Researchers ask Americans: What does God look like?

A team of psychologists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have used a new technique to construct what a large sample of 511 American Christians think God looks like.

Participants in the study saw hundreds of randomly varying face-pairs and selected which face from each pair appeared more like how they imagined God to appear. By combining all the selected faces, the researchers could assemble a composite “face of God” that reflected how each person imagined God to appear.

Their results were both surprising and revealing. From Michelangelo to Monty Python, illustrations of God have nearly always shown him as an old and august white-bearded Caucasian man. But the researchers found that many Christians saw God as younger, more feminine, and less Caucasian that popular culture suggests.

In fact, people’s perceptions of God tended to rely partly on their political affiliation. Liberals tended to see God as more feminine, younger, and more loving than conservatives. Conservatives also saw God as more Caucasian and more powerful than liberals.

“These biases might have stemmed from the type of societies that liberals and conservatives want,” suggested Joshua Conrad Jackson, the study’s lead author. “Past research shows that conservatives are more motivated than liberals to live in a well-ordered society, one that would be best regulated by a powerful God. On the other hand, liberals are more motivated to live in a tolerant society, which would be better regulated by a loving God.”

People’s perceptions also related to their own demographic characteristics. Younger people believed in a younger-looking God. People who reported being more physically attractive also believed in a more physically attractive God. And African Americans believed in a God that looked more African American than did Caucasians.

“People’s tendency to believe in a God that looks like them is consistent with an egocentric bias,” said Professor Kurt Gray, the study’s senior author and a psychology professor in the College of Arts & Sciences at UNC-Chapel Hill. “People often project their beliefs and traits onto others, and our study shows that God’s appearance is no different—people believe in a God who not only thinks like them, but also looks like them.”

Interestingly, however, people did not show an egocentric bias on the basis of gender. Men and women believed in an equally masculine-looking God.

The research is newly published in the journal PLOS ONE.The corresponding author is Joshua Conrad Jackson, and the other authors were Neil Hester and Kurt Gray. Jackson and Hester are graduate students at UNC-Chapel Hill.

The research was supported by grants from the Templeton Foundation and National Science Foundation.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Anyone who thinks that god has a face is delusional. Humans will never understand the “concept” of god as it is too big for our small minds to grasp. Humans have such an impossible time trying to grasp the vastness of “our”universe. It is huge beyond understanding. Just get on with your “small” lives and be good and live the life of your god. Do “goodness (godness)” in all you do.

  2. Which God are these Christians thinking about? They have 3 don’t they, so its bound to be confused.

  3. Come on. That drawing in the article above looks like a sissy baby. I think a lot of people will be very surprised when they die and won’t be there to find out that death is lights out. That’s it and there isn’t anything else after. Kinda like Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Ferry you tend to believe what your taught as a child. Man’s fear of the unknown and inability to explain the wonders of the universe led to the creation of God. Everything you are is in the cells of your brain. Your brain dies your gone. Fear of death is strong. No one wants that to be the end and this is why most people hope for a God. Just my opinion. I respect everybody’s opinion. If you believe in a God it’s a good thing if you follow its guidelines. In most religions its about doing good and being a good person. I’m sorry if I offended anyone. But I don’t believe in what I can’t see touch feel or even smell. The only thing religion has is hand me down stories from a time when all people were very simple. Nothing there to say yes its real. Live and let live. Love and let love.

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