Religious transformation is a change in the forms or structures of one's religious being. This could include changes in a person's religious worldview, beliefs, practices, and/or lifestyle. Many factors contribute to religious change such as the discovery of other religions, or disappointment in one's religion due to suffering or other difficulties and contradictions. However, religious change also results from natural human development as it occurs throughout the life span.
Change in religious faith and morality parallels the development of the personality. Although human development does not equal religious transformation, religious change corresponds with, and is enabled by, the natural forces of human growth. Religious transformation, as it occurs throughout the life span, must be described in relation to stages of human development.
The relationship between human growth and religious life begins at birth and is transformed with each new stage of development. The capacity to deal with absent objects (such as a parent who leaves the sight of an infant) develops during infancy, leading to a lifelong search for permanence in a world of change. The concept of God is a universal religious solution to this search.
Children apply their normal cognitive (thinking) processes to religious ideas and concepts, and their cognitive developmental level sets the limits for their level of religious thinking. During the early years (ages 2 to 6), stable patterns of knowing are not yet developed, and a child's ability to reason is controlled more by the imagination than by logical thought. Children at this stage of development are, at times, unconcerned with reality, and learn through free experimentation and intuition. Young children do not yet distinguish between fantasy and reality, and tend to think of God in magical terms or concrete terms such as God's being a kind and generous old man with a beard. Such views are often reinforced, and even introduced, by adults, so it is often difficult to say for sure what part of children's beliefs comes from adults, and what part comes from their own minds. At about age 7, a dramatic shift occurs in a child's reasoning abilities from intuition and imagination to thinking that is concrete (tangible, practical) and based on reality. Children at this stage of development can clearly distinguish between dreams and reality, but cannot yet distinguish between a hypothesis and a fact. At this developmental stage, a child's concept of God/sacred would be based on concrete images or objects such as pictures, icons, and religious books such as the Torah or the Bible.
Older children (ages 7 to 12) understand and embrace concrete images and expressions of religious life because they are only capable of applying their logical reasoning to present concrete objects or events. A religious statue would be an example of a concrete image, and a worship practice such as prayer would be an example of a concrete expression of religious life. Older children also establish a sense of belonging to their religious communities by acceptance of the religious stories, beliefs, symbols, and moral rules that are taken literally (real, based on actual facts).
As a child enters adolescence (age 12), the limitations of concrete thinking are altered and the beginning of formal operational thinking is attained. The cognitive growth to formal thinking includes the capacity to construct hypotheses, form generalizations, and demonstrate abstract thinking. While the concrete thinking of childhood focuses on objects, the formal thinking of adolescence involves thinking about concepts and their relationships. Formal thinking is thinking about thinking.
Although there is a big difference in the religious thinking of those entering adolescence, and the older adolescent, both early and late adolescents share freedom from the limitations of concrete thinking. By age 13, most adolescents are able to begin thinking in terms of propositions (belief statements) that coincide with their ability to understand God through symbolic and abstract ideas. In other words with this new level of thinking, adolescents are capable of understanding their religion through statements of belief such as "God is love," and symbols such as a dove that stands for peace or a cross that stands for Christianity. The transition to formal thought allows the adolescent to explore questions regarding the meaning of life that would include questions of beliefs and values. Although formal thinking in early adolescence is undeveloped, it may still lead the young adolescent to ask complex questions and look for answers that are beyond the young adolescent's ability to understand. As the adolescent develops deeper levels of hypothetical reasoning and intellectual abstraction, the adolescent may deal with complex questions of faith and meaning. The ability to think beyond the present and to think about thinking enables the adolescent to form theories and ideas about the state of the world. This reflective ability then leads to the construction of personal values and beliefs needed to reform the world. Although adolescents are capable of living and defending their ideals, they are not yet capable of reflecting critically upon their ideals.
The thinking capacity that develops during adolescence remains throughout adulthood, providing ongoing potential for growth in every dimension of life. Religious development continues to correspond with the natural forces of cognitive and emotional growth and can be described according to the three distinctive phases of adulthood: early, middle, and older.
Whereas children and adolescents rely on others such as religious leaders and parents to provide and support their religious beliefs and way of life, young adults rely more on their own judgment. As individuals transition to early adulthood, they begin taking selfconscious responsibility for religious commitments and moral actions. Intellectual development during early adulthood involves ambivalence and a discovery of relativism that result in spiritual searching and wariness.
While young adults clearly choose one set of ideals or values over another, middle-aged adults are more open to accepting opposite or contradictory views. Religion during middle adulthood is often marked by complexity, ambiguity, and respect for other religious beliefs and traditions. Although middle-aged adults may firmly maintain commitment to one particular religion, they can do so while realizing that their perspective on life and faith is not the final fullness of truth.
As people age, their perspective on life and faith continues to expand, because older adults are able to look at the world through the perspectives of others. Religion for older adults involves commitment to the values that give meaning and worth to their lives, and they often join causes or institutions that promise to maintain their values into the future.