The face of God is in the eye of the beholder, researchers say

University of North Carolina psychologists found that most Christians think God looks a lot like them — and he's not a she.

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By Corky Siemaszko

In the Grammy-nominated 1995 pop song “One of Us,” singer Joan Osborne posed a question for the ages: If God had a face, what would it look like?

Now, thanks to team of psychologists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, we may have an answer: To most Christians, he looks like a young white dude.

“From Michelangelo to Monty Python, popular illustrations have consistently shown God as an old and august white-bearded Caucasian man,” the researchers wrote in their study.

Michelangelo's fresco "La Creazione" ("The Creation") on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.Plinio Lepri / AP file

But when the psychologists had a sample of 511 Americans — 330 men, 181 women, 26 percent black, 74 percent Caucasian — look through hundreds of pairs of faces, the majority chose a much younger and much friendlier version of the Almighty.

“Together, these results help paint a picture of an American God who may not resemble scriptural or historical depictions,” the researchers wrote. “The face of the modern American God appeared kinder and more approachable than the God of the Sistine Chapel, perhaps reflecting different cultural concerns of the 16th century versus today.”

It’s still, however, a white face.

“People tend to believe in a God that looks like them,” Professor Kurt Gray, the study’s senior author, told NBC News. “And most of the people who took part were male and white."

What surprised the researchers, however, was that most of the women thought the Almighty was male, and “even many black Americans saw God as white … and with twinkling eyes, “ said Gray.

The face of God, according to older American Christians asked in a study.Joshua Jackson / Courtesy UNC Chapel Hill

“I think it’s because for millennia Christians have been led to think of God as male and white,” Gray said. “It’s changing a little now, but the church hierarchies are still mostly male and mostly white. In the Catholic Church, for example, the Pope is male and the priests are still only male.”

The participants were demographically diverse — 153 from the South, 143 from the Midwest, 124 from the Northeast, and 91 from the West, according to the study.

Politics also played a role in people’s perceptions of God, the researchers found.

Conservatives were more likely to see God as white and powerful. Liberals saw God as younger and loving.

“These biases might have stemmed from the type of societies that liberals and conservatives want,” Joshua Conrad Jackson, the study’s lead author, told the UNC website. “Past research shows that conservatives are more motivated than liberals to live in a well-ordered society, one that would be best regulated by a powerful God. On the other hand, liberals are more motivated to live in a tolerant society, which would be better regulated by a loving God.”

So there are variations to the face of God — even among adherents to the same religion.

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