Can attachment theory explain your relationship with the divine?

The authors of the new book God Attachment: Why You Believe, Act, and Feel the Way You Do About God think the (re)emerging field of attachment theory can help us better understand our expectations about a relationship with God.

When we’re faced with stress, we seek closeness to those we feel safe with. Each one of us exerts specific behaviors to help us get closer to those we’re attached to in times of need.

If we don’t feel safe; if we are confused in our core beliefs about whether we’re worthy of love or whether others are capable of loving us or accessible when we need them, then we’ll transfer those beliefs onto God and struggle to believe he could really be there for us.

But if God serves the functions of an attachment relationship in our individual lives, it can be the difference between cognitively believing in God, as most do, and emotionally connecting, trusting, and walking with him every day, which is much less common.

After a fashion, nothing new. After all, Freud himself wrote that the very idea of God

… was not a lie but a device of the unconscious which needed to be decoded by psychology. A personal god was nothing more than an exalted father-figure: desire for such a deity sprang from infantile yearnings for a powerful, protective father, for justice and fairness and for life to go on forever. God is simply a projection of these desires, feared and worshipped by human beings out of an abiding sense of helplessness.

Researchers have been keen to one degree or another to push the topic ever since.

Yet attachment theory and religion as paired subjects of thought have gotten their due lately. As Richard Beck (coauthor of an instrument called the Attachment to God Inventory) points out at the beginning of a 2006 blog series,

[M]uch of the enthusiasm surrounding the application of attachment theory to religion is that it moves past mere interest in religion and gets more directly at the God-relationship (and thus improves upon the intrinsic/extrinsic models). Further, attachment models are theory-rich. The supporting framework of attachment theory is huge, both theoretically and empirically. Thus, attachment to God research swims in a deep ocean of ideas, insights, and results (an improvement of over the spiritual well-being approach).

No doubt the subject is the new-old darling of experimental psychology. In the latest issue of the Journal of Psychology & Theology, the lead article is titled “Adult Attachment, God Attachment and Gender in Relation to Perceived Stress.”

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