"The sea was angry that day, my friends. Like an old
man trying to send back soup at a deli"
- George Costanza, telling about rescusing
a beached whale
recent, provocative theory of religion as a form of anthropomorphism
(that is, attributing human qualities to non-human objects)
can be found in Stewart E. Guthrie's Faces in the Clouds:
A New Theory of Religion (New York: Oxford University
As described by its publisher:
Religion is universal human culture. No phenomenon is more
widely shared or more intensely studied, yet there is no agreement
on what religion is. Now, in Faces in the Clouds, anthropologist
Stewart Guthrie provides a provocative definition of religion
in a bold and persuasive new theory.
Guthrie says religion can best be understood as systematic
-- that is, the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman
things and events. Many writers see anthropomorphism as common
or even universal in religion, but few think it is central.
To Guthrie, however, it is fundamental. Religion, he writes,
consists of seeing the world as humanlike.
Guthrie [pictured right, at an October 2003 conference in
shows, people find a wide range of humanlike beings plausible:
Gods, spirits, abominable snowmen, HAL the computer, Chiquita
Banana. We find messages in random events such as earthquakes,
weather, and traffic accidents. We say a fire "rages,"
a storm "wreaks vengeance," and waters "lie
still." Guthrie says that our tendency to find human
characteristics in the nonhuman world stems from a deep-seated
perceptual strategy: in the face of pervasive (if mostly unconscious)
uncertainty about what we see, we bet on the most meaningful
interpretation we can. If we are in the woods and see a dark
shape that might be a bear or a boulder, for example, it is
good policy to think it is a bear. If we are mistaken, we
lose little, and if we are right, we gain much [much as in
what philosophers know as Pascal's
wager]. So, Guthrie writes, in scanning the world we always
look for what most concerns us -- livings things, and especially,
human ones. Even animals watch for human attributes, as when
birds avoid scarecrows. In short, we all follow the principle
-- better safe than sorry.
a wealth of evidence [such as the famous 1976 satellite photo
of a "face"
the surface of Mars, left] from anthropology, cognitive
science, philosophy, theology, advertising,
literature, art, and animal behavior, Guthrie offers a fascinating
array of examples to show how this perceptual strategy pervades
secular life and how it characterizes religious experience.
Challenging the very foundations of religion, Faces in
the Clouds forces us to take a new look at this fundamental
element of human life.
Stewart E. Guthrie is Professor of Emeritus of Anthropology
at Fordham University.
a review of Guthrie's book (PDF)
face seen in the clouds
Mary seen on wall
the publisher's site for Faces in the Clouds
overview of classic and contemporary theories of religion