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After 9/11, a short-lived rush to church

Mark Chaves on how church business boomed briefly after 9/11

Part of the 15 Years After 9/11 Series

After the Sept. 11 terror attacks, many expected American houses of worship to be jammed with parishioners seeking refuge, community and a place to grieve.

And that spike in church attendance did in fact occur. Briefly.

But the attacks did not have a lasting effect on American religiosity, says Mark Chaves, a Duke professor of sociology, religious studies, and divinity. Chaves directs the National Congregations Study, which examines American religious places of worship over time. He says the jolt to church attendance following the attacks lasted just a few weeks.

“People thought this type of crisis of national significance would lead people to be more religious, and it did,” he says. “But it was very short-lived. There was a blip in church attendance and then it went back to normal.”

Religious behavior isn’t usually affected in the long term by single events, Chaves says. Rather, religious practice in a society tends to change slowly over a long period of time, often owing to demographic changes. For example, changes to family structure -- like people marrying later, or not at all, or choosing not to have children -- have led to changes in church attendance and other sorts of religious involvement, Chaves says.

And though church attendance spiked briefly after 9/11, America’s overall participation in religious activities was actually in decline at that time -- a trend that was slow enough not to be identified until recently. The best data point to a slow, steady drop in religious involvement dating back to at least the 1970s, he says.

A 2015 study that Chaves co-authored found a steady drop in the number of Americans who claim religious affiliations, attend church regularly and believe in God. It also found that these drops are driven by generational differences.

A couple examples from the study include:

-- 94 percent of Americans born before 1935 claim a religious affiliation. For the generation born after 1975, that number drops to 71 percent. 

-- 68 percent of Americans 65 and older said they had no doubt God exists, but just 45 percent of young adults, ages 18-30, had the same belief.

“It’s long and slow, but there’s a discernable trend toward less religiosity in the United States.”