A new study from PLOS One sheds light on the way people conceptualize God by exploring the metaphors people use when asked to describe God. According to the findings, people commonly use human imagery and power-related terms to describe God, with metaphors of God as power, human, and male.
The way people view and understand God has been widely studied by religion researchers. The assumption is that the way people think about God’s character has psychological repercussions. A research team wanted to contribute to this field of study by exploring people’s use of metaphors to conceptualize God.
God is an intangible concept that is challenging to put into words. In searching for ways to find meaning through God and to make sense of God, people likely refer to what they know of the physical world. In other words, they might use metaphors to turn an abstract concept into a concrete idea — for example, “God is light.”
“Metaphors are an under-appreciated tool that people use to understand the world. Most think that metaphors fancy up our literature, but they are much more. They help us to understand things that are hard to grasp. Most often these hard-to-grasp concepts are relatively abstract, such as our emotions or life,” explained study author Adam Fetterman, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Houston.
“Metaphors give these abstract concepts (e.g., anger) something concrete (e.g., the color red) to help them understand. One truly abstract concept is God. Theologically, God is unknowable, omniscient, and omnipotent. These are hard for people to understand, so they need to liken the God-concept to something they do know. This study was the first part of an ongoing project looking at the different metaphors people use to understand God and the outcomes of doing so.”
To systematically explore this, Fetterman and colleagues asked 2,923 undergraduate students from the United States to write a brief description of what God means to them. The sample was predominantly Christian. The students also completed a demographic questionnaire and reported their religious affiliation. The researchers then used three different types of analysis to code and interpret the responses.
First, four raters coded the students’ responses to identify any metaphors used to describe God. They found that the most frequently used metaphor was “God is Power.” Of note, this did not mean that participants used this exact expression, but rather that they used power-related words that fell under this metaphor category. For example, respondents may have used words like “almighty” and “omnipotent.” The study authors say that it was unsurprising that power imagery was so popular, given that most religions conceptualize God as having great power and having created all things. While the metaphor was commonly used across all religions, it was most frequently used among Christian respondents and less frequently used among students who described themselves as “spiritual.”
The metaphors of “God is Human” and “God is Male” were the next most popular, suggesting that people were imagining God as a human figure to help them make sense of the abstract concept of God. This was also unsurprising, as the image of God as a human male is reflected in many depictions of God within art and media, and God is referred to as “He” and “the Father” within Christian religions.
“The biggest takeaway from this study is that, while people vary in the metaphors they use to describe God (which is important in itself), there are some consistent patterns. God is most often described in terms of Power (e.g., creator, almighty), as Human or anthropomorphic (bearded man in the sky), and male (he, father),” Fetterman told PsyPost.
“Notably, from these categories, people seem to understand God in terms that are most familiar to them: The human. This is likely because our thinking is constrained to our bodies. That means the easiest way we can understand something like the God concept is to imagine some sort of human entity. This is way God’s actions are often described using human-like traits.”
Given the possibility that the raters may have misjudged certain metaphors, Fetterman and his team used two additional techniques to analyze the responses. One of these was a software tool that counted the percentage of words that fell under certain categories, allowing researchers to get an idea of the themes within participants’ responses. This process revealed that one of the most frequent categories was pronouns, which included words like “he” and “it.” This finding falls in line with the participants’ use of metaphors referring to God as human and male and suggests that respondents were thinking of God as a being with agency.
Finally, the researchers calculated word frequencies using a word cloud to reveal the most commonly used words (apart from stop words). Here, the most frequent word was “creator”, suggesting again that people were using tangible concepts to describe God. The words “power”, “father”, and “love” were also frequently used.
Overall, the findings illuminate the fact that people often use human imagery to describe God, and the results pave the way for future studies to explore how the use of certain metaphors to describe God might translate to psychological outcomes. For example, the study authors hypothesize that the metaphor of “God is human” might be associated with authoritarian and benevolent representations of God.
“The biggest caveat was that this study was conducted entirely in the United States and with a predominantly Christian sample. Even though evidence suggests that people’s conceptions of God are fairly universal (due, again, to the limits of our embodied cognition), more work is needed to see if these patterns show up in different religions and cultures,” Fetterman said.
“Interestingly, the fact that people use human-like metaphors to understand God, it is likely that they have someone human-like relationship with God. This is the type of work we are doing to follow up on this study. Further, the fact that there is some degree of variation in the metaphors people use to describe God may indicate that people may understand fundamentally different understandings of God, even within a religious denomination. We think this might explain why religion can be such a contentious topic.”
The study, “What shall we call God? An exploration of metaphors coded from descriptions of God from a large U.S. undergraduate sample”, was authored by Adam K. Fetterman, Nicholas D. Evans, Julie J. Exline, and Brian P. Meier.