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Liberals and conservatives imagine the face of God differently, psychologists find

American Christians tend to imagine God as being younger and kinder. And, depending on their political bent, they may also see him as having darker skin.

"The Creation of Adam" by Michelangelo

The image of God that American Christians hold in their mind looks nothing like the rather stern, bearded old white man painted by Michelangelo (or, for that matter, the one depicted by Monty Python).

Instead, American Christians tend to imagine God as being younger and kinder. And, depending on their political bent, they may also see him as having darker skin.

I say him because American Christians seem to overwhelmingly agree that God is male. 

These are the findings from a rather intriguing study published recently in the journal PLOS One. For the study, three psychologists at the University of North Carolina surveyed 511 devout Christians (330 men, 181 women) from across the United States. The mean age of the participants was 47, and more than a quarter of them were African-American.

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To measure the participants’ visualizations of God’s face, the researchers used a technique called “reverse correlation.” It worked like this: The participants were shown 300 different face pairs, which were representative of the U.S. population in terms of age, race and gender. They were asked to select the face from each pair that best answered the question, “Which face looks more like God?” At the end of the selection process, their choices collectively yielded a face that best characterized how they imagined God to look.

The researchers compiled these final faces into one composite image, which they then asked 400 other people to compare to a composite image of the faces the Christians in the study did not select as looking like God.

This second group found the Christian’s composite image of God to be more masculine, Caucasian, attractive, intelligent, loving and younger than the other one.

“These results help paint a picture of an American God who may not resemble scriptural or historical depictions,” the researchers write. “The face of the modern American God appeared kinder and more approachable than the God of the Sistine Chapel, perhaps reflecting different cultural concerns of the 16th century versus today.”

As background information in the study explains, different generations of Christians can create different physical images of God because the Bible says very little about the matter. “Genesis 1:27 describes man as created in God’s image, but other verses portray God as embodied as non-human (Exodus 3:2), or as not embodied at all (John 4:24),” the study’s authors point out.

Political and personal influences

The study also investigated whether people’s political leanings affected how they imagined God. They did.

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

In addition, most of the participants imagined God to look like themselves — a psychological phenomenon known as “egocentricity.” 

“Older participants saw an older God, more attractive participants [determined by their own self-reports of attractiveness] saw a more attractive God, and African Americans saw a marginally more African American God,” the researchers explain.

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But the images of God’s face did not vary by gender. Men and women were similarly likely to imagine God as male.

No single image

This study involved only 511 American Christians. The findings therefore “cannot be generalized beyond this demographic,” the study’s authors warn. 

Still, the findings are interesting and may have implications for discussions of religion and public policy.

“Although the differences revealed here were subtle, they nevertheless revealed differences in elements of God (His appearance) that American Christians often assume that they agree on,” the researchers explain. “These hidden disagreements speak to the fact that many religious conflicts are driven by the tension between believers assuming that God’s characteristics are universal while simultaneously seeing Him in their own way. Teaching people how perceptions of God vary even within religions may help increase religious tolerance.”

So, what does God look like — at least in the minds of believers?

God’s perceived face, left, and anti-face, right, across American Christians.
God’s perceived face, left, and anti-face, right, across American Christians.

“Our results suggest that there may not be a single answer for all believers, even within the same religion,” the study’s authors conclude. “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.”

FMI:You can read the study in full on the PLOS One website.