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Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion Paperback – April 6, 1995

11 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0195098914 ISBN-10: 0195098919 Edition: 1st

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In an ambiguous, threatening world, religion is "a good bet," writes Fordham University anthropologist Guthrie. His startling theory holds that the world's religions are best understood as "systematic anthropomorphism," arising from the universal tendency to ascribe human characteristics to God and gods, to nature, animals, the weather and daily occurrences. People anthropomorphize, he maintains, because they perceive the world in terms of their own interests. Through the perceptual strategy of animism, they attribute life to objects and events, conjuring a panoply of spirit beings, according to Guthrie's schema. As for Buddhism and other creeds with no deities, Guthrie maintains that they are not religions but, rather, ethical or psychological systems. He scrutinizes anthropomorphism in the visual arts and philosophy, drawing on cognitive science, ethnography and psychology to buttress his often debatable points. His theory complements and revises theories that interpret religion as social glue, wish-fulfillment, primitive science or means of interaction with sacred and spiritual realms. Illustrated.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Guthrie (anthropology, Fordham Univ.) critiques previous theories of the origin of religion and explains his view that religion is systematic anthropomorphism, which attributes human characteristics to events as well as to things in the world. Religion gives humanlike beings a central role in the worldview, while nonreligious constructs ascribe less importance to such beings. This anthropomorphism is perceptual, pervasive, and largely unconscious, resulting in an interpretative bet. 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. Academic and seminary libraries will need this provocative and carefully argued explanation.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (April 6, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195098919
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195098914
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.9 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #756,558 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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46 of 49 people found the following review helpful By Bradley P. Rich on May 12, 2002
Format: Paperback 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.
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36 of 39 people found the following review helpful By P. Murray on March 27, 2000
Format: Paperback 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.
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23 of 29 people found the following review helpful By J. Michael Showalter on January 30, 2001
Format: Paperback
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....
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Jay Young on February 21, 2009
Format: Paperback
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.
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