19 July 2012

Our Lady of Guadalupe visits Jersey

Courtesy PuffHo.
A few days ago, there were varied reports of a defect on a tree in West New York (which is apparently in New Jersey) that looked like the virgin Mary - and the famous Our Lady of Guadalupe in particular.  The religulous went predictably nuts over it.

The local archdiocese called it only a "phenomenon," but that wasn't enough to stop the faithful from acting like teenage girls at a Justin Bieber concert.  (There's videos of the foolishness at PuffHo.)

Here's my favorite explanation: it's a coincidence.  That is to say, if I could examine every tree in the world, I'll bet I can find all manner of shapes.  I'll bet you I can find... Jimmy Durante!  Would that mean Jimmy is still with us?  That Jimmy is god?  Of course not.  In our fantastically diverse universe, all kinds of things look like all kinds of other things.

Courtesy Astrobioblog.
Wait.  That's no moon!

See what I mean?

So why does a worn bit of tree truck make some people freak out so much?  Because they're biased.  They're predisposed to take certain coincidences as significant only because they've been primed by years of brainwashing to do so.  But if the image had been of anything that fell even slightly outside the usual religious memes - well, then it would have just been a mark on a tree.

...hang on; I'll be right back.

Just to show you how easy it is to see things that aren't there: I just went outside and looked around my front yard.  Within two minutes, I'd found something amazing - The All-seeing Eye!

Yes, this is in my front yard.
These are all cases of something called pareidolia and it's a very well-documented phenomenon.  One of the key abilities of living organisms is to pattern match.  Being able to pattern match a tiger hiding in the shrubbery went a long way to helping our progenitors survive.  It's something the brain can do without conscious thought, so it just happens whether we want it to or not.  It shouldn't surprise anyone that we see things - even when we see puppies in the shapes of clouds - that aren't really there.

And under pretty much every other circumstance but the religious one, any reasonably mature human will recognize the oddity as just coincidence.

But when it comes to religion, all bets are off.

I think this really underscores the insidious nature of religious belief: it puts one in a frame of mind that blocks our rational brain from drawing correct conclusions; it obscures our rationality; it deprives us of one of the few characteristics that make humans distinctive among all the forms of life on Earth.

Really now.  Can't we do better than this?

(For the record, when I look at that tree in West New York, I see a dildo.  Just sayin'.)

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