What does God look like? An old guy with long white hair and a beard? Morgan Freeman?
A group of researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed more than 500 Christians a variety of faces and asked them to pick the one that best represented their vision of God. Then they averaged the various traits and came to conclusions based on the participants’ ages and political affiliations. (All of their results look fairly similar.)
The study was published in the journal PLoS ONE, and this was the composite image they found:
That’s… not what I would’ve guessed. It’s possible, the researchers said, that some people confused God with Jesus. Still, they were able to find a few patterns in the results.
What does God generally look like to American Christians? Participants saw God’s face as more masculine, Caucasian, attractive, intelligent, and loving compared to His anti-face… God’s face was also rated as significantly younger than the alternative composite…
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. However, these general results should be interpreted with caution, since participants’ ratings may have been biased by their conceptualization of Jesus.
They also broke the results down by demographics, like liberals vs. conservatives:
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.
There are about 28942390423 caveats to this study, as you’d expect, but the researchers say their paper has merit, which is also what you’d expect.
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. 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.
That’s extremely optimistic. This is a fun little exercise, but it’s not like churches are going to hang Jimmy Fallon‘s picture everywhere.
Christians may even balk at these results completely, given that the Bible never describes what God looks like and God even says you’ll die if you catch a glimpse of Him.
So there you have it. This is like the academic version of The Ring.
(Thanks to David for the link)