Conservatives prefer an authoritarian God, liberals like younger, more feminine face, study says

Interesting and not surprising how preferences reflect values and ideologies:

Gone are the days when God was an old man up in the clouds, peering down with stern, aged eyes.

According to a new study, modern American Christians now picture God as a younger, cuter and more approachable guy who could just as easily be drinking a beer at the bar.

However, the tendency to group the apparent divine makeover with celebrities such Elon Musk and Ryan Gosling has left researcher Joshua Jackson shaking his head. Jackson stressed that the goal of the study was not to compile an absolute result but rather compare individual features that 511 American Christian participants chose out of more than 300 face samples, all constructed off an demographic average of the American face.

“The strength of the study is that the features people constantly collected aligned with their view of God and those are the features that you should compare,” he said.

On comparing the faces chosen by study participants, Jackson and his colleagues at University of North Carolina, were surprised to see a face ‘much more kinder and loving’ than the authoritarian old man painted on the Sistine Chapel, giving life to Adam.

Michaelangelo’s iconic painting of God giving life to Adam, on the 16th century Sistine Chapel.

Furthermore, comparing the study results with earlier studies that compared verbal descriptions of God, has Jackson and his colleagues revisiting the stereotypical notion of the old, bearded man altogether. “People were generating these benevolent, warm adjectives much earlier than the kind of authoritarian figure we see,” he said.

That’s not to say that the authoritarian description was thrown out of the mix altogether. Conservative participants still visualize a face that was relatively ‘masculine, older, more powerful and wealthier’, reflecting what the study called, their ‘motivation for a God who enforces order.’

Liberals, on the other hand, sought a God is socially tolerant and were therefore more lenient in their choices, picking faces that were younger, more feminine and more African-American than that of their political counterparts.

It all comes down to individual motivation, according to Jackson. “Some theory in research has argued that people’s views of the divine figures are related to their motivations,” he said. “And so people are more inclined to conceptualize a God that’s more suited to their needs.”

So, African-Americans chose someone who was marginally more black while Caucasians chose someone who was more white. People who perceived themselves as more attractive chose a better-looking God, fitting in with the researcher’s hypothesis that people would choose faces that matched their own.

Gender did not play a significant role in the choice of the divine. “It could be that people don’t naturally use their gender a reference point when they think of divine figures, compared to other physical features,” said Jackson.

Jackson said researchers were ‘surprised’ to not see a face that was more authoritarian.

“It could suggest, but not prove, that our view of God has been changing throughout history as this is naturally something people have definitely chosen,” he added.

Would researchers be able to expect similar results on surveying American Muslims, or a Chinese community? It’s hard to say. While it is possible to predict a face based on overall cultural motivations, Jackson does note that there will be ‘cultural differences that they won’t be able to account for, which can amplify across a geographical region’ and impact the results of their study.

Using the study composite comes with its own set of constraints as Jackson acknowledges that there are some features that have not been included in the base face. “We were never going to faces (in the study result) with a dramatic change, like the face of a brunette, or someone who has a beard.”

It is the first time that a study of this kind has used this method of ‘reverse correlation’, i.e., asking participants to choose randomly generated facial samples with subtle changes. While the method has been used for other purposes, i.e., to determine how participants visualize trustworthiness, previous studies on visualizing the divine have relied on using verbal adjectives.

Source: Conservatives prefer an authoritarian God, liberals like younger, more feminine face, study says

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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