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Father figure: Perceptions of God may stem from father-child relationships

Published: Saturday, June 15 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

Leah Misch has always considered her dad as the one in charge, the leader and provider of her family while she was growing up.

She is also close to another family that helped her find religion at a time of crisis in her life, including another father that has shown her kindness and love.

"My earthly fathers are there when I have needed them," the 26-year-old nurse and wellness coach said. "Even if I am not there with them, I know they are thinking about me and care about me, wherever I am."

Misch, who attends the Evangelical Free Church in La Crescent, Minn., gives a similar description of a masculine leader and provider who is kind, loving and always present when she describes the Christian God she prays to.

"You may not see it, but you know he is there," she said.

Sociologists say it's common for people to perceive that God is like the fatherly figures in their lives. If dad is caring, patient and concerned then children will believe God has those same characteristics. And the opposite holds true when a father is harsh, judgmental or absent.

"A father has a powerful influence in deep and subtle ways," said David Dollahite, a professor of Family Life at Brigham Young University. "Even though children know intellectually that God is fair, loving and kind and patient, it’s hard for them to relate to God at a gut level in a deep way if their own father is not that way."

Unique influence

The image of a child praying at their mother's knee is in keeping with research that finds women are generally more religious than men, sociologists say, and in many cases mothers invest the most effort in getting children involved in religious activities such as attending worship services, Sunday School or youth camps.

"Because regular church attendance is less common for fathers than mothers, in some ways his religiosity is more important because it's more unusual," said Brad Wilcox, sociology professor at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project. "So kids who see both mothers and fathers regularly attending church are more likely to take their faith seriously compared to kids who see just their mother attend church."

Elisa Zhai Autry, a sociologist of religion and global fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement, said her research on the religiosity of children of divorce found the impact of the father's commitment to his faith was critical in determining whether the children stayed active in church as adults.

They found in custody arrangements where the father has limited time with his children, he will choose leisure activities over church. Also, children's reduced time with paternal relatives limits that influence on the children's exposure to religion.

"Our argument was the influence of fathers is unique and vital," Autry said. "A mother’s influence is constant. They are always there. But somehow that is not enough."

The same goes for intact families, Autry said, where children look to both father and mother as role models both spiritually and physically on how to be a religious person.

Dollahite, co-director of the American Families of Faith project, said interviews with 200 families of Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths found religion to be most influential on children when both parents are united in their commitment to living their faith.

And while the interviews show a lot of overlap in setting an example, there were aspects unique to fathers in what they felt was important for modeling faith in their lives.

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