Pareidolia in Politics: The Face of Faith’s Corrupting Influence

Jan 30, 2015

By Jeff Schweitzer

We gaze at the night sky and see the comforting order of constellations in the random distribution of stars. We look up and discern shapes of animals in the wispy condensation of clouds. We breathlessly share on social media images of Jesus onburnt toast or the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich or Elvis as a potato chip. Welcome to pareidolia, the human brain’s amazing ability to perceive patterns, particularly the image of a human face, in what are in fact purely random phenomena.

In the Beginning…

We humans cannot turn off our instinct to see familiar shapes in the world around us; pareidolia means that our brains demand that there be order even when none exists. And just as we abhor the absence of visual order, we too are unable to accept the unsettling idea of “I don’t know” when confronted with the disorder of the unfamiliar. So we make up comforting answers to all that perplexes us, just as we create reassuring images from clouds and toast. By making up answers to dull the sting of ignorance, we fool ourselves into thinking we explain the world, that we see design and significance in the absence of both.

In the abyss of great uncertainty, our ancestors developed elaborate creation myths and gods of the sun rain and oceans to explain the mysteries and happenings of daily life. War gods helped in victory, or not. Fertility gods helped, or not. Religion was our first attempt to predict and manipulate the future; it was also our first stab at physics and astronomy. Ironically, as we gained knowledge about the physical world, the need for multiple gods diminished. As the gods of the gaps grew smaller, we rejected multiple deities to insist rather randomly there is only one. But as did our primitive forebears with multiple deities, we still believe we can communicate with our one god and influence his behavior, because by doing so we gain some control over, impose some order on, the chaotic mysteries of the world. So we still have one more god to go, one more to assign to the pantheon of the fallen. The early quest for knowledge led to religion; ever-greater success has obviated the need. Our very effort to understand nature ultimately undermined the means by which we sought to reveal nature’s mysteries. We are just slow to acknowledge that god is superfluous.

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19 comments on “Pareidolia in Politics: The Face of Faith’s Corrupting Influence

  • Are humans not also unsettled by the idea of “I can’t know”; that there are things which are beyond our comprehension. One simple way to deal with this might be to decide that they don’t exist.

    Perhaps it could be described as eupareidolia; a self-imposed blindness towards those things which we are incapable of understanding.

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  • There was a period of my life where I avoided looking at the embers in a fire. Figures would pop out at me with such reality it shocked me.

    One of the things I learned studying math is that to us the stars look bunched. Yet actually that pattern is random. What we would consider intuitively random would be actually quite ordered – equally spaced.

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  • It seems odd that we don’t see patterns of human faces when we look at the stars in the night sky. Perhaps points of light aren’t appropriate phenomena for provoking the pareidolia effect.

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  • Yes thats a poisson distribution isn’t it? Simply put unlikely events tend to cluster because the probability of them reoccurring is highest right after it occurred.

    I think with stars though the pattern is not random. Stars are created by the force of gravity and gravity shapes the relationships between them. Even galaxies cluster due to gravity – we are in the local cluster.

    I read once that the arrangement of these clusters relates to the distribution of sub atomic energy in the first moments of the big bang – not sure if that can be called random.
    What I’m trying to say in my rambling way is that I question whether anything is random in nature.

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  • No, you mistake “cannot know” from “there is not a shred of evidence for” the imaginary. We are open to any “evidence” of your imaginary friend. Short of that, the only “self-imposed blindness” is on the part of those who deny overwhelming facts– evolution, quantum physics, human induced climate change, vaccinations, etc.

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  • My life provides evidence on an almost continual basis of God’s existence; I sense his love for me, he responds to my prayers, he exists in the beauty all around me. Of course, this is evidence of my own experience and so cannot be shared, and there are those who blind themselves to the possibility of its reality as a result.

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  • Of course, this is evidence of my own experience and so cannot be shared, and there are those who blind themselves to the possibility of its reality as a result.

    Wow. Thats quite a responsibility you have there. Presumably their experiences are truth deficient unlike yours and they must depend on you for the real McCoy?

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  • Evidence deficient rather than truth deficient. Surely we all have personal experiences which can’t be subjected to external validation? That doesn’t make those experiences any less real.

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  • Why does god require a gender? Why isn’t ‘he’ referred to as ‘it’?

    “I sense his love for me” What is the source of the data that you are using for the sensory perception?

    “he responds to my prayers” Do you have any examples, some evidence if ‘his’ response?

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  • Ewan, I appreciate your presence on this site, I’m not sure why you bother or how you put up with the negative responses your comments receive.

    At the same time, I believe (deeply) that religion is a human invention, and not a benign one, and that it – religion, meaning the human activity of religion – is at its core, something evil.

    I was raised in a religion, family, school, church, community all aligned. I came to the evidence-based and rational (so it seemed to me, and still does) conclusion that it was a pack of lies, maintained for base reasons, and departed from it.

    Your life experiences provide you with a brain, a mind, that seems comfortably to fit with a religious explanation of Life, the Universe, and Everything. Mine does not. It is a brazen leap for you to imply that others “blind themselves”, but you do not. I could assert the exact opposite, who could tell which of us was closer to the Truth?
    (if there is such a thing, there’s certainly the common-sense concept of truth).

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