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20 June 2018updated 24 Jun 2018 10:06am

How humans shape God in their own image

What does God look like? Or, more accurately, what do American Christians think he looks like?

By Sophie McBain

Researchers at the psychology and neuroscience department of the University of North Carolina recently set themselves a big and perhaps unusual question: what does God look like? Or, more accurately, what do American Christians think he looks like?

Understanding God’s appearance is important because it offers new clues as to how we really perceive him. As anyone afflicted by “resting bitch face” can attest, we can’t resist drawing conclusions about people’s personalities and inner lives based on how they look.

For psychologists, this unappealing trait is useful for uncovering biases that people don’t notice about themselves or would rather not admit. Americans rarely disclose, for example, that they tend to think of welfare recipients as black – but when asked to select which of two faces most resembles someone on welfare, they tend to pick the one with darker skin.

To reveal the face of God, the North Carolina researchers used a technique called reverse correlation. They created 300 pairs of faces by adding visual noise to the “average” American face, a composite image drawn from 50 faces that reflect the US population in terms of age, ethnicity and gender. Respondents were then asked to select a face from each pair that most looked like God, and these selections were combined into another composite image.  Not unfairly, several news websites described the resulting face as bearing an unsettling resemblance to tech mogul Elon Musk.

Joshua Conrad Jackson, the lead author of the report, seemed slightly aggrieved by the Musk headlines, but only because he felt they missed the point of the study. The aim was less to create a crowd-sourced God portrait than to identify the kinds of facial characteristics that people associate with him. It turns out that Americans think of God as looking younger and more approachable than historic depictions suggest. More importantly, how people visualise God varies according to their political beliefs and their own appearance.

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The researchers found that conservatives see God as older, more masculine and more powerful than liberals, who see God as more youthful, feminine and loving, and less white. That, the authors suggested, is because how we view God is shaped by our political motivations. The conservative god reflects the conservative desire for social order, the liberal god is better-suited to promoting the liberal ideal of social tolerance.

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The study also found that older people tend to picture God as looking older, people who rate themselves as attractive tend to picture God as more attractive too, and African-Americans tend to see God as more African-American. The only exception is that both men and women see God as equally male. Your idea of God looks less like Elon Musk, and more like you.

Previous studies have shown that we often experience egocentric bias when we think about God: people tend to believe that God shares their stance on abortion, the death penalty and affirmative action, for example. “This was the first time we found that people saw God as like them in even very superficial traits, like attractiveness,” Jackson told me. “It’s a very natural cognitive bias to use our own traits as a referent.”

Jackson hopes that a greater awareness of the nature of religious difference could help reduce conflict. He told me he’d been thinking about a painting by the artist Harmonia Rosales. She recreated Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, but with God as a grey-haired black woman flanked by black angels, extending her hand to a black Eve. “It was very controversial when it came out, and people were so angry that she thought this was a good idea. But they forget that 500 years ago, Michelangelo thought it was a good idea to paint God the way he’s currently shown in the Sistine chapel,” Jackson said. “It’s important to recognise that, in human minds, God is in the eye of the beholder.”

When Rosales posted her work on Instagram, she wrote that “we are all created in God’s image”. A slightly different formulation is also true: we all create God in our image.

This article appears in the 20 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Conservatives in crisis