Pareidolia is “that phenomenon wherein people see things that aren’t there because human brains are wired for pattern recognition”. Children see animals in the clouds or letters in a pile of sticks; adults are likely to see images fraught with special meaning, especially (though not only) religious images such as the Virgin Mary, the cross or the face of Jesus. Via Orac comes an irresistible six-minute video of the highlights of Christian pareidolia stories for 2008.
Orac hazards the view — though I’m not sure what the evidence is in either direction — that in societies with a different religious foundation or none at all, people would see something else in grilled cheese sandwiches, tree bark, cinnamon bun residues, dirty windows, and other objects presenting random visual patterns. (Compare the 2005 story in which Burger King redesigned the swirl on an ice cream lid after a Muslim man objected that it was too reminiscent of the Arabic inscription for Allah).
From the same blog, but on an entirely different subject, a study of medicine and religion finds that (to quote the blog, not the study) “Faith in a higher power can often lead to more aggressive treatment than is medically warranted”. In cases of incurable cancer, strong religious conviction on the part of patients is apparently more likely to correlate with the use of ventilators, death while in intensive care, and other heroic/invasive measures, as opposed to hospice. Orac (who is a medical doctor specializing in cancer) has an extended and interesting discussion.
Finally, a Missouri library has agreed to settle “Deborah Smith’s claim that she lost her job as a librarian assistant in Poplar Bluff, Mo., because she refused to attend a ‘Harry Potter Night’ promoting the publication of ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ in July 2007.” Smith believed the Potter books dabble in the occult and was not mollified at the library director’s offer to let her participate behind the scenes where her fellow church members would not have to realize she was involved.