- Attachment is the bond that forms between a child and caregiver. A person's attachment style can provide a model for relationships in adulthood.
- Many people with a secure attachment style build trusting relationships with friends, lovers, and their god.
- People with an insecure attachment style tend not to trust other people, but they may still find a secure base in a divine figure.
Around the world, religions often portray deities as parent figures. Christians explicitly refer to their god as “Father.” The god of Judaism and Islam has clear paternal qualities as well.
But divinities can also be mother-like. East-Asian Buddhists worship Guanyin (in Chinese) or Kannon (in Japanese) as the “Mother of Mercy.” Hindus view the goddess Parvati in a similar way, and the parallel with the Virgin Mother Mary in Roman Catholicism is undeniable.
This observation suggests that religious belief may be rooted in very early childhood interactions with our parents. In a recent review article, Swedish psychologist Aaron Cherniak and his colleagues argue that the relationship we have with God as adults is based on the type of attachment we formed with our caregivers as infants.
Attachment Styles in Infancy and Adulthood
Human infants are completely helpless at birth, so it comes as no surprise that they develop a strong emotional bond with their caregivers. Psychologists refer to this emotional bond between infant and mother as attachment.
Most infants learn they can trust their mother and other caregivers to meet their physical and emotional needs, and they develop a secure attachment style. As they grow older, children use their caregiver as a secure base for exploring the world, trusting that they can always go back to her for safety when they need to.
For various reasons, caregivers aren’t always able to be fully attentive to their baby’s needs. In such cases, the child develops an insecure attachment, which can take one of two forms. Some babies learn that they need to be especially fussy and needy to get their caregiver’s attention, and they develop an anxious attachment style. Others learn to be self-reliant instead, forming an avoidant attachment style.
Attachment styles may carry into adulthood, where they can shape the kinds of close relationships we form with friends and lovers. Those with a secure attachment style often build trusting, loving relationships, knowing they always have people to turn to in times of need.
In contrast, those with an anxious attachment style may crave intimacy, but their constant worrying and neediness often drives away anyone who comes close to them. Meanwhile, those with an avoidant attachment style may maintain shallow relationships with friends and lovers, always knowing deep down that they have only themselves to depend on when the going gets tough.
Correspondence: God as Parent
As children grow, they develop independence from their initial caregivers, coming to rely more on friends and other family members to meet their emotional needs. This is also a time when children develop a concept of god as an invisible attachment figure—someone who can still provide a secure base for them during times of need. In the process of developing a religious faith, then, children may transfer their attachment from their caregivers to a divine entity.
According to Cherniak and colleagues, one way people develop an attachment relationship with a god is through correspondence. That is, people’s attachment to a god tends to correspond with the attachment style they display toward other figures in their life.
People with a secure attachment style tend to maintain the religious beliefs of their upbringing throughout their life. They see their god as a secure base in times of need, and this faith gives them the strength to carry on when the going gets rough. It’s likely that this secure attachment to a divine figure is what accounts for how religious faith can confer all sorts of health benefits, both physical and psychological.
Compensation: God as Parent Replacement
The attachment style learned in infancy may serve as a model for relationships in adulthood. Those with an insecure attachment style may not trust others to meet their needs, and research shows that this can carry over to their relationship with divine figures as well. These people are more likely to question their childhood religious teachings, and they’re also more likely to undergo a religious conversion at some point in their lives. They may even give up on religion altogether.
However, those with an insecure attachment style can also experience a second pathway toward building an attachment with a god. Because they sense the lack of security in their earthly relationships, some people turn instead to a divine attachment figure to provide a secure base in their life.
According to Cherniak and colleagues, we can especially see compensation at work in the case of religious conversion. People with a secure attachment style rarely wander far from their religious upbringing as adults. However, those who have an insecure attachment style can use religious conversion as a way to cast aside the maladaptive attachment relationships of their childhood.
They do so by rejecting their childhood religion and adopting a new faith, typically with excessive zeal. It’s as if they were announcing to the world: “I had no secure base growing up, but my new god is a safe haven for me.” As Cherniak and colleagues point out, such religious conversion can help some people develop a secure attachment over time, but it fails for most people in the long run as they revert to their original attachment style.
Seeing faith in a divine figure as an attachment relationship helps explain the psychological benefits that seem to come from religious belief. It can also help us understand why some people undergo zealous conversions to new religions. However, as Cherniak and colleagues note, it’s still not clear why some people reject religious faith altogether, becoming atheists instead.
One possibility is that such people tend to have an avoidant attachment style, preferring self-reliance over dependence on others, whether those be here on earth or up in heaven. But so far, no research has looked at this question. What is clear, however, is that early childhood experiences can have an influence on the kind of relationship you have with God in adulthood.
Cherniak, A. D., Mikulincer, M., Shaver, P. R., & Granqvist, P. (2021). Attachment theory and religion. Current Opinion in Psychology, 40, 126-130.