When American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon, a jet-fuel fireball claimed most of its victims before they could even dive under their desks.
But as rescue crews worked through the charred halls, word spread of an amazing sign of hope. On the second floor -- steps from where the plane sliced away the building -- stood a stool holding a large, open book that had not been burned. Eyewitnesses reportedly said it was a Bible and the news flew across the nation via the Internet.
"It's such a perfect metaphor," noted Barbara Mikkelson, a curator at the San Fernando Valley Folklore Society's urban legends research site (www.snopes.com). "It's like, in the midst of all of this death, mayhem and horror, this one enduring symbol of faith was untouched. ...
"When you look at it that way, it's kind of a shame it turned out to be a dictionary."
Imagine what people would have thought if it had been a copy of "Nostradamus: The Complete Prophecies."
That's the book by the French astrologer who "in 1654" wrote: "On the 11th day of the 9th month, two metal birds will crash into two tall statues, in the new city, and the world will end soon after." Only, Nostradamus -- who died in 1566 -- didn't write that. He also didn't write some of the other verses attributed to him in waves of recent emails. Alas, it's too late for the converts who bought those Nostradamus books and videos.
Truth is, people are buying all kinds of things. Rumors and visions are everywhere.
"As the saying goes, the problem isn't that Americans don't believe in anything. It's that they believe in everything," said George Gallup, Jr. "What this says to me is that people are searching, but they aren't rooted in the orthodox faith. Most of them will say they are Christians, or even born-again Christians, but they aren't grounded in any traditional set of beliefs. ...
"People are roaring off in all directions. They're hanging onto to whatever helps them feel better, including some things that are pretty nutty."
News reports have featured stirring images of Americans flocking into sanctuaries. According to the headlines, terrorism has stirred the fires of faith. But the reality is more complex than that. While it's easy to find signs that more Americans are hungry for "spiritual experience," there is little evidence that they're committed to the doctrines and disciplines of any one faith.
Last summer, the Gallup Organization produced data indicating that belief in biblical authority has fallen to an all-time low. While 93 percent of all households own at least one Bible, only 27 percent of people polled affirmed that Scripture contains "the actual word of God in all instances." That figure was 65 percent in 1963.
Meanwhile, the same "Emerging Trends" newsletter contained an article noting "a significant increase in belief in psychic, paranormal and occult phenomena over the past decade." A third or more of Americans now believe in such things as "haunted houses, possession by the devil, ghosts, telepathy, extraterrestrial beings having visited earth and clairvoyance." Belief in angels also continues to soar.
So it isn't surprising that Americans are seeking spiritual answers to questions raised by the hellish images they witnessed on 9/11, said Frank Newport, editor of the Gallup Poll. But it also isn't shocking that most of them are turning to the World Wide Web, mall bookstores and video stores instead of to churches.
After the attacks, the percentage of those polled that said they had attended worship during the previous seven days rose from 41 to 47 percent, over the numbers in May. The percentage who said that some kind of religion was "very important" in their life rose from 57 to 64 percent.
"That whole story may turn out to have been an urban legend," said Newport. "Yes, more people seem to have gone to church, that first weekend, but it was nothing truly extraordinary. ... I'm sure there are all kinds of anecdotes about people stopping and smelling the roses and thinking twice about their lives. But we're just not seeing any evidence of some kind of Great Awakening out there."