What Do American Christians Think God Looks Like?

23 June, 2018

A recent study by the Pew Research Center shows nearly 90 percent of Americans believe in God either as described in the Bible, or in some kind of higher power.

And, in a separate study, more than 500 American Christians provided their thoughts on what they think God looks like. That study was carried out by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Their results were published this month in the journal PLOS One.

In the UNC study, subjects were shown hundreds of different pairs of faces and then asked to choose which one looked more like "the face of God." The researchers used the responses to create images aimed at reflecting those views.

The study noted that the Christian Bible gives differing descriptions of God. Genesis 1:27 describes man as created in God's image. But in other places, such as John 4:24, the Bible describes God as a spirit being.

In Michelangelo's painting 'Creation of Adam,' God (top right) is depicted as a serious looking, white-bearded man. (PLOS One)
In Michelangelo's painting 'Creation of Adam,' God (top right) is depicted as a serious looking, white-bearded man. (PLOS One)

In addition, many historical artist creations show God as an old, white-bearded Caucasian man. But the UNC study found that, in general, many Christians see God differently than that popular image: younger, more feminine, and less Caucasian.

To understand the range of ideas about God, researchers examined several groups within the American Christian community.

Among the groups were Americans who identified themselves as politically liberal or politically conservative. In the U.S., "liberal" usually relates to using government action to support social and political change. "Conservative" often relates to limiting government regulation and finding private solutions to problems.

The researchers said liberals saw God as "more feminine, younger, and more loving." They said conservatives saw God as older, more Caucasian and "more powerful."

Joshua Conrad Jackson was one of the lead researchers for the study. He said the differences based on political beliefs could have resulted from "the type of societies that liberals and conservatives want."

He said past research has shown that conservatives generally feel more at ease in a well-ordered society – one that would be best controlled by a powerful God. But liberals, he said, seek a more tolerant society, overseen by a more loving God.

The study also found differences based on people's age and race.

Younger people pictured a young-looking God, while older Christians imagined an older God. In addition, people who reported being physically attractive also believed in a physically attractive God.

African Americans generally described God as looking African American, while white Americans imaged a Caucasian God.

Researcher Kurt Gray said the results showed that, in general, people imagined a God that looked similar to themselves. "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," he said.

But there was one area where this was not the case. The gender of the respondent did not appear to matter. Researchers observed that men and women both "believed in an equally masculine-looking God."

I'm Bryan Lynn.

Bryan Lynn wrote this story for VOA Learning English, based on reports from PLOS One and the Associated Press. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.

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Words in This Story

reflect v. cause people to think of someone or something in a specified way

Caucasian adj. person who has white or pale skin

feminine adj. showing qualities that people generally think are typical of women

tolerant adj. willing to accept feelings, habits, or beliefs that are different from your own

attractive adj. beautiful or pleasant to look at

trait n. quality making a person or thing different from another

masculineadj. showing qualities that people generally think are typical of men