This is what God's face looks like, according to American Christians

Is God an old white guy with a majestic, flowing beard? A new study has a surprise for you.

What does God look like? In our culture, we often see images of an older white man with a flowing beard. This image has been remarkably consistent and can be found in works from Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam to The Simpsons.


But, if you pressed them, how many people would say that is who they think of when they pray?  

Luckily for us, new research shows us precisely what American Christians think God looks like. 

In a study done at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, researchers Joshua Jackson, Neil Hester, and Kurt Gray had 511 American Christians go through images of composite faces and rank them on which looked the most like God as they imagined him. They then combined the winners to create the image that was deemed “most God-like” by their subjects.

Behold the face of the American God.   

The Almighty, pictured on the left, and his opposite. (Jackson et al.)

The face on the left is the composite of the "most Godlike" faces. The face on the right consists of the images which were the least Godlike. 

It was also pointed out in this article that the face on the left, which is a somewhat generic Caucasian one, resembles Elon Musk.

The research team then broke the study subjects into groups based on their race, age, perceived attractiveness, and political leanings and made composite images of their results. The face of God changes rather dramatically based on who is looking.

Notice the differences between God as seen by the young and old. 

Hmm...no egotism here at all. (Jackson et al.) 

This is how liberals and conservatives see God.  First what freedom means, then language, now what God looks like? The left and right really can't agree on anything! (Jackson et al.)

But, why? Why are the images so different?

The results show that people think God looks like them. People were extra egotistical about their age and perceived attractiveness, and their God reflects it. 

The results also show that people also tend to give God features that align with them mentally. In the above image of God as seen by Liberals and Conservatives, the traits that both sides desire were manifest. The conservative God is older, more masculine, and more powerful; while the Liberal’s god is more feminine and loving.

As the scientists explained:

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.

In some cases, we imagine God as the hero needed to solve our problems. As the researchers put it:  

People who lack control in their lives tend to see God as more powerful and influential as a form of compensatory control. People who feel threatened by intergroup conflict conceptualize God as more authoritarian and punitive, since this kind of God could better regulate a society at war…. And people with a strong need for a secure attachment tend to view God as more loving to provide themselves with an attachment figure. Together, these perspectives suggest that people ascribe traits to God that help fulfill salient motivations. 

This tendency to manifest mental traits in imagined physical features goes beyond images of God. The authors of the study make references to other research that shows how we project our assumptions about people’s minds onto their faces:

Past research on face perception supports the idea that when people visualize faces, these faces reflect assumptions about the minds of those who wear them. For example, when people visualize welfare recipients (versus non-recipients), they view them as having dull eyes to reflect their perceived lack of mental acuity, and when people visualize atheists (vs. non-atheists) they view them as having smaller eyes and narrow chins to reflect their perceived lack of honesty.

How has the internet taken the news?

Reply tweets on co-author Kurt Gray’s feed ranged from surprise to pedantic critiques of the terms used in the study. Most press coverage has been more positive, exploring the motivations of the different groups that influence how they picture the Almighty, while also pointing out how bland the composite image of God is.

What doesn’t this study tell us?

The study only included American Christians, so we don’t know how Americans of other faiths view God or how Christians of other nations do. While the researchers had nine different dimensions of variances to study in both the participants and their view of God, there is no reason to think their list is exhaustive. 

Lastly, while the test subjects represented a broad swath of American society, there was no attempt to break them down into groups based on denomination; the chances that different dominations have wildly differing notions of God is low, but still an exciting aspect for future study.

So, there you have it. Americans think God looks like them and has the traits they like to see. While this egotism might seem uniquely American, it is just the continuation of thousands of years of projection on our part. For as the ancient Greeks gave their gods power over the natural world, strong physiques, and an all too human nature, we Americans have made also made God into a mix of what we are and what we would like to be.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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