Life Events and Religious Change

Stan L. Albrecht and Marie Cornwall

Stan L. Albrecht and Marie Cornwall, “Life Events and Religious Change,” in Latter-day Saint Social Life: Social Research on the LDS Church and its Members (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1998), 231–252.

Stan L. Albrecht is professor of health policy and epidemiology at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida. Marie Cornwall is professor of sociology at Brigham Young University. This article was originally published in Review of religious Research 31:23–38; reprinted with permission.


Over the course of a lifetime, virtually all persons experience change in their level of religious belief and activity. Some of these changes are modest in scope; others are more dramatic, as in the case of religious conversion or loss of faith. This paper examines the effect of a variety of life events on changes in religious belief and behavior. Since not all people attribute religious meaning to different life events, their impact on personal religiosity varies from individual to individual. Nevertheless, we have found that on the aggregate level both the importance of one’s religious beliefs and the importance of one’s church increases as a result of positive life events, while the opposite occurs following negative life events. This pattern holds for events that are overtly religious in nature as well as for events that may or may not have religious significance, such as illness or injury, divorce, and death of a loved one.

Only recently have social scientists interested in the study of religious behavior begun systematically to study those factors that contribute to change in individual levels of religious activity and belief. Yet, we know that these variables are dynamic in nature. Neither activity nor inactivity, belief nor nonbelief constitute permanent states for most people. Instead, probably the only constant in this whole area is change. For some individuals, the change may be rather dramatic as reflected in religious conversion or apostasy; for others, it may simply be reflected in modest changes in activity and commitment.

In support of the contention that change is fairly constant and that it moves in both directions (toward either higher or lower levels of activity and/or belief) Roozen (1980) has noted that as many as 80 percent of church dropouts, depending on the age at which they drop out, become reinvolved in religion at a later time in their lives. Furthermore, as many as 90 percent of those who are currently unchurched were at least marginally involved at some earlier point, and a majority of these were weekly attenders. Similar findings are reported in a study by Albrecht, Cornwall, and Cunningham (1988).

This process of becoming more or less active or committed is an important one for social scientists interested in the study of religion. However, few attempts have been made to chart the specific effects that other life events have on religious belief and behavior. We know from the growing literature on life events that experiences that occur in the life of each individual seriously affect such things as sense of well-being, personal happiness, life satisfaction, and physical and emotional health. We also assume that many of these changes are inextricably bound to personal religiosity (Kivett 1979; Cook and Wimberly 1983; Pargament and Hahn 1986), though their linkage has received scant attention in the research literature.

This paper explores the specific effect various life events and relationship changes (both secular and religious and both negative and positive) have on religious belief and commitment. Our assumption is that many of the experiences that individuals have in the normal course of their day-to-day lives will affect their religiosity. For example, we sometimes refer to certain experiences as “faith promoting”; others may severely challenge faith and force reevaluation of belief. However, little is known about which types of life experiences have a positive effect on faith and which have a negative effect.

Change in Religious Commitment and Participation

To argue that little research has been done examining the relationship between specific life events and religious change is not to ignore the important work that has been done on changes in religiosity. There are a number of areas of research which are relevant to the study of religious change, including (1) literature examining changes in levels of belief and activity over the life cycle; (2) literature dealing with religious disaffiliation; and (3) literature dealing with the process of religious conversion or reactivation. We will briefly review each.

Changes in Belief and Activity Over the Life Cycle

There is now ample evidence that both religious activity and belief are related to life cycle factors. The research shows a pattern of declining belief and activity during the teens and early twenties, followed by increasing levels of activity as the person reaches the late 20s and the early 30s (Caplovitz and Sherrow 1977; Wuthnow and Mellinger 1978; Argyle 1958; Moberg 1965; Dittes 1969; Roozen 1980). While some have suggested this decline in the late teens may be due to the secularizing influence of higher education (Caplovitz and Sherrow 1977; Wuthnow and Mellinger 1978), more recent research suggests that much of the decline is due to family background and early socialization and to developmental issues of adolescence and young adulthood (Albrecht, Cornwall, and Cunningham 1988).

Increases in belief and activity during the late 20s and the early 30s seem to be associated with other life cycle changes: reaching the child-bearing ages, taking on adult status and responsibilities (employment, buying a home, etc.), and subjective concerns associated with life cycle differences such as identity problems and worries about illness and death (Wuthnow 1976).

Religious Disaffiliation and Dropping Out

The literature on religious disaffiliation tends to focus on two rather different patterns (Albrecht and Bahr 1983): either the individual disaffiliates with one organization because he or she chooses to join another, or the disaffiliate ceases formal religious involvement altogether. Switching from one denominational affiliation to another is rather common in the United States and has received extensive attention in the literature (see, for example, Roof and Hadaway 1977, 1979; Hadaway 1978, 1980). Such “switching” does not necessarily imply any loss of religious faith and may, in fact, indicate an increase in religious commitment. Ofttimes, however, it is done as a matter of convenience, because another denomination more adequately expresses one’s personal beliefs, or as an indication of social mobility.

Much of the work on religious disaffiliation in the form of dropping out or ceasing religious involvement altogether has focused on studies of college students (see, for example, Caplovitz and Sherrow 1977; Astin 1977; Wuthnow and Mellinger 1978; Madsen and Vernon 1983). But other research has identified reasons for decreasing activity or loss of faith among the general population. This research has suggested the significance of maturational processes, social integration, and a sense of meaninglessness or irrelevance. Personal contextual reasons seem to play a particularly significant role in the decision to drop out (Hartman 1976; Roozen 1980; Savage 1976). While several studies that have developed typologies of dropouts or examined the major correlates of disaffiliation are suggestive of the importance of life events in affecting these processes, none carefully examines the specific effect of such events on religiosity. [1] Clearly the need for such work is still evident.

Religious Conversion and Reactivation

The literature suggests that a significant portion of the adult population in the United States has had some form of religious experience that might include elements of a religious conversion (see Thomas and Cooper 1978). Religious conversion has often been defined as a rather sudden process consisting of new religious insight or experience which leads to greater religiosity on the part of the individual involved (Donahue 1979). However, recent work has indicated that there are many different types of conversion experiences. Lofland and Skonovd (1981), for example, describe several “motifs” of conversion experience, ranging from largely private investigations of alternative ideologies to highly social, emotionally arousing experiences as might occur during a religious revival. Some of the types in the Lofland and Skonovd continuum parallel Long and Hadden’s (1983) study which makes an important distinction between conversion by brainwashing (a “coercive” motif) and conversion by drift. More recently, Gartrell and Shannon (1985) have proposed a more rational model of conversion by emphasizing that conversion, particularly to a “new religious movement,” hinges largely on the actor’s perceptions of the expected rewards associated with converting as compared with those of not converting.

There seems to be an increased tendency in recent work to focus on the actual process of conversion, though there remains disagreement on the extent to which the convert plays an active role in that experience (contrast, for example, the approaches of Donahue 1979, and Snow and Machalek 1983, 1984, with that of Staples and Mauss 1987). While most earlier descriptive accounts of religious conversion tended to describe it as happening to the individual, there is now more attention given to the extent to which the process is more directly controlled by the convert.

Much of the religious conversion literature has focused on the context in which religious conversion occurs (see, for example, the review by Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi 1975), the actual conversion event itself (Hood 1972, 1974; Snow and Machalek 1983; Staples and Mauss 1987), or the major causes of conversion (see reviews by Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi 1975; Donahue 1979; and Long and Hadden 1983). Many of the studies in this area are based on small samples and some conclusions and interpretations are contradictory. Nevertheless, if we define conversion as involving an increase in the level of religiosity that results from new religious insight, an “awakening,” or a “born again” experience, it is evident that a nontrivial proportion of the population of the United States has undergone this type of conversion (Donahue 1979).

While each of these sets of literature recognizes that important changes occur in levels of belief and activity, none systematically examines the specific effect of life events and relationship changes. What types of experiences contribute to an increase in faith or cause one’s faith to decline? The growing literature on life events suggests that these things do affect personal well-being and happiness. They should also affect personal religiosity. Before turning to the life-events literature, however, we must say something briefly about religious change as personal development and about religious world views.

Religious Change as Personal Development

A relatively new approach to the study of religious change is found in the work of James Fowler (1981, 1984) and focuses on faith development and spiritual change. Drawing upon the developmental perspectives of Piaget (1965), Kohlberg (1976, 1981), and Gilligan (1979, 1982), Fowler attempts to describe religious change as related to the cognitive development of the individual. This approach is a fruitful one and is not inconsistent with the apparent maturational issues suggested by the research on religious commitment. Religious development changes over time as the individual matures, but the maturation process is primarily physiological. A life course perspective which focuses on the impact of normative events (marriage, first job, child bearing, and death) is missing.

Religion as World View

The link between life events and religiosity is implicit in much of the work of Peter Berger (1967) who has written of the importance of plausibility structures (family, church, or voluntary organizations) and “conversations with significant others” which sustain a religious world view. Consistent with this perspective, scholars have demonstrated the importance of personal communities in maintaining religious belief and commitment (Roof 1978; Hougland and Wood 1980; Cornwall 1985, 1987). The implied model of religious change in this literature suggests that life events may influence belief and commitment to the extent that they short circuit network ties with others of similar faith.

But life events may also have a very direct influence on religious belief and commitment to the extent that they require a re-evaluation of prior “explanations of reality.” A functional view of religion would suggest that the role of religion is to explain the unexplainable. When the unexplainable happens and present world views no longer provide an adequate explanation, individuals must search for alternative explanations. Hence the popularity of books like When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Kushner 1981).

What we have developed, then, is a rather diverse literature clearly demonstrating the pervasiveness of religious change. Our effort here is to link that change to the experience of specific life events. Our general assumption is that explanations provided by some individual religious world views are challenged by the experience of negative events and that the outcome, at least for some, will be decreased participation and commitment.

Research on Life Events

In recent years there has developed a substantial body of research on the importance of life changes or life events in affecting individual mental health, psychological distress and related conditions (see Thoits 1983 for an excellent review of research in this area). Life events such as marriage, divorce, loss of job, and death of a loved one act as stressors which can cause a variety of physiological and psychological reactions, particularly if coping mechanisms are not in place. Recent work in this area argues that life events do not necessarily have to be negative in nature to affect change in other aspects of the individual’s life. Rather, ordinary, normative changes in a person’s life, such as marriage, changing careers, and the birth of a child might play a role in physiological and psychological change, as might less dramatic events that most people undergo as part of their everyday experience (Jandorf, Deblinger, Neale, and Stone 1986; Nezu 1986).

The most critical quality of life events, according to Holmes and Rahe (1967) is the simple property of change, or the amount of readjustment that is required in a person’s life. The more change the individual experiences, the more such change will be reflected in other arenas of the individual’s life. However, research by others (see, for example, Gertsen et al. 1974; Dohrenwend 1973; Ross and Mirowsky 1979; Thoits 1983; Vinokur and Caplan 1986) suggests that desirable events, as opposed to undesirable events, have little association with disturbances.

Typically, the dependent variable in life events research has been either psychological distress, psychiatric disorder, or psycho-pathological behavior. Little attention has been given to the possible role of life events in affecting other areas, such as religious attitudes and behavior. Yet, as we have noted above, most of us respond to such commonsense notions as “faith-building or faith-challenging experiences” which assume a direct relationship between certain types of life events and religious attitudes and behavior. [2]

Our intent here is to examine the effect of a variety of life events on changes in religious attitudes. We assume that just as the occurrence of these events can affect the psychological functioning of the individual, so can they affect the individual’s level of religious belief and commitment. We will examine both secular and religious events and events that are both positive and negative in their defined outcomes. In addition we will attempt to assess whether events that happen to oneself as opposed to other people have different effects on belief and commitment.


Data to test the effect of life events on changes in religious beliefs are taken from a larger research project designed to gather information on organizational activity as well as on individual and family religious behavior among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) in the United States. Sampling for the project was done in several stages to increase the representativeness of the study. First, fifty stakes were selected randomly from the different administrative areas of the church in the United States. Mormon stakes are made up of several (usually from six to twelve) wards (local congregations). A random list of wards contained within each of the fifty stakes was developed, and at least two wards from each of the stakes were selected. The number of wards selected within each stake was determined by the proportion of the total families in all fifty stakes which lived in that particular stake. Additional wards were selected within those stakes where a larger proportion of total families resided. A sample of 148 wards was thus obtained.

While organizational data were obtained from the 148 wards, the individual and family religiosity study focused on a small number of twenty-seven wards randomly selected from the larger total. A membership roster was obtained from each of these, and ward bishops were asked to indicate for each adult in his ward (eighteen years of age and older) the level of activity of that person. An active member was defined as anyone who attended meetings at least once a month. Activity level was determined because an earlier pilot study had indicated that lower percentages of “inactives” would respond to the study. By designating activity level, we were able to oversample those who were currently not attending church meetings.

From the membership rosters, a list of households was randomly selected first, and then individuals within each household were selected. A sample of thirty-two active and forty-eight inactive families was obtained within each of the twenty-seven wards. One adult member in each household was designated for inclusion in the sample by a toss of a die. Adult children over the age of eighteen were included in the sampling universe. When only one adult lived in the household or when there was only one adult who was a member of the Mormon church, that person was included in the sample. The final sample consisted of 1874 members over the age of eighteen.

Data were collected using a thirty-two-page mailed questionnaire. In addition to the initial mailing, nonrespondents received follow-up postcards and additional copies of the questionnaire that were mailed about six and eight weeks following the initial mailing. Individuals designated as “inactive” by their bishops were much less likely to return the questionnaire. Adjusting for the 390 questionnaires that were “undeliverable,” the response rate achieved at this point was 74 percent for active church members and 44 percent for inactives.

In order to increase the numbers of responses for inactive subjects, an attempt was made to contact all nonrespondents via telephone. Four hundred and sixty-four such calls were made. Forty percent of those called were unreachable either because the telephone had been disconnected or a new number was unpublished. An additional 17 percent were not contacted because there was no answer following multiple attempts or they refused to give any response. The remainder agreed either to fill out the questionnaire if another copy was sent or agreed to a short telephone interview. This raised the overall response rate to 64 percent (48 percent for inactives) excluding the phone interviews.


We included in a section of the questionnaire focusing on periods in the respondent’s life when important changes had occurred in religious commitment two items that read as follows: “(1) Would you say that within the past year, the importance of the LDS church in your life has: (a) decreased, (b) stayed the same, or (c) increased; and (2) Would you say that within the past year the importance of your personal religious belief has: (a) decreased, (b) stayed the same, or (c) increased.” These two items will be treated as the dependent variable in the analysis that follows.

Several questions were included to assess life events. All of these were tied specifically to the same time frame noted above; that is, all were to have occurred within the past twelve months. One question asked the respondent to indicate which of a long list of events had happened to him/her or to a close friend or relative within the past year. The list of events included such things as serious illness or injury, serious behavioral problems such as alcohol or drug abuse, serious emotional problems, unemployment, separation or divorce, death, baptism, church marriage, receipt of a special priesthood blessing, and excommunication or disfellowshipment from the church. This list includes both positive and negative events as well as events that are both religious and secular in nature. Information was collected for the respondent, for his or her spouse, and for immediate family members, close friends, and relatives.

A second item sought to assess the occurrence of major relationship changes. Respondents were asked to indicate whether relationships with spouse, children, relatives, friends, and local church leaders had become “much better,” “much worse,” or remained largely “unchanged” during the past twelve months. A third item addressed situational changes. Respondents were asked whether or not they had experienced in the past year a major change in their or their spouse’s work situation, in their financial situation, or in their living conditions. Again, responses included “much better,” “much worse,” or “no change.”

Finally, respondents were asked to indicate whether or not they had experienced within the past year a series of events that, while less directly related to some of the life course events described above, could nevertheless be important in influencing one’s level of religious commitment. This list included such things as whether or not they felt they had been supported by church leaders and members during times of special need, whether or not they had engaged in behaviors considered wrong according to the norms of their church, and so on.

It will be noted that we have included life events of the following types: (1) religious and nonreligious, (2) desirable and undesirable, (3) major and minor, and (4) experienced by self or others (spouse, other family, close friends). The one additional dimension noted in the literature has to do with whether the events are controlled or uncontrolled. We have found it difficult to address that dimension with the particular questions asked in our study and so will not deal with it here.

For analysis purposes, we will examine first those items having to do with religious life events. Table 7.1 summarizes results from an analysis of variance of the number of negative or positive events by whether change occurs in religious belief or commitment.

The data are summarized, primarily, through the presentation of means. For example, if we examine the first entry—the experience of positive religious events—the figures indicate that those who report that the importance of the church decreased during the past year experienced fewer than one (.95) of those positive religious events. On the other hand, those who report that the importance of the church increased experienced an average of 2.23 of these events. The figures for the second measure of the dependent variable (changes in the importance of one’s religious beliefs) are very similar. What we observe, then, is a clear relationship between an increase in both the importance of one’s religious beliefs and the importance of the church and the experience of positive religious events in one’s life during the same time period. The last column in the table presents the overall population mean. In the case of positive religious events, the overall sample experienced an average of 1.75 of these events. Those whose belief had decreased experienced fewer (.95) while those whose belief increased experienced more (2.23).

Similar patterns are evident in table 7.1 for the other positive religious life events. Those whose belief had increased during the past year were much more likely than those whose belief had decreased to have experienced positive church relationship changes and to have had other positive religious experiences. The correlations in all cases are positive and significant.

Effect of Religious Life Events on Religious Beliefs and Attitudes

On the other hand, negative religious experiences tend to reduce belief. Those whose faith had decreased were more likely than those whose faith had increased to report having experienced negative church relationship changes and to have engaged in what we have defined as negative religiosity—did something wrong according to church standards, questioned beliefs, and so on. Overall, the number of positive religious events was associated with increased belief and commitment while the number of negative religious events was associated with the opposite effect.

But what about events that have no direct religious connotations, at least for a majority of the people? Do they have any impact on faith? Table 7.2 summarizes our findings on this question.

Effect of Selected Life Events on Religious Belief and Attitudes

Summary of Effect of Religious and Life Events on Religious Attitudes and Belief

While the relationships are not as strong as is the case for religious life events, the pattern is clear and consistent. The experience of negative life events (serious illness, separation or divorce, unemployment, etc.), relationship changes (personal relationships with spouse, other family members, friends, etc.), and situational changes (work situation, financial and living situation) is consistently related to lower religiosity. Those who indicate that the importance of the church or the importance of their religious beliefs has decreased during the past year are more likely to report having experienced these negative events than are those who have had an increase in their faith. There is one interesting exception to this general pattern. While those who report a decrease in faith are more likely to report experiencing the negative events, observing others (close friends and relatives) experience such events has the opposite effect. That is, those who reported increased faith were more likely than those who reported decreased faith to have friends or relatives who experienced illness, loss of job, death, and divorce or separation.

Table 7.3 provides a summary of the findings by combining the different measures of life events in various ways. First, we have combined all of the positive life events, relationship changes, and situation changes into one set. As the first row in the table indicates, those who report that the importance of the church has increased during the past year have experienced an average of 6.05 of these events. This is almost twice the number reported by those for whom the importance of the church has decreased (3.33). Similarly, those who report an increase in the importance of their religious beliefs have experienced an average of 5.75 of these positive events, compared with 3.06 for those whose religious beliefs have decreased. The relationships are less strong when we delete religious events but the pattern is still the same.

When we combine the negative events, relationship changes, and situational changes the effect on religious belief is negative. Those whose faith has decreased during the year (as measured by both dependent variables) are more likely to report experiencing these negative events than are those whose belief has increased. Eliminating the negative religious events has little impact on the relationship, again largely because so few of the respondents had experienced the particular negative religious events that were included in the study.

The final two rows of the table subtract the number of positive events from the number of negative events. Those whose belief had decreased end up with a positive figure (that is, they have experienced more negative events than positive events), while those whose belief has increased end up with a negative figure (they have experienced more positive than negative events). The pattern holds both when religious events are included or excluded from the analysis.


We began by noting that only recently have we started to look carefully at those factors that contribute to changes in religious activity and belief. Clearly, religiosity is dynamic in nature. Times of increasing faith are often followed by times when faith is less strong and vice versa. This paper is a preliminary attempt to examine the effect of the experience of various types of life events on such changes in personal religiosity. We have observed a clear and consistent pattern: the experience of positive events contributes to increased faith while the experience of negative events seems to be faith challenging.

Obviously, not all people are affected in the same way and our data only report group patterns or tendencies. As the growing body of life events research notes, not all people who experience negative life events become ill or mentally distressed (Thoits 1983). Similarly, not all people who experience negative events experience a loss of faith or, conversely, an increase of faith as a result of positive experiences (Cook and Wimberly 1983; Pargament and Hahn 1986).

There are a number of plausible explanations that call for additional research. The life events literature suggests two sets of “resistance” factors. The first of these has to do with individual predispositions while the second relates to psychosocial resources. While the former looks at strengths that have developed within the individual, the latter includes the ability of the individual to draw upon social support from others during times of stress or crisis (Unger and Powell 1980; Cohen and McKay 1984; Monroe et al. 1986). Vulnerable persons may change while those with certain types of personality strengths or sources of social support may remain little changed. The ability to cope with problems and challenges may develop through experience with other coping opportunities, and so on. More work is required to address these important questions.

Another consideration that must be taken into account in the examination of the effect of life events on religious belief has to do with the extent to which the individual actually sees the experience as having religious meaning or significance. Some may simply not relate an event like loss of job or divorce to their broader world of religious meaning. The application of an attributional approach may be particularly productive here (Spilka and Schmidt 1983; Spilka, Shaver, and Kirkpatrick 1985; Pargament and Hahn 1986).

Finally, social support has been shown to have a significant impact on a person’s ability to cope with life events. In examining the impact of life events on religiosity, social support may help the individual create a new world view which provides adequate explanations for the unexplainable. Unfortunately, certain life events (the death of a loved one, divorce, or moving to a new community) may severely challenge personal networks (plausibility structures) which are necessary for the maintenance and/or re-evaluation of one’s world view. The outcome may be a change in religious belief and commitment.


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[1] For a comprehensive review of the recent literature on disaffection and disaffiliation relating to a number of different religious groups, see Bromley (1988) and the chapters included therein.

[2] The literature in the sociology and psychology of religion has tended to focus primarily on the other side of this relationship: that is, the effect that religion has on psychological health and well-being. For example, several studies have examined the relationship between church attendance and other measures of religiosity and various indicators of psychological well-being (see Petersen and Roy 1985, for a review of relevant studies). In general, it has been found that religion is significantly and positively related to subjective well-being (Witter, Stock, Okun, and Haring 1985), though Petersen and Roy (1985, p. 59) report that the social support function of religious participation is apparently more helpful to the individual in coping with adversity than are religious beliefs or orientations.