The Effects of 9/11 on Faith and Religious Beliefs

How Religious Beliefs May Change After Trauma

9/11 Memorial fountain with skyscrapers in background

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The world was shocked by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and one of the effects of 9/11 was on religious beliefs. Although the research showed that most people who lost a loved one on 9/11 did not experience a change to their religious beliefs, about a fifth of these people did experience a shift in their faith.

Have you experienced a traumatic event that has left your beliefs shaken? Are you possibly dealing with PTSD? Find out how traumas shape our religious beliefs—and how you can get help for your lasting pain. 

How 9/11 Affected People's Religious Beliefs

The 9/11 terrorist attacks brought on feelings of anxiety and vulnerability as many Americans had their sense of safety and comfort threatened. Given the traumatic nature of 9/11, it's not surprising that this event would also test people's religious beliefs.

The lives of many people permanently changed on 9/11 when they were faced with the unexpected loss of loved ones.

A group of researchers affiliated with the New York State Psychiatric Institute, Columbia University, and the Veterans Administration Boston Healthcare System surveyed a large number of people who had lost a loved one during the 9/11 attacks. About a quarter had lost a child, relative, or spouse, and most people had lost someone as a result of them being near the World Trade Center or in lower Manhattan during the terrorist attacks.

The primary findings of the study can be summarized by the following:

  • Most of the people in the study felt their religion to be just as important after the 9/11 terrorist attacks as it was before the attacks.
  • About a tenth of people said religion became more important after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It seems that some people may have relied on their religious beliefs in an attempt to make sense of the terrorist attacks or gain comfort in response to their loss.
  • Another tenth said that religion became less important to them after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This was particularly the case for people who lost a child during the attacks. These people may have become disillusioned or may have begun to question aspects of their faith after the terrorist attacks.
  • People who said their religious beliefs were less important following the event were more likely to experience complicated grief, have major depression and develop PTSD. On the other hand, people who said their religious beliefs were more important after 9/11 didn't seem to increase or decrease the risk of these problems.

Your Religious Beliefs and Recovering From a Traumatic Event

Let's explore what these findings mean for you if you've experienced trauma. When faced with a major traumatic event, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it's natural to struggle with how to make sense of that event. This is especially going to be the case if you lost a loved one during that event.

Unfortunately, struggling with your religious beliefs following a traumatic event can have a big impact on how well you adjust to that traumatic event. 

Relying on and strengthening religious beliefs is one way people may choose to cope with a traumatic event and unexpected loss. Religion and spirituality can help some people adjust and recover from a traumatic event.

However, it's important to note that religion is not the only way to recover from such an event. A number of other factors have been found to be associated with recovery from a traumatic event. You may want to explore:

How you cope with a traumatic event and the loss of a loved one is a very personal experience. It's very important that you find the strategy that works best for you.

If you lost a loved one as a result of 9/11, there are several websites that provide helpful information on coping and recovery, such as the September 11th Families' Association and the Families of September 11th.

1 Source
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  1. Seirmarco G, Neria Y, Insel B, Kiper D, et. al. Religiosity and mental health: Changes in religious beliefs, complicated grief, posttraumatic stress disorder, and major depression following the September 11, 2001 attacksPsychology of Religion and Spirituality. 2012;4(1):10–18. doi:10.1037/a0023479

By Matthew Tull, PhD
Matthew Tull, PhD is a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder.