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The Trouble with Seeing God as a White Man

New research links seeing God as a white man to race and gender bias.

Michelangelo/ Web Gallery of Art
Source: Michelangelo/ Web Gallery of Art

Steven Roberts went to an all-black church with a black female minister. Depictions of a white male God littered the church, and he wondered how seeing these images affected the congregants. Later when he became a Stanford professor, he answered his own question. His findings in a nutshell: “Basically, if you believe that a white man rules the heavens, you are more likely to believe that white men should rule on Earth.”

In Roberts's study "God as a White man: A Psychological Barrier to Conceptualizing Black People and Women As Leadership Worthy," he and his co-authors recruited 1,012 U.S. Christian participants, showed them a series of faces, and asked them which faces looked more God-like. Participants were then shown an additional 32 faces and asked to rate each on how much they looked like they'd fit a supervisory position. The more convinced participants were that God was White or male, the more likely they were to endorse white and male faces for supervisory positions. These results held up whether participants were black or white, male or female.

In light of Roberts's experience of being exposed to a white male God as a youngster in his church, he wondered if the biases he had uncovered were nurtured at a young age. He recruited children from Sunday schools and asked them to draw pictures of God, using a pack of 14 crayons. He then had adults who were blind to the purpose of the study rate the images on the extent to which they depicted someone white or male. Overall, the children saw God as more white than black and more male than female. The children were also shown 12 faces and asked which faces they thought looked like bosses. The whiter the children's depictions of God in their drawings, the more likely they were to rate white people as bosses.

To figure out whether perceiving God as a certain social identity group causes changes in people's perceptions of who is fit to lead, Roberts took his research one step further. He presented participants with a story of a faraway planet called Zombot where various fictional creatures lived and he manipulated which creature their God was. He then asked participants which creature should lead Zombot (e.g., make major decisions, occupy leadership, possess resources). He found that participants were more likely to endorse a particular type of creature for leadership when God was presented as that creature.

Roberts's findings suggest that it is important to be inclusive in the images we present of people in authority—religious or otherwise—because these depictions have real-world consequences for who we deem worthy of leadership. We're not doing so well at meeting this goal; when Roberts searched Google images for pictures of God, 72 percent presented God as a white man. There is some hope, though: The film Bruce Almighty douses us with a shred of progress since the movie led to 6 percent of the Google images being of a black man: Morgan Freeman.

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