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A surge in virtue: Religious participation, giving briefly increased after Sept. 11 tragedy

Published: Sunday, Sept. 11 2011 12:51 a.m. MDT

Associated Press

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.

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