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THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL FOR THE PSYCHOLOGY OF RELIGION, 76(1), 29-36

Copyright 2006, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

COMMENTARY

How Attached Should We


Be to Attachment Theory?
David M. Wulff
Department of Psychology
Wheaton College

"There is nothing so practical as a good theory." The authorship of this widely


quoted phrase, usually attributed to Kurt Lewin, has recently been disputed, but
there is no question that itor something close to ithas become the mantra of to-
day's empirical psychologists of religion. Distressed by the "lack of respect" the
field receives from mainline psychologists, these proponents of the hypotheti-
cal-deductive model argue that what the psychology of religion most needs is more
research that is based on well-delineated theories.
Attachment theory, with its multidisciplinary roots and carefully developed
techniques for operationalizing the varieties of attachment, is proving to be one of
the most promising such theories for the psychology of religion. A number of hy-
potheses about the relation of attachment styles with religiosity variables, espe-
cially relation to God, have been supported by empirical data, including some from
replications with contrasting populations. Moreover, although general psychology
remains largely inhospitable to the psychology of religion, these studies have
found their way into major mainline journals (e.g., Granqvist, 2002) and have been
summed up in the context of general attachment research (Kirkpatrick, 1999).
There is much to celebrate here, as Granqvist (this issue) suggests.
Is attachment theory, however, all that Granqvist makes it out to be? More spe-
cifically, does it genuinely have one foot in the human sciences and the other in the
natural sciences, between which perspectives, then, it moves flexibly? And
whether this is the case, is it truly a replacement for the depth approaches, retaining

Correspondence concerning this article should be sent to David M. Wulff, Department of Psychol-
ogy, Wheaton College, Norton, MA 02766.
30 WULFF

key insights while providing a sounder theoretical foundation (evolutionary psy-


chology), more adequate empirical evidence, and the promise of a more compre-
hensive account of religion?
Let us begin with the broader question: Does attachment theory bridge the
natural and the human sciences? It certainly does in Bowlby's (1969-1980)
work. As is well known, Bowlby took psychoanalysis as his starting point, but
he then looked for supporting evidence outside of the consultation room, mainly
in the domain of ethology. By combining these disparate sources "with an amaz-
ing richness of material and thoroughness of investigation," wrote Strenger
(1991), Bowlby "produced one of the most impressive confirmations of some of
the central tenets of psychoanalytic object relations theory" (p. 198). Strenger
positioned psychoanalysis as a whole somewhere between the extremes of natu-
ral science and pure hermeneutics.
Anticipating that some of his readers will object to what may seem to be an un-
toward emphasis on natural-scientific criteria for evaluating psychoanalytic the-
ory, Granqvist cites Main's (1993) explicit reliance on the hermeneutical principle
of coherence in the process of coding responses to the semiclinical Adult Attach-
ment Interview. I could add that Main (1991) refers to the interview transcripts as
narratives, and she proposes that they be evaluated according to the criteria of co-
hesiveness and plausibility as well. Such language does indeed sound familiar to
those who advocate qualitative/hermeneutical approaches in psychology.
It should be noted, however, that these interpretive principles Main (1991,
1993) applies to the protocols alone, not to the overarching theory or framework.
The reflexivity that in qualitative/hermeneutical research is recurringly directed
toward the investigator's own constructions of meaning in the research process ap-
pears to be absent. Furthermore, the final reduction of the interview material to a
small number of "adult attachment categories" confirms that Main is engaged in
"little #" rather than "big " qualitative research (Kidder & Fine, 1987). That is to
say, instead of the personal and epistemological reflexivity, critical language
awareness, and inductive, open-ended research methodologies that mark true qual-
itative/hermeneutical research today, the attachment research exemplified by Main
as well as Granqvist simply uses techniques of nonnumeric data collection as a
starting point for carrying out traditional hypothetical-deductive investigations
(Willig, 2001).
Nevertheless, the collecting and analyzing of extensive interview data, even if
intended for nothing more than coding into numeric categories, could provide in-
formal occasions for new insights and realizations. Thus it is regrettable that such
rich data have so far not been part of the extension of attachment research into the
psychology of religion. Data there are numeric from the beginning, derived from a
variety of attachment scales that have been subjected to standard psychometric
procedures for assessing and improving their reliability and validity. Even so, es-
pecially given some of their correlates, one may wonder what it is that they mea-
HOW ATTACHED SHOULD WE BE? 31

sure and, if it is indeed something researchers may call "attachment," what that
means, especially in this context.
Derived in large part from observations of rhesus monkeys, the concept of at-
tachment as Bowlby used it denotes the turning of a weaker organism to a stronger,
more mature oneusually a parentfor protection in the face of imminent danger
(Suomi, 1995). What is sought is physical proximity if not intimate embrace. The
temptation is understandably strong, then, to speak of attachment to God, who af-
ter all is commonly conceived of as a mother (among Hindus especially) or a father
(notably by Christians), a more powerful being to whom one can turn for protec-
tion or help. Gestures, too, invite such a construction: The postures and hand
movements that accompany prayer worldwide have long been interpreted as testi-
fying to "feelings of powerlessness, dependency, and longing, akin to the small
child's reaching up to the beloved parent for protection and consolation" (Wulff,
1997, p. 540).
Given, however, the commonly formidable character of divinityRudolf
Otto's (1950) mysterium tremendumit is often represented in more approach-
able, human forms, which then become the near objects of attachment. Consider,
for example, the 19th-century Christian hymn "Safe in the Arms of Jesus," accord-
ing to which Jesus is "my heart's dear Refuge" where one is "free from the blight
of sorrow" and from "doubts and fears." If not Jesus, then the object may be one of
the saints, ormuch closer to homeone's minister, priest, or rabbi and fellow
congregants (Johnson, 1979).
Yet one must be wary of over-extending attachment in Bowlby's sense to the re-
ligious realm of experience. In his own analysis of prayer gestures, Heiler
(1923/1969) concluded that, on the whole, such gestures and bodily attitudes are
not expressions of supplication but of greetingmeans for sharing in the power of
the other or for warding it off. Furthermore, when relationship to divinity is con-
structed in human relational terms, it is not always as vulnerable child to protective
parent. In the bhakti tradition of Hinduism, for example, the devotee may choose
among a diversity of ways of relating to divinityas servant to master, friend to
friend, child to parent, parent to child, wife to husband, lover to belovedor even
possess consciousness of identity with or absorption in the divine, with a corre-
sponding loss of the sense of self. The prohibition against images of God in the Is-
lamic tradition, in recognition of the inconceivable greatness and transcendence of
God, and the emphasis on utter submission (the meaning of Islam), reflects a di-
vine image with the contours of a powerful, demanding, and yet merciful master
whose wrath is to be deeply respected. The Sufis, who represent the mystical strain
of Islam, seek to transform this distant relationship into a more personal and loving
one.
Armstrong's (1993) history of God in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic tradi-
tions brings home how extremely variable the construction of God has been over
the millennia, and how a diversity of other beings, more accessible and human,
32 WULFF

have served alongside. If in addition we bring to mind the various nontheistic tradi-
tions, with their impersonal constructions of transcendent truths, as well as today's
individualistic, tradition-rejecting spirituality, we see just what sort of challenge
lies before the psychology of religion. Granqvist is certainly right that Freud takes
a narrow view of religion, and that other psychoanalytic thinkers wear blinkers of
their own. But taken as a whole, the literature on religion created by the depth psy-
chologists is exceptionally encompassing, as I have sought to illustrate elsewhere
(Wulff, 1997). Essential to that breadth are the object relations theorists, in whose
company Bowlby belongs.
There is no question that attachment theory is contributing in significant ways
to the psychology of religion. Yet this theory and its allied methodology cannot
serve as a replacement for other depth approaches. As Granqvist acknowledges, at-
tachment theory is more narrowly focusedon a particular type of relationship
based on a specific relational motive: protection from danger. Attachment theory is
a spatial theory, as Holmes (1995) points out: "Where I am in relation to my loved
ones becomes the key issue, rather than what I can do or have done to me" (quoted
in Gullestad, 2001, p. 7). By reducing objects to "security supporters," argues
Gullestad (2001), attachment theory leaves little room for "desire and the object of
desire," just as its notion of internal working models neglects the potential contri-
butions of fantasy and unconscious wishes in the formation of these internal repre-
sentations. The contribution of conflict to normal human development is likewise
neglected, observes Gullestad, and is largely replaced by the notion of deficiency.
Attachment theory, in sum, fails "to account for the complexity of human object re-
lations" (Gullestad, 2001, p. 9), including the experience of love. Even among rhe-
sus monkeys, Suomi (1995) points out, the early attachment of infant to mother is
not prototypical for subsequent social relationships: "The consistent lesson from
the primate literature is that mother-infant attachments are truly different from all
other relationships that advanced primates inevitably develop" (p. 192).
Of course, attachment theory need not replace psychoanalysis to be of value. As
Eagle (1995) suggests, what it most promises is the strengthening of the scientific
foundations of psychoanalytic theorizing. Whether evolutionary psychology in
particular helps to secure these foundations, as Granqvist maintains it does, is not a
question I shall address here, apart from suggesting that it may not. Characterized
by paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (2000) as "Darwinian fundamentalism," con-
temporary evolutionary psychology stridently argues for a strict adaptationism
that, in Gould's words, turns "a useful principle into a central dogma with asserted
powers for nearly universal explanation" (p. 121). Gould argued that many if not
most universal human behaviors are nonadaptive side consequences that have been
subsequently co-opted for other functions.
Whatever the case may be, Bowlby's disposition to interpret much of human
behavior in terms of its survival value is paralleled by his relative neglect of the in-
dividual meaning of the behaviors and experiences associated with attachment,
HOW ATTACHED SHOULD WE BE? 33

separation, and loss. Similarly, his emphasis on the literal presence or absence of
the mother has preempted adequate attention to their more subtle, emotional
equivalents. Thus, unlike other object relations theorists, Bowlby left unexplored
the significance of the need for and experience of attachment and other forms of re-
lationship for the development of the human self (Greenberg & Mitchell, 1983, pp.
186-187).
To valorize attachment theory for its scientific contributions to psychoanalysis
is not to say, however, that the depth psychologies stand or fall depending upon the
availability of empirical evidence. Like Strenger (1991), I wish to argue that psy-
choanalysis is in many respects a hermeneutical enterprise, and to that degree
should be explored and evaluated in terms of the human sciences, not the natural
ones.
The standard, positivist model that Granqvist puts forward, with its operational
definitions, internal and external validity, and other nomothetic principles, as-
sumes that there is a truth out there, and that such scientific procedures can help us
to know it, objectively. To many psychologists today, this is still an attractive and
reassuring model. Unfortunately, however, postmodernism is more than an "intel-
lectual smokescreen"; it reflects a genuine loss of consensusand a correspond-
ing loss of confidenceregarding fundamental ontological and epistemological
issues. What Jones (1991) argued is not that there is no realitythe extreme posi-
tion of solipsismbut that all accounts of reality are ultimately human construc-
tions, products of human perceptual and cognitive processes that are inevitably and
often silently influenced by personal, cultural, and historical factors. The outcome
is a pluralism of perspectives, interests, and methods, without a privileged or Ar-
chimedean point of view from which to judge and compare them.
One need not subscribe to postmodernism to embrace a qualita-
tive/hermeneutical perspective; the foundations for the human sciences were laid
well before postmodernism emerged. Nevertheless, it is most likely the more open
climate of postmodernism that is permitting, if not also enabling, the reemergence
and further development of qualitative methods in psychology. Furthermore, the
new literature on such methods and their underlying methodologies is deeply in-
formed by the constructivist perspective, which calls for reflexivity from the be-
ginning to the end of every research undertaking (Willig, 2001).
If we take a hermeneutical approach to psychoanalysis, one criterion for its ade-
quacy would be comprehensiveness. The psychology of religion may be said to
consist of two great branches: the psychology of religious contents and the psy-
chology of religious persons. Empirical approaches, given their reliance on sam-
ples of participants and statistical techniques, are by and large limited to the study
of groups of living persons. One of the great strengths of the depth approaches, in
contrast, is their capacity to address the vast and diverse arena of religious con-
tentsthe creeds, codes, images, objects, rituals, scriptures, architecture, and so
on that constitute the religious traditions. Furthermore, given the depth psycholo-
34 WULFF

gists' reliance on case studies, they are able to explore religious persons individu-
ally and not just as groups, in the past as well as in the present.
To address so diverse a realm of phenomena, a theory or interpretive perspective
may well have to be complex. The principle of parsimony does not demand sim-
plicity per se, but only that a theory not be unnecessarily complicated. In essence,
the principle is applicable only when there are two or more theories addressing the
same phenomena with the same degree of adequacy; under these circumstances
one can choose the theory that is least complex. Regrettably, psychologists have
seldom if ever found themselves in this situation, given especially that different
theories typically operate on different phenomena. Parsimonious or not, psycho-
analysis on the whole can be said to be the most comprehensive framework for an-
alyzing religion that we presently possess. Comprehensiveness, of course, is but
one criterion, but it is a very important one indeed.
Attachment theory, I argue in sum, is best thought of as a partan empirically
oriented oneof the psychoanalytic whole, not a candidate for replacing it. More-
over, I urge its proponents, especially those who would apply it to religion, to en-
gage with the hermeneutical tradition more seriously. Given that any psychology
of religion worth its salt must be applicable to a diversity of traditions, Eastern as
well as Western, I recommend particular attention to the charge that attachment
theory is laden with Western values and meaning (Rothbaum, Weisz, Pott, Miyake,
& Morelli, 2000).
I also find myself pondering two groups of empirical findings. First, persons re-
porting secure attachments from childhood tend to adopt and retain their parents'
religiosity and seldom experience dramatic fluctuations in it, whereas "insecurely
attached" individuals show the opposite trends, including a greater disposition to-
ward spiritual change (Granqvist & Hagekull, 2001). Second, those who report se-
cure attachment to God tend to score high on measures of religious orthodoxy or
conservatism (Kirkpatrick, 1999; Rowatt & Kirkpatrick, 2002; Sim & Loh, 2003).
In Bowlby's thinking, the need for attachment is in a dialectical relationship with
the need for exploration: Secure dependence provides a basis for exploring the un-
familiar and for depending on oneself (Gullestad, 2001). The fact that security of
attachmentto parents or to Godis empirically linked, contrariwise, to a prefer-
ence for orthodoxy and an apparent disinclination to explore religiously suggests
to me that Bowlby's theory of attachment may not be the most appropriate model
here.
More than 70 years ago, Vetter and Green (1932) reported that virtually all
of the men in their sample of members of the American Association for the Ad-
vancement of Atheism could recall the loss through death of someone close to
them during their early years; of those who had withdrawn from their religious
tradition by the age of 20, half had lost one or both of their parentsat least
double the expected rate. One third reported an unhappy childhood or adoles-
cence. In contrast, none in a comparison group of college conservatives re-
HOW ATTACHED SHOULD WE BE? 35

ported an unhappy childhood and only 4%, a troubled adolescence. Thus, for
most of a century, evidence has been accumulating that one's early relational
experiences have considerable potential for shaping one's later attitudesreli-
gious, political, and otherwise. What is still in doubt, however, is how best to
conceive of that influence.

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