After Sept. 11 -- What good? What evil?

There was never any question whether the hellish events of Sept. 11 would be selected as the most important news story in the Religion Newswriters Association's annual poll.

The question was which Sept. 11 religion story would receive the most votes.

There were so many - from the prayers of the bombers to the prayers of those who fought them. In the end, five of the RNA poll's top 10 stories were linked to Sept. 11 in some way. The secular journalists who cover religion named Osama bin Laden as 2001's most significant religion newsmaker, with President Bush placing second.

"Osama bin Laden has demonstrated, not for the first time in history, how easily religion and religious fervor can be hijacked to serve political ends," noted one journalist.

Was this attack merely about politics? Armies of experts said it was part of an ancient clash between civilizations and religions. Some saw evidence of a pivotal struggle within Islam, a fight requiring sermons and fatwas as well as bullets and bombs. President Bush said this was a battle between good and evil - period.

But it's hard to discuss good and evil, and terrorists and heroes, in an age that says truth is a matter of opinion. Welcome back to America's culture wars.

"We're not fighting to eradicate 'terrorism,' " argued Thomas Friedman, in the New York Times. "Terrorism is just a tool. World War III is a battle against religious totalitarianism, a view of the world that my faith must reign supreme and can be affirmed and held passionately only if others are negated."

In this column and others, the New York Times defined "religious totalitarianism" as any claim that a faith teaches absolute, exclusive truth.

"The future of the world may well be decided by how we fight this war," wrote Friedman. "Can Islam, Christianity and Judaism know that God speaks Arabic on Fridays, Hebrew on Saturdays and Latin on Sundays? Many Jews and Christians have already argued that the answer to that question is yes, and some have gone back to their sacred texts to reinterpret their traditions to embrace modernity and pluralism."

David Zwiebel of Agudath Israel of America fiercely disagreed, insisting that this "vision of America where religious belief is welcome only if it abandons claims to exclusive truth is truly chilling - and truly intolerant."

Here are the top 10 stories in the RNA poll:

1. Americans rush to prayer vigils after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Clergy describe waves of worshippers asking, "Where was God?'' Worship attendance surges, but quickly returns to seasonal levels.

2. Fearing a backlash of hate, most American Muslims experience just the opposite. Many non-Muslims organize visits to mosques and clergy condemn negative stereotypes.

3. Bush repeatedly proclaims that America's war is not with Islam, but with those who blaspheme its teachings. But many Middle Eastern and Asian Muslims agree with bin Laden's proclamations that the U.S. is at war with their faith.

4. Months of debate over the morality of research on stem cells taken from human embryos lead to a presidential order limiting the use of federal research dollars to existing stem cell lines.

5. Assassinations and suicide bombings escalate in Israel, fueling animosity and mistrust in the Middle East and dimming the prospects of peace between Jews and Palestinians. Homes are bulldozed in Gaza and the West Bank.

6. The White House proceeds with its Faith-Based Initiative despite criticism from the religious left and many conservatives. A modified version wins passage in the U.S. House, but has yet to pass the Senate.

7. Books and courses on Islamic beliefs and culture surge in popularity as Americans seek to better understand Islamic fundamentalism and its place in the Muslim world.

8. Pope John Paul II visits to Greece, Syria and Malta, becoming the first pope to visit a mosque, the Great Mosque in Damascus. A papal visit to the Ukraine increases old tensions, as Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox leaders claim that he is stealing their sheep.

9. Books on prayer soar on bookstore charts, illustrated by sales of the ``Prayer of Jabez.'' The apocalyptic "Left Behind" series sets publishing records, even though only 24 percent of Americans and 42 percent of ``born again'' Christians say they have heard of the books.

10. Christian relief workers -- accused by the Taliban of trying to convert Muslims -- are freed after three months of captivity in Afghanistan.