The publication of this lecture is under permission of the author.
Further use only under permission of the author.

Helmut Hanisch

Children’s and Young People’s Drawings of God

This lecture was given at the University of Gloucestershire on October 21, 2002

Studies on the image of God
Anthropomorphic drawings of religious children
Symbolic drawings of religious children
Anthropomorphic drawings on non-religious children
Symbolic drawings of non-religious children

1. Introduction

After the reunification of Germany in 1990 the unique chance to answer the following question arose: Are there any basic differences between the images of God of children and young people who grow up in a religious environment and those who grow up in a non-religious or atheist context. If there aren’t any differences to be observed, then it would be possible to conclude, that the development of the images of God follow inner psychological laws. If there are differences to be observed we may conclude that they have to do with the specific social context or environment children and young people grow up in.

To answer this question I chose two basically different test groups and asked them to draw pictures of God. One group included 1471 children and adolescents aged 7 to 16, who grew up in a church district in Southern Germany. In contrast to many other regions in West Germany here you find a general intact religious milieu. In many families traditional forms of religious education are practiced. The Christian tradition is passed on to the next generation which includes the narration of biblical stories, the celebration of Christian holidays and personal prayer. From 3 years of age on children attend parochial kindergartens run by the Protestant or the Catholic Church.  Many children attend Sunday school and a remarkable number of adolescents go to church services on a regular basis. Furthermore all the children and adolescents take Christian education classes in the public schools and take part in confirmation classes over a period of two years. On top of this, very often the young people take part in church run programs for children and young people. This religious milieu guarantees a religious socialization and creates unproblematic conditions for Christian education within the families, schools and parishes.

In contrast to this test group I chose a second group in a non-religious environment, which is typical for East Germany. To give you a rough idea what this means, let me roughly describe the religious situation in East Germany before and after the political change in 1990.

All over East Germany the church membership was and still is less than 27 percent. In some regions, especially in big cities, it is less than 10 percent. In comparison to this, the average church membership in West Germany is about 90 percent. Not only the church membership is very low in East Germany, religion does not play any role in every day life whatsoever. People are just not interested in religious matters and very often show an indifferent or even hostile attitude towards religion. This is the result of a forty year long propagandistic campaign against religion in former East Germany. The Marxist ideology did not allow any form of religion. Remember Marx’s famous saying: “Religion is the opium of the people”. In his ideology, religion prevents social progress and therefore all forms of religion were condemned. In East Germany, because of this theory, people were hampered in their practice of religion. If they continued to do so they had to suffer all kinds of harassment by officials of the communist party and very often they were excluded from academic or professional careers. Very many religiously oriented people, the number goes into one hundred thousands,  fled to West Germany especially in the Fifties and Sixties or left the church and regarded religion as unenlightened nonsense following the official Marxist propaganda.

This is the religious – or better – non-religious background of the second test group. The 1,187 children and adolescents, between the ages of 7 and 16, came predominantly from Leipzig and Dresden. They grew up in second or third generation families, having no ties to a church or church life and show - generally speaking - no interest in religion at all. In other words:  They are religiously indifferent or have developed a hostile attitude towards religion in correspondence with the official anti-religion and anti-church doctrine of the Communist Party. In this type of family questions about religion are not discussed. In most of the families, in which the young people grew up, belief in God or a transcendent being is vehemently rejected.

The young people of both test groups drew their images of God between May and October 1992. The children and adolescents in Southern Germany did this during their classes in Christian education. The participants of the East German group did their drawings at school during other classes.

Two critical questions should be asked before I continue with the presentation of my study:

1. Is it, out of a theological point of view, acceptable to ask children and adolescents to draw pictures of God, when we read in the bible in Exodus 20, 4 “You shall not make yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth…”?

2. Can young people who were brought up without any religion, even have an image of God which they are able to draw?

Ad 1) Referring to the first question it can be said, that the biblical banning of graven images refers to a cultic background. Especially during the time of the exile, images of Jahwe were created, which were adored by the Israelites. They drew devotional images of Jahwe on the walls of the pilgrim stations and scratched them on their seals.1 When we ask young people today to draw their images of God the intention is not to create devotional images. The only purpose of the assignment to draw pictures of God is to find out what ideas of God children and young people have. This knowledge enables us to refer to these images when we teach Christian education. It may also be noted that the Bible itself gives us many examples of images of God. From this we can conclude that for the human being it is fundamentally impossible to think about God without imagining certain pictures.

Ad 2) Let me turn now to the second question. I asked if young people who have not received any kind of religious education in general develop images of God. This question can be answered with the findings of the American psychoanalyst Ana Maria Rizzuto.2 She claims that in a very early age every child begins to form its image of God through parental messages about God. The image of God gets a clearer shape when the child begins to create so called fantasy companions, which help the child till adolescence to master inner conflicts. Amongst others, the fantasy companions can take over the role of a scapegoat, which allows the child to repulse negative impulses or they can help the child to strengthen their feelings of omnipotence or they can become caring companions of the lonely, neglected or rejected child.

Rizzuto claims that every child – no matter if it was brought up in a religious or unreligious way – creates God as a fantasy companion, whose existence is formed from the child’s personal experience with its parents and what the child learns about God in the environment the child grows up in. Nothing can be predicted on how the child will use the information which it gets about God. This means that no general statements can be made about the childlike image about God and its further development. For some children God may become very meaningful, for others God might have an evil, destructive character, for some he might not be of any importance at all.

Returning to our question: From what Rizzuto states we can conclude that every child which grows up in the Western world develops an image of God, notwithstanding the fact if the child was brought up in a religious way or not. Yet we cannot predict what positive or negative emotions a child will project into its own and very private image of God. On this basis we expect that all children and adolescents from East Germany who took part in our study will be able to draw a picture of God which represents the image of God those young people have.

Studies on the image of God

Until now there have been only a few studies with children and adolescents which deal with the development of the image of God. Before I talk about the results of my study I would like to give you the results of three of these studies which were performed in a similar way as the study I carried out.

In 1944 the American Ernest Harms carried out a comprehensive study.3 He asked more than 4000 children and adolescents to draw their images of God. The youngest of the participants were 3 years old, the oldest 18. He found out that the images he received from his test group could be divided in three groups.

The images of the 3 to 6 year old children he assigned to the “fairy tale stage”. Children who belong to this stage draw God as a king or father of all children, with a beard, who lives in a golden house in the clouds. God is being glorified by the children as the highest being.

The images of the 7 to 12 year old children he assigned to the “realistic stage”. Typical for this stage is that children evidently turn to reality and derive their ideas of God from the religion experienced in their environment. To depict God they draw a crucifix, a priest or Jesus. Some draw God as a human being, but God does not appear as a fairy tale figure anymore but rather realistically as a person who has influence in human life. The children express this in their drawings by drawing God helping people and guarding over them and the events on earth.

The images of the 13 to 18 year old adolescents he sums up under the headword “individualistic stage”. He divides this stage into three groups. The members of the first group draw God according to their individual religious backgrounds. The drawings show representations of the crucifix, of the Madonna, of a gate to heaven, angels, scenes out of the synagogue, representations of Moses, the burning bush and so forth. Ernest Harms concludes that this group evidently has no religious fantasy therefore they take over traditional religious patterns and use them in their drawings.

The members of the second group use abstract representations. For example they draw God as a sunrise or as light. Some use traditional religious symbols such as the eye within a triangle or just the triangle or the tetra gram. According to Harms they use these symbols as an expression of their personal religious belief.

The members of a third group fall back on religious images which have their origin in ancient Egyptian or Persian mythology. In this connection Harms points out, that adolescents who use these images have never dealt with that kind of mythology. Evidently those images are results of dreams and can be interpreted as archetypes.

A second study goes back to 1980. The German religious educator Hermann Siegenthaler asked 350 children and adolescents who were 5 to 16 years old to draw their picture of God.4 He found out that the 5 to 8 year old children drew God preferably as creator, protector and guardian of mankind. In their imagination God lives in heaven which is identical for them with the sky. Because of this they have a problem: How can God play an active role on earth since he is in the sky? To allow God to interact with the earth the children invent all kinds of means of mediation: for example angels, which have the task to execute what God tells them to do; ladders on which God can go down to the earth; roads which connect the earth and the sky or a rainbow on which God can go up and down. On top of this many drawings show God with binoculars which help him to see what is happening on Earth.

Similar to the findings of Harms, Siegenthaler summarizes that children at the age of 8 and 9 years turn to reality. They preferably draw cult objects or they depict God as a priest. At the same time they pick up wide spread religious symbols. They especially use the eye of God and the hand as symbols.

The 10 to 12 year old children tend to draw God with different characteristics. God is the creator, the judge or the protector. Adolescents, 13 years and older, show a certain preference to draw God in an abstract manner using abstract symbols such as a light at the end of a tunnel, the sun or sunrays from heaven.

Similar to Harms’ study the study made by Siegenthaler shows a recognizable line of development of the images of God which children and adolescents have. In the lower age groups the depictions show God as a human being. Scientifically speaking the depictions are anthropomorphic. The older the children get the more often they use abstract or symbolic instead of anthropomorphic representations.

Anton Bucher, a Swiss professor for Christian education in Salzburg, was very much interested in the transition from anthropomorphic to symbolic representations.5 In two studies he asked children aged 8 to 11 and 8 to 12 years to draw their image of God. He found out that with growing age children depict God no longer as a human being, but symbolically as nature, light, church, a triangle or as relationship between people.

Keeping these three studies in mind, we have to ask if the presented results are also valid for the drawings of God which I received from the participants of my study. To be able to answer this question I will first of all concentrate on the drawings of the children and adolescents of the first test group which included young people from Southern Germany who were brought up religiously. I will show you some of the drawings so that you can get an optical impression of what the young people had in mind when they drew their images of God. After that I will deal with the question of the development of the image of God on the basis of the distinction between anthropomorphic and symbolical representations. Referring to the anthropomorphic representations I will ask in what form God is depicted. Children who draw God in this fashion have a fundamental problem: How can they depict God in a way that he cannot be mixed up with a human being? They solve this problem using specific characteristics or attributes, which emphasize the difference between God and human beings. I will point out these attributes later. Finally I will deal with the symbolic representations. The questions will be: From what age do they become predominant and what themes do they include?

3.  Presentation of the results

What are the drawings of the religious children and adolescents like?

girl, 7 years old

boy, 7 years old

boy, 8 years old

boy, 8 years old

girl, 8 years old

girl, 9 years old

boy, 9 years old

girl, 9 years old

boy, 9 years old

boy, 10 years old

girl, 11 years old

girl, 11 years old

girl, 11 years old

boy, 12 years old

boy, 12 years old

boy, 16 years old

What can we say about the development of the drawings of the religious children and adolescents?

When we look at this table we arrive at the following conclusions:

  • With increasing age the anthropomorphic representations are less frequent. In other words: The older the participants of our study are, the less often they choose an anthropomorphic representation of God.
  • The decrease in numbers does not show a steady decline. After the 9th, 13th and 15th year of age there you find a stronger decline. The question is, are there reasons for this? We can assume that the image of God of the 10 year old is less influenced by the image of their parents than in earlier years. The changes after the 13th year of life can be explained by the restructuring of thinking. According to Piaget after the 12th year of age in general young people do not think in a concrete operational mode but rather in a formal operational way. After the 15th year of age – which means after confirmation classes and confirmation – we can presume that childlike images of God are given up in favor of more abstract or symbolic representations.
  • The clear increase of anthropomorphic drawings with the nine year old boys is conspicuous. This can be explained with the findings of James Fowler, the American psychologist of religion, who found out that children – and evidently this is mainly true with boys at this age – are able to take over the position of other people. Referring to God that means that they actually depict in a very concrete way what they think God might do. Evidently younger boys are not able to do that. Their images of God are less differentiated and much more fairy tale like. My guess is that girls develop the ability to take over the perspective of other persons at an earlier age. But this is only a guess which has to be verified through further research.
  • Finally we have to observe that more boys than girls draw anthropomorphic pictures of God. Girls more often choose a symbolic representation of God than boys do. I will deal with this phenomenon later when I discuss the symbolic representations of God.

Referring to the general development of drawing, studies show that children – the older they get – prefer abstract to realistic drawings. The reason for this is that they discover that they don’t have a sufficient talent to draw exact realistic pictures therefore they prefer to draw in an abstract manner. Evidently this finding does not apply to the images of God which young people have. After all, 20 percent of the 16 year old participants still draw God in a human shape.

To sum up our statistics: Altogether, 58 percent of the children and young people who are brought up religiously draw God anthropomorphic.

We have to ask in what form the religious children and young people depicted God? When we look through the drawings we find four different themes: God as a man, God as a ghost, God as a face, or God as a woman.

God as a man. Most often the young people chose to draw God as a man. Why young people choose to draw God as a man can be explained with the fact that religion is mediated through the father images. In this context we have to remember that Sigmund Freud called God the Super-father. Altogether 75 percent who draw God in an anthropomorphic fashion depict God as a man.

Far less children and adolescents depicted God as a ghost. Only 16 percent chose this kind of representation. Why do children and adolescents choose this motive? One explanation is, they know that God is invisible and therefore cannot be drawn as a real being. They drew – as we have seen – God as a human being with dotted lines or they drew a cloud with a face or an eerie being.

6 percent of the young people drew God simply as a face. Especially the 16 year old religious participants in our study did so. My explanation is that they draw a face because they know that God cannot be depicted as a human being and yet they don’t have any idea how to draw God otherwise. Some of the 16 year old boys and girls who drew God as a face admitted that God may have many different faces. Very often they also wrote the word "God" on their drawing. Evidently they want to make sure that the person who looks at their picture knows that the face is meant to be God.

Only 3 percent of the religious young people drew God as a woman. Interestingly enough preferably the 7 year old girls used this kind of image. There is a psychological explanation for this which was pointed out by the American Christian educator David Heller.6 With him we can assume that the 7 year old girls project themselves into their drawings. Maybe they want to emphasize that God loves them or that they receive God’s attention. Boys might do the same, but they will draw a male person so that the difference between the genders does not become evident.

The next question, we have to deal with, is: What characteristics or attributes did the religious young people use who drew God in an anthropomorphic fashion to emphasize that God was being depicted and not a normal human being.

God with a beard: The most frequent attribute is the beard. Statistically, more girls than boys used it. Evidently they wanted to point out two things: First, the age of God. Their understanding is that God must be very old. Since he created the world he must be older than the world. Second, the beard is a sign of astuteness and wisdom.

God in clouds. Up to the 14th year of age the religious young people have the imagination that God has his home in the clouds. One of the reasons for this lies in the German language. In German we do not differentiate between heaven and sky. The only word we use is sky, which also can mean heaven. So the language itself leads to a false connotation when it comes to the religious meaning of the German word "Himmel". Let me give you one comment which a girl wrote on the back of her drawing:

“I imagine God sitting on a cloud. He can see everything from his cloud, what is happening on Earth. He also hears our prayers and our wishes. When we write a test at school then I often pray that I will get a good grade.”

God and the earth. Starting at the age of 9 up to the age of 15 the religious young people show a connection between God and the earth. Two comments in this regard:

An eleven year old girl writes:

“In comparison to the earth God is a giant. He always is connected to the earth.”

A twelve year old boy states:

“I want to hint in my picture that God holds the earth in a so-called protective wall and that the people who live here don’t get injured. But some countries suffer from hunger or war. Certainly God would like to prevent this, but until now he has not been successful doing so.”

What the boy observes in every day life does not go along with his idea of an almighty God. God is willing to prevent evil but evidently he is unable to achieve everything, but for this boy there is hope that eventually God will be successful.

God with a halo. Nearly 20 percent of all religious participants between 9 and 14 years of age draw God with a halo. They more than likely get this idea from Christian art.

God helping and protecting. 119 young people, which means 15 percent of those who draw God in an anthropomorphic fashion, show God helping or protecting people. For example, God is curing a sick person or he is holding his hands protectively above a person who is lying on the ground.

An eleven year old boy writes:

“God helps all people, he even helps those who are not nice to him (in my picture he is helping a man who fell into a pit).”

And a 16 year old boy:

“God helps people to overcome their problems. He is everywhere in our hearts. He is powerful.”

The young people’s trust in God seems unbroken. In the last statement we find a new idea. God does not only intervene in the external events on earth, he is also present in the hearts of people to help them solve and overcome their personal problems.

When we sum up the different aspects of the anthropomorphic representations of God we can construct the following image of God:

  • God is located in the sky (41 %).
  • Since he created the world, he must be very old. At the same time he is very prudent and wise. The beard underlines this statement (49 %).
  • He is holding the earth in his hand or the earth is a part of him (22 %). These pictures show his connection to the earth and very often they show how big God is in relation to the earth.
  • God approaches human beings with open arms and protects and helps them (15 %).

Now let’s turn to the symbolic pictures of God.

What symbols did the religious young people choose for God?

girl, 15 years old

girl, 14 years old

girl, 15 years old

girl, 15 years old

boy, 14 years old

girl, 13 years old

boy, 14 years old

girl, 15 years old

The table shows the following distinctive features:

  • Starting at the age of 8, the number of the young people who didn’t draw God in an anthropomorphic but in a symbolic fashion increased.
  • Significantly more girls concentrate on this kind of representation. What is the explanation for this? One of the reasons could be that girls are in general much more interested in religious matters than boys. Taking this for granted, we could conclude that girls deal with God much more reflectively than boys and this evidently leads to symbolic representations. But this assumption is wrong because the girls of our second test group also draw more symbolic pictures than the boys. One explanation could be that girls experience more social conflicts than boys and are challenged to master them. To avoid any possible conflicts in regard to their relationship to God they prefer symbolic representations because they are open for interpretation. Another explanation could be that symbolic representations of girls can be understood as a way to overcome the father image of God. It would be interesting to know what explanations you suggest. We will be able to discuss this later on.

What symbols did the religious young people choose for God?

“God holds the world and the people in his hand.” (boy, 12 years old)

“God holds all people in his hand, but very often we don’t do what he likes (war).” (girl, 13 years old)

“I cannot fall any deeper than in God’s hollow hand.” (boy, 14 years old)

What can be said in general about the pictures of the religious young people?

The representations they chose, show predominantly a loving, caring God who is turning to human beings and wants to be with them and help them. When we take into account the pictures and the comments which some of the young people wrote on their pictures, we can conclude that their images of God are mostly shaped by the religious education in their families, at school and in the parishes. Both the anthropomorphic and the symbolic pictures show this. Only a few older adolescents question the goodness of God. Some of them questioned the justice of God in the face of the suffering on earth. The pictures the religious young people drew do not show any opposition to or denial of God. This can be explained with the social environment the children and adolescents grew up in. The relatively closed religious milieu leads to religious conformity during the phase of childhood and adolescence. A critical position would lead to constant conflicts which evidently the young people tend to avoid or they don’t feel the necessity to do so.

Many authors who have dealt with the question of God with children and adolescents point out that basic trust is very essential for the development of a positive relationship with God. Most pictures show that God is depicted as a being which turns to the people and gives them safety and security. On first sight this seems to be quite acceptable out of a religious educational point of view. Yet we have to see that an exclusive idea of God as a loving being does not help young people to stand firm in view of temptations and doubts of belief. If the “loving” God does not prove to automatically fulfill the wishes and requests of the young people then we can conclude that a deep crisis of trust may develop which can lead to the rejection of God.

Emphatically we have to point out that the images of God which the religious young people show are not in full correspondence with the images of God which we find in the Bible. We are missing the idea that God is powerfully engaged in historic developments, that he can withdraw from the life of people and con remain unnoticeable and hidden. On top of this there are absolutely no indications of trinity in the pictures of the children and young people.

To avoid one-sidedness in regard to the just mentioned shortcomings within in the pictures of God we have to critically ask what image of God is being taught in the families, parishes and at school in Christian education classes? For the development of the relationship with God it is crucial that, next to the idea that God is the guarantor of goodness, young people learn – according to the tradition of the Reformation – that God can be obscure but nevertheless the Believer can address to this God in despair and lamentation. In addition to this it should be clear, that God does not want suffering and misery for His people. On the contrary: He is suffering with the people. This is shown through Christ on the cross. My point here is: Certain theological aspects of God are very often left out and not mentioned and discussed within religious education therefore they do not show in the pictures of the young people. The reason for this is that very often adults who teach religious education in families, churches and at school prefer to teach the concept of a “loving” God which does not allow any negative or critical aspects of God.

What results do we get when we look at the pictures drawn by the young people who have not received any religious education?

Let me show you some of their drawings. I will first of all concentrate on the anthropomorphic representations.

girl, 7 years old

boy, 7 years old

girl, 9 years old

girl, 9 years old

boy, 10 years old

boy, 10 years old

boy, 11 years old

girl, 12 years old

boy, 13 years old

girl, 13 years old

boy, 14 years old

boy, 14 years old

What can be said about the development of the anthropomorphic images of God with this test group in comparison with the first group which we just discussed?

  • The table shows that the anthropomorphic representations of God hardly decrease with increasing age.
  • Up to the age of nine we find hardly any difference between the two test groups. How can this be explained? The image of God of the 7 to 9 year old children is predominantly shaped by the images which they have of their parents. Therefore there are hardly any differences between the two test groups.
  • After the age of 9, the religious and non-religious children and adolescents show a separate development. The children and adolescents without any religious education keep their childlike images of God whereas the religious children begin correcting and changing their childlike imagination of God.
  • Altogether 88 percent of the non-religious young people drew God in an anthropomorphic fashion whereas only 58 percent of the religious young people chose that kind of representation.

Next to this fundamental difference there are further differences which do not refer to the shape of God as man, ghost, face or woman but to the characteristics the non-religious young people use. Luckily, a large number of young people wrote comments to their drawings so that we know what they had in mind when they drew their pictures.

God with a beard. More frequently than the religious young people the non-religious group drew God with a beard. This was especially true with the 10 to 13 old boys and girls. Here are some of their commentaries:

“No, I don’t believe in God. He has a beard and is old.” (boy, 11 years old)

“I saw a picture like this in a history book. I imagine God in this way, since he has to have a certain resemblance with the ancient Greek Gods. Therefore, I drew the white toga, the beard and the sandals. I have to add, that I am not Christian. Therefore I don’t have a precise idea of God.” (boy, 11 years old)

“This is God in all his beauty. He has a beard for decorative reasons. He likes to fly through the clouds with his eagle’s wings.” (boy, 11 years old)

“I drew God with a beard so that he can pull at it when he is bored or when he has to think about something.” (girl, 13 years old)

God in clouds. There are eminent differences when we look at the 15 and 16 year old young people. The religious adolescents hardly use this motive whereas it is very common with the non-religious test group. Here are some commentaries which partially go far beyond the picture itself. Evidently the young people felt a need to comment on their relationship to God in general when asked to draw their image of God.

“My God: He is very old, round about 1000 years of age. He lives in the clouds.” (girl, 9 years old)

“I drew God in the clouds. That is his proper home.” (girl, 12 years old)

“I drew God very small because he cannot be very heavy on his cloud.” (girl, 12 years old)

“I don’t believe that there is a God. God was a human being who lived some time ago.” (girl, 10 years old)

“I hate God, if that strange bird would exist, there wouldn’t be any wars anymore.” (boy, 12 years old)

“(Picture drawn) by Enrico who hates this shitty God.” (boy. 12 years old)

“For me God is an invented figure which was created by suffering people to ease their misery. If there is God the cosmonauts would have seen him. I don’t believe in God. God does not exist.” (girl, 14 years old)

God with a halo. The number of non-religious young people is conspicuously large in comparison to the religious children and adolescents who drew God with a halo. I think that this has to do with the fact that on television the daily regional weather report starts with a cartoon of a godlike creature with a halo.

We find more evident differences between both test groups regarding the attributes “God with angels”, “God with a cross” and “God with wings”. Here are some commentaries:

“The two little angels wear white dresses and open the door to heaven for God. God himself holds a book in his arm about the lives of people. The little angels are glad that God is back in heaven. All glide along in heaven. They walk on earth.” (girl, 12 years old)

“He (God) is gliding. And he puts down his crook. He just lit his pipe and is happy.” (boy, 11 years old)

“I imagine God like this. He is the highest and oldest angel on earth.” (girl, 13 years old)

In summary we can record the anthropomorphic representations of God as following: For the non-religious children up to the age of 9 God is a being who lives above the earth in clouds. From here he watches the events on earth and the people. Many children have the idea that he rules, watches, guards and protects the earth and the living beings on earth. For some children he has the power to intervene in the events on earth. He is surrounded by angels. God is characterized as prudent, intelligent and friendly. This image of God is similar to the image of God the religious children have. Still there is one difference. Generally speaking, the image of God of the non-religious children is much more fairy-tale like than that of the religious children.

The older non-religious children from 10 years of age on, question the power of God. Referring to every day experience like wars, misery, suffering, poverty and the inequality of people, they conclude, that God must be powerless and weak or that he doesn’t show any interest in people. Based on the background of such a childlike image of God which is connected with the idea that God should immediately intervene on earth, many young people emphatically doubt that God exists. The following comments support this argument:

“I don’t understand why God is allowing all this. Therefore I don’t believe in God.” (girl, 12 years old)

“I don’t think there is a God. He would not allow any wars and sit around passively.” (girl, 12 years old)

“For years people have prayed to God to protect their families. Now they have realized that is was a lie that God protects people.” (girl, 14 years old)

“I don’t believe in God. Why are there so many disasters? Mostly those people suffer under disasters who believe in God like in Third World countries. My picture expresses that not even a cross protects people from disasters. Why do churches need a lightning-conductor?”

The persistence of a childlike, fairy-tale-like image of God for many non-religious people is the breeding ground for an often very violent criticism of religion which is supported by the wide spread atheist attitude in East Germany.

Let us talk now about the symbolic images of God of the non-religious children and adolescents in comparison with the religious young people.

Let me show you some of the symbolic pictures first.

girl, 11 years old

boy, 13 years old

girl, 15 years old

boy, 14 years old

What are the statistical results?

The table shows that only an average of 12 percent of the non-religious young people depicted God symbolically. In comparison to this: 41 percent of the religious children and adolescents drew God in this fashion. Surprisingly many of the symbols that non-religious adolescents used have a negative meaning. This becomes evident, when we read some of the commentaries which the young people wrote on their pictures. Here are some examples:

Comment to the symbol “cross”:

“I am a girl. I am 10 years old. For me he (God) lies in his grave. God is dead. How can anybody believe in God?”

Comment to the symbol “hand”:

“I believe that wars would never have been invented if there really is a God.” (girl, 15 years old)

Comment to the symbol “earth”:

“Since I don’t believe in God, there is only the earth and around the earth there is unlimited cosmos.” (girl, 14 years old)

Comment to the symbol “black hole”:

“This black hole represents my imagination of God. There is not such a thing as a black hole. There always is matter. A black hole is just an invention. God doesn’t exist for me. In my opinion he is an invention in the same way as a black hole is an invention.” (girl, 14 years old)

The image of God which the non-religious young people represented in their symbolic drawings can be summarize as following: Their drawings show a great variety of themes very similar to the symbolic drawings of the religious children and adolescents. But the fundamental difference is that the symbols of the non-religious young people express a critical or atheist attitude towards God. Amongst others, this can be derived from the fact that quite a few adolescents drew a picture of the earth or nature. Doing so they want to express that there is no God. Others tried to draw emptiness (like the black hole) to emphasize the non-existence of God. Some drew a big question mark to demonstrate that they question the existence of God. They used the symbol of the cross to express that God is dead.

A very small minority (only 14 in all of the non-religious test group) used the symbol “hand” or “hands” to indicate that God holds the earth in his hands and protects it. Statistically this is not a significant number. All it shows is that there is a marginal number of young people among the non-religious test group who have a positive image of God.

In general, we can summarize that the symbols of the vast majority of the non-religious young people mostly express uncertainty, materialistic ideas, indifference and an emphatic rejection of God.

In the beginning of my lecture I asked the question whether the development of the images of God is mostly influenced by endogenous psychological factors or is it determined by social influences. On the basis of the results of my study the answer is twofold:

  • Up to the age of 9 years, the image of God is mostly influenced by the image children have of their parents and by fantasies children develop about God. Those fantasies, which are typical for this age group, are the results of information children receive about God and/or personal wishes, desires or conflicts children might have. Therefore the God of the children up to 9 years of age is a very personal and private God. Evidently the general psychological development has a strong effect on the fashion children imagine and draw God. But not all children have vivid fantasies about God. Some refer to given stereotypes when drawing a picture of God.
  • Starting with the age of ten, the image of God is predominantly influenced by the religious or non-religious environment young people grow up in. That means a young person living in a religious social context will be influenced by the knowledge which is mediated in families, parishes and Christian religious education classes at school. In a non-religious environment young people stick to their childlike image of God which they develop at an early age. This image includes the expectation that God should take care of all the problems there are on earth. The fact that he does not act according to this expectation shows that God is powerless or non-existent. The result is a negative attitude towards religion which is supported by the prevailing attitudes towards God and religion in the East German society.

It would be very interesting to find out what images of God children and adolescents develop in a multi-religious context which you have in Great Britain. What are the shaping factors in such an environment? What effects does it have when children deal with different religions and possibly with different aspects of God?


1 Schroer, S. (In Israel gab es Bilder, Freiburg (Schweiz)/ Göttingen 1987.

2 Rizzuto, A. – M. : The Birth of the Living God. A Psychoanalytic Study, University Press Chicago, Chicago/London 1979.

3 Harms, E.: The Development of Religious Experience in Children, in: American Journal of Sociology (50), 1944.

4 Siegenthaler, H.: Die Entwicklung des Gottesbildes bei Kindern und Jugendlichen, in: entwurf, hg. von der Fachgemeinschaft evangelischer Religionslehrer in Württemberg und vom Fachverband evangelischer Religionslehrer in Baden e. V. 3/1980.

5 Bucher, A. A.: Gottesbilder von Kindern, in: Praxis. Katechetisches Arbeitsblatt 6/1991; Bucher, A. A.: Bibelpsychologie. Psychologische Zugänge zu biblischen Texten. Stuttgart/Berlin/Köln 1992.

6 Heller, D.: The children's God, University of Chicago Press, Chicago/London 1986.

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Leipzig, 20. Dezember 2002