Consistent with hypotheses derived from temporal self-appraisal theory (Peetz & Wilson, 2008
; Ross & Wilson, 2000
), results of these analyses indicate that there are differences over time in how adults remember their childhood religiousness, depending on whether that religiousness is framed in behavioral or identity terms. Across a period of about 10 to 20 years in early to middle adulthood, participants’ recollections of whether or not they attended religious services regularly in childhood remained relatively stable, and what change did occur was not correlated with their reported frequency of religious service attendance in adulthood. However, there was considerably more change across the course of the study in participants’ ratings of whether or not they were “religious people” in childhood. More importantly, this change was strongly related to present identification as a “religious person” or not in adulthood. That is, religious people were more likely to come to see their childhood selves as religious, while non-religious people were more likely to begin to recall their childhood selves as having been non-religious as well.
This pattern of results is consistent with predictions based on self-appraisal theory. Since we are motivated to see ourselves as basically stable on important dimensions across the life course, and to reduce perceived dissonance between past and present selves, it is likely that when people re-evaluate their religiousness they tend to harmonize past identities with present ones. Since religious behavior is more objective, as well as more verifiable by others, than internal states such as seeing oneself as a “religious person,” it is less prone to change in recollection. If dissonance arises, it is more likely for behavior to be reconstrued. For example, someone who has become less religious can attribute childhood behavior to family pressure, while someone who has become more religious can attribute the previously dissonant behavior to a lack of opportunity. These findings are also consistent with previous findings regarding retrospective measurement of change, that recollections of behavior are both more stable and more consistent with contemporaneous measures than recollections of other elements of one’s personal past, including identity (P. Cohen, et al., 2005
These findings have some practical implications for the use of retrospective measures of religiousness. Measures of religious identity appear to be particularly problematic. Not only were these responses quite prone to change over time, in this study, but there was considerable bias in the direction of this change, towards assimilation with adult religious identity. This raises serious methodological concerns for attempting to retrospectively establish relationships between early religious identity and outcomes in adulthood, since these measures may be both inaccurate and non-independent of other important constructs related to adult religiousness. If retrospective measures of religion must be employed in research, behavioral measures would seem to have the advantage of being relatively stable and independent of adult religiosity. While this stability does not necessarily imply greater accuracy, it is plausible that these reports of behavior provide a more objective measure of religiousness in childhood. Childhood religiousness has been of interest to researchers both in relation to the trajectory of adult religiousness (Granqvist & Hagekull, 1999
; Kirkpatrick & Shaver, 1990
; Koenig, McGue, Krueger, & Bouchard, 2005
). Childhood religiousness itself, as well stability of religiousness between childhood and adulthood, have also been found in some studies to be associated with lower subsequent risk of depression and other forms of psychiatric illness (Maselko & Buka, 2008
; Miller, Weissman, Gur, & Greenwald, 2002
). The results of this study reinforce the methodological hazards of relying on retrospective data regarding early religiousness when doing research in these areas.
Limitations of this study include the use of binary measures of religious behavior and identity, lack of precision in the framing of the items, and the unavailability of contemporaneous measures of actual religiosity during childhood. First, participants were limited to choosing between regular and irregular worship attendance, and between religious and non-religious identity. More nuanced measures would provide a better picture of people’s childhood recollections, and might be less prone to error. However, since the use of more sensitive measures would also tend to make associations statistically easier to detect, it is anticipated that the present pattern of results would likely be even stronger if such measures were available. Next, the measures did not provide a frame to define “childhood,” so it is possible that participants did not use the same reference age when recalling their childhood religiousness at different waves of the study. For example, at age 19 one might be more likely to construe “childhood” to refer to pre-adolescence, while the same person at age 40 might be more likely to include their teenage years. Since religiosity is likely to undergo change throughout the span that could be considered “childhood,” an unknown amount of variability between retrospective measures may be due to changing points of reference. It is also unfortunate that measures collected while participants were children did not include self or parent rated religiousness, so there is no contemporaneous standard against which to judge the accuracy of later recollections. Finally, the sample for this study was geographically limited to the northeastern US and was predominantly composed of Christians. Cultural norms regarding religion may play a role in shaping recollections in ways that may limit the generalizability of these findings to other populations.
Nevertheless, this study provides evidence of the ways in which people’s recollections of their past religiousness change over the course of adulthood, at least in part to harmonize their present and past selves. Who you think you were as a child appears to be at least in part a function of who you think you are now. In contrast, recollections of childhood religious behavior seem to remain relatively stable, and do not appear to depend on current adult religious behavior. Future research should examine the issues of perceived closeness of present and past selves, and personal narratives of change as they relate to religion. In particular, taking into account personal histories that include significant conversion or born-again experiences may help to explain why some individuals put more distance between their present and past religious identities over time. Understanding these relationships makes clear the important role that self and social identity processes have in shaping the way that individuals experience and come to understand their religious history throughout the life course.