November 7, 2015


René Girard, a French-born thinker on faith, culture and war (ERASMUS, 11/07/15, The Economist)

A few deceptively simple concepts lay at the heart of his world view, which he developed through the study of European literature, of early mythology and religious texts. He was struck by the way in which human desire is imitative or "mimetic"; once basic needs are met, people's desires are shaped in emulation of others and this leads to deadly competition. This would lead to perpetual anarchy, in his view, were it not for the capacity of human communities to achieve a kind of stability by ganging up on one individual who becomes a scapegoat. In every seemingly stable community, one must look for the "founding murder"--an act of victimisation, real or mythological, that somehow holds the perpetrators together. This can be acted out ritually as well as literally, and that was the original function of religion: to make sacrifices, of humans or animals, that led to a kind of compact among the sacrificers.

Girard thought that for "scapegoating" and sacrifice in its traditional form to work, the perpetrators had to believe that the victim was guilty. But as he describes things, this begins to change in the Hebrew scriptures, which present innocent victims of sacrifice. The reversal is complete in the Christian story of the self-sacrifice of the Son of God, who is portrayed as radically innocent. In his later years, an apocalyptic strain developed in Girard's thinking. Having shown how the use of force was "functional" in traditional human society ("the institution of war was originally a way of regulating and limiting human violence," as one follower put it), he came to feel that violence was escaping all constraints.

For Girard, one summary view might have it, at the very beginning it is not religion that leads to violence, but violence which leads to--which indeed creates a need for--religion, as a way of channeling and constraining the use of force.

The Innocent Victim Has a Defender. And He Is in Jerusalem : Modernity learns to take the side of the weak from the Judaeo-Christian tradition. But were does Islamic terrorism come from? An interview with René Girard  [From "L´Espresso" no. 25, June 12, 2003, original title: "The God of the Apocalypse," Attilio Scarpellini´s conversation with René Girard]

In your book, you speak of "apocalyptic sentiment" in the West. Are we standing helpless before a catastrophe?

"Apocalyptic sentiment arises from the realization that some mechanism has completely deteriorated, that its screen can no longer protect us, that there is nothing standing in the way of our destruction. In the primitive religions, this mechanism was the scapegoat: the idea that the sacrifice of a victim would bring back order and harmony. With Judaism, and then with Christianity, the truth that the scapegoat mechanism is an instrument of persecution was brought to light: the victim is innocent; violence does not come from God. And so the sacrificial protection was eliminated, leaving us to ourselves." [...]

And Islam?

"Islam has problems with violence. But we must avoid confusion. Islam cannot be classified as a primitive religion: it is a monotheistic religion that belongs to the religious family of Abraham, and it has been profoundly influenced by both Judaism and Christianity. Islam, too, contains the seed of a critical stance toward violence. Human sacrifice is not part of the Muslim tradition, and no orthodox or authoritative religious current of Islam justifies it. Islam is not sacrificial."

But there are the suicide bombers.

"That´s true. Fundamentalist terrorism is sacrificial. But it is a contradiction that plays upon the ambiguity of our relationship with religion and the sacred."

The philosopher Jean Baudrillard says that the behavior of the suicide bombers is an assertion of moral superiority, in that they are capable of sacrificing themselves and others, a symbolic challenge that westerners are no longer able to accept.

"I haven´t read much by Baudrillard lately. But in this case I would be tempted to agree with him. We are not capable of accepting the terrorist´s challenge to sacrifice because the logic of suicide-homicide is unacceptable in a moral context permeated by Christianity; because we do not believe that the mechanism of the sacrificial victim has any value. The act of the suicide bomber who immolates himself and his enemy on the same altar may draw our attention - as does in fact happen - but it doesn´t convince us. But to think that the refusal of this sacrifice weakens the West is merely a way of reviving Nietzsche´s criticisms of Christianity."

Do you have a better explanation?

"The truth is that the West is continuing to come to grips with the problem of the victim. Not to do so would be to deny itself. Even the proponents of the extreme military response of uprooting terrorism - which risks intensifying the reaction - must be concerned in the first place with making as few victims as possible."

You love the West. In "The Origin of Culture and the End of History" you insist on the uniqueness of the western model and say that you are in favor of globalization.

"For the first time in history, we have a society that cannot be compared with others because it includes the whole planet. Every historical period, every culture, considers itself as unique, but a globalized culture has never existed before now. We really are unique. And we are the first culture that denies its own uniqueness for fear of offending past cultures."

Posted by at November 7, 2015 7:02 AM