In the News

God as a White Man | Steven O. Roberts

What do perceptions of God and the majority of US representatives have in common? White men.

In the U.S. imaginary, understandings of status, influence, and power are nearly synonymous with white male authority. While historic congressional elections across the country yielded the appointment of women of color including Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Hall, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, only 19% of congressional offices are held by people of color. The majority of seats are held by white men.

How do conceptions of religious authority figures influence our ideas about who is fit to hold power? In a recent CCSRE Faculty Seminar Series talk, Steven Roberts, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and co-director of the Social Cognition and Development Lab, presented new research on the conceptualization of God as a white man within U.S. society. Findings from six studies reveal that a cycle may exist between beliefs around heaven and earth that advantage White men while disadvantaging Blacks and women.

Roberts' research stems from the cognitive dissonance he experienced as a child gazing at mounted images of God as a white man, while attending his grandmothers church, which was 100% Black and lead by a Black woman pastor.

Religion and myth reinforce our understandings of status and societal structuring and are used to justify hierarchy. For example, the envisioning of a White male God in the socio-historical imaginary of the United States was used to justify the coercion and suppression of Native and African peoples during the colonial period. From these foundational ideas, Roberts sought to understand whether or not people truly regarded God as a White man and whether this belief contributes to hierarchization.

In order to analyze these trends, Roberts’ lab conducted a number of experimental studies.  The first set of studies used forced choice tasks and questionnaires to gauge whether or not participants believed that God was old or young, black or white, and male or female. These studies found that White christians conceptualize God as a White man. In a moment of reflection, Roberts acknowledged that the findings also surprisingly revealed that Black Christians conceptualized God as a non-White man and encouraged the audience to consider the potential theoretical and empirical reasons for this outcome.

Roberts built upon the above work in the second set of studies by asking respondents about their hiring preference in a scenario where they worked for a company that was looking for a new supervisor. The purpose of these studies was to understand the extent to which supernatural hierarchy beliefs informed practical decisions on who is fit to lead. The studies found that belief in God as a White man predicts perceiving blacks and women as less fit than white men for supervisory positions.

Roberts’ findings hold even among non-Christians. His final studies found that among Christian adults and atheist preschoolers a cyclical pattern emerged where beliefs about who created the universe predict beliefs about who rules society. Simultaneously, beliefs about who rules in society predict beliefs about who created the universe.

These findings unearth the possibility that our understandings of supernatural authority have disproportionately favored White men while disadvantaging Black Americans and women. From the genocide of native people to the transatlantic slave trade, history has shown us that collective narratives and myths that use power granted from a higher authority to justify our hierarchical beliefs have grave and violent consequence. As we examine the ways that religiosity have been used to substantiate the present-day suppression and violation of human rights in the United States, we must seriously consider Roberts’ findings and how they inform our understandings of the way that our belief systems may implicitly undergird our decision-making processes. In the wake of the recent election, as we consider the victories of women of color across the nation, we must consider what these victories could mean for shifting our current and future conceptions of power and status in the United States.

Kimya Loder

CCSRE Graduate Fellow

PhD Student in Sociology