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Sally Morem Guthrie Review

Peering at Faces in the Clouds (1996)

Sally Morem


[This article was originally published in Secular Nation September/October 1996, pp. 2-5.]

 Review of Stewart Elliott Guthrie: Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) $30.00.

What is religion and why does it pervade human thought and culture? Every human culture that we know of–past and present–constructs intricate systems of natural and moral order, endowing them with religious significance. In Faces in the Clouds, Stewart Elliott Guthrie, Professor of Anthropology at Fordham University, considers and dismisses the traditional philosophical explanations for the tenacity and durability of religion in the human imagination, and settles on a much more satisfying one: that the thought processes which lead to religion are the very same ones which enabled humans to survive and flourish on an often hostile planet.

Guthrie asserts that religion is systematic anthropomorphism, that is, the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman things and events, implying the existence of thought and intentionality in our surroundings, and implying further the existence of a directing intelligence behind it all. In short, religious impulses grow out of our deepest felt need for a relationship with an unseen Other.

If we would seek to understand the origins of religion, the first question we must ask is obvious: What do believers believe in? Something that transcends the limitations and the rules of physical evidence; something comprehending, intelligent, perhaps even caring; something that gives order and meaning to the universe and to human life. The believer believes in unity, infinity, dependence, love, and awe–all aspects woven together into a Being which reaches down in response to their sincere belief and enfolds all that is.

Clearly, Guthrie finds the theories on religion espoused by nonbelievers to be wanting. Saying, as atheists do, that “…gods do not exist and that religion is a human creation…” may be true, but it merely begs the question of why humans bother to believe in the first place. One would suppose that such fantasies would have seriously handicapped our ancestors in their struggle to survive in a world inhabited by predators and enemies which were all too real. And yet these fantasies managed to grow and thrive in the minds of those very same humans everywhere in the world throughout the ages.

Guthrie asserts that humanistic theories on the existence of religion are in disarray. They variously maintain that religions alleviate unpleasant emotions, when in fact many religions introduced and re-enforced unpleasant emotions; they depict religion as mere scaffolding for a given social order, when religious thought would often pull the rickety structure of an ancien regime down upon everyone’s head; and they view religion as an attempt to interpret and influence the world. The last point is well taken. Religion does indeed do that, but on the whole, not consciously or deliberately in the manner indicated by the theorists.

The two points on emotionalism and social re-enforcement tell us nothing whatsoever about how religion may have begun. They merely hypothesize on how certain religions maintain their hold upon the human imagination, presumably thousands of years after they took root. In fact, many human cultures in history have independently created and recreated the major existent forms of religion over the ages.

But a truly universal theory of religion must go further than that. It must also delineate and analyze religious characteristics held in common. “General theories of religion must say not only how people came to subscribe to a religion but also what it is that all religions share. Because religious beliefs and practices are diverse, descriptions of what they have in common must be abstract.”

Guthrie wants to know (and so do I) what profound human need drives this apparent obsession. There is something else going on here besides neat fakery foisted on the gullible by the self-seeking and by those who have succeeded in gulling themselves. Why should people be so consistently credulous on such matters? Calling religion “the opiate of the masses,” as Marx did means nothing in of itself, but does lead directly to Guthrie’s next question: why must religion be an opiate?

Before he leads us to the answer to that question, Guthrie analyzes the three different theories of religion described earlier. We could call these the emotional, the social, and the practical visions of religion. His first group of theorists generally agree that religion is an attempt to allay fears. Spinoza, Hume, Marx, and Freud advanced varying versions of this hypothesis. Religions have devised rituals to ward off sickness, death and natural cataclysms. Freud’s “gods” have a three-fold task. “…they must exorcise the terror of nature, they must reconcile men to the cruelty of Fate, particularly as it is shown in death, and they must compensate them for the sufferings and privations of civilized life.”

Religion then enables its adherents to escape the cruelties of the real world and enter fantasy land. It is wish-fulfillment. There is, however, one small problem with this explanation. It isn’t true for most religions. “If religion’s appeal is in its hope, though, believers must think deities are protective, souls are immortal, injustices will be righted, or some such comforting thought…. However, there are religions without such beliefs, or with others that seem less comforting. Many have wrathful and capricious deities and demons. Some have neither a universal moral order nor an afterlife. Others have only a gloomy netherworld, or one or more hells.” If this is wish-fulfillment, it is a masochistic one. This theory’s Sunday school roster of religious characteristics seems hardly the comprehensive and detailed listing that a robust universal theory requires.

Guthrie’s second group of theorists believe that the key to solving the riddle of religion lay within the social order. Here, religion is a means to social solidarity. The private virtues and public morality fostered by religious sentiment preserve and maintain the public good. Politicians praise religion for keeping citizens on the straight and narrow. Theocracies are the ultimate end of the institutionalization of this belief. In a theocracy, religious belief and social order are one. “Holding men in awe of the law and the magistrates” is the highest of religious duties.

Durkheim described religion as “encoded morality.” It preserves social order which develops through the ages of cultural evolution. It acts as a cultural ratchet, permitting the development of additional social order while forbidding backsliding. Religion makes concrete to the people that hugely complex abstraction known as society. “The sum of social relations is too manifold, abstract, and subtle to grasp directly, and the demands made of individuals by society too stringent for easy acquiescence. A society therefore must be represented to its members by some emblem of its scope and authority, such as a totem. In this emblem…society worships itself.”

We see here a striking example of circular thinking. It is highly misleading for any theory of the origins of religion to stipulate that the existence of some sort of powerful god-like societal intelligence is required in order for that society’s citizens to be able to contemplate of the possible existence of gods. Arguing A is A because it leads to A gets us nowhere fast. Besides that, the facts the argument uses are clearly in error.Societies are neither organisms nor are they thinking beings. Societies are never organized perfectly for their own needs. Cultural evolution, like the biological version, can only work with materials at hand. Instead of envisioning the all-powerful leviathan of society as a being fit to be worshipped, theorists must face the fact that societies grow and change as they will, self-organizing as they increase in complexity, achieving order not by design but by opportunity.

We cannot credit the existence of social cohesion to religion. In large, complex societies such as ours, there are many religions, many allegiances. Loyalties clash. Here, religion and society differ sharply. Sometimes the strictures of a religion command adherents to attack their own society as the fount of wickedness. Deliberately fostering such religions is hardly in any society’s best interest.

The third group of theorists holds that religion is an attempt to interpret and influence the world–a primitive version of science, if you will. “These theorists emphasize the task of interpretation faced by humans (as by other animals) in perceiving and acting in the world. They see the world of experience as inchoate and our first necessity as making sense of it. They make religion a particular interpretation of the world, an interpretation whose conclusion (but not whose topics or even logic) differ from those of secular thought and action.”

Humans explain new, unknown events by what is known. Why do lightning and thunder occur? Because powerful humanlike beings are causing the disturbances. What are the stars? The campfires of the gods.

Sir E.B. Tylor believed that ancient people envisioned the soul or spirit as a “thin unsubstantiated human image, in its nature a sort of vapor, film or shadow; the cause of life in the individual it animates.” This early form of vitalism led people to attribute spirits to other people, to animals, plants, and even inanimate objects. These people filled their world with human thought and insight. Later, the spirits were magnified in power imaginatively by their people until they became gods.

Hume believed that early peoples devised the concept of God from the apparent design of the world. Spencer thought early humans derived spirituality from cycles and recurrences in nature. Weber insisted that the pursuit of meaning is a central human concern. These and others explained the existence and duration of religion as an ongoing human endeavor to construct a plausible and rational model of existence, to describe and understand the universe as a meaningful and coherent place.

These rationalistic arguments give us an image of an unseen order which humans have sought out and attempted to describe and explain. If believers then harmonize themselves with such an order in thought and action, they would achieve a sense of wholeness and holiness. Certainly, this explains what many religious people do. Theologians make their living building up and adding to such world views. But this concept of the unseen order seems too dauntingly abstract to drive the actions and to direct the deepest thoughts of most people. We must look elsewhere to find a universal explanation for religious belief.

In any true religion, we find believers who make a commitment to their god, establishing a relationship of trust with a being they know exists. Instead of engaging in ruminations on deep philosophical abstractions, these people achieve faith. Faith is not belief in the tenets of the religion but is a profound commitment to a personal relationship with one’s god. It is a social act. How did people develop the concept of the possibility of a relationship between human beings and a god? We are getting close to the real issue.

The object of religious belief (God) and how humans happened to create the concept of that object and crave a relationship with it (faith) are the phenomena to which a true theory of religion must attend. To ignore Proudfoot’s “intentional object of religious belief” is to “lose the experience, or to attend to something else altogether….If someone is afraid of a bear, his fear cannot be accurately described without mentioning the bear. This remains true regardless of whether or not the bear exists outside his mind. He may mistakenly perceive a fallen tree trunk on the trail ahead of him as a bear, but his fear is properly described as fear of a bear.”

Religion is not primarily a means by which we assuage fear, nor is it a tool by which we build and repair societal structures, nor is it a meaning-producing system. None of these things are excluded from religion, nor are any of these things exclusive to religion. Belief in the reality of gods or spirits–anthropomorphism–is at the center of religious experience and belief. This belief must be explained. Why has it been important for people in so many cultures over the ages to establish relationships with humanlike beings known as gods?

It is here where science and religion differ most strongly. Science seeks to eliminate anthropomorphism; religion is built on it. Healthy skepticism, normally a virtue, is considered a vice in religious matters. If you doubt, if you are skeptical, you are breaking your relationship with your god–a very dangerous thing to do.

Why do people take this relationship so seriously? Why the demonstrable spontaneity and tenacity of such beliefs? Guthrie believes that this results from an innate tendency within the human brain to seek pattern wherever it may be found, and to postulate the highest level of complexity in that pattern as possible. Humans assume, unless they find evidence to the contrary, “that the nonhuman world creates and transmits meaning as people do: by sending and receiving symbolic communications.” Religion assumes that the world embodies intelligence, and so, humans must treat with it as they treat with one another.

Whenever perception is vague, interpretation is rendered difficult. Psychologists have developed two famous drawings to illustrate this point. One is the head of an animal with two long objects extending upward from the top. Are these the ears of a rabbit or are they the parts of a duck’s bill? The other drawing at first may appear to be that of an old crone, but as one studies it, one discovers that the lines which make up the head may be interpreted in a different way, allowing the viewer to see a young woman.

Such perceptual difficulties occur often in the world. The world arrives at our eyes as, in James’ words, a booming, buzzing confusion. We guess at what we are seeing, our guesses based on the model of the world our brains have constructed through previous guesses and outcomes over time–an endless cycle of trial and error. When our brains abstract and catalogue shapes of objects, we are then able to see and recognize them under widely varying conditions. “What we see depends on what model we use.”

As we scan for patterns, we also scan for importance. Nested hierarchies of scale, of sets and subsets, of duration, of interior and exterior, and of simplicity and great complexity capture our interest. We concentrate on finding the scale and complexity of order we most need–that of other human beings. When we guess at the presence of certain hierarchical levels of interest, we tend to guess high.

Our brains are engaged in updating thousands of interpretations of perceptions while our conscious selves perceive a smoothly integrated reality. We ride serenely (most of the time) above a boiling maelstrom of proffered realities.

Metaphor is a conscious suppression of difference to make an artistic point. Identity is a psychological activity which enables us to do the same thing unconsciously. We ignore differences in the movement of the streaming river between yesterday and today, and claim that it remains the same river. This is identity at work. Identity sometimes gives our mental constructs more firmness than reality may actually possess. And when we engage in animistic or anthropomorphic thought, identity moves us up another step in perception. We see what is not alive as alive, what is not thinking as thinking. We are on our way to religious thought and belief.

It is extremely important to us not to miss significant information. If we think the shape ahead on the trail is a tree stump, but it turns out to be a bear, we will pay dearly for our mistake in interpretation. But, if we err the other way, we merely look skittish and embarrass ourselves in front of our fellow hikers. Those humans who characteristically erred on the high side of perceptual hierarchies were selected by evolutionary pressures over those who erred on the low side. In short, they lived to hike another day.

Since we all inherited this propensity to err on the high side of perception from our successful ancestors, we all possess some natural propensity toward religious belief. Guthrie reminds us that “…belief in gods organizes experience as significantly as possible by positing for nonhuman things and events the highest actual organization we know: that of human beings and their society. Because humans are highly organized, they are capable of generating a wide array of phenomena. Thus, much is explicable by appeal to humans or something modeled on them. As theoretical entities, gods are reducers of complexity and diversity because the entities on which they are modeled, real humans, are generators of complexity and diversity. Gods appear as powerful components of theory because they are modeled on powerful real organisms.”

The fact that most of the world’s processes and features arise out of vast impersonal forces of self-organizing power instead of acts of intentionality does not occur to us naturally. It has taken centuries of careful experimentation and hard theoretical work to learn the truth. But when we do submit our hypotheses to the stern discipline of modern natural science, we feel alienated from our normal thought processes. Our impulses betray us. This is when we discover how fundamental “man, the measure of all things” really is to our world view and how anthropomorphic that world view really is.

Removing anthropomorphism from human thought is very likely impossible, at least for the foreseeable future. We wouldn’t even want to try. Such a removal may have undesirable side effects, not the least of which would be the loss of creativity, imagination, and the ability to spot bears on the trail. Anthropomorphism has proven itself to be so profoundly linked with our survival as a species that it may in fact be an ineluctable part of being human. And so, the best we may hope for when we perceive and create patterns in the clouds is to develop the ability to look behind our perceptions, to find the face, to acknowledge its beauty, and to concede that it isn’t there.

“Peering at Faces in the Clouds” is copyright © 1996 by Sally Morem. The electronic version is copyright © 1999 Internet Infidels with the written permission of Sally Morem.

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