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Conservatives and Liberals Have Differing Mental Images of God

Americans' divergent conceptions of the supreme being's face reflect our egocentrism, and reveal our emotional needs.
God (left) vs. anti-God.

God (left) vs. anti-God.

What comes to mind when you try to picture the face of God? For centuries, the Sistine Chapel image of a white-bearded old man was something of a default response.

But the mental image of the almighty held by current-day Christians in the United States is surprisingly distant from Michelangelo's vision. Their God is younger, less masculine, and less obviously of European ancestry than his.

New research reveals we quite literally create God in our own image, and envision him in ways that imply he is meeting our emotional needs. That means the God of liberals has a different look than his conservative counterpart.

"People believe in a God who not only thinks like them, but also looks like them," psychologist Kurt Gray of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the paper's senior author, said in announcing the findings. "People often project their beliefs and traits onto others, and our study shows that God's appearance is no different."

In the online journal PLoS One, a UNC research team led by Joshua Conrad Jackson describe the innovative technique it used to create contemporary composite images of God. It's called "reverse correlation," a process in which "a face is repeatedly and randomly overlaid with visual noise to create many pairs of contrasting faces."

In the study, the participants—511 American Christians from all around the nation—individually viewed 300 sets of faces placed side-by-side on a computer screen. They selected "the face from each pair that better characterized how they imagined God to look." These were assembled into a composite image reflecting each person's notion of God.

Participants also provided demographic information, including their age, race, gender, self-perceived attractiveness, and political ideology (placing themselves on a nine-point, liberal-to-conservative scale). Their God images were then evaluated by a panel of independent judges.

Overall, "The face of the modern American God appeared kinder and more approachable than the God of the Sistine Chapel," the researchers report. "Participants saw God's face as more masculine, Caucasian, attractive, and loving compared to his anti-face (the composite of images they rejected)."

Independent raters also compared the faces created by self-described liberals and conservatives. They discovered telling differences.

"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," they write. "Conversely, liberals' God was more African-American (in appearance) and more loving than the conservatives' God, reflecting their motivation for a God who encourages tolerance."

In other words, all believers seek comfort by imagining a deity who fulfills their emotional needs. As these needs vary, so do their images of the supreme being.

In addition, the researchers found "perceptions of God's face are shaped by egocentrism. Older participants saw an older God, more attractive participants saw a more attractive God, and African-Americans saw a marginally more African-American God."

This God-looks-like-me bias had one important limitation: "Both men and women saw God as similarly male." While God may transcend gender, Christians raised on the notion of the father, son, and holy ghost instinctively view him as a guy.

That consensus aside, the findings suggest even people of the same faith living in the same country can hold very different images of the almighty. So, let us pray: In the name of the red-state God, the blue-state God, and the God who resembles my image in the mirror, Amen.