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Do You Think God Looks Like You?

The researchers showed participants hundreds of paired faces and asked the subjects to select the one that looked more like God. By combining the selected faces, the researchers created a composite “face of God” that reflected each of the participants’ choices. The researchers analyzed the differences between these composites, and also had 400 people on Mechanical Turk (an online platform that pays people to participate in research) rate the images on nine dimensions, such as age, gender and intelligence.

The results of asking “What does God look like?” showed that these U.S. Christians tended to view God as young, Caucasian and loving. However, liberals saw God as more feminine, more African-American and more loving than conservatives did. Meanwhile, conservatives, picked faces that were perceived as older, more intelligent and more powerful, the researchers said.

Joshua Conrad Jackson was the lead researcher in the study.  He is a doctoral candidate at the Evolution Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“These biases might have stemmed from the type of societies that liberals and conservatives want,” he wrote in a statement. “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.”

The people in the study, who were an average age of 47 years old, tended to envision God as they see themselves, the study found. For instance, younger people selected a younger-looking God and people who called themselves physically attractive chose a more physically attractive God, according to the researchers. Moreover, African-Americans selected faces that looked more African-American than Caucasians did.

“People’s tendency to believe in a God that looks like them is consistent with an egocentric bias,” study senior researcher Kurt Gray, an associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said in the statement. “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 could make one wonder if Christians are making an idol of God rather than worshipping the God of the Bible.

Sinclair Ferguson, writing for Ligonier Ministries, addressed that danger.

“Many people read the Gospels that way, always asking “What does this have to say about me?” But that means that at the end of the day we’re looking for what they have to say about me, and my life, and my improvement. Yes, the Gospels have much to say to me. But they aren’t about me… they’re about Christ. And we need to listen to them and master them, or better be mastered by them and by the Christ they describe.”