Friday, February 17, 2017

Insecure Love of God and Christian Morality

Christians are commanded to love God with all their being. Psychological scientists interested in religious studies have examined the idea of loving God in several ways, including measures of attachment.

Attachment researchers have long examined the relationship between parents and children. Two components of the relationship are security and closeness or their opposites- anxious insecurity and distance or avoidance. These same dimensions have been found in the relationship between religious adults and God- especially when God is viewed as a person as in Christianity.

Understanding attachment to God is one important aspect of Spiritual identity. And it is also related to morality. In this post I look at a study by Thomas Fergus and WadeRowatt at Baylor University.

Morality and scrupulosity

Some people experience extreme concerns about their sinfulness and have a strong sense of urgency to do something to rid themselves of their sin. This particular pattern of obsessions and compulsions is a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or OCD known as scrupulosity. 

It appears that some people perform ritual behaviors to heal what they perceive as an impaired relationship with God.

Common distressing thoughts include blasphemies, impure thoughts, committing sin, and worries about going to hell.

Prayer has been specifically identified as a compulsive behavior in some persons attempting to rid themselves of intrusive and stressful thoughts. Other actions include frequent confessions, seeking assurance from clergy and other leaders, cleansing and purifying rituals, making deals with God, re-reading or repeating scripture verses.

The study sample

The investigators obtained responses from 450 adults using the internet. On average, they were age 34. Most were women (59%). Most identified themselves as Caucasian (79%). A few religious groups were represented:

 “In terms of a current religious affiliation, 20.7% of the sample self-identified as Protestant, 16.5% as Catholic, 1.6% as Jewish, 1.6% as Buddhist, 1.6% as Hindu, 0.2% as Muslim, and 14.9% as “other” religious affiliation. Approximately 41.9% of the sample reported having no current religious affiliation.”

Key finding

There was a strong relationship between high levels of anxious attachment and high levels of scrupulosity.

My Thoughts

1. The key finding makes sense. The distress experienced by people experiencing scrupulosity is an anxious condition thus we can expect religious people to experience an associated anxiety about their relationship with God.

2. The authors appear quite familiar with attachment research, including studies involving attachment to God. You have to read footnote 3 to understand the significant relationship between avoidance of God and scrupulosity. The authors note that when they controlled for religiosity, there was no significant relationship between avoidance attachment and scrupulosity. High avoidance attachment is linked to low levels of religiosity.

3. The authors appropriately acknowledge the problems of self-report measures and the sample. In my view, it would be more valuable to examine the issue in specific religious groups such as Evangelicals, Catholics, Muslims and so forth.

4. In the research and in clinical experience, scrupulosity is difficulty to treat. Mental health professionals follow treament approaches that follow guidelines for other OCD conditions. These include identifying and attempting to correct disturbing thoughts while being sensitive to a person's faith. Treatment may include limiting repetitive actions through response prevention strategies. The use of medication (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) also helps some people. See also Webmd.

Related Post

Research reference

Fergus, T. A., & Rowatt, W. C. (2014). Examining a purported association between attachment to God and scrupulosity. Psychology Of Religion And Spirituality, 6(3), 230-236. doi:10.1037/a0036345 Link to Abstract 

Read more about Moral Psychology and Christian Cultures