Friday, 15 March 2013

Attachment theory and religion: Childhood attachments, religious belief, and Conversion (Kirkpatrick and Shaver, 1990)

Attachment theory and religion:  Childhood attachments, religious belief, and Conversion (Kirkpatrick and Shaver, 1990)

Paper review

Following Ainsworth’s 1969 work on the strange situation – a method for detecting the attachment type of an infant to their mother - as a generally accepted psychological theory of attachment, Kirkpatrick and Shaver (1990) examined the relationship between such attachments to later religious belief and conversion.  In noting the empirical limitations of earlier work in psychodynamics, Kirkpatrick and Shaver believe that attachment theory, as an empirical theory, provides a theoretical framework for approaching questions concerning childhood and later religiosity.  This paper will critically review Kirkpatrick and Shaver’s study, beginning with a brief overview of attachment theory before evaluating their main findings.

Infants are seen as having an inbuilt tendency to seek a secure attachment to their mother in times of need and stress.  The infant therefore expects the mother to respond to such worries and fears[1], if the mother fails to respond, or is inconsistent with their response, an insecure attachment may therefore develop.  Kirkpatrick and Shaver take this view, following the work of Bowlby (1969), Ainsworth (1969) and many other empirical studies (Hazan and Shaver, 1987; Weiss, 1973, 1982) that such early attachments are ‘active’ and ‘influential’ throughout the lifespan.  To test for the attachment type, Ainsworth developed the ‘strange situation’, an environment designed to apply a small amount of stress onto the child thus detecting the relationship between their cried for security and their mother’s response.  Three attachment types are observed: Secure – the mother responds to the child’s needs; Insecure Avoidant – the mother tends to reject the infant’s pleas; and Insecure Ambivalent – the mother is inconsistent with their response.

Kirkpatrick and Shaver acknowledges that infants develop ‘through their experienced expectations and beliefs about the availability and reliability of the attachment figure as a haven and secure base’ (p. 317).  They therefore believe that religious belief can be conceptualized in the form of attachment theory (p. 318), particularly in the Christian tradition where they believe that God corresponds closely to the idea of a secure, or ideal attachment figure.  The idea is very reminiscent of Freud’s early conception of God as the exalted father figure, the only exception is that attachment theory places priority on the mother rather than the father.  Therefore, Kirkpatrick and Shaver think there are similarities between the Christian God as a ‘protective parent’ (Kaufman, 1981); that is, a God that is often ‘by ones side’ (p. 319) and attachment theory – Indeed, they later go on to claim that God serves as a substitute attachment figure.  It is noticeable, then, that Kirkpatrick and Shaver is defining religious belief specifically in the Christian tradition, in which God, or even Jesus, is the corner stone to such a belief.  Whether they are right in conceptualizing religion in this sense is a matter of debate, however as it is known ‘religiousness’ and indeed ‘religion’ per se does not require a ‘God’ or ‘creator’ as a prerequisite for such belief.  Richard Dawkins, for example, opens the first chapter of his book, ‘The God Delusion’, titled ‘A deeply religious non believer’, here he takes religiousness not in a Godly sense or traditional sense, but instead in an obsessive sense in which he believes science overcomes such religious belief.  On the other hand, Buddhists do not claim there necessarily being a God in any shape or form (deistically or theistically), the primary goal, instead, is rather to seek detachment, including detachment from the ‘self’, rather than attachment.  So religiousness in this sense could well be conceptualized along the lines of having a mystical, or enlightening experience.  I do not deny the logic behind Kirkpatrick and Shaver’s concept of early attachment relationships to the Christian concept of God as an ideal attachment figure, but the question thus remains as to whether the specificity of Christianity in their report, is a valid study for religious belief in general as the title of the paper implies.  And so, perhaps it is rather dubious as to whether attachment theory can be conceptualized within other definitions of religiosity similarly to the ones stated above.

Despite the issue of defining religiousness, Kirkpatrick and Shaver conducted an empirical investigation – via questionnaire – to firstly examine the relationship between maternal religiousness to each attachment type, and secondly the relation ship between such attachments and the degree of their mothers religiosity (low or high).  The findings firstly indicated that the relationship between maternal religiosity and the respondents’ depends on the nature of the attachment type.  In other words, those who categorized themselves as securely attached to their religious mothers were also more likely to be religious.  The implication it seems is that the nature of the attachment type leads the infant on to identifying with their mothers personal belief.  However, the most interesting finding is perhaps the strong significant correlations between an avoidant attachment type to the belief in the moral or ethical teachings of Christianity (Ethical type) and a Personal God (r = .73 and .52 respectively).  When the data was dichotomized into low and high means of maternal religiosity (table 2, p. 325), it is clear that those who had avoidant mothers tended to be more religious in comparison to those in the other two groups.  But again, the most interesting finding was that those who experienced avoidant attachments to relatively non religious mothers in believed more in Jesus Christ as lord and savior (Born Again), believing in a Personal God, and finally having a relationship with God.  Interestingly, however, the mean value for belief in a Personal God increased by 38.9 whereas only the mean belief of having a relationship with God increased by only 4.6.  It seems peculiar because since belief in a Personal God, i.e. one that is there for you at times of need, or ‘by one’s side’, should be linked to the perception of having a relationship with God.  Therefore I would have predicted that the mean values for both variables be relatively similar, but the data goes contrary to this assumption.  In this case, therefore, there is no link, or very little, between having a relationship with God and believing in a Personal God. 

Despite these interesting findings it is important to note that in the majority of religious measurements, weak correlations between attachment type and religiosity were observed.  In taking this into account one should not dismiss the possibility that other factors throughout the lifespan can play a role in engaging in religious behaviour or belief; for example, books we read, people we meet, stories we hear e.t.c.  In fact a range of studies focusing on maternal behaviour and later attachment types in general have only found a moderate relationship at best (De Wolff & Van Ijzendoorn, 1997), this suggests that we should be more cautious in our interpretation between attachment types and religion variables.  Indeed, the larger correlations indicate that there is something going on within the nature of avoidant attachments and later religiosity in general, but in comparison to those securely attached the results are not clear-cut.

There is a further danger with the notion of attributing God as an ideal attachment figure as a substitute for those who experienced a rejecting mother.  Firstly, and most importantly Psychologists in this field are treating the idea of God as a psychological phenomenon attributed to the detrimental effects of insecure attachment.  Whether this view can be incorporated into the actual ontology of Christianity remains to be clear – Freud would perhaps disagree on this point by seeing Christianity as a development from the early notion of God the exalted father figure – however it is extremely unlikely that the participants in this study see God in the same light that Kirkpatrick and Shaver conceptualize Him.  For them, and in assuming their beliefs are relatively strong, God is real independent of whether they had a secure or insecure attachment to their mother.  Therefore the notion of an ideal attachment figure is not something they would see as the main reason for their belief, nor would they see it as something that replaces their mother.  Secondly, there lies the assumption that insecure attachments provide a possible ontology for such later religious belief.  Not only can this lead to unnecessary and provocative stigma; seeing religious belief as a form of mental illness or a detrimental side effect of attachment disorder - Dawkins takes the view that religion is a delusion for example – but it defeats the purpose of what religion actually means to those who believe and experience such things.  Indeed, if we go by contemporary thinking and say that early attachments provide an ontology, or theoretical framework for beliefs and behaviours in all walks of life, then it shouldn’t be so surprising that we find a connection to later religious beliefs as well.  But in taking this view we are loosing touch with perhaps the most important aspect of development – the ability to wage our free will and choice[2] - while running the risk of blaming our mothers for our later outcomes.

In the last section of the paper (pp. 326-328), Kirkpatrick and Shaver examined the relationship between maternal attachment and sudden religious conversion.  The results suggest that those who classified themselves as insecure avoidant were four times more likely to experience a sudden religious conversion in either adolescents or adulthood (44.5%) in comparison to only 9.4% (secure), and 8.2% (anxious/ambivalent).  Kirkpatrick and Shaver list three types of events as reasons for their conversion:  Problems with relationships; problems with parents, and sever emotional distress.  At first these results are quite interesting because it suggests a link between relationship problems in general (with people), to later relationships with God.  The implication here is that those who experienced avoidant attachments had more of an urge to convert in contrast to those that didn’t.

But what exactly is a sudden religious conversion, and why is it so detrimental to espousing the belief that avoidant attachment types play a key role?  The implication of the word sudden is such as something that is abrupt and unexpected, something that comes about with no prior warning, nor even comes across as a thought or inclination that this ‘something’ will take place.  Is it correct to say that 44.4% in this study converted without any such inclination?  That they blindly, as it were, converted out of the blue?  Kirkpatrick and Shaver forced a yes or no answer to this particular question, but how can we be certain of the validity of suddenness i.e. that the measurement ‘suddenness’ is measuring what Kirkpatrick and Shaver actually wanted it to measure?  It is difficult to actually know whether the participant did in fact experience a sudden religious conversion as defined above, because if conversion took place at a young age then bias, poor memory recall, or misinterpretation could account for their answering yes, where as if it occurred later in life, during adulthood, then certain life events (conscious or otherwise) between infancy and adulthood could have contributed to their decision.  On the other hand, this result doesn’t rule out the possibility that those who didn’t experience a sudden conversion didn’t experience a conversion at all.  It is possible that those who answered no on the questionnaire experienced a slow, or gradual religious conversion that occurred over time.  However, without measuring any form of gradual conversion the relationship between avoidant attachment and later conversion might have well been different.

To conclude there certainly appears to be something going on between avoidant attachment types and later religiosity, however and as I have hoped to have shown, the relationship is somewhat weak in most cases and not specifically clear in comparison to secure attachments.  Indeed, there are also difficulties with the notion of measuring religion as pointed out earlier, as it is far from clear as to whether we can regard the layman interpretation of Christianity as a sufficient test for religious belief, since there are many other ways of conceptualizing religion i.e. in ways that do not espouse the need for a God.  The results which comprise religious conversion are interesting and perhaps could be improved by measuring gradual conversion as well as sudden conversion.  Indeed, the bottom line with this study is that attachment is far from causing religious belief, while God serving as a substitute attachment figure remains, although interesting, dubious if we take a personal approach to such religious experience.     

© 2011 Roberto Nacci All Rights Reserved


Ainsworth, Mary D. Salter (1969). In Kirkpatrick, L, A., Shaver, P, R. (1990).  Attachment Theory and Religion: Attachment theory and religion:  Childhood attachments, religious belief, and Conversion.  Journal for the scientific Study of Religion, 29(3): 315:334

Bowlby, John (1969). In Kirkpatrick, L, A., Shaver, P, R. (1990).  Attachment Theory and Religion: Attachment theory and religion:  Childhood attachments, religious belief, and Conversion.  Journal for the scientific Study of Religion, 29(3): 315:334

Hazan, Cindy and Shaver, Phillip (1987).  In Kirkpatrick, L, A., Shaver, P, R. (1990).  Attachment Theory and Religion: Attachment theory and religion:  Childhood attachments, religious belief, and Conversion.  Journal for the scientific Study of Religion, 29(3): 315:334

Dawkins, Richard (2006).  The God Delusion.  London: Bantam Press, p.9

De Wolff, M.S. and Van Ijzendoorn, M.H. (1997) In Alberry, I.P., Chandler, C., Field, A., Jones, Dai., Messer, D., Moore, Simon., Sterling, Chris.  Complete Psychology (2nd Edition), Oxon: Hodder Education, p. 289

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[1] By crying for example.
[2] Assuming we have a free will.

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