What does God look like?

June 15, 2018 • 10:30 am

Well, I’m not going to dwell on this paper, which has gotten a lot of publicity, as I have a much more interesting paper (about crab spiders and their silk balloons) to report on, but I’ll direct you to the article in Plos ONE. Click on the screenshot to read it:

The author’s sample was 511 Americans (74% Caucasian and the rest African-American), and the goal was to see how various classes of Americans envision the face of God. The results are pretty much as you expect. From the abstract:

Literature and art have long depicted God as a stern and elderly white man, but do people actually see Him this way? We use reverse correlation to understand how a representative sample of American Christians visualize the face of God, which we argue is indicative of how believers think about God’s mind. In contrast to historical depictions, Americans generally see God as young, Caucasian, and loving, but perceptions vary by believers’ political ideology and physical appearance. Liberals see God as relatively more feminine, more African American, and more loving than conservatives, who see God as older, more intelligent, and more powerful. All participants see God as similar to themselves on attractiveness, age, and, to a lesser extent, race. These differences are consistent with past research showing that people’s views of God are shaped by their group-based motivations and cognitive biases. Our results also speak to the broad scope of religious differences: even people of the same nationality and the same faith appear to think differently about God’s appearance.

What the researchers did was use a technique that starts with a generic American face and then altering it randomly, giving people pairs of faces to choose, and then asking them to choose which face comes closest to their conception of God’s face. They did this 300 times in a row, coming up with an image that, for a given participant, apparently corresponds to what he or she thinks God looks like. (Why they did this is beyond me!) After every subject had chosen a face, the images were combined to get a General God Face.

Here’s God to American Christians (left). The “anti-face” to the right is the one that people chose as not looking like God. The God that Americans generally envision is a pleasant-looking chap, lacking a beard and having a stylish haircut:

(All captions from paper): Fig 3. God’s perceived face (left) and anti-face (right) across American Christians.


Below is how liberals (left) and conservatives (right) imagine God. As the authors note,

The conservatives’ God was perceived as more masculine, older, more powerful, and wealthier than the liberals’ God, ts > 2.20, ps < .03, reflecting conservatives’ motivation for a God who enforces order. Conversely, liberals’ God was more African American and more loving than the conservatives’ God, ts > 3.49, ps < .002, reflecting their motivation for a God who encourages tolerance (see Fig 5; see S2 Table for full statistics). Conservatives visualized a God who was better-suited to meet their motivation for social order, while liberals visualized a God who was better-suited to meet their motivation for social tolerance.

Frankly, I don’t see that much difference.

Aggregates of the images that liberal participants (left panel) and conservative participants (right panel) associated with how they viewed God.

Finally, the authors tested for the role of egocentricity, and they did it like this:

 We tested for the role of egocentrism in the perception of God by comparing God’s composite faces of (a) the youngest third of our sample with the oldest third of our sample (see Fig 6), (b) the least attractive third of our sample with the most attractive third of our sample (See S1 Fig), (c) African American participants with Caucasian participants (See S2 Fig), and (d) men versus women (See S3 Fig)

Why age and race should be indices of egocentricity defies me, but I can’t be arsed to look it up. (I can imagine why more attractive people might be more egocentric, but it’s not a given.) Here’s the effect of one factor, how young (left) versus older people (right) see God:

Aggregates of the images that young participants (left panel) and old participants (right panel) associated with how they viewed God.

The summary for egocentricity:

Independent ratings suggest that, as predicted, perceptions of God’s face are shaped by egocentrism. Older participants saw an older God, t(377) = 13.96, p < .001, more attractive participants saw a more attractive God, t(378) = 12.33, p < .001, and African Americans saw a marginally more African American God, t(375) = 1.86, p = .06. Perceptions of God’s face did not vary across gender, t(377) = .93, p = .36; both men and women saw God as similarly male.

Okay, I’ll accept that the God to the right looks older, but it was interesting that both men and women see God as male, and even blacks see him as white. For the patriarchal God, that’s probably because according to the Bible God was male, but surely a few feminist women would take the female route. Why blacks see God as white is beyond me; perhaps it’s because he’s assumed to be Jesus’s dad and Jesus was white—or at least Middle Eastern (n.b. that’s not white to Authoritarian Lefists!).

The conclusions, which are pretty lame, are in the abstract above, but one conclusion the authors don’t make is that God is indeed envisioned as a real person. If these Americans adhered to David Bentley Hart’s and other Sophisticated Theologians’™ conception of God, he would not be a personlike being, but an ineffable force outside of space and time that is not at all like a real person. Of course, theologians like Hart think that they know better than the Little People, but they really don’t: they are just trained academics who get paid for devising arcane and untestable views of what God is really like.

You might want to amuse yourself by seeing which living person most resembles Americans’ view of God. To me he looks like a young Timothy Bottoms:


h/t: Matthew

91 thoughts on “What does God look like?

  1. If Timothy Bottoms is God, I guess that would make his son Buckeye (star of his own veterinary reality show on Nat Geo Wild) Jesus.

    1. Sorry but god was created by some men in their image. Those men were old, had pretty long hair and did not shave their face.

    2. Like the old joke, ‘What’s the worst thing you can say to a Republican about God?’
      A: She’s black.

      (Used to be ‘Klansman’ but these days, Republican fits equally well…)

      I vote Michelle Obama for god…


  2. Getting down to the last photo on the left. Looks like the guy on the tonight show. So we have replacement g*d going back to Johnny Carson.

    1. When Jerry wrote “I have a much more interesting paper (about crab spiders and their silk balloons) to report on” I immediately thought, if there is a God that created this world, it could definitely look like that. The earth sure contains plenty of insects to feed on (some of which like to feed, in turn, on humans).

  3. I know that the Bible claims that we are made in the image of God but do people really think that he actually has a face and looks something like anyone of us? Supposedly an entity that created the entire universe but has all the characteristics of a mafia don. Bonkers.

    1. Yes, I’m actually surprised that the majority of people surveyed didn’t outright refuse to answer the question. Unless they were happily engaging in metaphors and symbolism (unlikely) this is far more anthropomorphic than even I gave them credit for.

      The study, however, might also be seen as supporting my suspicion that many believers will comfortably agree with any religious utterance which seems to flatter their perception of their faith. “Tell me what *you* think God looks like!” “You don’t think God has a face, do you?” Smile, nod, act admiring or deferential and you can generally get them to contradict themselves six ways from Sunday.

  4. You’ve nailed it with Timothy Bottoms. Now time to move on to what God sounds like. I’m guessing something like Wally Cox.

    1. That was my thought as well.

      To paraphrase good old James Tiberius, what does God need with a nose? Does he need to breathe? A deity that one could drown in a two inch deep puddle does not sound very omnipotent to me!

    1. This is so tragic that I’m at a loss for words. Such confusion: the poor flies are confused and so am I (in fact, I don’t have the slightest idea what this all about). These poor sexually confused stalk-eyed flies need a critical theory, not science, to sort out those intersexual eye-stalk problems pronto. What’s wrong with female stalk-eyed flies lengthening their stalks? Does that make them dykes or transsexuals? Are male flies chauvinists? Too much sexual confusion? Furthermore, female stalk-eyed flies should not discriminate against male flies with shorter eye-stalks and allow mating privileges only with males possessing long eye-stalks. This is rank discrimination, stalkism.

      And what does god look like to a stalk-eyed fly?

  5. I’m with you, Dr Coyne. I don’t see much difference between the versions of god. I’d be a terrible eyewitness to any crimes they might commit.

    I do see the difference with the anti-god though, and I am not in the least surprised that to the American religious he doesn’t look white.

    1. Yes, to me, he looks like a middle-aged Native American male. I like him more than the white youth in the left, both as a man and as a “god”.

    1. You are thinking of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, considered by believers in the Invisible Pink Unicorn as a false god.

    1. I like this. God having an ancestry. Somebody who created him (sorry ladies but some men created god in their image).

      1. We can get an idea of God’s ethnicity because his son Jesus, although born in Palestine, had light skin and dirty blond hair.

  6. A classical education could have saved the researchers a lot of bother.

    “The Ethiops say that their gods are flat-nosed and black,
    While the Thracians say that theirs have blue eyes and red hair.
    Yet if cattle or horses or lions had hands and could draw,
    And could sculpt like men, then the horses would draw their gods
    Like horses, and cattle like cattle; and each they would shape
    Bodies of gods in the likeness, each kind, of their own.”

    ― Xenophanes

    1. Hmmm … like the various versions of Death in the Discworld series. Death of Rats (aka the Grim Squeaker), Death of Mayflies, Death of Trees, etc.

      On a serious note, I think there have been some child psychology research studies on the perceptions of dolls as pretty, nice, good, etc., among children who are Caucasian, African-American, etc. Regardless of what the child’s background is, they rate the white dolls as prettier and nicer than the black dolls. I’ll try to find some of the references, but I think I’m remembering the general outcome correctly.

  7. I’m not 100% positive about gawd’s appearance but I am 100% certain about this: gawd has nipples.

    Yes, you read that right. Gawd has nipples. How can I be so sure about that? Easy. Gawd made all of us in his image. We all have nipples. Ergo, gawd has nipples. Case closed.

    I wonder why Aquinas never thought of that argument. It’s so obvious.

        1. (Speaking of five men and five women mindlinked as a combat unit):

          “In a physical way we’re closer than any civilian pair could be, since in full combat jack we are this one creature with twenty arms and legs, with ten brains, with five vaginas and five penises.
          Some people call the feeling godlike, and I think there have been gods who were constructed along similar lines. The one I grew up with was an old white-bearded Caucasian gent without even one vagina.” Joe Haldeman, Forever Peace

  8. So, according to them we are made in his image. Ostensibly, again according to them, we were made to sing his praises, so not only is he insecure, but he wants all of his worshiping sycophants to look like him so he is a narcissist, too.

    That is one sick puppy of a god.

    1. That’s why in Switzerland it is now illegal to boil lobsters alive. It is a religious law.

  9. My eyes can’t roll back far enough over such stupidity; though, for as far as I can get, it’s incredibly dark — much like what we’re all actually heading toward.

    (Like my outlook? If so, don’t forget to tithe: only 67.4% of your annual salary! Thanks.)

  10. This is just a beginning. How do people picture Heaven and Hell? I think composite images of those places would probably resemble the satirical versions featured in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.

    One person’s Heaven is another person’s Hell, and vice versa. I believe that’s why virtually all religious concepts are vague, leaving it to followers to imagine their own versions and to invent customized versions on the fly for their children.

  11. God not only is differently envisioned dependent upon whom (the culture) he is being imagined by, he/she has also changed over time. God once was a weather/mountain god. God once encompassed both male/female attributes (how could he not since both sexes were supposedly created by him/her). Strange that god must have an image and that the poor
    thing looks something like us.

  12. All gods eventually grow to look like their worshippers.

    Happily they also share their believers values. Want to be rich? God loves rich people! Give to charity? It’s a cardinal virtue! Hate gays? So does God! Love gays? God loves everyone! Teetotal? God loves temperance! Like a drink? His son turned water into wine!

  13. What a strange evolutionary path God has taken!

    Sorry, but I think he’s the spitting image of serial killer Ted Bundy. Google it; you will see the truth.

    Creepy, yes. But perhaps fitting — after all, God killed 99% of species ever to live on Earth, and lots of humans on top of that.

  14. I must admit, the idea those Believers have of the ‘Terrible God’ of the OT is deeply disappointing. Some vague faces that all look more or less alike, and quite indefinite too. A sexually deprived teenager? Note, the God of the OT has quite a few sexual hang-ups, but still…Give me one eyed Woden any time.
    What was the sample? I guess that in, say, the DRC the images would be slightly different.

  15. God looks like a pedophile. Well, he did knock up that Jewish teenager so I shouldn’t be surprised. Maybe the Catholic Church really does know the mind of God after all.

  16. This bit may be the funniest sentence I’ve read in a long time:

    “The conservatives’ God was perceived as more masculine, older, more powerful, and _wealthier_ than the liberals’ God”

    “Wealthier”?? Did he make some shrewd land investments during the creation of the universe or something?

  17. When I was 8 or 9, our headmaster, Mr. Gill, took our class one day, and asked us to draw a picture of God.

    Mine was of a 50′-tall man, round-faced, with a tonsure like a monk and wearing a monk’s habit, which was bright green, with vertical broad yellow stripes on the skirt. A couple of angels hovered by his shoulders.

    My friend Peter drew a glowing golden orb with a shapeless white limbless body flowing behind it.


  18. If I had a god, he/she/it would look a lot like Ganesha, because it’s so cute. Fortunately, 99.99% athiest, I don’t worry about what some sky fairy might look like.

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