Time is one of the forces that strongly influence thoughts, emotions, and actions of people around the world. Everyone has a tendency to perceive time through the lens of the past, the present or the future, and to give a special meaning to these timeframes. Such perception of time results in a number of consequences for our everyday life.

Another force with a clear meaning-making potential is religion. Time and religion may both create an existential frame upon which one can build a sense of coherence and sense of order in life. Putting time perspective and religiosity together can demonstrate how religious people approach time, and how time perception shapes religious belief.


Time in perspective(s)

When we think about time perspective, we mean two things. The former is an unconscious process of assigning events to particular timeframes, and the latter is rather a stable tendency to focus on one (or more) of six time orientations. Namely, we distinguish Past Positive, Past Negative, Present Fatalism, Present Hedonism, Future Positive, and Future Negative. Because each timeframe has some specific features, focusing on them leads to certain consequences.

Past Positive orientation means a nostalgic and sentimental view of the past, attachment to traditions and rituals. It is associated with a number of positive psychological outcomes as well-being, satisfaction with life, positive emotionality, and personality traits such as conscientiousness or agreeableness. In contrast, Past Negative orientation is connected with a strong focus on events from your past that were negative or difficult. It results in a pessimistic attitude to the past and anxiety or even depression, and a lack of sense of coherence in life.

Present perspective is divided into two aspects — hedonistic and fatalistic. Fatalism, in this context, is based on the belief that luck and fate decide about a direction of your life. It is a helpless and hopeless attitude associated with the conviction that reality is unstable and unpredictable. Similarly to Past Negative, this perspective is related to negative emotionality and lack of coherence. It seems to be natural that hedonism should reflect a positive view of the present, however, it is not that obvious. On the one hand, hedonism leads to seeking for pleasant activities and instant gratification. It may indicate an ability to enjoy and to live in the moment. On the other hand, though, hedonism has also a dark side. Often it results in a low consideration of future consequences, taking risks and being impulsive.


The future orientation is understood as a strong motivation to achieve goals and aims, often distant ones, and a motivation to spend time on planning. Concentrating on the future may be associated with two ways of thinking. Hope, success and bright thinking about the future are all crucial in Future Positive perspective. Future Negative, instead, is associated with a feeling of time pressure, anxiety, and anticipation of negative life outcomes.

Religiosity – common but unknown

According to the estimates from the Pew Research Center, more than 80% of the population worldwide identifies with a religious group. And yet the phenomenon of human religiosity remains one of the least-discovered topics in social sciences. Although different religions promote different understanding and perception of time, until now, little has been known about the way religious people ascribe their experiences into specific time frames.

In the series of three studies conducted among Polish participants, we examined the relationships between time perspectives and various aspects of religiosity. All the samples in our research were mostly composed of Roman Catholics, who constitute the most prevalent religious denomination in Poland.


Believers dwell on the past…

We found that religious believers generally tend to focus on Past Positive time perspective. Why do religious people walk down memory lane so willingly? We suppose that it is connected with their attachment to tradition. Being a member of a religious community, among other things, involves performing rituals and preserving customs of the ancestors.

Concentration on the positive memories may also help to build and maintain positive, satisfactory social contacts within the religious structures. Moreover, it seems likely that Past Positive orientation plays a significant role in transmitting religious values from one generation to another.

…and focus on the future…

On the other hand, we also observed that religiosity is associated with the greater focus on the Future time perspective. Here, it should be noted that religious systems usually shine a spotlight on the future consequences of your behavior. Whether it is heaven or nirvana that you strive for, you carefully consider your actions and hope to achieve the desired state. Therefore, besides making you think more about the past, religiosity also turns your gaze to the future horizon. As previous research showed, the broad temporal perspective (including both the past and the future) is an adaptive feature, which may facilitate self-regulation and contribute to the general well-being of religious believers.

…but (rather) don’t live in the moment.

Finally, it was found that religious individuals are not particularly present-oriented. In fact, the associations between both present perspectives and faith are mostly limited to some maladaptive aspects of religiosity. For example, Present Hedonism is elevated in people who treat religion instrumentally, as a means to some other ends. Further, Present Fatalism can be more pronounced among the most dogmatic and rigorous believers, i.e., religious fundamentalists.

What is causing what?

Examining the links between time and religion brings yet another important question. Is it religion which determines an attitude toward time, or is the other way round: that our fixed preferences for certain timeframes influence religiosity? Although this question cannot be answered directly with correlational investigations, we believe that the associations between time perception and religiosity are likely bidirectional.

We argue that religions as specific socio-cultural systems may have an impact on how you perceive time. For instance, while Western denominations typically present a linear vision of time, Eastern religions usually promote a circular understanding. On the other hand, when we think about religiosity, and that means the way people live and carry out their beliefs, it can be significantly affected by an approach to time that you adopt. To give a clear example, a Present Hedonist who only cares about “here and now” will find it difficult to practice a religion which sometimes requires sacrifices or offers only time-distant rewards.

Surely, then, time and religion are inextricably intertwined, and this fascinating bond still needs further research.

These findings are described in the article entitled Time to believe: Disentangling the complex associations between time perspective and religiosity, recently published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. This work was conducted by Paweł Łowicki, Joanna Witowska, Marcin Zajenkowski and Maciej Stolarski from Faculty of Psychology, University of Warsaw, Poland.

About The Author

Paweł Łowicki currently works at the Faculty of Psychology, University of Warsaw. Paweł does research in Psychology of Religion, Personality Psychology, Differential Psychology and Emotion. His most recent publication is 'Divine Emotions: On the Link Between Emotional Intelligence and Religious Belief.'

Joanna is a research scientist at the University of Warsaw.