Light and Shadow

Challenges in religious and spiritual life

In Pursuit of Warm Fuzzies: Turning to Faith for Comfort

What happens when people use religion and spirituality as sources of security?

I want a pair of fuzzy bunny slippers. Don’t ask me why. Sure, they’re goofy. They’ll increase the odds of a stumble on the stairs. And I realize that they’re designed for children and teens, not middle-aged women. But knowing all of this doesn’t change a thing. I still want them. There’s just something about those warm fuzzies.

At some level, we all need a sense of comfort and security. These needs were documented vividly in some controversial psychology experiments by Dr. Harry Harlow in the 1950s and 1960s. Baby rhesus monkeys separated from their natural mothers had access to two props that served as maternal stand-ins: a “wire mother” and a “cloth mother.”

The wire mother provided a bottle where the monkeys could nurse. The cloth mother provided no bottle but was covered with soft fabric. In other words, the cloth mother offered no food, just warm fuzzies—what Harlow called contact comfort. How much time would the monkey spend with each of these surrogate mothers?  Prior to that time in behaviorist circles, there had been so much focus on food as a reward that one could easily assume that the monkey would go for the food. But the preferences of the monkeys were very clear: They spent the vast majority of their time (e.g., 17-18 hours per day) on the cloth mother. When frightened, most monkeys would run to their cloth mothers and cling to them. Once comforted, they behaved more boldly, often challenging intruders.

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For many people, belief in a loving God can be a source of warm fuzzies. We feel safe and secure if we think of an infinitely powerful being looking out for us, protecting and guiding us.

My colleagues Ann Yali, Bill Sanderson and I tried to capture this idea in the late 1990s when developing our Religious Comfort and Strain Scale. When reflecting on their experiences related to religion, undergraduates and patients at a mental health clinic usually endorsed comforting items on the scale, such as “trusting God to protect and care for you,” “feeling comforted by your faith,” and “feeling loved by God.” These findings supported the idea that for many people, faith—including belief in a loving, protective, trustworthy God—can be a source of comfort and security.

People may also find comfort in other aspects of religion and spirituality, such as rituals, music, or stories. Some beliefs can bring reassurance as well. For example, those who grieve may find great solace in believing that they will be reunited with their loved ones someday.

But what happens when comfort becomes the primary reason for turning to religion and spirituality? We might start to expect that religious and spiritual teachings and practices must keep us feeling comfortable. They shouldn’t disturb or challenge us in any way. If they do, we’ll cover our ears or close our eyes. We run the risk of turning into spiritual couch potatoes, seeking comfort more than growth or truth.

Consider the words of Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism (600-531 BC): “A scholar who cherishes the love of comfort is not fit to be deemed a scholar.” More recently, C. S. Lewis, a 20th century author, wrote: “If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end: if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth - only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair.” (from Mere Christianity)

An excessive focus on comfort may also cause us to limit our views of the divine, seeing God as a handy resource for our convenience. If we sense that God is correcting us or asking us to do something difficult, we may resist and even take offense. A security blanket isn’t supposed to make demands.

I don’t mean to dwell on the dark side here. Assuming that we don’t exploit them for selfish gain, the comforting aspects of religion and spirituality can bring many psychological benefits. Such comfort can help us find courage in the face of threats, a sense of personal worth and value, and a buffer against feelings of loneliness and emptiness.

Yet something still seems to be missing. Even those who hold a strong belief in a loving God may find within themselves a yearning, an ache, a sense of longing. Beliefs do their part to provide some comfort. But at another level, we may still want someone who is tangibly, physically present with us right now.

We want to reach out and grab a hand. We want to see a smile. We want a hug. And although some people can imagine or sense themselves having these types of encounters with God, it’s not quite the same as having someone right there, someone we can touch and feel. That desire for contact comfort is powerful, and it doesn’t go away.

Maybe that’s why I still want my fuzzy bunny slippers. Preferably in pink.

 

 

Julie Exline, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Case Western Reserve University.

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