In 2001, Pastor Sean Quinlan was shepherding his blue-collar congregation in Queens when two planes struck the World Trade Center towers. Like many Americans, he can remember almost everything that happened that day.
"It was a national, if not global, catastrophe which had a deep emotional impact on people," said Quinlan. "After a tragedy like that people tend to look upward. Our congregation in Queens saw a significant jump in attendance. We went from our average of about 175 people to around 225. That lasted for about four ... weeks after 9/11."
Quinlan wasn't the only pastor to see a spike in attendance.
Immediately after the attacks, attendance at religious services across the country increased 25 percent, according to a Barna Group report.
Likewise, Gallup found that people were more likley to say their religion was very important to them in the wake of 9/11.
But it wasn't just religiosity that climbed in the weeks following Sept. 11th.
Expressions of patriotism, goodwill, charitable giving, blood donations and time spent with loved ones all increased, according to Linda Skitka, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Unfortunately, these pro-social trends were short lived.
"Events like 9/11 threaten people's values and how they believe the world works, and so people go through what's called 'value protection,'" Skitka said, "We reassure ourselves that our values are still good — we do this by being nice, by being more patriotic, displaying the flag, donating blood and doing things like giving to charities" — and in some cases, going to church.
This type of value protection is called "moral cleansing," and accounts for why 40 percent of Americans did more nice things for loved ones and blood donations doubled in the weeks after 9/11, according to Skitka.
The trend had a profound effect on Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia University.
"I was in New York when it happened, and as a historian my tendency is to try and compare everything to history, but there is very little like it in our past," said Foner. "The reactions to 9/11 were especially unique because they were not contrived. ... Neighbors were being friendlier to each other; people were bringing gifts to their local firefighters to say thank you. There was a real unity here in New York."
Forner also noted the brevity of this "moral cleansing" period.
"Within a short period things returned to normal," he lamented.
So why was the trend so short lived?
"Lives are only transformed spiritually and permanently when religious experiences accumulate in regular life passages, such as birth, adolescence, marriage and old age and when religion is given the chance to repeat itself in fixed rituals and proscribed prayers," theorized Rabbi Gerald Zeilzer in a USA Today editorial on the first anniversary of 9/11. "Transformative religion is rarely born in spontaneous reactions to events such as Sept. 11, because those kind of cataclysmic happenings are too infrequent and isolated to build permanent and long-lasting faith. The spiritual fires that they ignite are intense, but not durable, even among the already religious."
Lisa Miller, a professor of psychology and education who researches spirituality, agreed, but added that events like 9/11 can act as wake up calls for renewed spirituality.
"9/11 represents the beginning of a major societal flux — the initiation into a decade of crises and warnings, beckoning our civilization to move from our secularized individual-centric society to a renewed unity and spiritual awareness," said Miller. "Every trauma, depression, tragedy is a chance to change. People had the choice after 9/11 to enter into a life of renewed spirituality, or continue in their previous state."
The numbers confirm that the momentary post-9/11 spike in religiosity was in fact just that.
Despite a large spike after 9/11, Gallup said at the end of 2010 that seven out of 10 Americans believed religion was losing influence in American life, and self-reported religious membership maintained its 70 year downward trend.
Indeed, only 61 percent of Americans reported membership to a church or synagogue last year, the lowest percentage in Gallup's history — down significantly from its high in 1947 of 76 percent.
In the midst of this decline, 43 percent of Americans reported holding at least "a little" prejudice toward Muslims, according to a Gallup survey, and 53 percent had a negative perception of the Islamic faith.
More startling is the large spike in post-9/11 hate crimes against Arab-Americans and Muslims.
In the first nine months after 9/11, there were 700 documented acts of violence against Arab-Americans, according to the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and the FBI reported that anti-Muslim offenses went up from 33 the previous year to 546 in 2001.
Skitka stressed that in addition to "moral cleansing," 9/11 also sparked "moral outrage."
"Moral outrage manifests itself in added prejudices and discrimination against anything that is symbolically associated with the attacks; in the case of 9/11 that happened to be adherents of Islam and people of Arab descent."
While some of these trends were transitory, others had permanent effects.
Hate crimes against Muslims in America have remained at a high level from 2002 to 2008, according to Linda Skitka's data.
"History entirely changed on 9/11. Its impact on the Muslim-American community and the broader society was enormous, some of which cannot be quantified," said Abid Hossain, a Muslim from Queens now studying law at New York University. "It changed society; it changed how I perceive myself as a Muslim and how others perceive me as a Muslim."
Although Hossain said that 9/11 begat much evil, he earnestly believes the tragedy allowed for true glimmers of goodness.17 comments on this story
"In tragedy you also get to see the goodness inherent in people. For example, many lost their lives to save others that day. There are times of darkness, but even in the darkest times you can see the light of others truly shining through."
Miller hopes that those times of darkness will prompt more to head toward the light.
"These crises are beckoning us to a new way of life — a better way of life. We have yet as a civilization to transform and embrace those beckonings."