The phenomenon of pareidolia has fascinated me for some time. Pareidolia is the collective terminology to denote interpretation of sensory perception (usually vision or hearing) of meaningless stimuli in terms of something meaningful. The paradigm examples are faces in the clouds, the man in the moon, hearing words in music that is played backwards. The neural and evolutionary mechanisms for pareidolia are getting better understood. Understanding language and seeing faces are subserved by specialized neural mechanisms. According to Stewart Guthrie (1993, Faces in the clouds) they are good examples of the dictum that it's better to be safe than sorry. Better to have a false positive (seeing a face, viz a social agent where there is none) than a false negative (failing to see a social agent where there is one). This would plausible explain why many instances of pareidolia are faces. However, I find it intriguing that many pareidolia are religious, and I haven't yet come across a satisfying explanation for this.
Christians across the world see the face of Jesus in slices of pizza, coffee mugs, toast, and even a cross-section of kit kat (see here for examples). Catholics see the face of the virgin Mary. Muslims see fragments of Qu'ran verses or God's name in beehives, watermelons, and chapattis (see here for examples).The Muslim example is particularly interesting, because the pareidolia aren't faces but a word in calligraphy. Hindus see Hanuman. Similarly, the backwards played music isn't just random words, but typically, sinister satanic messages. So why religious social agents, rather than just social agents? Why don't we see Richard Dawkins in a tortilla? I'm not claiming that there are never non-religious pareidolia (this one is particulary disturbing). But they are a lot rarer than the religious ones.
Is it because religious agents are typically less determined (nobody knows what Jesus or Mary look like) than historical figures? This strikes me as a bit problematic, because the religious pareidolia are sometimes historical figures as well, like Mother Theresa in a bun, or Pope John II in a bonfire (see picture). One possible explanation may be that religious people are more prone to see social agency. After all, there seems to be a correlation between less religiosity and autism, so it seems plausible that more religious people might be at the other end of the spectrum. But even correct, this doesn't explain why they would be more prone to see religious agents rather than other agents?