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

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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.

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."