CHILDREN'S FAITH is supposed to be simple, unswerving and intense. But what do they believe in? To find out, psychologist David Heller went to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he interviewed 40 boys and girls, ages 4 to 12, about their images of God. By talking with the children -- Roman Catholics, Baptists, Jews, and Hindus -- playing with them, and asking each child to draw a picture of God, Heller has teased out interesting themes that reveal the extent to which children's perceptions of their creator are influenced not only by their sex, age, and religious background, but also by their experiences at home and out in the world.

The children had learned their religions' tenets early. Jews, Heller found, had a strong historical orientation, relating their vision of God to specific events in modern and Biblical history. Even the very youngest Jewish children identified God with suffering and pain, and said that God wanted them to learn from difficult experiences.

Catholics associated God with a happy family life. The cozy, familiar quality of their God often reflected these children's own experiences with their parents. Eight-year-old Dan, for instance, drew a picture of "Jesus teaching to an ordinary person," then later in his session with Heller mentioned that his father often came into his room at night to talk about the Bible, "just as God enters into people's lives."

Baptist children saw their God as a benevolent provider, somewhat distant, but loving -- a giver of food, comfort, and the arbiter of man's fate. These boys and girls frequently referred to food in their descriptions of God (one of them even calling him "The Big Cheese"), and a 12-year-old boy outlined God's role in human life with the matter-of-fact statement: "Well, he decides if you are going to live or not, what sex you're gonna be, and what you're gonna do or not. All are planned ahead of time."

Hindus emphasized the interrelatedness of all experience, with a 12-year-old girl explaining: "It's all woven together, all these people's lives. So if one person is in a war, he might save twenty people . . . If he had died before, all those twenty people would not have been saved. So everything is bound together in the community of persons."

Beyond these relatively doctrinaire understandings of their religions' teachings, Heller discovered differences reflecting the children's sex (boys identified with an active, assertive god; girls saw themselves as the passive partners of a male god). Lonely children thought of God as a kind of imaginary playmate, with 10-year-old Lenny, an only child, writing in his "letter to God" portion of the interview: "Dear God, I think that Mr. Heler (sic) is nice and I had a good time tonight. I did good in math today. How's your math?"

Not surprisingly, echoes of the children's other experiences -- including their television and movie viewing -- creep in, with references to the movie The Ten Commandments betraying one child's confusion between the movie and the Bible itself. Another child, drawing the crucifixion, showed Bugs Bunny nailed to a tiny cross, then added much larger pictures of Bugs Bunny and Tweety Bird to the macabre scene which he then entitled "Bugs's Easter," as if it were a seasonal television special.

When it seemed that a child was suffering from problems at home, God's image suffered along with him. Six-year-old Gerard, who, Heller speculates, had a difficult relationship with his father, had a grim vision of God: "The President and God had a war," he declared angrily, "and they used weapons like swords and chains, chains with those round things with prickles . . . God just has wars! I think he is a sergeant . . . Traitors are left out in the desert."

Heller's conclusions about the relationship between children's experiences and their images of God are fascinating, but disturbing, too. Without further probing, for instance, it's only Heller's guess that Gerard's problem is his dad, not his mom or his homeroom teacher or the violent cartoons he may be watching on afternoon TV. Similarly, Heller's analyses of the wonderful children's drawings that illustrate the text occasionally seem a bit peculiar. For instance, 9-year-old Carin's drawing of a plump, smirking God in a karate robe had little in common, I thought, with Heller's description of it. The figure, who -- to me, at least -- looks like the comedian Buddy Hackett, is described by Heller as being "handsome, debonair, even swashbuckling . . . neither oversized nor receding . . . a romantic figure." In another example, a staring, sensuous-lipped picture of a female god (one of the few examples of a female deity), is described by Heller as "a severe, harsh, and controlling maternal figure." This description has less in common with the image itself, it seems, than with the fact that Heller knew that the little girl who had drawn this ambiguous figure had been neglected by her mother.

Nevertheless, Heller's point -- that children are enormously vulnerable to impressions from the world around them, and that their experiences color their image of God, who is supposed to be the source of life as it should be -- is a valuable one. Kind treatment, loving parents, a comfortable home life, and nurturing religious instruction help children imagine a God who reflects -- and embodies -- the best that people can hope to be.BUT WHAT HAPPENS when these little believers -- or agnostics -- grow up? Are their gods still connected to the fabric and texture of their lives? Do their gods reveal the believers' thoughts and emotions, as well as their experiences? Paul Rifkin's The God Letters gives us a possible answer. Masquerading as a fifth grader working on a school report, Rifkin wrote to scores of celebrated men and women and asked them: "Do you believe in God? If the answer is yes, please describe how God made his presence known to you."

Like Heller's 40 children, the men and women who believe (the overwhelming majority) see God alive in good works and the splendors of creation. For singer Joan Baez, God's presence is revealed when she sees something "very beautiful -- like a new baby in the arms of its mother." Physician and public-health educator Mary Calderone wrote, "The Quaker belief is that God works through people, that there is something of God in every person. I believe that, and I try to deal with people in that way." Composer Marvin Hamlisch stood the question on its head, and wrote "I do not necessarily think that it is important if He has made His presence known to me, but just the opposite -- that is, if I have made my presence known to him." And not only women (Pearl Bailey and Betty White, to name just two), but men as well (George Foreman, George Gallup, and Lee Iacocca, among many others) had active relationships with a God who comforted them and helped them in times of crisis.

The vast majority of entertainers said that they believed. Writers were an unpredictably mixed bag of atheists and the faithful. Many of the scientists Rifkin wrote to are atheists, pure and simple. (Francis Crick's succinct reply was "Dear Paul, No, I do not believe in God"; Claude Le'vi-Strauss was even briefer: "The answer is: no.") But plenty of their peers sided with Calderone and her beliefs.

Throughout, atheists offered little apology or explanation for their disbelief, but the faithful traced their faith to their parents' influence, Bible reading, observation of nature, and divine revelation. What one can safely conclude from the fact that these busy men and women took the time to answer Rifkin's letter -- and then had the good humor to forgive him when he revealed that he was an adult writer -- is that, God or no God, people can be wonderfully kind, eloquent, and generous, when the spirit -- whatever it is -- moves them.

Elizabeth Crow is the editor in chief of Parents magazine.