US Christians see God as a young, white male

22 June 2018

An illustration from the research paper: the base image (a composite of 50 faces that represent the collective demographics of the US population) and three of the 300 stimuli created by adding visual noise to the base image

An illustration from the research paper: the base image (a composite of 50 faces that represent the collective demographics of the US population) and ...

A STUDY which sought to understand how American Christians picture the face of God has found that most see the Creator as young, Caucasian, and male.

Psychologists from the University of North Carolina asked 511 Christians — 330 men and 181 women — to look through hundreds of pairs of faces to build up a picture of how they imagined God to look.

Researchers wrote: “From Michaelangelo to Monty Python, popular illustrations have consistently shown God as an old and august white-bearded Caucasian man.”

But their study found that today most pictured God as younger and more loving, though perceptions varied according to the believer’s own political ideology and their own sense of attractiveness.

The study found: “The conservatives’ God was perceived as more masculine, older, more powerful, and wealthier than the liberals’ God, reflecting conservatives’ motivation for a God who enforces order. Conversely, liberals’ God was more African American and more loving than the conservatives’ God, reflecting their motivation for a God who encourages tolerance.”

Perceptions of God were also shaped by people’s own view of themselves: “Older participants saw an older God, more attractive participants saw a more attractive God, and African Americans saw a marginally more African American God.”

“People’s tendency to believe in a God that looks like them is consistent with an egocentric bias,” the study’s senior author, Professor Kurt Gray, who is a psychology professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, said.

“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.”

What did not vary across participants, however, was their perception of God’s gender — all of them, men and women, saw God as male.

The study’s authors concluded: “We began this paper with a question: what does God look like? Our results suggest that there may not be a single answer for all believers, even within the same religion. When believers think about God, they perceive a divine mind who is suited to meet their needs and who looks like them. Even though American Christians express belief in a universal God, their perceptions of his face are not universally similar.”

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