Thousands were killed in a cruel, distorted vision of Islam, a religion that teaches peace. And for millions of Americans, the immediate response was to drop to their knees in prayer.
Sanctuaries filled for memorial services. Cardinal Edward Egan of New York remembers crowds overflowing St. Patrick's Cathedral.
A decade later, the soulful response seems fleeting. Statistically, the rush to the pews was a mere blip in a long-standing trend away from traditional religious practice, according to tracking studies by The Barna Group, a Christian research company.
What's lingering is the spiritual impact revealed when 9/11 stories are recounted through individual recollections of faith reborn, revitalized or reshaped.
Mark Driscoll, founder of Mars Hill Church, a multi-site mega church in Seattle, said after 9/11 he "felt a new sense of urgency to evangelize."
This is how people speak of an internal resetting of the compass, of journeys down pathways once unfamiliar, even unimagined. Pastor Mark Driscoll, who was 30 and just building his Seattle church a decade ago, says he discovered he was more fragile, more dependent on God, and more urgent about launching new churches than he'd known.
"Life is filled with opportunities to do good. We don't know how many we have, so you want to be there to invest, love and not take any day for granted," he says. His Mars Hill Church is now a multisite mega-church and he is a co-founder of Acts 29, a network that has launched 400 new congregations here and abroad.
Before 9/11, Fatemeh Fahkaire, a U.S.-born daughter of Iranian parents, was "just a white girl with a funny name." The attacks "found my identity for me before I was ready to find it for myself," she said.
Fatemeh Fahkaire, then a college freshman in Utah, was "just a white girl with a funny name" when the 9/11 attacks "found my identity for me before I was ready to find it for myself."
Within a few years, the U.S.-born daughter of Iranian parents began practicing Islam with fresh commitment. She founded and edits a website, Muslimah Media Watch, where 16 feminists of faith critique coverage of their issues in world culture.
This month, as she prays and fasts for Ramadan, Fahkaire, based in a Portland, Ore., suburb, observes, "Sept. 11 was 10 years ago and the media are still trying to explain Islam."
Others found themselves trying to explain Judaism and Christianity.
"I was a different kind of human being and a different kind of Jew before this experience," says Priscilla Warner, of Larchmont, N.Y., home of many Sept. 11 victims and survivors.
Gone were the days when her religion was simply her heritage — not discussed, not examined, not questioned. "Sept. 11 brought God out of the closet," Warner says.
By 2006, she had co-authored a bestselling book, The Faith Club, with Suzanne Oliver, a Protestant, and Ranya Idliby, a Muslim. It chronicles how they had set out to find common ground and wound up each growing richer, going deeper in their religious traditions. Today, hundreds of Faith Clubs across the U.S. are modeled on their efforts.
Changing 'spiritual priorities'
The terror attack was not the only wallop for the New York region during the past decade. Mark Kinnaman of The Barna Group says people were also affected deeply by the 2001 tech bust and the lingering challenges of the 2008 recession.
Weekly church attendance in the region is up from 31% in 1999-2000 to 46% in 2009-10, according to Barna Group surveys.
"Unsettling times are moments when people have an option to look around and see how they will make sense of things, and religion is one of those options," Tony Carnes says. He is publisher and editor of A Journey through NYC Religions. That's the website of a research project begun in 2009 to document every sign of faith in the city, from churches to storefront temples to faith-inspired graffiti on a city wall.
No similar census serves as a baseline of attitudes from a decade ago. But Carnes, after looking at historical records, sees exponential growth in the number of evangelical churches just in central Manhattan where the counting is complete.
And Carnes estimates 40% of that growth has happened during the tumultuous last decade when the city experienced international immigration, an influx of educated young professionals from across the USA and economic upheavals beyond Sept. 11.
Turning toward God in traumatic times is a comfort for many believers.
Understanding others' religion
Imam Abdul Feisal Abdul Rauf, who has lead a mosque in Manhattan since 1983, was a veteran of interfaith work when the Sept. 11 attacks threw an unwelcome spotlight on Islam as a religion claimed by the terrorists.
"It was doubly traumatic for us. I lost members of my congregation in the attacks and we had to engage even more robustly with our fellow Americans in seeking healing and expressing that Islam itself is not responsible," Rauf says.
But he triggered an explosive reaction when he tried to launch a community center, with space for prayers — a Muslim equivalent of the nationally known Jewish center, the 92nd St. Y on the Upper East Side — two blocks from the World Trade Center site. The project, inaccurately branded the "Ground Zero Mosque," is now known as Park51. But by any name, it became emblematic of a fear of Islam, and protests spread across the country.
"If 9/11 had not happened, there would have been much less opposition. The perception is that my religion attacked America," says Rauf, who still expects Park51 will be built — someday.
"Unlike a game that has a time limit, we have no clock," he says. "We will always need a formula for
bridging these divides. We need ways to talk."