People around the world believe in countless gods that vary considerably in how they are conceptualized. These diverse representations of gods can shape people’s convictions about causality, morality, and the nature of life and death. They also present a theoretical puzzle: how did people with the same cognitive capacities develop such varied religious beliefs? We explore this puzzle by cataloguing the many ways that gods vary across religions, and examining how people within religions differ in their representations of gods. This approach could advance the science of religion by revealing the traits that people usually ascribe to their gods, and the broad dimensions on which god representations vary.
Our multi-method project will first collect and code ethnographic accounts of diverse gods. We will then use statistical data-reduction techniques to reveal the latent dimensions in representations of gods. This process will mirror the pioneering work of personality psychologists who catalogued and analyzed traits used to describe people. Next, we will develop and validate a scale to capture these dimensions, drawing inspiration from past research on mind perception and the psychology of religion. Finally, we will use our scale in a cross-cultural survey that examines how people from many different societies and religions represent their gods.
This research will produce two central outputs: an open-access database of gods’ traits (group-level), a cross-cultural dataset of god representations linked with people’s personal attitudes and collective concerns (individual-level). These outputs will quantify differences in god representations—helping to make sense of broader cultural differences, synthesize past work on religious belief, and serve as a valuable resource for future research.