' faith or lack of faith is of no concern to me right now. 40% 37% 46% 40% 34% 31% 35% 32% 44% 28% 42%
To be honest, I am having trouble understanding the Muslim faith right now. 14% 16% 9% 15% 18% 15% 19% 17% 13% 17% 15%
I am most comfortable with people who share my own faith right now. 9% 11% 13% 11% 12% 11% 5% 13% 8% 15% 8%
*Oct-01 polls had the age breakdowns of “under 25� and “25-36.�
Source: American Demographics/Greenfield Online poll, October 2001; American Demographics/TNS Interactive poll, June 2002

Small-Town Values

Since 9/11, Americans' closeness to their own communities increased overall, while it decreased on a national level.

THE COMMUNITY TO WHICH I FEEL MOST CLOSELY ALIGNED IS DEFINED AS:

OCT.-01 TOTAL JUNE-02
TOTAL <26* 26-34* 35-44 45-54 55+ MARRIED UNMARRIED
The people who are around me 30% 40% 56% 48% 35% 37% 28% 37% 45%
The people who share my faith 14% 15% 13% 16% 18% 18% 9% 17% 13%
The people who share my political ideas 5% 6% 4% 4% 8% 5% 8% 6% 6%
My fellow Americans 51% 38% 27% 32% 39% 40% 55% 40% 36%
*Oct-01 polls had the age breakdowns of “under 25� and “25-34.�
Source: American Demographics/Greenfield Online poll, October 2001; American Demographics/TNS Interactive poll, June 2002

My Neighborhood

Half of Americans who intended to be more involved with their communites followed through.

DO YOU …:

OCT.-01 TOTAL JUNE-02
TOTAL <26* 26-34* 35-44 45-54 55+ MALE FEMALE
Feel closer to your community as a result of the events of Sept. 11? 50% 50% 49% 46% 47% 55% 53% 48% 51%
Plan to be more closely involved with your community in the future as a result of the events of Sept. 11? 42% n/a 43% 48% 47% 35% 32% 36% 47%
Feel you are currently more involved with your community as a result of the events of Sept. 11? n/a 20% 21% 22% 19% 22% 18% 23% 1%
*Oct-01 polls had the age breakdowns of “under 25� and “25-34.�
Source: American Demographics/Greenfield Online poll, October 2001; American Demographics/TNS Interactive poll, June 2002

John Zogby

President and CEO, Zogby International, a public opinion polling firm, Utica, N.Y.

“Before Sept. 11, Americans sort of knew that ugly acts of terrorism were possible and would sometime happen. But these possibilities were akin to the fear of a nuclear attack in the 1950s and 1960s. It could happen, but no one would even think of it as a distinct possibility. Besides, we used to think, we have leaders and an alphabet of antiballistic weapons that could prevent the unthinkable.

But the magnitude of the attacks have created a sense of fear that cancels out the unthinkable and is uncharacteristic of the general optimism that helps define us as Americans. We now know that smallpox, cyber-terrorism, dirty bombs and so on are very real and right around the corner. And we also know that those who are paid to protect us can miss a signal here and there.

The events of Sept. 11 have closed the door to the Enlightenment once and for all. For over 200 years, America and Americans were the living embodiment of the notion of progress — every day in every way things were getting better. The first nails in the coffin carrying that belief were pounded in after Vietnam, the OPEC oil embargo, and the sense that the US could not control the world. But the final nail was hammered on Sept. 11 when we realized that the technology we have all benefited from and that appeared to protect us from the rest of the world could now be used so successfully against us. We are now exposed and vulnerable.�

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