One of the most intriguing books I’ve read on the origin of religion in the past few months has been Stewart Guthrie’s Faces in the Clouds (Oxford, 1993). Guthrie offers the suggestion that our in-born, evolutionarily driven need to see people or faces, even where these are false positives, may have led to the concept of god/s. As a respectable academic, I am obligated never to agree completely with anyone, but Guthrie seems to be onto something here. When I’m jogging in the pre-dawn hours it is amazing how many people are about — that is, until I get close enough to see that they are a small tree or a tall newspaper stand. We do see what we consider important everywhere.
Having recently stumbled upon “Ghost Hunters,” I am amazed at how quickly some people (with the obvious exception of Jason, Grant, and the TAPS team) are inclined to claim a human shape to be a supernatural entity. This phenomenon is ubiquitous. On the web, while looking to find a good example of pareidolia to present to my class, I found an image of Michael Jackson’s face seared onto a piece of toast. If ever a divine sign was needed, here it is indeed! A more prosaic example was a natural water-stain I found on a saucepan in my own kitchen. I picked it up and asked my wife what she saw, just to assure myself I alone wasn’t crazy. Take a look and see what you see!
Ancient religions were quick to put human forms on dangerous, threatening, or awe-inspiring phenomena. Lightning and thunder became the purview of Baal. It is a natural defense mechanism: you can pray to or offer a tasty animal sacrifice to Baal and the terrible storm will stop. Of course, in time nature itself would take care of it too. One summer at Nashotah House, however, the storms kept on coming. It was termed a “recurrent mesoscale convective system” by the meteorologists, but to the Baal worshiper it would seem that nothing could assuage the divine anger. Baal kept coming back at you. I have a photo in a shoebox somewhere of me standing nearly up to my knees in the icy rain water. Better to consider it human than to face unfeeling nature.
Today people still look for faces in the clouds to allay their fears. But we also have a rudimentary understanding of the physics of our universe. When people are forced to choose between facts and faces, when fear or extreme desire comes into the equation, the safe odds are always on the faces.