November 24

Before the Sower and the Seeds: Attachment Theory and Religious Formation

This is a paper I wrote for a graduate course in 2013.  I post it now as a contribution to the debate over appropriate and effective methods of child-rearing from a Christian perspective.  As you read it, consider Proverbs 22:6  "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it," and consider how attachment theory might inform your understanding and application of this verse.

Christian parents tend to be the most anxious about their child-rearing practices, believing them to have eternal consequences.  The way they raise their children could determine whether they end up in heaven or in hell.  That’s quite a burden for one or two human beings to carry.  Is love enough after all, or is it more complicated than that?  What, exactly, are the seeds that must be carefully planted and watered in order to raise children who are strong in the faith?

Modern psychology may just have some important insight to offer.  Studies of Attachment Theory have indicated that before parents can begin planting seeds of faith, there is much more foundational work to do.  Before the sower can sow the seeds and reap a good harvest, the soil must be prepared.  In parenting terms, this means the relationship that parents develop with their infants from the first moments of life.


Babies innately desire proximity to their mothers (Mak, 2011).  The primary care-giver refers to anyone who serves that function, and does not even necessarily need to be a blood relative.  But as that role is most commonly the mother, mother will be the term used to refer to the primary caregiver.  In addition, the mother’s role as an attachment figure serves a different function than the father’s role, so the reference allows for that distinction.

John Bowlby is the pioneer of Attachment Theory.  He first published his theory of the significance of the bond between baby and mother in 1969.  He observed that babies develop strategies for maintaining a comfortable proximity to their mothers.  When infants perceive a threat, they initiate behaviors, such as crying, clinging, or moving closer to mother (when possible).  When they are secure in mother’s proximity, they feel free to move incrementally farther away, while always checking to see that mother is still available (Kirkpatrick & Shaver, 1990).

            From their mother’s response to them, babies develop a sense of who they are, what others are like, and what to expect from others and from the world in general.  The bond that is formed between mother and child is known as attachment, and the quality of the relationship determines the quality of attachment.

            A high-quality attachment relationship performs two functions: first, a safe haven in time of distress; and second, a secure base from which to explore the world.  It includes the availability of the mother, her timely provision for the baby’s needs, and a sense of nurture and comfort.  A baby who is treated in this manner will develop a secure attachment to his mother.  He will feel safe and secure in her presence, and anxious if she is away too long.  His anxiety will be calmed upon her return, and from this experience he will learn to regulate his emotions.  He will have the confidence to stray from her and explore his environment, knowing that she will be accessible when he wants or needs to return to her.  From these interactions, he will develop a positive view of himself and a positive view of others.  This Internal Working Model (IWM) becomes the lens through which the individual views the world for the rest of his life.

            When a baby is neglected, abandoned, or inconsistently cared for, she will develop an insecure attachment (Mak, 2011).  Although unhappy when her mother leaves, she will not be completely comforted upon her mother’s return.  A baby with an insecure attachment could develop a range of IWMs regarding herself and others.      

Bowlby has said, “A singular set of IWMs underlies secure attachment, but multiple IWMs underlie insecure attachment” (Granqvist).  The IWMs in a secure attachment are a positive view of self and a positive view of others.  But Ainsworth identified two form of insecure attachment, developing in response to particular patterns of care from mothers (Kirkpatrick & Shaver, 1990).

If a mother’s care is inconsistent, unreliable, and unpredictable, her baby will adopt an anxious/ambivalent style of attachment.  This infant will be generally anxious and often clingy.  She develops an IWM which represents a negative view of herself but a positive view of others, causing her to doubt that she is worthy of love (Kirkpatrick & Shaver).  An anxious/ambivalent attachment predicts an emotional/relational pattern of lack of self-confidence and feelings of being misunderstood; interpreting situations as more threatening, uncontrollable, or irreversible than they are; and doubting the commitment of those with whom she is in close relationship (Mak).

            Mothers who avoid and even resist contact with their babies, failing to respond to their needs, create an avoidant attachment.  Their infants react to this type of care by becoming emotionally distant, aloof, and self-reliant.    They are neither distressed when mother leaves nor interested when she returns (Budd, 2010).  As these individuals age, they are skeptical of the value of relationships.  They do not invest much in relationships because they do not trust others; they react negatively to those who try to become close to them.  These individuals’ IWMs are a positive view of self but a negative view of others (Mak, 2011).

            A final category of insecure attachment is disorganized attachment.  These infants seem to have no pattern of attachment, that is, no set strategy for connecting with mother or getting their needs met (Kirkpatrick & Shaver, 1990).  They may use both proximity-seeking and avoidant behaviors (Budd, 2010).  They have a negative view of both themselves and of others.

Relationship Between Attachment Style and God Attachment

Attachment styles become generalized, are operative throughout life, are very resistant to change, and “form the framework of expectations that shape future relationships” (Miner, 2009).  Thus an individual’s own emotional predispositions, expectations, and reactions will determine the type and quality of close relationships developed across the lifespan.  The associated IWMs are apparently also operant in a person’s view of God, and in his faith journey.  “Attachment theory suggests that early attachments affect internal working models of self and others, which in turn affect later relationships, including one’s relationship with God” (Reinert et al., 2009).  The rest of this paper will detail how the style of attachment to parents is transferred to a relationship with God.

God as an Attachment Figure

A considerable amount of research on spiritual development has investigated the concept of a theistic God as an attachment figure (Sim, 2011), beginning with Kirkpatrick and Shaver (1990), wherein they argued that attachment theory could provide a comprehensive construct for understanding the psychology of religion.  The rationale is that God has many of the characteristics of a parent, serves the attachment functions of safe haven and secure base, and is related to as an attachment relationship.

Like an ideal relationship with a parent, a relationship with God is personal, and is based on love.  God performs the attachment functions of proximity, comfort, safety, and security.    Those who are in relationship with God find distance from God to produce anxiety; they turn to him for comfort and safety (safe haven) in times of distress, and find him to be a secure base from which to interact with the world (Granqvist, 2010).  In fact, God could be considered an ideal attachment figure, inasmuch as He is always available and always loving (Reinert & Edwards, 2009)

The Mechanism of Transfer

            Numerous studies have confirmed a pattern of religious belief predicted by attachment style (Schnitker, 2012).  Individuals who had a secure attachment to their parents seem to maintain the religious beliefs of their parents, and to have a gradual growth in faith.  On the other hand, individuals who had an insecure attachment to their parents are more likely to part from the path of their parents.  The path that they choose to follow depends on the category of insecure attachment they experienced—anxious/ambivalent, avoidant, or disorganized.

            As they did with their mothers, those with anxious/ambivalent attachment styles exhibit anxiety in their relationship with God.  Their relationship tends to be an intensely emotional one, to the point, at times, of being all-consuming (Granqvist, 2009).  They are likely to have had a sudden, dramatic conversion to faith during a time of distress.  It is theorized that their relationship to God helps to compensate for the insecurities in their parental attachment.  One of the deficiencies in an insecure attachment is regulation of emotion.  So it is not surprising that conversion would come during a time of distress.  This is known as the compensation pathway.  Pirutsky (2009) suggested that “Individuals with insecure attachments may have lower emotional pain thresholds, insecurities about self-worth and competence, and divided ‘meaning systems’ and therefore be more prone to radical conversion.”

            In a study of the compensation pathway, Schnitker et al. (2012) analyzed faith history information from applications for the position of staff counselor (average age 19) at a Christian youth camp, Youth for Christ.  They extracted information related to both conversion experience and parental attachment style.  Results showed that 37.9% of insecurely attached applicants experienced a sudden conversion, and 34.5% experienced a gradual spiritual growth.  In contrast, only 10.1% of those reporting secure attachment had a sudden conversion, and 75.4% had gradual spiritual growth.

            In addition, 66.3% of the securely attached considered their upbringing “practicing Christian,” whereas only 37.7% of the insecurely attached did.  More importantly, 37.1% of securely attached applicants cited “nonorganizational relationships” as significant factors in their conversions, with 19.5% specifically mentioning parents.  Only 8.7% of insecure applicants cited “nonorganizational relationships,” and only one specified parents.  Schnitker et al. concluded that both the correspondence and the compensation pathway hypotheses were supported.

            Pirutsky also found support for the compensation hypothesis in his 2009 study of 122 Orthodox Jews and 31 non-Orthodox Jews who had converted to or from Orthodox Judaism.  He chose Orthodox Jews because of the radical nature of adherence to detailed religious law, including dietary restrictions, many prayers and rituals, and, in some cases, limited interaction with the non-Orthodox world.  Converts to or from Orthodox Judaism would indeed be making a dramatic, sweeping change to their lives which would qualify as a radical conversion.  As expected, these converts did report insecure parental attachments more frequently than did non-converts.

            Some researchers hypothesize that a relationship with God could repair some of the damage caused by an anxious/avoidant relationship.  Since the IWMs associated with this kind of attachment are a negative view of self but a positive view of others, these individuals feel that they are unworthy of love.  But God is seen as a source of unconditional love, which could be accepted, when human love could not be.  The relationship with God could then be a source of increased confidence and self-worth (Granqvist, 2010).  Others, however, have found that original attachment styles return to dominate relationships (Miner, 2009).

            A different outcome is predicted by avoidant attachments.   Those individuals have a high likelihood of adopting an agnostic or atheistic orientation, and at the least to see God as distant and unavailable, just as their mothers were.  This view parallels their distrust of others, their self-reliance, and their denigration of relationships and dependence on others.

            The final category, disorganized attachment, is subject to a most interesting hypothesis.  Disorganized attachment may be the result of an abusive relationship, one that prompted dissociative states in the child.  This tendency to dissociation is theorized to incline an individual to mystical experiences, New Age beliefs, charismatic experiences, and a belief that one can contact the dead.

The Functioning and Results of Secure Attachment

            The implications of a secure attachment are both broad and deep.  When a child feels safe and secure with her parents, she is more open to their influence, and more compliant with their wishes.  She sees them modeling religious behavior, is inclined to follow in their footsteps due to the positive and reciprocal relationship with them, and so grows gradually in her faith (Kok, 2012).  There is usually no sudden conversion because relationship with God is a familiar, normative concept.  This social/relational manner of growth in faith is called the correspondence pathway (Granqvist, 2009). 

The correspondence pathway tends to result in an intrinsic religion (Miner, 2009), meaning one which is internally motivated and provides a primary and organizing motivation for life (Budd, 2010), as opposed to an extrinsic religious orientation which is motivated by social rewards or personal benefit (Miner, 2009).  It is the most mature, stable and enduring form of faith, and is linked to freedom from worry and guilt (Granqvist, 2009). 

            Having loving parents results in a view of God as loving and security-enhancing.  It promotes compassion for others and pro-social behavior.  A secure attachment promotes compliance with mother’s wishes, which in turn predicts more advanced moral behavior later in life. Secure attachment provides a high sense of well-being and a low level of anxiety (Miner, 2009).  Even when a child has suffered physical, emotional, or verbal abuse (not at the hands of parents), a secure relationship with parents can mediate the view of God as loving as well as mediate a secure attachment to God (Reinert & Edwards, 2009).

            Additional benefits of secure parental attachment include higher self esteem and a higher level of trust.  These qualities allow individuals to have more comfort with self-disclosure, which in turn enables them to form higher quality relationships, which are warm and satisfying.  The formation of healthy relationships helps to avoid many potential life stresses, and also helps to provide a wider, more stable social support system (Mak, 2011), a further protective influence.  Often, those with secure attachments turn to God in times of trouble, whereas those with an insecure attachment turn away from him (Reinert et al., 2009).

Distinctions Between Attachment to Mother and to Father

            To this point, focus has been on attachment to mother or to parents.  However, there are different effects of attachment style to mother and to father, as well as to the interaction of the three relationships.  Relationship with mother is a stronger predictor of the view of God as loving than is relationship with father.  Granqvist (2009) found that priests had a more loving relationship with their mothers than did lay people.

            When parents are experienced as nurturing and powerful, especially when mother is powerful and father is nurturing, God is experienced as powerful and nurturing.  Sim (2012) found that low attachment to father and high attachment to God resulted in higher levels of depression, whereas high attachment to mother coupled with high attachment to God resulted in lower levels of hope in adolescents.  This could be because when mother and father attachments are high, needs are met, and God attachment is not activated.  But when attachment to mother and father is insecure, adolescents turn to God as a secure base and a safe haven.

            Insecure attachment to religious parents resulted in a higher likelihood that the parents’ religion would be repudiated.  And for those with an insecure attachment to father, the greater the father’s religiosity, the less loving and more controlling God was considered (Reinert & Edwards, 2009).

Implications for Christian Parents

            The lessons of attachment theory seem to reflect the parable of the sower and the seeds.  The sowing of the seeds is essential to the formation of faith; but without deep, receptive soil, the sowing is fruitless.  Before the first rules are taught, before the first discipline is administered, before the first Bible story is read, parents are already teaching their children about God.  They are doing this through the quality of their relationship to their baby.  Their responsiveness to their baby’s needs, their emotional tone with her, their nearness and protection, are telling her what God is like.  They are laying the groundwork for all the years of teaching and training to follow.  They are creating soft soil—soft hearts.  Getting it right in the beginning won’t guarantee successful transfer of faith to the next generation; but getting it wrong will be a severe hindrance.  Failing to provide a secure attachment for a child is akin to stomping down soft soil into a hardened, impervious mass.

            We must be cautious, however, in attributing an irreversible or deterministic power to attachment theory.  Parents who find that they didn’t do well in the early months and years of their child’s life should not despair.  Every child is born a sinner in need of salvation, and God’s power is sufficient to save even those who seem farthest from him.  He has his ways of breaking up hard soil and hard hearts.

            Attachment theory seems to follow a pattern found in Scripture:  children are like their parents.  Jesus tells the Pharisees that they are like their father, the devil; that even as he is the father of lies, they are liars (John 8:44).  Conversely, we, as children of God, are called to be conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29), who is the exact representation of God the Father (Hebrew 1:3); and we are called to be like our Father (Matthew 5: 45, 48).

            And so, what is the best thing that Christian parents can do to transmit their faith to their children?  It is to be like our Father: tender-hearted, compassionate, humble, full of grace and mercy toward his children.  If we can nurture our children in the way that God does his, that is the first step in making ourselves winsome to our children, so that their desire will be to follow Christ.  Even if we have failed in the past, a more humble, tender, compassionate heart is of value in repairing relationships.  It is not so much what we do as who we are.  “Praise the Lord.  Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in his commandments!  His offspring will be mighty in the land; the generation of the upright will be blessed.”  Psalm 112:1-2.


Budd, P. R., Hart, T. J. & Limke, A. (2010). Attachment and faith development. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 38.2, 122.

Granqvist, P., Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P.R.  (2010). Religion as attachment:  Normative processes and individual differences. Personality and Social Psychology Review 14 (1)49-59

Kok, R., van IJzendoorn, M. H., Linting, M., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J., Tharner, A., Luiijk, M.P., …Tiemeier, H. (2012). Attachment insecurity predicts child active resistance to parental requests in a compliance task. Child:  care, health and development, 39, 2, 277-287.

Mak, M. C., Han, Y.M., You, J., Jin, M. & Bond, M. H. (2011). Building life satisfaction through attachment to mother and beliefs about the world:  social axioms as mediators in two cultural groups. Mental Health, Religion & Culture 14 (3) 223-239.

Miner, M. (2009). The impact of child-parent attachment to God and religious orientation on psychological adjustment. Journal of Psychology and Theology 37(2) 114-124

Pirutinsky, S. (2009). Conversion and attachment insecurity among orthodox Jews. The Internationl Journal for the Psychology of Religion 19, 200-206

Reinert, D. F. & Edwards, C. E. (2009). Attachment theory, childhood mistreatment, and religiosity. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality 1(1)25-34

Reinert, D. F., Edwards, C. E. & Hendrix, R. R. (2009). Attachment theory and religiosity:  A summary of empirical research with implications for counseling Christian clients. Counseling and Values, 53, 112-125

Schnitker, S. A., Porter, T. J., Emmons, R. A. & Barrett, J. L. (2012). Attachment predicts adolescent conversions at Young Life religious summer camps. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 22, 198-215

Sim, N.T.,& Yow, A.S. (2011). God attachment, mother attachment, and father attachment in early and middle adolescence. Journal of Religious Health 50, 264-278


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