Seeing God

My daughter reminded me that one further aspect that stood out at the Red Mill Museum in Clinton was the persistence of pareidolia. Pareidolia, or matrixing, is the tendency to interpret “random” data as meaningful. More specifically, it is often used to refer to seeing a person (or entity) where it is not. As I wrote in an earlier entry, it has been suggested that pareidolia is the ultimate origin of religion.

For my purposes here, however, I wonder if the sheer amount of false faces we encountered while at the Red Mill might have some connection with the idea that the property is haunted. Somewhat of a skeptic, I am somewhat swayed by ghost accounts since they are so plentiful and since many of those who report them are reputable persons with good observation skills. Ghosts are, however, impossible to separate from some form of religious thought since they are the ultimate examples of the intangible, unmeasurable phenomenon. If there are ghosts in the laboratory, they haven’t been quantified yet.

Old buildings, which abound at sites like the Red Mill, are full of knotholes or other apertures whose original hardware has long since disappeared. Round holes, or spots, as many insects and fish “know” are easily interpreted as eyes. Add a horizontal line beneath your “eyes” and you have a basic face.

Perhaps my favorite example of pareidolia at Red Mill is an old sycamore tree. A large burl on the trunk bears a striking resemblance to a human profile. This is more easily seen in real life where the mind more easily filters out the distracting coloration and focuses on the shape. Since pareidolia is such a fascinating aspect of the human experience of the world, and since it might, conveniently, be tied to religion, this seemed to be as appropriate a venue as any other to share some great examples.

Bibles and Freedom

Visiting the Red Mill in Clinton, New Jersey is always a worthwhile experience. Yesterday, a gloomy, gray September postcard, was perfect for such a visit. In addition to the many buildings on the museum grounds that retain an atmospheric feel year-round, the Mill is supposedly haunted and is frequented by a number of ghost hunting teams. With its long (for America) history and its picturesque beauty, the museum is a popular spot with tourists as well as ghost hunters.

One of the buildings on the grounds is an old one-room schoolhouse. As a family we have visited a number of these, although none of us qualify as having been actual pupils at one. A frequent blandishment at such institutions is the rules by which school teachers had to live in the nineteenth century, usually posted on the wall. Yesterday as we read the obligatory list, one “commandment” stuck out from the 1872 code of conduct: “After ten hours in school, the teachers may spend the remaining time reading the Bible or any other good books.” While many of the rules were condescending in their moralizations, this one carried a perfect example of how a nation, naively short-sighted, was already giving preferential treatment to one religion, Protestant Christianity.

As a nation founded as a haven for religious freedom, the colonists and settlers simply had narrow exposure to religions of the world. Freedom seemed an ideal worth dying for, but usually it meant freedom to be whatever (Protestant) denomination you wished to be. Catholicism was associated with the old powers of Europe, and the religions of the east were barely known. The Protestants were the ones who promoted Bible reading in those days, and while the rules allowed for other good books, there is an unstated superiority given to the Good Book in its pride of place. Once the colonials became nationals, it was still fair to taunt Quakers, Unitarians, and others who didn’t seem to fit the mold. We didn’t see any ghosts at the Red Mill yesterday, but it did seem that a haunting memory of true religious liberty hung about the place.

Clinton's Red Mill sews freedom