praying woman

In Joan Osborne’s immortal classic “One of Us,” the singer questions, “If God had a face what would it look like?” In a new study, three experts in psychology and neuroscience took Osborne’s question to task and asked hundreds of American Christians how they imagine God’s face. And although you might prefer to think of God as looking like an old, bearded dude or Whoopie Goldberg, the composite image that represents God in this study looks a lot more like a regular white guy.

While here God’s perceived face, averaged from the opinions of 511 American Christians, looks like a guy who would pass you a Bud Light at a networking happy hour, an examination of Christians’ individual responses serves as an insight into the psyche. In the study published Monday in PLOS One, the researchers write that there’s a degree of egocentrism in how people see God, and people of different races and different political ideologies diverge in the details of God’s appearance. Overall, the researchers say, Americans don’t associate God with historical depictions and prefer to imagine God as “young, Caucasian, and loving.”

The study’s authors argue that imaging the appearance of God is a fascinating tool to determine what people think God’s personality is like. Theologically, they point out, Christians are taught to not think of God as possessing human qualities — but it’s obvious that they do think of God in human-like terms. When people visualize faces, they write, those faces “reflect assumptions about the minds of those who wear them” because faces “communicate both physical and psychological information.”

So, what does God look like? The image below on the left side is an average of what people say looks like God and while the image on the right is an average of what people think doesn’t look like God.

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God's perceived face (left) and anti-face (right) across American Christians.

To determine the face of God, the researchers gathered a variety of American Christians: 330 men and 181 women. This sample contained people living throughout the United States (153 Southerners, 143 Midwesterners, 91 from the West, and 124 from the Northeast) and was approximately 74 percent Caucasian and 26 percent African American. Liberals and conservatives were in the mix, as well as the young and old.

In the first phase of the study, the researchers — all who work at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill — measured people’s visualizations of God’s face through a technique called “reverse correlation.” This means that a face is repeatedly and randomly overlaid with “visual noise” (which looks like blurriness) which creates many pairs of contrasting faces. Study participants were shown the 300 faces side-by-side then asked which best matches their view of God. The faces themselves were created by combining 50 faces that represent the collective demographics of the United States.

The collective choices revealed a God that, the researchers say, looks more masculine, Caucasian, attractive, and intelligent than the visual traits the subjects didn’t identify with God. Notably, they didn’t choose visual traits that are typically associated with looking powerful, which the researchers say is “consistent with a general tendency for Americans to believe in God who is more loving than stern.” Meanwhile, imaging a young white man as God could be linked to participants’ conceptualization of Jesus.

God face study
Who looks more like God? Face examples from the study. 

In the second phase of the study, the researchers focused more on how individual people imagine God and how their background may have influenced that visual. Independent ratings revealed that “perceptions of God’s face are shaped by motivations tied to political orientation” — conservatives saw God as more “masculine, older, more powerful, and wealthier than the liberal’s God.” Liberals were more likely to imagine God as African American and loving, which the authors state reflects “their motivation for a God who encourages tolerance.”

People also just saw God looking a lot like themselves. Older people imagined an older God, more attractive people thought of God as being hot, and people typically saw God as sharing their race. What did hold up across the board was that both men and women saw God as male — which Alanis Morissette may have something to say about.