Creation of Adam
Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam," in which God (top right) is depicted as a stern, white-bearded manCreative Commons via PLOS one

How people perceive their deity? It changes depending on their political and social standing, with conservatives and liberals having a vastly different view of what "God" would look like. While some religions have clear-cut images on what their Gods look like, the idea of a Christian God has been open to interpretation to art and literature.

The depiction of a God figure has almost always been an old Caucasian gentleman with a white beard. This includes every description from Michaelangelo's Creation of Adam to Monty Python's God in the Holy Grail, notes a study published in the peer-reviewed journal- Public Library of Science (PLOS) one.

Is that really how people see God? This was a question that researchers wanted to find out. The study revealed that to some, "God" could come across as lot younger, more feminine, and less white than classical art and literature suggests.

This study used a new technique to see exactly what people thought God looked like to them. A face communicates both psychological and physical information about a person, explain the researchers. It can also be seen as how people perceive the higher power to be in terms of what kind of mind this God figure has. By demonstrating how people of the same religion see the same God, it can shape their own understanding of the divine being, it said.

Researchers started off the study noting that the Christian scriptures do not really have any set description of God, apart from saying that the almighty is a non-human, spirit.

How do people visualise a face?

Past studies have revealed that face perception happens as an extension of a certain set of assumptions about the mind of the person whose face is being imagined. An example provided by the researchers is of a person in poverty and one of the features often mentioned is dull eyes. This is because there is an assumption that people who are in abject poverty lack mental acuity. Similarly, when a person is asked to think of an average atheist- small eyes and narrow chins are often quoted- meaning they are thought of as not being too honest in their ways.

Similarly, believers of God could possibly see a face that is smiling, because the almighty is often seen as an all-loving, powerful being.

To find out what God's face would look like, researchers took samples from a large group of American Christians. The study was divided between self-professed liberals and conservatives. Conservatives see God as an authority figure, maximising social regulation, and enforcing the law.

God's Face
Aggregates of the images that liberal participants (left panel) and conservative participants (right panel) associated with how they viewed GodPLOS one

Liberals on the other hand, focus on societal tolerance, inter-group harmony, and social justice. This could be why liberals see a younger, kinder, more feminine God that encourages tolerance rather than an old, stern, man who is interested more in maintaining order than anything else.