What does God look like?

White, old, bearded. That’s the image that those who believe in God often see when they imagine him/her/it. Or so we’re told. But maybe not.

A study today from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill says Christians mostly see variations of themselves.

It’s a study of cognitive biases. Americans see God as young, white and loving. But the researchers found that liberals see God as more feminine, more African-American, and more loving than conservatives. They see God as older, more intelligent, and more powerful. But everyone in the study seemed to see God as similar to themselves.

We put a lot of bias into these sorts of things, the authors said.

“For example, people will seldom admit that they assume welfare recipients are black but will choose darker faces when asked which of two alternatives looks more like a welfare recipient,” the study said.

But what about God?

In order to measure people’s visualizations of God’s face, we used a nascent technique known as “reverse correlation” . In reverse correlation, a face is repeatedly and randomly overlaid with visual noise to create many pairs of contrasting faces.

Participants see these contrasting faces side-by-side on a computer screen and select the face from each pair that best matches their representation of a given target or category (e.g., “Which face looks more like a welfare recipient?” ). Collectively, these choices yield a complete face that represents how the owner’s mind is perceived.

In our study, each participant viewed 300 face pairs, derived from adding visual noise to an “average” American face, which we created by combining 50 faces that represent the collective demographics of the US population in terms of age, race, and gender .

During the task, participants selected the face from each pair that better characterized how they imagined God to look.

Behold!

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

Nobody is saying that that’s what God looks like, if he/she/it exists at all, of course. Instead, the results speak to egocentrism.

If people believe they live a godly life, they’re most likely to see a god that looks like themselves, and it might explain why one person’s perception of hypocrisy of some believers, isn’t to others, basically making their view of God conform to them rather than the other way around.

“Even though American Christians ostensibly believe in the same God, people perceived Him in their own way, their perceptions reflecting their political ideologies and their own personal appearance,” the authors said.

Conclusion?

“When believers think about God, they perceive a divine mind who is suited to meet their needs and who looks like them. Even though American Christians express belief in a universal God, their perceptions of His face are not universally similar,” the study said.