by mr dan
Watch the vlog and see many more examples of hilarious pareidolia.
Last week my ever-astute local media brought to my attention a notable elm tree in the town of Wallingford, CT, which some believers claim bears the face of Jesus.
The tree, in front of David Doolittle‘s North Main Street home, had a limb cut a few years ago, and what looks like the face of the Nazarene appears in its place.
Wallingford is about an hour from me and I‘d never been there before, but as coincidence would have it, my band was due to play a show there only a few days later, less than 2 miles from the tree. Naturally, I had to make a pilgrimage.
I have to admit, the image is pretty obvious. Unlike some supposed miracles where you have to squint and turn your head the right way, this one very strongly resembles a somewhat goofy image of the traditional Western depiction of Jesus. Or at least a long-haired, bearded man. I can see how one might be tempted to take this as irrefutable proof that Jesus was actually a cartoon character.
Seeing funny images in random stuff is kind of a passion of mine. It’s what intelligent, or “not crazy,” people like to call pareidolia—the psychological phenomenon of attatching a special significance to a random stimulus. If you’re a word nerd, you’ve already noticed the word “idol” in there—both words come from the greek eidōlon, image or form (para- means beside).
Pareidolia can be a lot of fun. It can make a soap dispenser look terrified or a kayak look angry. It’s what makes people see a person in the clouds, or that face on Mars, or constellations in the night sky. It‘s how we know Mickey Mouse is a mouse, even though he looks nothing like one. It gives us the ability to see and interpret emoticons, Rorschach tests, and Georgia O’Keefe paintings.
Pareidolia gets a little scary, though, when the faithful not only see images of their religious icons everywhere they look, but also insist that the occurrences serve as proof of their God‘s magic and influence over this world. There‘s no end to the number of random smudges, smears, burns and growths that some faithful fools will call a miracle. The Virgin Mary on grilled cheese sandwich. Mother Theresa on a cinnamon bun. Jesus in a fish fillet. The name of Allah on the side of a goat. One of my favorites is a photo of a bonfire in Poland which some Catholics say shares a silhouette with Pope John Paul II.
Of course, because pareidolia is all in the eye of the beholder, each of us can interpret the image any way we wish.
Some believers say it was God‘s divine magic that brought the cartoonish image to Wallingford. More likely explanations include sap oozing from the tree, or the result of any number of diseases that trees can get. Though the limb was cut “three or four years ago,” Mr Doolittle only saw the image recently when someone pointed it out to him. Maybe the image just appeared (which is not so improbable if sap or disease is really the cause), or perhaps it‘s been there since the limb was cut, and Doolittle never noticed it until someone pointed it out.
Carl Sagan attributes the phenomenon of pareidolia to early humans’ need to easily recognize human faces with few details (for example, from a distance or in poor light). It also occurs in audio, giving rise to Elecronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP) and backwards masking. We see or hear a few details, and our brain does its job of trying to interpret them to the best of its ability, fitting it in to what it knows. And if our intent is to see Jesus on a tree, or hear a Satanic message in a heavy metal song, or see male and female genitalia just about everywhere, it’s very easy for our brain to pull that off.
Why is it always the Muslims who see the name of Allah, and Catholics who see the Virgin Mary? Why do religious images only appear to members of that particular faith? Because when atheists see Jesus on a tortilla chip, they dip it in salsa and eat it. The tiny blurs have no significance to someone who isn’t looking for an idol to worship. People who are inclined to think that Jesus is always with them are going to see him everywhere.
Jesus has as many faces as the artists who have depicted him throughout the last two millennia. All the paintings, drawings, mosaics, film and theatrical interpretations and sculptures have tended to portray him in the image of the artist. If he ever existed at all, no one knows what he looked like, but it’s quite clear he didn‘t look anything like the traditional Western Jesus. Though he was supposedly a Jew, he has never been portrayed on film by a Jewish actor, and appears to be a white, Northern-European in most artistic images. And since the Apostle Paul wrote that “if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him” (1 Corinthians 11:14, NIV), it can be safely assumed that he did not have the flowing locks he wears on the walls of churches and museums — or the trees in Connecticut.
It tends to be only the craziest theists who think God works miracles through tortilla chips or soap scum or cinnamon buns. But they are out there, trying to make miracles out of molehills–or claiming to see Jesus when the rest of us just see some sap in a tree.
mr dan is the vice president of CVA. The views expressed in this posting are his own and do not necessarily represent those of Connecticut Valley Atheists or its members.