In the Course of a Lifetime, by Michele Dillon and Paul Wink, provides a nuanced, theoretically informed interpretation of a wealth of data about American religion. The longitudinal study tracks the religious beliefs and experiences of a sample of Californians from adolescence through late-adulthood. The use of qualitative and quantitative data allows for a welcome breadth and depth of analysis.
The authors focus on the role religion plays in the everyday lives of Americans, but connect these experiences to larger social trends in a convincing way. Quantitative analyses reveal the ebbs and flows of religiosity over the life course, allow for sophisticated insights about the role of adolescent religious socialization in later life, and sustain a fascinating analysis of religion and prejudice in chapter 8. However, each chapter includes several references to qualitative interviews conducted alongside the periodic surveys. These references allow Dillon and Wink to point out complexity that might otherwise be ignored with purely quantitative analysis. Again, this is well illustrated in chapter 8 by a respondent who expresses attitudes which give context to the strong statistical association between religiousness and authoritarianism.
The book also draws our attention to continuities of the American religious experience, as only a longitudinal study can. For example, Dillon and Wink apply the “New Paradigm” approach to explain the religious voluntarism and vitality they find among project participants. However, they argue that a narrative which turns on the 1960s as a period of transformation from communal to individualistic religiosity misses religious individualism that was prevalent among study respondents in the 1950s. Also, as they outline this argument, they carefully discuss how potential shortcomings of the project could influence their findings. In this case, because all subjects live in California, they point out the greater religious pluralism of the region, at this time, compared to other areas in the United States. Dillon and Wink’s methodological rigor and careful interpretation of data will be greatly appreciated by those who read their work.
It is also worth noting that the authors bring their respective disciplinary backgrounds, sociology and psychology, together quite well. Dillon and Wink are successful throughout the book in their attempt to connect social trends to individual experience. The reader senses that a sort of self-conscious interdisciplinarity informs each chapter. The book is a fine example of sociology and psychology in conversation. I found this to be an attractive characteristic of the book as one can envision it inspiring a range of future research in either field, while at the same time encouraging a triangulation of methods and disciplines which can only improve our understanding of American religion. Dillon and Wink’s work is highly recommended reading.