That was shocking, says Roberts. It was also sobering evidence about how adults might reject or even be repulsed by information that challenges their long-established vision of God’s human form. To address racial inequities in leadership by asking people to rethink God’s skin color or gender might not be fruitful.

Addressing this issue early in a person’s life, when children are still forming their ideas about the world, might be the best way to disrupt the pattern of mental model making. “My belief is that kids don’t come into the world with this belief that there’s a white man floating in the sky. That’s something you learn,” says Roberts, who also teaches a popular undergraduate class called How to Make a Racist. “Nobody enters into the world wanting to believe that some people are more deserving or better than others; that’s something that people learn and pick up on the way, and that has consequences,” he says.

The study offers “clear evidence to suggest that if kids don’t have that belief in mind, they’re not going to make that inference that whoever God is, whoever shares that identity on Earth is actually the best,” he continues. “But the problem is: how do we, in practice, prevent them from getting that concept?”

“Maybe with this research and other work, teachers, educators, everyone can start to think: How can we prevent those things being learned? How do we prevent ourselves from even teaching those things? How do we change?”

Simon also argues for rethinking the religious imagery children are exposed to in the same way that Americans are now questioning Confederate symbols. “A Confederate statue conveys a certain meaning, and if people think that they should come down based on what they represent, then why aren’t we having that same conversation about statues and images of Jesus being portrayed as white?” he asks. “We’re not ready as a society to have that conversation, but it’s one that should be had, because—and I say this without any reservation—I think images of Christ portrayed as white are white supremacy in plain sight.”

The members of Roberts’ Social Concepts Lab are also studying interracial relationships and racism within science. The findings of their work, Roberts says, doesn’t lay blame for racist outcomes with one group or even bad intentions. “Nobody is saying that the church is bad or this kind of relationship is bad,” he explains, “We’re just saying, ‘Hey look, race and racism in our images and our culture has implications for how we behave. It has implications for who we elect to leadership positions as implications for who we fall in love with.”

Black ministers who have been talking for decades about how damaging it is to portray God as white have written to Roberts with notes of gratitude. “They’ve been trying to preach to their congregations and to people about how these images can be damaging,” he says, “but no one ever believed them.” Now they have the data as proof.

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