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.
"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
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."
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.
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....
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