Among the world’s many religions, it’s pretty common to find that believers worship a god or gods which seem to resemble their own culture. While the existence of deities is debated ad infinitum, the religions that worship them are purely social constructions and, as such, are often subject to the biases and beliefs of those who belong to them. While some religions have rather rigid or monolithic depictions of their supreme beings, others offer some leeway in terms of how their god or gods are depicted.
The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, for instance, states that while their deity is most often depicted as “a tangle of spaghetti with many Noodly Appendages, flanked by two delicious meatballs, and with a pair of googly eyes upon stalks,” this common depiction is “merely a guess, of course, as the FSM is understandably invisible to all known forms of scientific detection.”
Similarly, in one of the world’s largest religions, Christianity, depictions of God can vary somewhat due to the fact that the only descriptions of God found in the Bible are rather vague. The book of Genesis famously states that “God created man in his own image,” while Revelation 1:12-15 offers the following description of the Christian god:
Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters.
So does that mean God is an old man with bronze feet, flaming eyes, and a bushy white beard? While that seems to be one of the more common depictions in popular culture, a team of psychologists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill set out to determine how modern Christians visualize their lord and savoir. For their study, the team gathered 511 American-born Christians and showed them hundreds of pairs of randomly-generated faces. From those pairs, participants were asked to select one they felt most accurately matched how they imagined God to look. And the survey says...
Definitely not an old man with a bushy beard and metal hobbit feet. It turns out most of the participants feel God is a clean-shaven younger Anglo-Saxon-looking fellow with short, dark hair who looks like he works at an Apple store. Or, as Vice’s Motherboard sums it up, the God revealed by this study looks like “a young white dude who looks like he plays the acoustic guitar” and “a combination of every youth pastor” ever (I think it looks like Elon Musk. Coincidence?). Even among female participants, the image of God was overwhelmingly male. Check out the publication to see the composite images the study produced from their results.
It would be interesting to see how the same task might play out among different populations. The undergraduate student body at UNC Chapel Hill is 62% white, but only 41.2% male. “People’s tendency to believe in a God that looks like them is consistent with an egocentric bias,” says UNC psychologist Kurt Gray, the study’s senior author. “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.”
Is this the true face of God, or does this merely reflect the tendency of humans to see themselves in their supreme beings? Why is it that we always seem to believe our deities will resemble us? While the skeptic in me would argue that this is because, again, our religions are our own creations, it makes you wonder about panspermia theories. Could these beliefs an anthropomorphic deities lend credence to theories that humankind was placed on Earth by an advanced race of humanoids from elsewhere in the Universe?
Probably not, but it's worth the thought experiment. We're likely just a tiny part of a natural cycle of chemical decay put into motion by an exploding star billions of years ago. Embrace it.