Men Think God Is A Man
Science says the way you imagine the Lord Almighty influences your views on race and gender
I have a dim memory of a punchline that went, “First of all, she’s black.”
The joke was likely told to me when I was in high school by another white kid. This was long ago when boys told jokes to each other rather than sharing outrageous memes. I forget the joke itself but it was about a man who had died, came back, and claimed he met God.
“First of all, she’s black.”
The joke is God wasn’t a man and he wasn’t white. This was funny to a couple of white teenage boys because that’s preposterous. God is an old white man, like a wizard.
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There was a movie series in the ’80s that I’m pretty certain no one reading this will remember. It’s not even worth describing except to say the premise was God was played by a beloved, ancient, cigar-smoking comedian who was good as smacking his lips and delivering zingers. I watched those cheesy comedies and nodded along: God was an old white man.
When I first saw Morgan Freeman as God in the 2003 Jim Carrey comedy Bruce Almighty I remember thinking what a fine God that dignified African American actor made. At the time, Freeman’s casting was both inspired and subversive. Of course, this respected actor would make an excellent supreme being — and straight-faced comedic foil.
This was novel casting though. It was one joke in a comedy about a white man cursed with the powers of God. I thought it was hilarious when Alanis Morissette showed up as God in Kevin Smith’s sacrilegious action-fantasy Dogma.
Anyway, I’ve learned this week that I have always thought of the all-powerful Divine Being as a cross between Santa Claus and a Jedi. A nice white man with a white beard who wears comfortable robes. The most virulent opinions are the ones you never question.
I’ve always thought this because I’ve been raised to believe the heavens and Earth are run by people who look just like me.
A study from earlier this year concluded what should be evident: that the way people imagine God influences how they view race and gender. A series of studies published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that white people picture God as an old white man.
And because of that, white people are vulnerable to thinking all leaders — be they celestial or mortal — should look alike. If you’re a white man whose default image of the Lord is another white man, then your default image for a boss or a judge or president will likely be a white man, too.
Of course, a white boy would think the Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth, looks like a white man. Little boys are wrong about all sorts of things.
These researchers also discovered that black people imagine a black God. But since it took a Jim Carrey comedy for me to seriously consider a God who doesn’t look like a Republican grandpa, I’m going to write for my benefit and the benefit of other white men. After all, the country is run by white men. The Fortune 500 is basically a country club. The Senate? A club of old white men who think they’re God.
The study found that if you think of God as a certain race and gender you will likely gravitate to leaders who are that race and gender. That means if you pray to an imaginary white dude you’re likely to vote for a real-life white dude, regardless of his qualifications.
The study itself was pretty amusing: participants were told a story about a make-believe planet named Zombot. This fake planet is populated by Hibbles and Glerks, two species who both worship a god named Liakbor. It was generally accepted by Hibbles and Glerks that Liakbor was a Hibble. Later, when asked which group should lead the planet Zombot, study participants concluded the Hibbles should be in charge. Other participants were told the Zombot god was a Glerk and they later decided that Glerks made the best leaders.
Researchers found evidence of divine bias outside of their study, too. When they searched for ‘God’ in Google and discovered that 87.5% of searches depicted a white person, 74% a man, and 72% a white man. The racial makeup of America’s actual leadership is reflected in these search results.
The researchers concluded that the only way to fight these biases was to educate people, especially children. This, again, makes sense. The way I have been raised to think about race actually stunted my imagination.
“The remedy seems to be to prevent children from even acquiring the God equals white male association,” writes study lead and Stanford psychology professor Steven Roberts. “That is going to be a super difficult task because that image is pervasive and passionately defended. It really is a difficult problem and even some of the well-intentioned ministers I work with are scratching their heads as to how to fix it.”
This makes sense to me.
When I was a little boy I was convinced the elderly priest who led Mass was actually God. I remember him as a tall, elegant white man with battleship grey hair draped in golden robes. It just made little boy sense that God lived in God’s house.
I don’t believe in God, or any omnipotent cosmic intelligence, anymore. The universe isn’t run by a graybeard sitting on a throne made from clouds. I don’t want to get into an argument about biblical literalism. I have no problem if you actually believe God made man in His image. But if He did exist I just don’t think he looks like Gandalf.
I hope there’s a future when two white boys will laugh at a joke that ends with “First of all, he’s white.”