Science on Religion

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Attachment to parents affects attachment to God

Child motherParents teach their children many things, not all of which are intentional. Children often pick up on many more words and behaviors than their parents would prefer. Now, what leads a child to pick up on his or her parents’ religious behaviors? Tackling this question, counselor Duane Reinert (Conception Seminary College) and psychologist Carla Edwards (Northwest Missouri State University) found that attachment to God correlates with attachment to one’s same-sex parent.

Reinert and Edwards rely on attachment theory to predict why children’s attachment to God will mirror their attachment to their same-sex parent. Attachment theory says that the child-parent bond begins early in the child’s life and the child creates internal working models (IWMs) of self and others. If the child’s IWMs reflect secure attachments, then that child will have strong attachments and a high-quality relationship with that parent. As the child grows older, these built up IWMs can continue to influence the security and quality of relationships outside of the parent-child relation. Additionally, and not surprisingly, previous research suggests that a child will develop similar beliefs of a parent only if that child has a secure attachment to that parent. In other words, children who feel safe around their parents will readily imitate them.

The question at hand concerns how to apply attachment theory in order to see if a relation exists between attachment to a parent and attachment to God. The researchers hypothesize that same-sex parents will have a greater influence on their children’s religiosity than opposite-sex parents. Greater attachment to the same-sex parent means greater similarity between that parent’s religiosity and the child’s. More specifically, the researchers tested four predictions regarding the same-sex parent’s influence over his or her child’s religiosity: (1) attachment to God, (2) concepts of God (namely, as loving, controlling, and distant), (3) strength of faith, and (4) frequency of religious service attendance would all correlate with attachment to the same-sex parent and that parent’s religiosity.

To test these predictions, undergraduates completed a series of surveys. Aside from basic demographics questions, the participants also answered personal questions about their relationship with their parents. These questions aimed to measure attachment to parents according to attachment theory. Questions included, “She was generally loving and understanding. She was good at knowing when to be helpful and when to let me do things on my own,” and “She was generally unpredictable and sometimes even hurtful. She had her own problems and they sometimes got in the way of her ability to take care of me.”

Covering the religious end of the test, participants answered questions about their parents’ religious activity during their childhood. They then completed the Loving God, Controlling God, and Distant God scales, as well as the Attachment to God scale, which measures one’s relationship with God specifically with attachment theory in mind. Finally, participants filled out the Santa Clara Strength of Religious Faith Questionnaire-Short Form (SCSRFQ-SF), which measures religiosity in general (it has items such as, “I pray daily,” “I look to my faith as providing meaning and purpose in my life,”and“My faith impacts many of my decisions”).

The results differed for sons and daugthers. Sons’ attachment to their father correlated with their attachment to God and their concept of a loving God. Interestingly enough, sons’ attachment to their father and their mother’s religiosity factored in in predicting their church attendance. The researchers found no correlations involving sons and concepts of a controlling God, distant God, or data gathered from the Religious Faith Questionnaire (the SCSRFQ-SF).

Daughters’ attachment to their mother not only correlated with their attachment to God and their concept of a loving God (as was the case for sons) but also with their concepts of a controlling and distant God. Daughter’s attachment to their mother did not correlate with their church attendance, while their mother’s religiosity did (for son’s, attachment to the same-sex parent did matter here). As before, no correlations involving the Religious Faith Questionnaire emerged.

It appears that attachment to God and the concept of God as loving correlates with a child’s attachment to his or her parents, regardless of whether he or she is a he or she. As the researchers put it, “More intimate aspects of religiosity, such as attachment to God and the concept of God as a loving God, seem to be associated in both males and females with the security of their attachment to the same-sex parent rather than the opposite-sex parent.” Perhaps it is comforting to know that we inherit more than the sins of our fathers.

For more, see “Sex Differences in Religiosity: The Role of Attachment to Parents and Social Learning” in the journal of Pastoral Psychology.

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