01/26/2015 03:13 pm ET Updated Mar 28, 2015

Pareidolia in Politics: The Face of Faith's Corrupting Influence

We gaze at the night sky and see the comforting order of constellations in the random distribution of stars. We look up and discern shapes of animals in the wispy condensation of clouds. We breathlessly share on social media images of Jesus on burnt toast or the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich or Elvis as a potato chip. Welcome to pareidolia, the human brain's amazing ability to perceive patterns, particularly the image of a human face, in what are in fact purely random phenomena.

In the Beginning...

We humans cannot turn off our instinct to see familiar shapes in the world around us; pareidolia means that our brains demand that there be order even when none exists. And just as we abhor the absence of visual order, we too are unable to accept the unsettling idea of "I don't know" when confronted with the disorder of the unfamiliar. So we make up comforting answers to all that perplexes us, just as we create reassuring images from clouds and toast. By making up answers to dull the sting of ignorance, we fool ourselves into thinking we explain the world, that we see design and significance in the absence of both.

In the abyss of great uncertainty, our ancestors developed elaborate creation myths and gods of the sun rain and oceans to explain the mysteries and happenings of daily life. War gods helped in victory, or not. Fertility gods helped, or not. Religion was our first attempt to predict and manipulate the future; it was also our first stab at physics and astronomy. Ironically, as we gained knowledge about the physical world, the need for multiple gods diminished. As the gods of the gaps grew smaller, we rejected multiple deities to insist rather randomly there is only one. But as did our primitive forebears with multiple deities, we still believe we can communicate with our one god and influence his behavior, because by doing so we gain some control over, impose some order on, the chaotic mysteries of the world. So we still have one more god to go, one more to assign to the pantheon of the fallen. The early quest for knowledge led to religion; ever-greater success has obviated the need. Our very effort to understand nature ultimately undermined the means by which we sought to reveal nature's mysteries. We are just slow to acknowledge that god is superfluous.

Filling the Void

Only one to go, but we are not there yet. Aching with this need to fill the void of the unknown, people east and west all share a compelling quintet of yearning on which religion is founded: fear of death; the desire to explain away nature's mystery; hopes for controlling one's destiny; a longing for social cohesion; and the corrupting allure of power. Note that nowhere in that equation of religion's foundation is a demand for reason, fact, or evidence to support one's belief. Instead, the religions we create demand that we simply believe through faith, as a means of self-justification. Pareidolia predisposes us toward such folly. A great leap it is not from seeing an image in a cloud to believing that the image is real. We gladly believe, we desperately want to believe, in the god we created, in the images and answers we made up. We do so in the absence of any objective supporting evidence because faith tautologically rejects the idea that such evidence is necessary.

Religion is like our appendix, a vestigial remnant from a primitive past. Perhaps in a few millennia the god of Abraham will invoke the same curious amusement as rain and sun gods do today. Or perhaps our god will simply be shelved along with Zeus and Jupiter. Some day. But until then, we suffer the consequences of a population that believes in the absence of evidence and, more curiously, rejects an objective reality that conflicts with beliefs easily proven false. And here we come to how all this ties to the politics of today.

In our rush to still the pang of ignorance, we confound faith and fact. Pareidolia rears its ugly head as we see things that are not there and are blinded to things that are. Because faith demands no proof, people cling stubbornly to a belief in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence. We see patterns because we want to; we reject what we dislike because faith allows that. Faith trumps fact. Reality is optional. So we have a group opposed to irradiated food that ignores the existence of more than 50 known strains of E. coli that can cause bloody diarrhea, kidney failure, and death. People are duped by claims of harmful emissions from cell phones or cell towers. Life-saving diagnostic x-rays are eschewed from fear of radiation, and vulnerable people are persuaded to rely on crystals and astrology for guidance. The public is unable to filter exaggerated claims by environmental groups (Alar in apples) from legitimate concerns like global climate change. This ignorance has deadly consequences; ask the parents of every child who died from a preventable disease from unfounded fears of vaccines, or subsistence farmers looking at starvation in the face of crops withering in a changing climate. In Africa, eight healthcare workers combating the Ebola epidemic were killed by an angry mob who believed the doctors and nurses were infecting people with the virus. The population most in need of help murdered the only people who could provide assistance. As do those African villagers, climate deniers reject widely accepted scientific fact and accumulated knowledge. Without any anchor in the sciences, reality is an option to be rejected whenever the real world gives us inconvenient truths. As in Africa, this deadly ignorance is borne of unfounded fear and denials based in the irrational rejection of basic established fact.

Fiction, Faith and Fact

When fiction becomes confused with fact, we sever our critical tether to reality. The conclusions from years of careful research, scrutinized by competing scientists and published in peer-reviewed journals carry no more weight with the public than the random thoughts of a bloated pundit. Talking heads with no training now have the same authority as highly qualified experts. So global warming is dismissed as a liberal hoax in spite of a preponderance of scientific evidence. Climate and weather are mistakenly thought to be the same so that with every winter storm comes the pathetic and childish assertion that the world could not be getting hotter. When presented with evidence, skeptics selectively demand more "proof" without understanding what that concept means in scientific inquiry. Yet, with considerable irony again, when we are not discussing climate change, many hold beliefs securely for which there is no proof at all, the flipside consequence of misunderstanding the scientific method. The anti-vaccine movement demands no proof of the link to autism, which has been thoroughly discredited. They simply believe.

This elevation of faith to fact, and confusing belief with evidence, has real consequences. Nowhere can that be seen more clearly than in conservative opposition to President Obama over the past seven years. By untethering ties to reality, by claiming faith is sufficient proof of any belief, the GOP can with a straight face blame Obama for everything bad, no matter how far removed from Obama in reality, and give him credit for nothing good, independent of how directly his actions led to that good. No leap of logic or time or reason is too great for them to link Obama with something unpleasant, and no cause and effect, no matter how obvious or self-evident, is too strong for them to dismiss, reject or ignore. Facts do not matter.

The idea that the GOP has substituted faith for fact is easily enough proven. Take any area of improvement -- lower unemployment, rising stock market, declining gas prices, an expanding economy, health care -- and then ask any conservative friend if Obama can be credited for any of that. When the inevitable answer is no, ask the following question: Is there any circumstance, any result, any area of improvement that can be attributed to Obama? Elevated gas prices were his fault, but prices lowered in spite of him. He was blamed for the declining stock market he inherited, but given no credit for a market that more than doubled during his tenure. His economic policies were blamed for high unemployment, but those same polices have nothing to do with rates falling below 6 percent. What could Obama have done, what outcome could we have seen, for which a conservative would be willing to credit him? The untenable but predictable answer is none, at least in the faith-based world of conservatives.

We can only come to this deep divide, this unbridgeable political chasm, because political opponents simply cannot admit that the other side has had any success. And that position is possible in the face of undeniable success only because facts are rejected as nothing but inconveniences, easily dismissed as irrelevant to the greater ideal of faith. This slide away from an objective reality is the primary cause of extreme polarization because faith allows for the creation of an alternative universe in which an opponent is easily demonized by dismissing ameliorating facts. A big leap it is not from believing in god and the devil to believing in anything at all, including that the president is a radical Christian but also a Muslim and a foreign-citizen socialist who will take your guns away. Facts don't matter; we create a fictional order in the face of randomness and then call that real, and the chasm becomes ever wider. Faith and ignorance are not benign, and they become downright dangerous when they are confused with rationality. Pareidolia is great for a kid lying in the grass looking up skyward; it's not so great as a foundation for a political movement.