Saturday, March 15, 2014

How much do people love God?


Nobody comforts a crying baby like mom or dad. Infants, toddlers, and small children desperately seek human comfort when any distress comes along. And parents naturally cradle and cuddle their little ones. Usually the child is soothed and able to venture forth—as long as mom or dad remains nearby.


Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul
and with all your mind and with all your strength. (Mark 12:30: NIV)

What does it mean to love God? Jesus summary of the law, often reduced to “love God and love your neighbor,” may seem trite. But the short quotation has been unpacked by many Christian clergy and teachers who offer suggestions focused on a deep commitment to God and all of humanity—especially when combined with examples from the life of Jesus.


Psychologists have studied the loving and caring relationship between parents and children for years. Clinicians who work with abused and neglected children learn to observe how the children interact with their parents and other caregivers. Who does the child go to for comfort and support? How is the child balancing a need for support and nurturance versus the ability to act with a sense of confidence and independence?
Most psychologists are familiar with the early work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. As research progressed, it became clear that the caring bond between an infant and a parent could explain adult attachments as well. Lee Kirkpatrick thought that the idea of human attachment could also describe the relationship between people and God. Like children, people can feel distant from God and many feel distressed when separated from God. Conversely, many Christians speak about their relationship with God in terms of distance (feeling close to God) and security (feeling safe in the arms of God). These images work well for many Christians given biblical images of a parent-child relationship.

Measuring Attachment to God

One scale I came across at a conference was the Attachment to God Inventory developed by Richard Beck of Abilene Christian University and Angie McDonald of Palm Beach Atlantic University. It was simply called the Attachment to God Inventory and had two scales, which included questions about the avoidant and anxiety dimensions of attachment. By answering questions, respondents could express how distant they felt toward God and how anxious they felt about their relationship with God. Lower scores reflect a more secure relationship between a believer and God. The authors reported the results of three studies, which included college students and a community sample.

One year I developed a course project as a way of teaching research methods to graduate students.  In  one study we were looking at several issues of interest. One of the issues was the importance of Attachment to God to personal spirituality and forgiveness. So, we included the Attachment to God Inventory to see how attachment to God might be related to a measure of spiritual strength and a measure of forgiveness. We found that both of the Attachment to God Inventory (AGI) dimensions of Avoidance and Anxiety yielded consistent scores in our university student sample.

We measured spiritual strength using a questionnaire developed by Tom Plante and his colleagues. It is a five-item questionnaire that has produced consistent scores in the past so we had some confidence it would work for us as well. This scale is the Abbreviated Santa Clara Strength of Religious Faith Questionnaire (ASCSRFQ).

When we looked at the relationship between spirituality (ASCSRFQ) and attachment (AGI) we found no relationship between feeling anxious toward God and spiritual strength but we did find a significant relationship between high spiritual strength and low avoidance of God.

What about attachment to God and forgiveness? There are so many ways to measure forgiveness. At that time we chose a measure of dispositional forgiveness called The Willingness to Forgive Scale, which was developed by Lise DeShea. In the language of psychology, a disposition is like a personality trait—something more durable than say a temporary mood state. DeShea had prepared mini-scenarios relevant to college life. In the questionnaire, she asked how willing respondents would be to forgive someone for a given action. One again we found no significant relationship for the anxiety dimension but when people felt more distant from God they were also less willing to forgive others.


And Other Religions

Attachment might not include all of the things we mean when we speak about love. But the bond that binds parents and children carries through life. Following the death of a beloved parent, people often speak of how close they were to their mother or father. Closeness matters in relationships. And it seems closeness matters for Christians as well. Christians who feel distant from God also respond as if they lack spiritual strength and are less willing to forgive others. As Beck and McDonald noted in their article, it is hard to say what attachment might mean in religious traditions other than Christianity. Christians relate to God in a personal way. And are even encouraged to view God as a loving father. And we have some evidence here and in many other studies that attachment to God, spirituality, and forgiveness can be measured.

So I wonder if clergy and counselors consider measuring these and other aspects of spirituality when faith appears to be a factor in personal adjustment and well-being? For some, spirituality or formal religion does not matter much. But for billions of people faith matters. And understanding attachment may be important to understanding spiritual well-being.

Read more about love and attachment in Christian Cultures

Other related posts


Ainsworth, M. S. (1989). Attachments beyond infancy. American Psychologist, 44, 709-716.

Beck, R., & McDonald, A. (2004). Attachment to God: The Attachment to God Inventory, tests of working model correspondence, and an exploration of faith group differences. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 32, 92-103.

DeShea, L. (2003). A scenario-based scale of willingness to forgive. Individual Differences Research, 1, 201-217.

Kilpatrick, L. A. (2012). Attachment theory and the evolutionary psychology of religion. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 22, 231-241. doi: 10.1080/10508619.2012.679556

Kirkpatrick, L. A., & Shaver, P. R. (1990). Attachment theory and religion: Childhood attachments, religious beliefs, and conversion. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 29, 315–334.

Plante, T., Vallaeys, C. L., Sherman, A. C., & Wallston, K. A. (2002). The development of a brief version of the Santa Clara Strength of Religious Faith Questionnaire. Pastoral Psychology, 50, 359-368.

Sutton, G. W., McLeland, K. C., Weaks, K. L., Cogswell, P. E., & Miphouvieng, R. N. (2007). Does gender matter: Relationship of gender, spousal support, spirituality, and dispositional forgiveness to pastoral restoration, Pastoral Psychology, 55, 645-663. doi: 10.1007/s11089-007-0072-3

Sutton, G. W., & Mittelstadt, M. W. (2012). Loving God and loving others: Learning about love from psychological science and Pentecostal perspectives. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 31, 157-166. 

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. New York: Basic Books.

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