Does religion give rise to violence — or the other way around? (COMMENTARY)

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French philosopher René Girard during a colloquium in Paris in 2007. Girard, who wrote about religion and violence, died Nov. 4. PHOTO: Wikipedia/Vicq.

French philosopher René Girard during a colloquium in Paris in 2007. Girard, who wrote about religion and violence, died Nov. 4. PHOTO: Wikipedia/Vicq.

(RNS) It’s often argued that religion gives rise to violence. But what if it were really the other way around? What if violence actually gave rise to religion?

So argued the French anthropologist and philosopher René Girard, who died Nov. 4. Described as the “Darwin of the human sciences,” he was elected to the French Academy in 2005 for his seminal theories of sacred violence.

Mass killings by a group that calls itself the Islamic State have triggered a heated debate about Islam and violence.

Regardless of the dubiousness of the group’s claim to leadership of the faith, Girard’s theories deserve wider appreciation as we confront the threat from militant Islam and our sometimes panicked responses. Perhaps he can shed some light on why we find ourselves ineluctably drawn into a horrific cycle of revenge and reprisal.

Girard acknowledged that violence is at the heart of religious rituals and rhetoric; he was well aware that religious passions can lead to terrible persecutions. But Girard provocatively claimed that violence is even more primordial in human life than religion; it is violence, in fact, that leads to religion. He argued that religious practices function to sublimate, regulate and discharge human violence in controlled rituals.


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Where does violence come from? According to Girard, violence stems from the nature of human desire itself. As a student of literature, Girard was fascinated by the French love triangle: A man desires a woman because he sees that she is loved by another man. Although we like to imagine that our desires stem from our own unique personalities, in reality, he claimed, we “catch” our desires from other people. Unfortunately, the social nature of desires means that all desire is rivalrous: We cannot help but covet our neighbor’s possessions. Soon we are in direct conflict over scarce resources, and the war of all against all has begun.

According to Girard’s theory, our individual rivalries suddenly become focused on a single victim, and the war of all against all gives way to the war of all against one. A random scapegoat is selected on the basis of some social stigma and then killed. At once, a society riven by myriad conflicts comes together in harmony. All social order, claimed Girard, stems from the unity of a lynch mob.

Flowers have been placed at the French ambassador's residence in Washington, DC, in a sign of solidarity after the Nov. 14 terrorist attacks in Paris. PHOTO: RNS/Jerome Socolovsky.

Flowers have been placed at the French ambassador’s residence in Washington, D.C., in a sign of solidarity after the Nov. 14 terrorist attacks in Paris. PHOTO: RNS/Jerome Socolovsky

To commemorate the social harmony created by the murder of the scapegoat, the original murder is symbolically re-enacted through the sacrificial killing of human and then later animal victims. In this way, the violent impulses that led to the scapegoat murder are sublimated and controlled by religious ritual, especially ritual sacrifice.

Girard’s theory of sacred violence takes its most controversial turn when he claims that biblical religion, especially Christianity, is a radical attack on the whole logic of religious violence. After all, according to the Gospels, Jesus was killed by the Jewish high priests and by the Romans as a scapegoat and as a sacrificial victim. That God himself became the victim of both scapegoat murder and sacrificial killing demonstrates, says Girard, that the central message of the Gospels is to overturn once and for all the whole machinery of scapegoat murder and sacrificial violence.

Of course, Christians themselves have notoriously participated in scapegoat persecution of Jews and heretics, so Girard has conceded that many if not most actual Christians have failed to grasp what he takes to be the central teaching of Christianity. Despite this, many conservative Christians are attracted to Girard’s theory of Christianity as the enemy of all ancient religions.


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The imaginative power and explanatory range of Girard’s theories are extraordinary. From the psychology of desire and the sociology of violence to the anthropology of religion and the interpretation of the Bible, his research led him to trespass onto many fields of knowledge. He spent most of his career teaching in America, where he enjoyed boundless intellectual freedom but also received scathing criticism from scholars across the disciplines. Whether such “grand theory” in the human and social sciences is still possible — given the highly specialized nature of today’s academic research — remains an open question.

Whatever the vagaries of his reputation among academics, Girard’s most lasting cultural legacy is to provide an intellectual basis for Christian pacifism. Before Girard, pacifists could rely on little more than the sayings of Jesus. Girard’s theory of sacred violence provides a comprehensive psychology, anthropology, sociology and theology of peacemaking. If Darwin made atheism intellectually respectable, then Girard has done the same for pacifism.

What lessons can we draw from Girard that are germane to the latest outrage in Paris? Given that Girard believes our desires stem from social rivalry, his warning is: “Choose your enemies carefully because you will become like them.” Girard unfashionably denied that there is a significant moral difference between parties to violent conflict: Both are caught up in a demonic logic that will end in mutual destruction.

Near the end of his life, Girard worried about the deadly rivalry of nations armed with nuclear weapons. He came to the view, first articulated by Martin Luther King Jr., that our choice today is between nonviolence and nonexistence.

(James Bernard Murphy is professor of government at Dartmouth College and has just completed a book manuscript titled “A Genealogy of Violence: René Girard in Dialogue.”)

JS/MG END MURPHY

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  • jack stephens

    By claiming reward in the afterlife for dying in service of the faith the teachings of Islam, as understood by many believers, inspire suicide bombers. In addition the Islamic teaching that apostates should be killed regularly results in murder in countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan. These are very clear examples of religious belief inspiring violence.

  • Lou

    Why are all beating around the bush.
    Either the God, Supreme being , Pasta monster or whom ever you call Him,Her,or it, has decided that Love, Hate , War, Peace , Relationship based on terms yet undefined, will be the basis of those trying to obey, copy or imitate this Supreme being…
    Each one has “made” some defining statements about themselves, a those who choose to belive them will have a happier earthly life.
    To me faith is an expectant hope based up whom you choose to believe.

  • Deacon John M Bresnahan

    One point—not all religions are the same. To consider Islam and Christianity the exact same under the one heading “religion” is to consider Communism and Jeffersonian democracy the exact same under the one heading: “Politics:” But the politicians who get us into wars seem to escape all blame by those who like to blame all religions or all evil.

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  • Joe

    I think Girard was onto something. I haven’t read his books yet, though I am planning on starting within the next month. He’s quoted by so many people I’ve been reading lately, and it seems (from a distant perspective) that he has found a way to give congruency to the teachings of Scripture (specifically between the OT God and Jesus). The modern evangelical interpretation of Christianity lacks intellectual honesty. I hope to see other scholars build on Girard’s work.

    http://godsfoolishness.blogspot.com/2015/11/did-god-kill-jesus.html

  • Ben in oakland

    Girard’s theory is nonsense. A man desires a woman because she is desired by another man? How gay is that?

    Religion is a drug. And like most drugs, it makes you be however you are, just Moreso.

    How is this for simplicity? God is what you use to justify what cannot be justified By any other means.

    If you are a violent person, religion is your excuse to be violent.

    If you are a bigot, religion justifies your bigotry.

    If you are obsessed by your own sexuality, religion tells you it’s ok to use religion to justify trying to control the sex lives of others.

    READ the manifesto published by the sick perverts responsible for the carnage in Paris. They are obsessed with sexual purity, for everyone but themselves. As are all fundamentalists of every faith. as susy bright says:

    Every fundamentalist religion today is running on the fumes of sexual psychosis. They are huffing and huffing and huffing until they annihilate everything including themselves.

  • Bernardo

    Does religion give rise to violence? Of course it does and is dictated in books like the koran:

    An example:

    Quran (8:12) – “I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them”

    And please no “out of context” excuse. Imams and their terrorists don’t follow said excuses but follow the literal word of the Koran.

  • Ed Silha

    Reply to Deacon John M Bresnahan
    Not all religions are “exactly” the same. The extreme behaviors of Christians have been moderated (limited) by secularism and liberalism. However, some Christians still espouse killing others based on differing religious views (e.g., LGBT persons, abortion providers). Were it not for secular limitations, some of these people would not hesitate to take a life, claiming they know the mind of god and he wants them to kill. Both the Koran and the Bible include language that justifies killing others for religious reasons (e.g., adultery, worshiping a different god), including the killing of women, children, and babies.

  • Todd

    Bingo, Ed. We have a winner.

  • Bernardo

    Synoptic,

    Well versed in the Christian message are you. The message, however, is no longer relevant in the 21st century as your hero as shown by rigorous historic testing was a simple, preacher man of the 1st century CE elevated to deity status by the likes of P, M, M, L, John, Pilate and the sword of Constantine. Yes, Pilate is in the list for if it were not for his rule of law, Jesus could have been sent to the Roman salt mines and not the cross. Hopefully, you have thanked the man for without him you have no basis of your religion.

  • Bernardo

    No god does not since he/she/it is a figment of the human imagination.

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  • Synoptic12

    אלוהים מגיע כשאתה הכי פחות מצפה