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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

Dollahite said dads talked more about protecting and providing as a religious obligation as well as setting an example and passing on religious traditions to their kids.

Leading and loving

Based on his experience as a therapist, lay church leader and researcher, Dollahite said fathers tend to assume the role of disciplinarian, focusing on rules, standards and expectations.

But it's important that fathers take an understanding, kind, patient and fair-minded approach to teaching and enforcing expectations, he said.

"Fathers need to make sure that they are not spending all their time talking about rules," Dollahite said. "Dad also needs to be kind, loving, patient and humble to help the kids connect with him as a person, not just an authority figure."

Misch found that type of father in the family that helped her find her faith in a time of personal crisis.

Her parents had divorced when she was 13, and she had drifted from her Catholic upbringing while attending college. Following an abusive relationship in college and a serious auto accident, the family of a special-needs child she was working with reached out to her. They gave her a Bible and showed her how faith in God could give her added purpose in life.

She said her biological father made sure the family prayed at mealtime and attended church on Sundays. He was the leader and provider of the family and in control when she was younger. But her surrogate father in the family that restored her faith in God introduced a new perspective on God by his consistent concern for her.

"I have a more loving relationship with God through a family that could have backed away from me. But (my surrogate dad) has always showed kindness no matter where I was in my life," Misch said. "I now know God is there no matter what."

Home influence

Research shows that views like Misch's of a loving God whom she can trust has broad social implications.

Sociologists have found that people attach a personality to God that reflects "self-identified desirable human traits" as well as certain moral and social attitudes. Baylor sociologists Carson Mencken, Christiopher Bader and Elizabeth Embry also found that particular views of God can predict how trusting an individual is of others.

"Indeed, we find that among the highly religious, those with a more loving view of God are more trusting, and those with a view of God as being more angry (or) judgmental are significantly less trusting," they concluded in an article on their research published in the Spring 2009 issue of Sociological Perspectives. "Belief in a loving, forgiving God can build bonds of trust, while beliefs in a judgmental, wrathful God tend to make believers more wary of others."

Mencken explained the research was not intended to draw conclusions on how one's relationship with their father influences their image of God. But, he said, sociologists have found that those who view God as an authoritative disciplinarian also tend to view God as a masculine, fatherly figure, while those who see God as kind, forgiving and loving have a more motherly view of God.

Those views can be perpetuated within a religious or social group of like-minded believers. "A very judgmental view of God is highly connected to moral communities that are tightly knit ... and they tend to interact with people of the same group," Mencken said.

Research has also shown that while a faith community has an impact on children's religious views, the intimate setting of a home is where a child's longest lasting faith formation takes place.

"The home is more powerful in terms of influencing kids than what happens in the religious community," Dollahite said. "The religious community can help, but it's no question mom and dad have more influence on religious sensibilities of their children."

mbrown@deseretnews.com

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