Profane Pseudotheology

A Critique of René Girard’s Theory of Mimetic Violence

Keywords: mimesis, violence, human sacrifice, scapegoat, anthropology, atonement, Christianity, paganism.

It is argued that the mimetic theory of René Girard (1923-2015) has not the universal explanatory value which he claims; nor is it sufficiently empirically validated. Nevertheless, it likely contains a grain of truth. He begins with a plausible idea about the centrality of mimetic desire among human beings, but then blows it out of proportion until it is no longer plausible. Girard avers: “The unanimous mimeticism of the scapegoat is the true ruler of human society” (Girard, 1986, p. 145). Because the origin of social life is derived from the mimetic nature of human behavior, every community is doomed to face the “sacrificial crisis” — chaos brought about by loss of distinctions. Up until the advent of Christianity, this mechanism was a necessary evil:

Because humans imitate one another, they have had to find a means of dealing with contagious similarity, which could lead to the pure and simple disappearance of their society. The mechanism by which they have done that is sacrifice, which reintroduces difference into a situation in which everyone has come to resemble everyone else. (Girard, 2009)

We had no other choice than to subject some of our peers to persecution, or else there could be no society and culture. We would become like a single organism, lacking the differentiation necessary for social life. (This would imply that genetic differences aren’t sufficient to differentiate people.) Girard’s account of human origins is an event which he calls the “founding murder” — the collective murder of a single victim. The concept is inspired by Sigmund Freud’s “primordial murder”. Such an act of collective murder temporarily saves the community from an outbreak of social chaos and indiscriminate violence. Says Girard:

People become so burdened with scandals that they desperately, if unconsciously, seek public substitutes, collective targets upon whom to unburden themselves. All those who join a belligerent crowd transfer their private scandals to some public target. As more and more people join in, the common victim’s attractiveness as a victim increases, and the process becomes irresistible. This explains why Jesus uses the word scandal in connection with his Passion. When he warns his disciples that he is about to become a scandal to them, it really means that they will be affected by the mimetic tidal wave. (Girard, 1993)

The sacrificial ritual is a reenactment of the founding murder. Thus, paganism, and the oldest biblical culture, relied on a view of the sacred as the collective persecution of the falsely accused scapegoat (“emissary victim”). It depends on our human tendency to transfer guilt and inner conflict onto arbitrary victims. (So the term ‘scapegoat’ is used in the modern sense as “fall guy”.) Girard asserts that paganism relies on an economy of sacrifice that serves to recreate the cathartic effect of the founding murder, thus augmenting the generative power of malevolence and cruelty. Violence is thus transformed into the primus motor of society. Sacred violence generates culture.

According to this view, the sociological mechanism behind the scapegoat sacrifice is “to limit violence as much as possible but to turn to it, if necessary, as a last resort to avoid an even greater violence” (Girard, 1986, p. 113). Christianity represents an inversion of the pattern, away from the economy of sacrifice to the generative power of justice, mercy and forgiveness. The Christian “true myth” is the only one that can quell this central aspect of human nature and society. It’s because it sees things from the side of the scapegoat — “the sacred type of representation of persecution”. The revelation “assures the reformation of the authorities through the mediation of the scapegoat, or in other words the sacred” (ibid. pp. 113-15). The Passion is unique in that it finally reveals that the scapegoat is innocent and therefore falsely accused. It has been revealed that persecutors hate without cause, and this is equal to the reversal of founding murder. The Passion story has disclosed the sacred persecutional mechanism and thereby decisively disarmed it.

By adopting the sacrificial economy, human culture has accommodated violence. Violence is kept in moderation while its mythology is being recycled and reproduced. Sooner or later the mechanism is bound to break, leading to apocalyptic violence. The apocalyptic foretellings in the gospels refer to this-worldly violence initiated not by God but by man (cf. Girard, 2003, p. 260). Similarly, in the Book of Job, it is the community which is behind the sufferings of Job, not God (despite Job’s insistence to the contrary). In the Book of Job, God still bears the insignia of the persecutory God, although he no longer is synonymous with violence. Only in Christianity divinity is fully divested of humanity’s projections of the violent sacred (vid. Girard, 1987).

Unlike the theologians, Girard does not reason on the basis of a metaphysical divine. (Theology, of course, reckons with authentic divine power.) To Girard God is merely an abstraction constituted of our projections. A “realistic” exegesis shall serve to deconstruct religion’s hold on our souls. He aims to demystify traditional religion, because the role of its mythic content is merely to present a narrative which can justify the arbitrary use of violence against the scapegoat (cf. Girard, 1979, p. 476). It is a psychosocial perspective, and it mustn’t be categorized as theology. He sees himself as a philosophical anthropologist. He views secularization as the fruit, not the enemy, of Christianity in modernity. Says Girard:

The same scapegoating that myth misunderstands and therefore reveres as sacred truth, the Gospels understand and denounce as the lie that it really is. This denunciation is the alpha and omega of all genuine deconstruction and demythification […] Far from being the scapegoat religion par excellence, Christianity is the only religion that explicitly rejects scapegoating as a basis for a religious epiphany. (Girard, 1993)

This is an agnostic atonement theory. Christ’s death serves only to placate violence among humans. It does not qualify as a Christian atonement theory, because Christ’s sacrifice is universal. He saves the whole of cosmos from the deteriorating effect of sin. But it is not the theologians who have a strong bias in questions of atonement. It is Girard who accuses all exegetes before himself of misreading the biblical evidence. What about the Old Testamental sacrifice, e.g., Genesis 22? Did Abraham really mean to sacrifice Isaac because he perceived him as guilty? Did he canalize his anger onto him, an anger that should really be directed at the enemy tribes, for instance? It doesn’t make sense and this is not how the bible portrays it. In my view, what happened at this moment was that Abraham internalized the sacrifice. In his heart, he had already performed the sacrifice when he raised the sacrificial knife. That it is a story about inner devotion is substantiated by the fact that there appears among the prophets a situational rejection of the sacrificial cult. It has been argued that Amos, Hosea, et al., reacted against a cult that had become too formal. The exterior performance of worship was not matched by an interior devotion. The prophets would then have condemned a sacrificial cult that resembled idolatry.

All sacrifices in history have served to heal the relation between God and man. Theologian John S. Mbiti explains that when blood is shed in an African sacrificial context, it implies that human or animal life is given back to God (or to the spirits that demand the sacrifice) (Mbiti, 1975, pp. 57-59). Blood is life-spirit. As a consequence, the divinity is empowered to rectify things here on earth. It appears that pagan theology confutes Girard, who says that the sacrifice placates the wrath of humans. Central to Girard’s theory is ‘misrecognition’ (méconnaissance), a kind of “unanimous misunderstanding”, essential to the scapegoat mechanism and necessary to its proper functioning. The people must have the conviction that the victim carries ultimate responsibility for societal unrest, or perhaps for sins committed in community against the divine order. The peace that follows the victim’s death confirms everyone in this prior belief. Arguably, it is his most interesting and developable idea. It would imply that projections of malevolence fulfil a function, at least in personal psychology, and mustn’t be underrated as lapses of judgment. Says Girard:

As we have seen, the sacrificial process requires a certain degree of misunderstanding. The celebrants do not and must not comprehend the true role of the sacrificial act. The theological basis of the sacrifice has a crucial role in fostering this misunderstanding. It is the god who supposedly demands the victims; he alone, in principle, who savors the smoke from the altars and requisitions the slaughtered flesh. (Girard, 1979, p. 7)

The way that Girard applies misrecognition (misunderstanding) to the divine service is implausible, however. Was it really so that the Leviticus scapegoat could mitigate social unrest because it was thought to be responsible for people’s trespasses? On such a view, for the sacrifice to have a healing effect, they must misrecognize the goat as evil. That they were so mindless is inconceivable. There are plenty of evidence of child sacrifices and virgin sacrifices in history. The victim could carry sin away just because it was regarded as pure and innocent. The sacrificial lamb is a case in point. It is eminently suitable as sacrifice due to its sinlessness. It is better to wipe our dirty hands on a clean towel than a dirty one.

Girard’s theory hinges on his view of misrecognition. He repudiates the traditional view that the sacrifice atones for our sins against God. Such a view, he thinks, represents a regression to “old religion” and the archaic sacrificial pattern: “The sacrificial reading is basically a form of regression — slight but consequential — to the notions of the Old Testament” (Girard, 2003, p. 226). He contradicts the classical view and associates the sacrifice with simple violence: “[T]he sacrificial act assumes two opposing aspects, appearing at times as a sacred obligation to be neglected at grave peril, at other times as a sort of criminal activity entailing perils of equal gravity” (Girard, 1979, p. 1). Murder is sacrifice and sacrifice is murder. If we instead see them as dissimilar phenomena, then misrecognition applies finely to witch killings and mob persecutions. In the divine service, however, people see with their spiritual eye; they see the innocent sacrificial lamb take away their sin, reconciling them with God. People are capable of both.

Girard must merge the two forms, as he thinks that the theological view of sacrifice is the misconception that keeps people locked up in a mythological worldview that perpetuates violence. There can only be a profane understanding of violence:

Joseph de Maistre takes the view that the ritual victim is an “innocent” creature who pays a debt for the “guilty” party. I propose an hypothesis that does away with this moral distinction. As I see it, the relationship between the potential victim and the actual victim cannot be defined in terms of innocence or guilt. There is no question of “expiation.” Rather, society is seeking to deflect upon a relatively indifferent victim, a “sacrificeable” victim, the violence that would otherwise be vented on its own members, the people it most desires to protect. (ibid. p. 4)

For this to work, the people must misrecognize the victim as the root source of evil. This view cannot be sustained in the face of facts. Davíd Carrasco says:

The Aztec record does not show an evolution away from the sacrifice of the firstborn in a human family to a replacement animal. It does not record the “satanization” of the humans to be sacrificed (Juergensmeyer, “Performance Violence,” chapter 17). The people sacrificed in Tenochtitlan were always turned into living gods, the most valued or feared gods, and then led along by male and female ritual specialists on the pathway to the sacrificial altar. The surviving record does not theologize these killings as gift exchanges. The Aztec name for sacrifice was nextlaoalli (“the paying of the debt”) and the victims were called netlahualtin (“restitutions”) showing that the sacrifices did not emphasize gifts but rather debts (Sahagún 2002: vol. 2). Human children were sacrificed in the first month of every ritual year. Women were sacrificed in a third of the yearly sacrificial ceremonies. The term repeated again and again in the most reliable accounts provided by elders who participated in and witnessed the spectacular ceremonies is debt payment. (Juergensmeyer, 2015, p. 217)

The children weren’t executed to satisfy the murderous inclinations of the crowd; they were debt payments to the gods. Of course, on Girard’s view, Aztec theology only served to hide the truth. In any event, this is what the Aztecs believed. They did not believe that their firstborn child caused society harm by emanating supernatural evil. By way of analogy, chess players sometimes sacrifice a pawn or a piece. In exchange they get immaterial advantages, such as tactical initiative or positional compensation (better scope for pieces, etc.). Religious sacrifice seems to follow a similar rationale: immaterial betterment, spiritual vitality, for the price of valued material being. Hermann Oldenberg describes the killing of an animal according to Vedic religion:

The sacrificial animal was killed with the expressions, common also to other people, of efforts to free oneself from the sin of a bloody deed and from impending revenge. It was told ‘You are not dying, you are not harmed, you are going to the gods along beautiful paths’ […] the killing was called euphemistically ‘to get the consent of the animal.’ (Oldenberg, 1988, p. 292)

All cultures in history have perceived reality in categories of the material and the spiritual. To leave temporality means to ascend or descend to the immaterial world. In Letter to the Hebrews Christ has through his sacrifice ascended to heaven, where he is ordained the office of High Priest. In this capacity he mediates between God and humanity. Pagan theology is not essentially different. Says Carrasco:

According to scholars such as Henninger, a wide range of objects including animals, plants, stones, and human-made items are used in sacrifices in various traditions. Of special importance is that the performance of sacrifices, of whatever material, establishes or rejuvenates intimate relationships with supernatural beings considered crucial to a community’s well-being. (Juergensmeyer, 2015, p. 211)

Girard repudiates the otherworldly explanation and insists that we must see all kinds of sacrificial offerings as predicated on the murderous sociological mechanism:

As we have already seen, the notion that sacrifice serves primarily to bring us into contact with the “gods” makes little sense. For even if the gods are imaged forth at the conclusion of a long series of sacrifices, what are we to make of the preliminary rounds? What were the sacrificers thinking about at a time when they did not yet possess gods with whom to “communicate”? Why — for whom — were those rites performed under the vast celestial void? The passion that prompts modern antitheists to shift all blame onto the “gods” must not lead us astray. Sacrifice deals with humankind, and it is in human terms that we must attempt to comprehend it. (Girard, 1979, pp. 89-90)

Anthropologists and comparative historians of religion have long since abandoned the idea that early mankind lacked concepts of gods and spirits. As soon as we started to think, we thought in terms of spirits. We have a tendency to see willful action (intentionality) in nature, because this is how we function ourselves. A lightning stroke could subjectively be experienced as the willful act of an angry invisible being. This is still how little children tend to reason (vid. Piaget, 1975). In an arid region, people would want to get the spirit in the cloud in a good mood, so that it blesses the people with rain. What better way than to give the spirit a gift? So they sacrifice something valuable, such as a calf. Its spirit enters the spirit world, where the cloud spirit takes great pleasure in the gift. It is all very logical. It has been surmised that aborigines are irrational. This isn’t true. They reason logically, but take for granted that the world is animated. Mbiti says about traditional Africa religion:

Many societies make sacrifices, offerings and prayers to God in connection with rain, especially during periods of drought. Rainmakers are reported in all parts of the continent, their duties being to solicit God’s help in providing rain, or in halting it if too much falls. Thunder is taken by many, such as the Bambuti, Bavenda, Ewe and Ha, to be God’s voice. Others like the Gikuyu and Zulu interpret it to be the movement of God; and some, like the Yoruba and Tiv, regard thunder as an indication of God’s anger. (Mbiti, 1970, p. 69)

In the above excerpt, Girard reasons as if sacrifices began before we had any concept of gods. He thinks that the sacrifice came first, in the form of the founding murder. Then people had to rationalize why they kept murdering their fellow men, and this was the birth of religion. But there were no such time period without spirits and gods; and the sacrifice is a natural consequence of people thinking in terms of spirits. The legal framework of certain Christian and pagan atonement theories are equally repellent to Girard. After all, there exists no God that requires penance:

Sacrifice has often been described as an act of mediation between a sacrificer and a “deity.” Because the very concept of a deity, much less a deity who receives blood sacrifices, has little reality in this day and age, the entire institution of sacrifice is relegated by most modern theorists to the realm of the imagination. (Girard, 1979, p. 6)

Instead, he interprets the sacrifice as a preventive measure against all-out violence. But there’s no reason to believe that primitive mankind was without moral sensibilities and juridical consciousness. Animals, too, have a sense of fairness and unfairness (cf. de Waal, 2016). If an unright is done against a member of a tribe, such as a cattle theft, then it is necessary to demand retribution from the other tribe. This is to even the score and to rectify the harm done to the moral order. It isn’t vindictiveness that drives it. Rather, it serves to maintain the divine order of the gods and to prevent that tribal war breaks out.

Analogously, when human beings do an unright to the gods, by breaking the divine order, the gods will demand retribution. The sacrifice placates divine anger. Of course, an unright to the gods could be equal to an unright done against a human being. From this point of view, mob bestiality and disorderliness has nothing to do with the religious sacrifice. The former is when our murderous inclinations and devilish projections run havoc, which is equal to breaking the divine law. The latter is when the priest attempts to rectify the infraction against the gods. It is not a controlled form of savagery. Quite to the contrary, it would serve to prevent, by spiritual appeasement, a chaotic and murderous devil from ruining society.

Most theologians of history, Christian as well as pagan, say that the sacrifice reconciles us to God, whose wrath (withdrawal of grace, on Augustinian lines) would otherwise come to expression as chaotic disorder. It might lead to enemy invasions or crop failure. Such could also be the consequence of disinterest among the gods. In such case the sacrifice will serve to get their attention. When the sacrifice is performed, chaos hopefully stops dead in its tracks. Is this because the bloodthirst among humans has been stilled, or is it because the spirit of order has again overtaken reality?

On the surface, it seems that Girard is right, for chaos has been prevented. In truth, the sacrificial priest represents spiritual order whereas the revengeful mob represents instinctual disorder. The mob has not its bloodthirst slaked when an innocent child is sacrificed. (Why should they?) Rather, they become spiritually aware that sin has been washed away and the gods been propitiated. What was wrong has been made right again. The order is restored for a completely different reason than the slaking of bloodthirst.

According to Girard, what threatens society is always vengeance, as it is an interminable, infinitely repetitive process. The multiplication of reprisals is what puts society in jeopardy (cf. Girard, 1979, pp. 14-15). Scapegoating, he argues, has not this infectious consequence, because “sacrifice is primarily an act of violence without risk of vengeance” (Girard, 1979, p. 13). Says Girard:

The desire to commit an act of violence on those near us cannot be suppressed without a conflict; we must divert that impulse, therefore, toward the sacrificial victim, the creature we can strike down without fear of reprisal, since he lacks a champion. (ibid. p. 13)

Girard alleges that “[c]ollective murder restores calm, in dramatic contrast to the hysterical paroxysms that preceded it” (Girard, 1979, p. 235). But it is easy to find examples from history where a feeling of appeasement did not arise. The Rwandan genocide (1994) bore all the hallmarks of scapegoat murders. Yet calm wasn’t restored. Instead the perpetrators worked themselves into a murderous frenzy.

Nor do witch killings always mollify the crowd. From the historical record we can see that the madness is often perpetuated. That’s why there are headlines such as this: “Outbreak of witch hunts in Lebowa”. These are in fact waves of scapegoat murders. Does the wave continue because the murders aren’t institutionalized, unlike in the priestly sacrifice? From the late medieval period, for almost 300 years, Europe was afflicted by recurring witch-crazes. Witchcraft was believed to be a form of cultic Satanism that involved a pact with the devil. It was explicated in books such as Malleus Maleficarum (1486) and Magical Investigations (1600). The witch-craze had its own theology. Death sentences were enforced by the legal authorities. Thus, the witch-hunt was very much institutionalized. Even so, executions could not mollify the crowd. During periods the craze had such an enormous psychological impact that people lived in permanent fear of being accused of witchcraft (vid. Levack, 2006).

From a psychological perspective, persecutors transfer their own sins onto a person. Mob killings have indeed a purgatory effect. But it is only temporary, and that’s why persecution must continue. It is one of the manifold fallouts of original sin, which gets worse and worse if it’s allowed to continue. The divine sacrifice has the opposite effect than the perpetual and corrupting influence of sin. It puts a curb on our sinful nature. The priest in Leviticus transfers the people’s sins onto the goat, which is let out into the wilderness. This restores divine orderliness.

Girard, however, sees the priest’s function as an analogue of persecution and the goat as an innocent victim “misrecognized” as guilty. But this could not work, for it would take away the healing effect of the sacrifice. The reason why Jesus Christ can carry the sins of the world, is because he is void of sin. There is (1) healing sacrifice and (2) corrupting persecution. Two different things; but Girard equates the two. In human psychology we may either give way to an impulse and satisfy it, or we may find spiritual peace. Girard only reckons with the former. I contend that the religious sacrifice is not a scapegoat killing. In view of the fact that the victim is not seen as guilty but as pure, it does not imitate witch killings.

Girard does not differ between the two forms, and that’s why he asserts that paganism relies on an economy of sacrifice that serves only to recreate the cathartic effect of the founding murder. I argue that it generally serves to maintain order in the universe; and this view accords with pagan theology. Historians of religion distinguish between four theories of sacrifice, all of which are unrelated to scapegoating. They are the gift theory, the propitiation theory, the communion theory and the thank-offering theory (cf. Mbiti, 1970, p. 76).

As we have seen, Girard holds that paganism, and the oldest biblical culture, relied on a view of the sacred as the collective persecution of the falsely accused scapegoat. By contrast, in Things Hidden (2003) he asserts that Christianity is incompatible with the notion of sacrifice. He later had to soften this standpoint, because it is as wrong as it could be. It is certainly true that Christianity has disowned scapegoating. However, divine sacrifice is not predicated on scapegoating. People sacrificed to the gods what they saw as valuable and pure. In comparison, the stonings that occur in the bible was a form of execution that was instituted in law. Although it took expression as scapegoating, it was never regarded as holy sacrificial ritual.

Christian theology, building on Paul, views Christ’s death on the cross as a sacrifice. It is continued in the Eucharist, which is “true and proper sacrifice”. Indeed, Christianity stands apart; but it has to do with its highly spiritual message. By contrast, in ancient times (and still in some parts of the world) people thought in concrete terms. Blood was life-spirit. To give one’s life to God meant to give one’s blood to God. This is the rationale behind the blood sacrifice. Today, to give one’s life to God means to devote one’s life to God. This is what a monk or nun does (cf. Nycander, 2007). In effect, Christianity is the religion of sacrifice par excellence; it’s just that the sacrifice is now spiritual.

To Girard, the secular psychosocial perspective has replaced the pagan sacrificial liturgy. This is the upshot of Christian revelation. In fact, what happened was that we went from a concretistic perception of sacrifice to a spiritual frame of mind. Characteristic of ancient man was their concretistic way of thinking. Today, to sacrifice spiritually rather than concretely is to abandon our worldly passions and endeavours. In order to come closer to God, we must rid ourselves of our manifold attachments! It has an enormous centrality in Christianity. In the pagan era, this came to expression concretely. People sacrificed to the gods what they saw as valuable. Carthaginian parents would hand over their child to the sacrificial priest, who would strangle it in a public ritual (cf. Univ. of Oxford, 2014). Comparatively, the Swiss national saint Nicholas of Flüe (1417-1487) abandoned his wife, children and friends, and went to live in a little hut. This is cruel also; but it’s evident that it’s a much more powerful sacrifice, as he remained detached. The Carthaginians who sacrificed their loved ones would not remain detached for long.

Girard’s theory has something of a Gnostic structure (cf. Cohen, 2008). On a par with Gnosticism, he reveals “things hidden since the beginning of the world”. That’s why his revealed gnosis mostly contradicts theology, comparative history of religion, and anthropology. From a Gnostic point of view, Yahweh is the ambivalent lower god; the demiurge. In keeping with Gnostic thought, Girard claims that the new revelation of a higher God represents a complete inversion of the old pattern. The Old Testament is an impediment, for it holds fast to the dark God of violence. He concedes that the OT is morally superior to paganism, and that it evolved with time; yet even in the most advanced texts, “God himself is presented as the principal instigator of the persecution […] [I]n the Old Testament we never arrive at a conception of the deity that is entirely foreign to violence” (Girard, 2003, p. 157). Girard understands the symbolic figure of Satan as the enemy of the new order:

From the moment when the sacrificial order begins to come apart, this subject can no longer be anything but the adversary par excellence, which combats the installation of the Kingdom of God. This is the devil known to us from tradition — Satan himself… (Girard, 2003, p. 210)

Needless to say, such talk has consequences. Girard never explicitly says so, but it would mean that the Jews worship a false God. Orthodox Judaists could be construed as disciples of Satan. A strong demarcation line between old and new could make those who follow the old ways into scapegoats, and then the new message has failed its purpose. In a like manner, Marcion of Sinope declared that Christianity was in complete discontinuity with Judaism and entirely opposed to the Tanakh. The Gnostics did much to bolster anti-Jewish sentiments. To the contrary, Christian theology emphasizes continuity. Christians today view Judaism as their mother religion, and the two faiths share many religious books. The old revelation gave birth to the new.

In Girard’s view, the revelation of the true God comes only with Christianity. It is not so for traditional Christians, as they see it as the same God. It is not correct that the Christian God is “entirely foreign to violence”. Augustine even talks about the ‘just war’. In the gospels Jesus is portrayed as a person prone to anger, who sometimes resorts to violence. Besides, when Jesus healed the leper (Mark 1:40-45), he instructed him to go to the priest and offer what Moses commanded. Accordingly, a bird must be killed as sacrifice.

Christians believe that violence will continue in human life until kingdom come, as a consequence of ‘original sin’. According to this doctrine, the most important in Christianity, violence is the consequence of the fallenness of the world. Augustine explains that sin and evil are the privation of good — the corruption of measure, form and order. It results from the separation from God (cf. Augustine, De Civ. xi). Have people, in keeping with Girard’s theory, lived under a religious law of violence, and have they worshipped an evil god? The thought is appealing because it seems to explain our warlike history. But why did the Germans, a highly cultivated Christian people, go on the warpath? Had they suddenly abandoned the Christian God and turned to the war god Wotan? No, it was because criminal minds took power over Germany. Arguably, mimetic desire explains the rest. People don’t want to be left out, and that’s why they went along with the collectivistic madness.

Arguably, Girard’s own mimetic theory makes the “cult of the evil god” redundant. The pagan gods, and the Christian God, only wished to maintain order in the universe. They never strove for chaos and destruction. However, to maintain the order of the gods (‘Maat’ in ancient Egyptian theology) it could be necessary to go to war. There is no order without conflict, strife and rivalry. The ecological system couldn’t function without it. Nor can we maintain order in society without the police monopoly on violence.

It’s a dangerous thought that we can have a world without violence. Today, left-wing radicals think that we can really have a world without brute force, war, ethnic conflicts, and racism. They really think that the monopoly on violence, upheld by the police and the military, only serves to uphold the ideal of violence and the machinery of oppression. That’s why policemen are spat in the face and are called fascists, during demonstrations. The extremists demand that the police departments are dismantled. This thought is wholly in line with Girard’s “theology”, whose central idea is that human culture has accommodated and therefore perpetuated violence.

Girard argues that “[t]he archaic gods are sacralized scapegoats. In revealing their innocence, the Judeo-Christian tradition desacralizes scapegoats and brings the age of myth to a close” (2014, p. 39). On such a view, gods represent the continual presence of witches (e.g.) who were at one time lynched. The problem is that gods and heroes of myth aren’t portrayed as evil witches turned good. So this theory would imply that their stories were falsified when the priests later realized that the murder victims were benevolent. It is a convoluted way of thinking, and it lacks evidence to support it. For example, among the dying and resurrecting gods, Girard mentions the Egyptian god Osiris. He certainly does not fit the picture. Before he was killed by Seth, he was the benevolent king of the paradisical Golden Age.

Where, then, do gods and spirits come from? In fact, they still appear to people, in their dreams! Aborigines dream about their ancestors, which have godly status. Romans emperors were elevated to divine rank, and temples were erected to them, such as the Temple of Claudius, Colchester. The emperor gods had not been executed as witches. In medieval times, people worshipped saints, and many still do. St Paul and St Augustine are like gods, for their spirits hover above us always. This is ancestor cult, in a sense. Ancestor cult and dreams are plausible explanations, and for these we can find evidence. There is no evidence that murdered scapegoats metamorphosed into benevolent gods.

Where do scapegoats come from? Modern psychology teaches that everything unconscious is projected. So if a person doesn’t know his inner darkness it will be projected, most likely on another person or an entire people. Typically, the object of projection becomes a scapegoat for one’s own faults and feelings of inferiority. This process is completely independent of religion and it would remain even if we had never developed religion. Shadow projection and violence cannot be abolished by the ‘desacralization of scapegoats’. This is because human beings have an instinctual and unconscious side. Carl Jung says:

Projection is one of the commonest psychic phenomena. […] Everything that is unconscious in ourselves we discover in our neighbour, and we treat him accordingly. We no longer subject him to the test of drinking poison; we do not burn him or put the screws on him; but we injure him by means of moral verdicts pronounced with the deepest conviction. What we combat in him is usually our own inferior side. (CW 10, para. 131)

Psychoanalysts have not found that our propensity to project our shadow on other people is something that we have been taught by pre-Christian religion and myth. It’s an autonomous phenomenon that depends on the fact that human beings have an unconscious side. It’s not a consequence of having a religion other than Christianity. Nor is it because people have misunderstood the Christian message or have forgotten Christianity. The best Christianity can do is to ameliorate the phenomenon.


Girard is a secularist. His thought feeds into postmodernism, which may rightly be called the secular ideology of the Antichrist. He adopts Freud’s view that Christianity is superior, although both of them were atheists. He aims to “demystify” religion. Christianity is only true in the mythic sense, in the way it inverts the sacrificial pattern. He views secularization as the fruit, not the enemy, of Christianity in modernity. God is merely an abstraction constituted of our projections. Because there is no God, he repudiates the traditional view that the sacrifice atones for our sins. There can only be a profane understanding of sacrifice, and thus there is only the scapegoat form of sacrifice. The sacrifice is essentially the same as the witch killing. They both require ‘misrecognition’, i.e., that the victim is perceived as guilty through projection. Thus the Israelites must have perceived the sacrificial lamb as evil. It doesn’t make sense.

Girard is an heretic. He attempts to “deconstruct” religion from within. The Christ did not return to the Father, because there is no God. His death was merely a scapegoat murder. It marks the end point of authentic religious worship, and it makes possible a world without violence, i.e., the Rousseauean paradise on earth. What awaits is the demise of religion and the definitive cessation of violence in human civilization. It flies in the face of biology. It is antithetical to Christian theology, according to which sin will not be defeated until the end of the world. I have shown that Girard’s ideas are illogical, are at variance with time-honoured theology, and contradict empirical evidence.


© Mats Winther, 2020.


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