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Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion [Paperback]

Stewart Elliott Guthrie
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 Jan 1995
Religion is one of the most universal and most studied human phenomena, yet there exists no widely shared definition for it. This ambitious study provides and defends such a definition.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; New Ed edition (1 Jan 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195098919
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195098914
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.5 x 2.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 510,463 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

"Witty, elegant, magnificently written....A stunning achievement that will have an enormous impact on religious studies."--Robert Orsi, Indiana University"Guthrie shows how the fields of science, cognitive science, philosophy, and the literary and visual arts are pervaded by anthropomorphism, even though they often criticize it....Provocative and carefully argued."--Library Journal"A scholarly contribution to our understanding of the springs of the imagination."--James W. Fernandez, University of Chicago"Guthrie's argument is interesting, clearly set out, and well taken....The book is lucid, engaging, and very well written."--Wayne Proudfoot, Columbia University"Guthrie manages to draw from the murky reasonableness of everyday living what is most human in our perceptions of what animates life."--American Anthropologist

About the Author

Stewart E. Guthrie is Professor of Anthropology at Fordham University and is the author of A Japanese New Religion.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
Writers have speculated on the nature and origins of religion for well over two thousand years but have not produced so much as a widely accepted definition. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars http://www.infidels.org/infidels/products/books/ 22 Jun 1997
By A Customer
"Guthrie proposes that religion is basically an outgrowth of the natural human propensity, probably hardwired in by evolution, to interpret vague or random appearances anthropomorphically. That is, we naturally tend to see faces in clouds or the image of Jesus in a spaghetti ad. This makes perfect sense from an evolutionary viewpoint since it would be beneficial to survival to have a perceptual strategy in which vague appearances were interpreted as (possibly hostile) humans. Better to think we see a glaring face and find that we're wrong than to miss seeing an enemy. Clearly, much of the human propensity towards religiosity could be explained in this way. Guthrie argues his case well." -- Keith M. Parsons
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars see... atheists do not HAVE to be nasty. 19 Oct 2010
By catspoo
if religion is not real this is by far the best explanation i have come across regarding its origin and development.
I am a christian some would say fundamentalist, i would say conservatve :) but I have to agree with the atheist reviewer above, this book is really good.
guthrie thinks that the mechanism of anthropomorphism is inherent in us because it is better for living creatures to see agency in the world, sort of erring on the side of caution.

anthorpomorphism is the tendancy to see things as alive and having human qualities.
this mechanism is in built.
it lets us see things in the envirinment which may alive.
it lets us identify things in terms of importance.
if something is going to eat us then its in our interest to see it as alive.
if we can eat it then we need to know its going to run when we try to eat it.
if it is human we can interact with it, possibly getting help or needing to avoid its intentions toward us.
unlike other books written by atheists regarding religion this does not come across as patronising, hostile, too critical or abusive.
guthrie thinks that this mechanism explains that religious belief is a perfectly natural phenomena and as such does not despise religious people.

I realy liked this explanation and it is by far the closest mechanism to darwinian evolution, if you believe we evolved and you want to look at the origins or religion then this is the best possible mechanism i have seen. forget that dawkins guy and his meme stuff, guthrie is the way ahead. (though memes may explain the transmission of the idea)

its cleary written, freindly logical well illustrated, and Guthrie seems like a nice guy.
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Amazon.com: 4.8 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
43 of 45 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Anthropomorphism 12 May 2002
By Bradley P. Rich - Published on Amazon.com
Verified Purchase
This is an excellent, scholarly summary of the concept of anthropomorphism in human experience. Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics to non-human things or events. It turns out that the human brain is designed to project human characteristics on the world around us (Hence, the title "Faces in the Clouds", a reference to the human propensity to see human faces everywhere in the world.)
Guthrie is at his best showing the reader exactly how pervasive our anthropomorphic projections are. He is careful to develop the philosophical underpinnings as well as to demonstrate with numerous examples the way that anthropomorhism pervades our perceptions. In examples drawn from art, literature and advertising, Guthrie shows the universality of the anthropomorphic model.
Guthrie is compelling when he shows that anthropomorphism is actually a "smart" Darwinian strategy as well. Guthrie quite rightly rejects some of the obvious explanations advanced to explain anthropomorphism in favor of an explanation that makes anthropomorphism a valuable diagnostic tool for our environment. Guthrie's contention (and it is probably correct) is that the perception of human activity is the most important of the various interpretions that we can impose on our environment. Because of its central importance, it makes sense to apply that model as broadly as possible. Where other authors have seen anthropomorphism as some sort of embarrassing error pattern, Guthrie makes it central to a successful coping strategy. Further, it is clear that anthropomorphism does not impose a substantial fitness penalty, even when applied inappropriately. Guthrie make a compelling case that anthropomorphism is the single most important cognitive interpretive model.
Strangely, the weakest part of this book is the portion that deals with the subject matter of the subtitle: "A New Theory of Religion." Having built a compelling case that anthropomorphism is THE fundamental cognitive strategy for humankind to understand and interpret its environment, Guthrie devotes a single strategy to the contention that this phenomenon explains religion as well. Guthrie may well be right, but it this is, as he claims, the central thesis of his book, it deserves a more detailed presentation.
Read this book for an eye opening discussion of the importance of anthropomorphism as a cognitive strategy, not for a "new theory of religion."
32 of 36 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A simple and powerful idea, padded out to book length 28 Mar 2000
By P. Murray - Published on Amazon.com
Verified Purchase
This is a book length explanation of a very simple idea.
People tend to anthropomorphise things around them because it is a useful strategy with survival value. Assuming that the things you come across are animate and purposeful is a safer mistake to make than the converse. We have evolved to see persons everywhere. With typical sloppiness, our brains use the "dealing with people" faculties to handle interactions with things that are not people at all.
Primitive man sees an animal footprint. Who made it? An elk. Why did it make it? What was it thinking? It was thirsty, and heading toward water. Identifying the personalities behind phenomena allows us to predict what will happen next. Sometimes, we can even to strike a bargain with another person, so controlling what happens next.
Stewart Gutherie's idea is that religion, all religion, at it's core is nothing other than applying this useful and important survival strategy to the world at large. Anthropomorphism is not an error that the religious sometimes fall into. It is the very essence of religious thought and feeling.
The problem, of course, is that it is all a very reasonable and safe mistake. There is no God. There is no conciousness behind nature. But we persist in seeing it anyway, just as we persist in seeing humanlike figures in inkblots. That's why religion is so pervasive. That's why it seems so natural. That's why "so many people" can be so wrong.
You may be interested in following the whole of the book, which is first, an explanation of why a new theory of religion is needed; second, an exposition of how pervasive anthropomorphism is; and finally linking the two.
For me, the theory was so obviously simple, right and powerful, fitting the facts so well, that the first and final chapters alone would have been enough for me. However, it's certainly a worthwhile addition to my growing personal library.
21 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A book that deserves a wide audience..... 30 Jan 2001
By J. Michael Showalter - Published on Amazon.com
There are among fairly academic books books that should be read widely and never quite get the audience that they deserve. This is among the foremost among those that I know; as far as are the merits of it academically, it is also a very strong book. Setting this aside, because of its thought-provoking nature, this book deserves a cult following....
Gutherie in it argues that people, for processes of biological advantage, have an innate tendancy to see 'people'-- faces in the clouds-- where they don't exist. I first read this book while studying religion at Columbia and was more impressed by it than any other I read for the particular class I read it for (excluding William James-- which is understandable....) It explains a lot. Its author is widely read and a persuasive writer, it has interesting pictures and really forces one to think about a lot of stuff. It really angered many of my more theologically minded classmates-- which for agnostics should be reason enough to read it....
As a book of 'general reading', this is still an interesting book that should be read. It's really smart and a fun read. I'd definately recommend (in either case) to buy this book. It will make you think, or it will change the way you think about religion (and life....)
How people percieve is really an avenue that needs much more exploration as far as it concerned the study or religion....
13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars http://www.infidels.org/infidels/products/books/ 22 Jun 1997
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
"Guthrie proposes that religion is basically an outgrowth of the natural human propensity, probably hardwired in by evolution, to interpret vague or random appearances anthropomorphically. That is, we naturally tend to see faces in clouds or the image of Jesus in a spaghetti ad. This makes perfect sense from an evolutionary viewpoint since it would be beneficial to survival to have a perceptual strategy in which vague appearances were interpreted as (possibly hostile) humans. Better to think we see a glaring face and find that we're wrong than to miss seeing an enemy. Clearly, much of the human propensity towards religiosity could be explained in this way. Guthrie argues his case well." -- Keith M. Parson
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling Account of Religion 21 Feb 2009
By Jay Young - Published on Amazon.com
There certainly is no lack of books about religion, and ideas about how and why we humans have it. Stewart Guthrie has written, to me at least, a very persuasive account of the origin of religion.

Accounts for why we have religion can generally be divided into two groups- those of believers and skeptics. Believers of particular religions, of course, try to account for their religion in terms of a special revelation, and all others in terms of either ignorance or demonic influence. Unfortunately, these claims are special, not general, and there is no inter-subjective way of verifying them. Some liberal religious believers account for religion by essentially saying that specific practices and beliefs are irrelevant- they are all manifestations of religious experience. The problem is that mystical experiences are unique, autonomous, cannot be corroborated, and don't offer a way of knowing whether one experience is the same as or a different variation of another.

The skeptics' theories of religion are diverse, and make valuable points about perhaps why individuals choose religion and why it persists, but according to Guthrie, they don't explain the origin of religion very well.

* Wishful thinking- Popularized by Freud, the theory holds that people made up religion to satisfy their wishes, desires, and to derive comfort. But many religions have elements that would be hard to say are there for comfort and reassurance, such as malevolent spirits, hell, and jealous gods. Further we don't make up things in other areas purely for comfort- hungry people don't comfort themselves by telling themselves they've just eaten.
* Fear of death- Many have said that religion is primarily to overcome the natural human fear of death. This theory makes valuable points, but it can't account for the origin of religion. In ancient Greek religion and early Judaism, the doctrine of the afterlife was very vague. Further, in some early religions, the souls of the deceased were condemned to wander the earth forever, regardless of what they did or didn't do.
* Social glue- Durkheim and others have said that religion originated as a way to bind people together, just as national symbols do. While religions do do this, they also divide people. Guthrie notes that this theory fails to account for why people would use religion to form group cohesion in the first place.
* Intellectualist- Going back to Spinoza, this theory holds that religion is a result of anthropomorphism- attributing human properties to non-human things. People are in a world of uncertain objects, and so seek to understand the world through the use of a familiar model (ourselves). Another branch of the intellectualist theory is that we invent humanlike agents to reassure ourselves in a turbulent world. Guthrie ultimately thinks anthropomorphism plays the main factor, but neither of the explanations for why we do this are quite sufficient. First, we anthropomorphize familiar things (pets, for instance) as often as they do unfamiliar ones. Moreover, there are things (monsters in the closet) that we do not invent to reassure ourselves.

Guthrie gives a compelling account of religion. It is systemic anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism arises out of animism- attributing animate features to inanimate things (trees, wind, etc.) We do this, Guthrie says, because of our perceptual uncertainty. Our knowledge of the world is not certain but interpretive. For instance, a door closing could be the result of wind, or of a person (perhaps a stranger); a shadow may be that of a tree or of a lurking figure- meanings don't reveal themselves to us, so we must construe them. So in assigning meanings, we use what is most significant to us. Since a potential predator would be more significant to our ancestors than pure nature, it would be a natural, safe bet to mistake a log floating in the river for a bear, rather than the reverse. Since humans are the most significant things to humans, we will naturally assign human-like attributes to objects and events in nature- we see storms as angry, trees as resisting us when we try to cut them down, etc. These are misapprehensions, but the impulse that gives rise to the misapprehensions is no mistake; it is an essential evolved strategy we have for understanding the world.
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