UNC-Chapel Hill researchers ask Americans ‘What does God look like?’

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Credit: Joshua Jackson et al

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 and 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.

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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.

About the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the nation's first public university, is a global higher education leader known for innovative teaching, research and public service. A member of the prestigious Association of American Universities, Carolina regularly ranks as the best value for academic quality in U.S. public higher education. Now in its third century, the University offers 77 bachelor's, 111 master's, 65 doctorate and seven professional degree programs through 14 schools and the College of Arts and Sciences. Every day, faculty, staff and students shape their teaching, research and public service to meet North Carolina's most pressing needs in every region and all 100 counties. Carolina's more than 323,000 alumni live in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and 149 countries. More than 169,000 live in North Carolina.

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