“So why did the snake’s wife file for divorce? You give up? Ereptile Dysfunction, ha ha! Get it? Heh, hmmmm…Well, I thought it was funny…” *
Anthropomorphism is the act of characterizing something that isn’t human with human qualities, feelings and motivations. Bugs Bunny, for instance, speaks English, stands up on two legs and is generally a smartass. We all know that real rabbits don’t do either of these things, so Bugs is what we call an anthropomorphized rabbit (and a damn funny one, too).
It’s virtually impossible to practice any sort of theistic religion without anthropomorphizing a Deity to some extent. The most obvious example is polytheism, where we’re actually encouraged to invoke our Deities into cult images. Usually these images are at least somewhat humanoid, even if they have animal heads (as with the Egyptian pantheon) or multiple appendages (as with the Hindu pantheon). Even when these images are more zoomorphic, polytheists are often animists as well and believe that animals have souls just as humans do (as well as trees, rivers, stars, planets, etc.).
This sounds pretty weird to most people, and we polytheists are often called “idolaters” by mainstream faiths. This is actually really offensive, especially when it comes to the insinuation that we’re stupid enough to think our Gods are just pieces of stone or wood. In reality, calling our Deities into cult images is really no different from the idea of Yahweh becoming a man named Jesus to bridge the gap between Himself and the human race. It’s also no different from using crucifixes or statues to represent Jesus and/or the Virgin Mary. We don’t worship the images themselves; we worship the entities those images represent. It’s like having a photograph of someone you love; everyone knows the photograph and the person aren’t the same thing. When we offer things of value to images of Gods, it’s a symbolic way of demonstrating hospitality to Them. It’s the closest thing we have to actually “Skyping” with Them and interacting with Them face-to-face.
As indicated above, polytheists aren’t the only ones who anthropomorphize their Deities. When most Westerners hear the word “God,” they inevitably imagine a white-bearded man sitting on a throne in the clouds (like on The Simpsons or Family Guy). Even Jews and Muslims can’t avoid doing this a little bit. Many of their theologians have said that Yahweh/Allah has no gender; yet they continue to refer to Him as a “He.” Now of course, it’s much easier to identify with a Deity if we can call it a “He” or a “She” instead of an “It,” but that’s my point; we humans can’t identify with Deities unless we humanize Them somehow. (It’s also interesting that despite being asexual, Yahweh is almost never called a “She”; the image of “God” having a penis and facial hair is just too prevalent.) Furthermore, the Bible and the Koran both tell us that “God said” something numerous times, despite the understanding that Yahweh/Allah doesn’t have a physical mouth. Sure, statements like this are symbolic (just like the images we polytheists use for our Gods), but they still paint unavoidable images in the reader’s mind. In this way, every theistic religion is “guilty” of “idolatry” to some extent. (The only religions that manage to avoid this are the non-theistic ones, like Taoism and Buddhism, which don’t necessarily believe in the existence of Deities.)
The funny thing is, this image wasn’t invented by Seth McFarlane; it goes all the way back to the ancient Canaanite Deity, El.
It seems to me that most people now think of anthropomorphism as a “bad” thing, like it’s something that only children or primitive cavepeople would do (or which is only suitable as a literary device). But we now know that willow, poplar and sugar maple trees will actually warn each other about impending insect attacks; that bees have been known to possess both cognition and an extremely complicated language; and that beavers are basically hydraulic engineers, creating dams to make ponds and building houses for their families. Granted, trees, bees and beavers may not think, feel or communicate in the exact same way that humans do, but the point is that they do in fact think, feel and communicate. And when ancient people anthropomorphized these and other aspects of nature, it was their way of living in balance with the rest of the universe.
I think it’s really sad that in today’s world, people usually think of nature as some soulless, alien thing that only exists to be exploited. Is it any wonder that our planet is also more polluted and torn up than it’s ever been before? You don’t have to anthropomorphize nature to respect it and live in balance with it; certainly, Lord Buddha is a primary example of this. But considering that (1) this practice is now almost universally frowned upon outside of fiction and (2) we seem to be trapped in an escalating cycle of koyaanisqatsi (“life out of balance”), I think the backlash against anthropomorphism is at least partly – if not largely – to blame.
* “The Viper and the Blood Sucker,” from The Fables of Florian by J. J. Granville (1888)