UNC-Chapel Hill Study Asks: What Does God Look Like?

A team of psychologists from UNC-Chapel Hill ask Americans what they think God looks like

How Americans picture God ;
July 4, 2018 

Divinity is in the Eye of the Beholder

It appears the face of God is in the eye of the beholder. In a unique study, a team of psychologists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill used a new technique to find out what American Christians think God looks like. Researchers showed 511 people hundreds of randomly varying face-pairs. They were told to select which face from each pair appeared more like how they imagined God to appear. By combining all of the selected faces, the team assembled the image you see above; a composite “face of God” that reflected how each person imagined God to appear.

Younger, More Feminine God

Throughout history, God has been portrayed as an old, wise, and powerful white-bearded Caucasian man. But the study found many Christians saw God as younger, more feminine and less Caucasian. Also, researchers found images of God tended to rely on politics. Liberals tended to see God as more feminine, younger and more loving. Conservatives saw God as more Caucasian and more powerful.

“That may stem from the types of societies liberals and conservatives want,” suggests Joshua Conrad Jackson, the study’s lead author and a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill. “Past research shows conservatives desire a more well-ordered society which would be regulated by a powerful God. Liberals desire a more tolerant society, which suggests a more loving God.”

Egocentric Bias

The study found other parallels also. Images of God were tied to age (younger people believed in a younger looking God) and race (African Americans believed in a more African American looking God).

“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 God’s appearance is no different. God thinks like them and looks like them.” Gender did not factor into the image of God, men and women both believed in an equally masculine-looking God.

—Frank Graff 

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci Tech Now North Carolina, a weekly science series that airs Tuesdays on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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