What Does God Look Like? Almighty Viewed Differently Based on Demographics, Politics, Researchers Find

(Photos: Plos One)Aggregates of the images that young participants (L) and old participants (R) associated with how they see God.

While just over 70 percent of Americans identify as Christian, how they view God's appearance varies according to their demographics and politics, a new study from a team of psychologists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reveals.

In "The faces of God in America: Revealing religious diversity across people and politics," published in the scientific journal PLOS One on Monday, researchers Joshua Conrad Jackson, Neil Hester and Kurt Gray conclude that even though American Christians profess to believe in a universal God, they do not have a universal vision of his face.

"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," the researchers say.

In the study, the researchers used a new technique to create a composite image of what God looks like from a sample of 511 American Christians.

Participants in the study were shown 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 assembled a composite "face of God" that reflected how each person imagined God to appear.

"Liberals see God as relatively more feminine, more African American, and more loving than conservatives, who see God as older, more intelligent, and more powerful," the researchers say. "All participants see God as similar to themselves on attractiveness, age, and, to a lesser extent, race. These differences are consistent with past research showing that people's views of God are shaped by their group-based motivations and cognitive biases....even people of the same nationality and the same faith appear to think differently about God's appearance."

Jackson, who is the study's lead author explains in a release from UNC that the biases reflected in the perceptions of God could be a result of the kind of society in which people desire to live.

"These biases might have stemmed from the type of societies that liberals and conservatives want," he notes. "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."

In further explaining the motivations behind the biases, the researchers pointed to contemporary psychological research that shows that people who lack control in their lives tend to see God as more powerful and influential as a form of compensatory control.

People who feel threatened by intergroup conflict conceptualize God as more authoritarian and punitive, since this kind of God could better regulate a society at war.

"And people with a strong need for a secure attachment tend to view God as more loving to provide themselves with an attachment figure. Together, these perspectives suggest that people ascribe traits to God that help fulfill salient motivations," the researchers say.

Gray who is a psychology professor in the College of Arts & Sciences at UNC-Chapel Hill says how people see God also appears especially susceptible to egocentric bias — overestimating how much others are like the self.

"People's tendency to believe in a God that looks like them is consistent with an egocentric bias," Gray explains. "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."

The study noted that observations of religious egocentrism have a long history.

"The 6th century philosopher Xenophanes wrote, 'Yet if cattle or horses or lions had hands and could draw, and could sculpt like men, then the horses would draw their gods like horses, and cattle like cattle; and each they would shape bodies of gods in the likeness, each kind, of their own.' Yet recent studies find that people think even more egocentrically about God's mind than other people's minds, and that self-oriented regions of the brain show more activation when believers think about God than when they think about other people," the researchers note.

When it came to God's gender however, the study found that both men and women believe in an equally masculine-looking God.