An Introduction to Mimetic Theory





I compiled the following documentary film on the origin of cultures, in three parts, introducing some major topics of mimetic theory and René Girard’s thinking. Transcription of the videos (in English & Dutch) is available below, beneath PART III.

PART I of the film explores the fundamental role of mimesis (imitation) in human development on several levels (biological, psychological, sociological, cultural). René Girard’s originality lies in his  introduction of a connection between this old philosophical concept and human desire. He speaks of a certain mimetic desire and ascribes to it a vital role in our social interaction. It explains our often competitive and envious tendencies. More specifically, Girard considers mimetic desire as the source for a type of conflict that is foundational to the way human culture originates and develops. In his view the primal cultural institutions are religious. Following a sociologist like Émile Durkheim, Girard first considers religion as a means to organize our social fabric, and to manage violence within communities.

The more specific question the first part of this documentary tries to answer is the following: where do sacrifices, as rituals belonging to the first signs of human culture, originally come from? How can they be explained? Click to watch:

PART II starts off with a summary and then further insists on the fundamental role of the so-called scapegoat mechanism in the origin of religious and cultural phenomena.

PART III explores the world of mythology and human storytelling in the light of Girard’s theory on certain types of culture founding conflicts and scapegoat mechanisms. Girard comes to surprising conclusions regarding storytelling in Judeo-Christian Scripture. 







Invitations to Explorations (COV&R 2016)

COV&R 2016The annual and 26th conference of the Colloquium on Violence & Religion (COV&R) coincided with the 6th annual conference of the Australian Girard Seminar. It was the first meeting of its kind after the passing of René Girard (December 25, 1923 – November 4, 2015), whose groundbreaking interdisciplinary work and eventually developed mimetic theory is further explored by an ever growing number of scholars on these occasions. Certainly and sadly in this day and age, the theme of the conference couldn’t have been more appropriate: Violence in the Name of Religion. The academic yet also cordial gathering was held at the campus of ACU (Australian Catholic University) from Wednesday 13 July until Sunday 17 July 2016 in Melbourne, Australia.

As is always the case, also at this COV&R the participants gave each other lots of inspiration. In the coming months I will probably share some explorations I felt invited to on this blog. For now I’d like to highlight some of the ideas I thought were quite inspiring (at least to me).


The Myth of Religious ViolenceProf. William T. Cavanaugh started off the event by giving the Raymund Schwager Memorial Lecture. AS PEOPLE USED TO BELIEVE IN THE GODS – Girard and the Myth of Religious Violence was the provocative title of his contribution, which essentially stated that violence is not a religious problem but a universally human reality (as Dr. Petra Steinmair-Pösel succinctly pointed out in her response to the lecture).

Cavanaugh summarized the myth many people believe in nowadays as follows:

  1. There is a trans-historical and transcultural essence of religion that distinguishes it from essentially secular phenomena like reason, or politics and economics: religions like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism [Cavanaugh was aware that some people might not call Buddhism a religion] are essentially different from secular phenomena like nationalism, consumerism, and Marxism.
  2. Religion has more of a tendency to promote violence than secular phenomena.
  3. Therefore, religion should be marginalized from public power and secularism should be encouraged.

He then went on to debunk this myth by pointing out how the religious/secular dichotomy originated as a typically western phenomenon. In the words of Cavanaugh:

The religious/secular distinction is not trans-historical and transcultural: it is a contingent product of the modern West. What counts as religious and what counts as secular in any given circumstance depends on the political purposes of the one making the distinction. The distinction is commonly used to endorse as rational and peacemaking certain beliefs and practices, labeled secular, and to condemn others, labeled religious, as essentially irrational and prone to violence. The distinction does not simply describe the way the world is, but rather tells us about how the West distributes power.

The creation of the sovereign state meant that the ambit of ecclesiastical authorities would gradually be confined to religion – the realm of belief – while the civil authorities would take charge of the political. The religious/secular and religion/politics distinctions helped eventually to create the expectation that the natural place of the church was the private sphere.

Some more explanation might be in place here for some readers. Following René Girard, the possibility itself of a dichotomy between the religious and the secular can be considered as a consequence of the Judeo-Christian unveiling of the lie at the heart of archaic religious systems, namely the scapegoat mechanism. As such the Judeo-Christian tradition is, in principle, responsible for the gradual loss of belief in the effectiveness of ancient ritual sacrifices (even if these were sometimes revived in so-called Christian societies; criticism of these practices comes from the Gospel itself, for instance by Erasmus, “Prince of the Humanists”). Ritual sacrifices contained violence in a twofold sense (see also Prof. Jean-Pierre Dupuy): they were themselves of course a form of bloody violence, but they were also believed to control the possibility of greater violent (natural and/or social) disasters understood as “the wrath of the gods” (= violence transferred to a sacred or transcendent realm).

While secularism no longer endorses the belief that potentially violent gods should be appeased by bloody sacrifices to establish an eventually peaceful world order, it does try to locate potential sources of violence or disorder that should be eliminated (“sacrificed” in a sense). It is no accident that Dr. Steinmair-Pösel, in her response to the lecture, spoke of secularism “as a mutilated version of Judeo-Christian tradition” in that it “scapegoats the scapegoaters”. In this sense it goes against the heart of Christianity as a call for forgiveness (from the part of the victim) and conversion (to neighborly love that is, from the part of the perpetrator). The imitation of the “kenotic movement of Christ” should result in attitudes refraining from revenge. Nevertheless, in today’s globalized human community, people often rival each other’s claim to be “victims” and as such feel entitled to sometimes violently prosecute others who are considered “perpetrators”. While we’re Wolfgang Palaver COV&R 2016at it, Prof. Wolfgang Palaver would later on, in his own lecture, rightly point to the fact that many of today’s terrorists legitimize themselves as victims or defenders of victims (from groups like ISIS to Aum Shinrikyo and people like Anders Breivik). Secularism thus is, in certain circumstances, but one of several contemporary ideological systems that can legitimize marginalization and even (violent) discrimination of certain groups in the name of victims. Mosques have been set to fire after ISIS attacks, for instance. As a means of victimizing others in turn, however, secularism tragically adds to the problem of violent extremism: it makes it more easy for organizations like ISIS to claim that “their people” are indeed “victims” or that they are being “marginalized”. And so the vicious circle goes on and on. In short, by labeling religion in general and its believers as “often dangerously irrational”, “potentially violent” and therefore “better if gone, eliminated or destroyed”, secularism ironically becomes a religious system itself. A religious system is understood then as a social order arising out of so-called necessary sacrifices to prevent potentially violent mayhem. All of this, again, in the words of Prof. Cavanaugh:

The point is not only that people are just as likely to kill for secular things like Marxism and capitalism [remember the Gulag or the Cold War] as they are for religious things like Islam and Hinduism. The point is that the religious/secular distinction is itself an act of power that labels certain things “religious” and therefore essentially irrational and potentially dangerous, while authorizing as “secular” other belief systems and practices whose violence is accepted as rational and peacemaking.

[Cavanaugh eventually quotes Girard on religion and religion in the secular, and provides further explanation (I took the picture on the right from the core of the ANZAC War Memorial in Sydney):]

IMAG2676_1_1Girard: “Any phenomenon associated with the acts of remembering, commemorating, and perpetuating a unanimity that springs from the murder of a surrogate victim can be termed ‘religious’.”

Religion, in this sense, is not a sui generis phenomenon that can be separated out from culture, reason, politics, economics, or society.

Girard uses religion in a narrow sense to refer to the archaic (mis)representation of sacrificial violence, and in a broader sense to refer to the ways that all societies – even modern secular ones – employ the same mechanisms to legitimate and control violence. In good Durkheimian fashion, Girard uses the term “religion” to name the way that any society – including any “secular” society – represents itself to itself. As Girard writes “There is no society without religion because without religion society cannot exist.”

[From Girard’s anthropological perspective on secularism and anti-religion, the religious/secular dichotomy indeed becomes part of one of today’s most important myths (the discourse that establishes a distinction between illegitimate and legitimate violence). Cavanaugh continues and concludes:]

The religious/secular dichotomy is itself part of the apparatus whereby violence is concealed. Girard’s goal is to reveal it, and thereby undermine the religious/secular dichotomy.

As Girard says, the Christian “Revelation deprives people of religion, and it is this deprivation that can increasingly be seen around us, in the naïve illusion that we are finished with it… Today’s anti-religion combines so much error and nonsense about religion that it can barely be satirized. It serves the cause that it would undermine, and secretly defends the mistakes that it believes it is correcting.”

During the remainder of my time in Australia, about a week after the conference, I discovered that the myth of secularism is alive and well on Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, Sydney:

IMAG2574 IMAG2575 IMAG2577

Secularism “as a mutilated version of Judeo-Christian tradition” (see higher, Dr. Steinmair-Pösel) thus contains a warning for Christians themselves (and for all who try to develop a spiritual attitude that goes beyond the convenient and comfortable dualism of “good versus evil”, be it for instance “good secularism versus evil religion”): Jesus never attempted to completely abolish the existing cultural (religious) traditions and social systems, he merely tried to transform his own Jewish religion, whenever and wherever needed, in light of neighborly love. In their covert and overt attempts to completely remove religion from the public sphere, certain secularists attain the exact opposite of what they’re trying to accomplish: they continue an essentially sacrificial (“religious”) system. As Dr. Steinmair-Pösel concluded in her response to the first plenary session, the difference between so-called archaic religion and Judeo-Christian tradition (or religion and “secularism” for that matter) therefore can never result in a complete “separation” with one destroying the other, but should be thought of as a distinction. In other words and as I understand it, the ultimate human possibility of a humanitarian ethos, materializing in whatever cultural form, ceases to exist whenever one culture establishes itself at the expense of another (for sure, the colonial history of certain so-called Christians implied the disappearance of humanitarianism).

Evening Drink with COV&R friends Melbourne 2016Well, one thing became clear on the first evening of the conference. The organizers not only provided the participants with a great reception and dinner, they indeed also promised copious food for thought.


The high expectations for the rest of the conference were already met on the second day. Religion and Violence in Girard’s Mimetic Theory, the second plenary session, saw Prof. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Dr. Sarah Bachelard and Dr. Chris Fleming engage in a discussion with Girard’s thought to approach modern politics and contemporary social phenomena.

Jean-Pierre Dupuy COV&R 2016From the lectures of Prof. Dupuy and Dr. Bachelard I became more aware of the difference between the terror of today’s violent extremism on the one hand, and the terror of “the fear of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction)” by a nuclear war during the Cold War on the other. During the Cold War, the threat of total annihilation served as a third party, a non-human entity (an exteriorization of violence) to which both the US and the USSR bowed. A “cold war” thus resulted in a “hot peace” (a nuclear peace). Today’s suicidal terrorists, however, don’t fear annihilation in any way. So the threat of annihilation as a means to establish an ever precarious peace doesn’t work. This means that we are challenged to look for other attempts to create peace which don’t alienate us from “the best of ourselves”.

Prof. Dupuy also made an intriguing remark on the relationship between “victim” and “crowd”. While the old sacred is based on the gathering of an undifferentiated crowd around a sacrificial victim (or a series of victims), today’s violent extremism basically consists of one or more murderous suicidal subjects who attack and disperse an undifferentiated crowd. Dupuy therefore considers modern terrorism as a sham or simulacrum of the foundational event (of the old sacred). The UNANIMITY of the crowd is swapped for the ANONIMITY of the crowd. Instead of containing violence, the self-sacrifice of the suicide terrorist implies not contained violence. In one of the concurrent sessions I attended, The Sham Incarnation of the Antichrist: Some Girardian Dimensions, Prof. Thomas Ryba pointed to the difference between the dynamic of Christ and its “satanic” reversal, which joins the thought of Dupuy from a Christian perspective. Jesus is one who is willing to die for all (because he refuses the sacrifice of others to save himself), while a suicide terrorist wants all to die for one (for the purpose of his self-aggrandizement).

Dr. Fleming concluded the second plenary session by pointing to an interesting (mimetically opposing) parallel between the political left and right when it comes to interpreting violent extremism. Depending on the external features of the violent extremists in question, both the political left and right easily replace structural theories with theories of agency in explaining human behavior. For instance, the right tends to explain the violence of a Muslim shooter from the ideological structure that is Islam, while the left in this case generally claims that the problem lies in the individual and not in Islam. The reverse will happen in the case of a white (Christian) shooter, for instance.

In any case, it seems that violent extremists try to escape the limits of human existence by committing “non-negotiable” acts which make them feel like gods. In the words of Fleming, “gods don’t need politics.” Which made me suddenly think about the saying, “All’s fair in love and war…” A reflection that is to be continued, for sure.

The third plenary session, on the evening of the second day, was a lecture by Prof. Asma Afsaruddin, Islam and Violence: Debunking Myths. She gave a challenging assessment of the relationship between Islam and violence, stressing the point that poor religious education and a very limited understanding of Islam facilitate the connection between Islam and violence. Once again, removing a religion like Islam from serious public and academic debate and leaving it to the hands of self-declared imams on the worldwide web seems like a very bad idea. I can only highly recommend the work of Prof. Afsaruddin to clear some important misconceptions.


The first plenary session on Friday morning started with some turmoil. Prof. Wolfgang Palaver, Prof. Greg Barton and Dr. Julian Droogan eventually talked about Religious Extremism, Terrorism and Islam. Their session, sadly enough, was all the more topical since news of a terrorist attack in Nice, France, on Bastille Day had just arrived. Prof. Greg Barton came in a bit late because he was asked, being a counter-terrorist expert, about his first thoughts on the attack for Australian TV.

Dr. Droogan began his lecture by describing the main conceptual problems with “radicalization” as an explanatory tool for violent extremism. Again, also in this lecture, some common assumptions were challenged:

  • The assumption that violent extremism is caused by radical beliefs is not born out by research that suggests that violent extremism is more often supported by social dynamics and perceptions of identity.
  • By assuming that it is radical ideas that primarily lead people to violent extremism, an easy assumption is made linking religious or political concepts as the primary drivers of violence.
  • De-radicalization? It is a difficult and sensitive task to convince an individual to make changes to cognitive beliefs especially when these are tied to a person’s identity / reinforced through social networks.

So de-radicalization programs which merely focus on “ideas” won’t work, since violent extremism has more to do with building an identity than with ideology as such.

No wonder then that violent extremists like ISIS find their most ardent supporters in youth groups, traditionally groups in the midst of developing their identity. As Droogan pointed out, a 2014 ICM poll revealed that more than 25 % of French youth (of all religions and backgrounds between the ages of 18 and 24) had a favorable attitude towards ISIS.

The man who killed 84 people in Nice by driving a lorry through a crowd, 31 year old Tunisian delivery man Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, clearly had identity and social issues as well. Dr. Droogan presented the profile of an ISIS fighter in the western diaspora, containing characteristics that would prove to be true for this terrorist too (inserted information about the Nice killer comes from BBC News, in italics):

Young – grew up in the post 9/11 world of counter terrorism and “clash of civilizations” rhetoric.

75 % joined Al Qaeda or ISIS through friends – social networks.

Almost 25 % joined through family or acquaintances.

Speak of the importance of finding meaning in their lives – a search for meaning and identity.

Very rare that parents were at all aware of their children’s desire; international affairs, foreign policy or terrorism not discussed at home.

Lahouaiej-Bouhlel last visited Tunisia four years ago, people in his hometown Msaken told the BBC’s Rana Jawad. They said many people knew his family and were shocked by his actions. “We remember him as a normal person from a wealthy family,” a town resident told her.

Mostly youth in transitional stages of their lives:



Between jobs

Between relationships

Police say Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was married with three children, although he no longer lived with his wife. She was detained for questioning by police on 15 July but has since been released. A woman who knows the family told the BBC Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had been thrown out of their home in the Le Ray area of Nice more than a year ago after allegedly beating his wife.

Left or about to leave their family

Looking for new family or friends or community of like-minded passionate idealists

Mostly youth who are deeply concerned with finding meaning, value and significance in their lives, and have a commitment to action

Examinations of Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s browsing history showed he had carried out research for his attack. On 1 July he searched for details of the Bastille Day celebrations in Nice as well as videos showing “terrible” fatal traffic accidents. He had also read about recent attacks in Orlando, where a man proclaiming allegiance to IS shot 49 people in a gay nightclub, Dallas, where a black army veteran shot five police officers, and Magnanville near Paris, where a French jihadist stabbed two police officials to death. In the days before the attack, he twice drove to the Promenade des Anglais in his rented lorry, sold his van and attempted to withdraw money, Mr Molins said. This showed that his act was “premeditated and deliberate”, he said. He reserved the 19-tonne refrigeration lorry on 4 July and collected it on 11 July in Saint-Laurent-du-Var, just west of Nice. During his reconnaissance trips, he sent a selfie photo from the driver’s cabin. Just minutes before launching his attack, he sent text messages asking accomplices to give him more weapons and boasting about having obtained a pistol. He fired that pistol at police during his rampage, before police shot him dead. “Bring more weapons, bring five to C,” one of the messages said. Police are trying to identify who the message was sent to.

No traditional religious education

The Nice killer lived a life “far from religion”, eating pork, taking drugs and indulging in a “wild” sex life, French prosecutor François Molins said.

Some “born again” or “conversion” experience

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the Nice killer had apparently been radicalized very quickly. From 1 July, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel made more or less daily internet searches for verses of the Koran and “nasheeds” – jihadist propaganda chants. He also researched the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr. Investigators found photos of dead bodies and images linked to radical Islamism on his computer, including the flag of so-called Islamic State, the cover of an issue of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo – attacked by gunmen in January 2015 – and photos of Osama bin Laden and Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar. In the eight days leading up to the attack, he grew a beard and told friends this was for “religious reasons”. He also told them he did not understand why IS could not hold territory and showed them a video of a beheading on his mobile phone. In response to their shock, he said he was “used to it”. However, there was no evidence that he had pledged allegiance to any radical groups or had contact with known Islamists.

Those who do practice religious ritual may have been expelled from the mosque for expressing radical political beliefs

Religious Extremism, Terrorism and Islam COV&R 2016As is also clear from the research conducted by Prof. Barton, many of the recent terrorists have a history of violence and petty crime.

Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had been in trouble with police between 2010 and 2016 for threatening behaviour, violence and petty theft. In March, a court in Nice convicted him of assaulting a motorist with an improvised weapon – a wooden pallet – during an altercation. He was given a six-month suspended prison sentence and ordered to contact police once a week, which he did. Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was “never flagged for signs of radicalization”, officials say, and he was not on France’s “Fiche S” high-security watch list. The majority of attacks carried out in the country since January 2015 have been staged by men designated “Fiche S”, and also linked to IS. In 2014, IS spokesman Mohammed al-Adnani told supporters in an audio message: “If you can’t detonate a bomb or fire a shot, manage by yourself… run them over with your car.” Many of France’s jihadist killers, starting with Mohammed Merah in Toulouse in 2012, also began their journey towards militant Islam as petty criminals.

Dr. Droogan concluded that groups like ISIS capitalize on youth rebelliousness and the search for significance and glory. It should be stressed that the Nice killer, for instance, not only searched the web for “jihadist” terror attacks, but also looked at shootings like the one in Dallas, where a black army veteran shot five police officers. He was apparently interested in violent acts that would put him in the spotlight and give him a sense of significance, no matter under what flag. The Nice killer thus showed signs of the “copycat effect” (a mimetic phenomenon, indeed): sensational media exposure about violent suicides and murders results in more of the same through imitation. Moreover, the Nice killer apparently had mental issues as well. Add this to the equation and you might get a very explosive, dangerous mindset.

A psychiatrist, Chamseddine Hamouda, carried out a mental assessment of the killer a few years ago after his father became concerned about his “troubling behaviour of a psychotic nature”. “He was a stranger to himself,” Mr Hamouda said. “I advised his parents that he needed treatment. At the time he exhibited violent behaviour towards his family… I’m sure that in the past 12 years something else happened that perhaps influenced how he thought.”

In short, ISIS is one of possible organizations, and a popular one at that, which provide an outlet for people who became extremely violent. These violent tendencies mainly have other causes than some twisted ideology. The allegiance with a twisted ideology should be understood more as a consequence of the obsession to achieve significance, attention or recognition through a highly publicized act of violence.

ProfSolidarity with France & Nice (because of terror attack) in Melbourne. Wolfgang Palaver’s contribution for this plenary session was all the more challenging as it highlighted the inspiration Islamic tradition itself could provide to create a more peaceful world. Prof. Palaver situated Islam within the Abrahamic tradition’s potential to criticize “sacred” phenomena born from bloody sacrifices. In the words of René Girard, “The peoples of the world do not invent their gods, they deify their victims.” This could be said of the way ISIS glorifies its suicide terrorists as well. In this context Palaver distinguished between the sacred and the holy, the first basically being the false transcendence of idolatry (as in ISIS claimed suicide attacks), while the latter points to the mysterious transcendence of a “God” who is other than the human projections of power. Seems like a grace needed in this ever broken world…


The final plenary session again was packed with impulses for further explorations. Prof. Frank Brennan SJ, Assoc. Prof. Kathleen Butler, Archbishop Philip Freier & Ms Naomi Wolfe formed the panel for Religion and Violence in Australian-Indigenous History.

One realization in particular struck me. When white people first came to Australia, they asked themselves whether aboriginals were actually “real human beings”, and tried to think of aboriginals as somewhat being in an animal stage instead. Similarly, however, aboriginals too asked themselves whether white people were actually “real human beings”, thinking of white people as ghosts instead.

I guess there is no greater challenge in human relationships than to think of the other as “other” without, however, situating that “otherness” in “something less” or “something more” than oneself. Idolatry of one’s self-image as “better than others” or of others as “better than myself” only leads to alienation, narcissistic illusions, hypodermic frustrations, self-loathing, hatred of others and eventually violence.

We are limited human beings, and as such we’re always called to the never-ending exploration and acceptance of the mystery we are to ourselves and to each other. Us is a life sizzling with creativity.

This COV&R has only been the third I went to (the first two I attended were in the US – Cedar Falls, 2013 & Saint Louis, 2015), but I must say that I always feel charged with energy when coming back. For this I’m very grateful. I’d like to end this report by explicitly thanking the organizers of all COV&R conferences, on this occasion the organizers of the 2016 COV&R.

So thank you:

COV&R 2016 Gala DinnerACU (Australian Catholic University)

Centre for Public and Contextual Theology (Charles Sturt University)


THE RAVEN FOUNDATION (Suzanne & Keith Ross)

THE AUSTRALIAN GIRARD SEMINAR (especially Prof. Scott Cowdell, Dr. Chris Fleming, Dr. Joel Hodge, Dr. Carly Osborn, Wojtek Kaftanski)

The Theory of René Girard by Carly Osborn

I’d also like to congratulate Yevgen Galona, Lukasz Mudrak and Elizabeth Culhane for winning the Raymund Schwager Memorial Essay Prize (place one to three, respectively).

Concurrent Session on Madmen COV&R 2016I’d like to thank the lecturers of the concurrent sessions I went to (they were all delightful): Jonathan Cole (The Jihadist Current and the West: The Clash of Conceptuality), Susan Wright (Rekindling a Sacrificial Crisis in the Eucharist: John’s Midrashic Reversal of the ‘Manna’ Metaphors), Chloé Collier (American Presidents and Apocalyptic Discourse: Justifying Violent Foreign Policies in Times of Crisis), Suzanne Ross (Acquisitive Desire in Early Childhood: Rethinking Rivalry in the Playroom), Mathias Moosbrugger (Ignatius of Loyola and Mimetic Theory: Is it a Thing?), Wojtek Kaftanski (Mimesis as the Problem and the Cure: Kierkegaard and Girard on Human Autonomy and Authenticity), Scott Cowdell (A Five-Act Girardian Theo-Drama), David Gore (The Call to Follow Jesus), Thomas Ryba (The Sham Incarnation of the Antichrist: Some Girardian Dimensions), Jeremiah Alberg (Forbidding What We Desire; Desiring What We Are Forbidden – Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue *), Diego Bubbio (The Self in Crisis: A Mimetic Theory of Mad Men), Paul Dumouchel (About Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing).Dekalog Kieslowski

* In his presentation on Kieslowski’s The Decalogue, Prof. Jeremiah Alberg mentioned that the co-scenarist for these groundbreaking movies, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, declared that his ideas are based on the books of René Girard. Something to look at more thoroughly in the future. For more on this, click here: Krzysztof Kieslowski – Jeux interdits – Essai sur le Décalogue de Kieslowski (extrait), Yves Vaillancourt (pdf).

Finally, I’d like to thank every single participant for making this a warm, loving gathering as well, with an ever present spirit of kindness and friendship. I’m already looking forward to the COV&R of 2017, in Madrid.

Lunch Field Trip COV&R 2016COV&R 2016 participantsLunch & Wine Tasting Field Trip COV&R 2016

Gay & Muslim, Twice the Scapegoat

Who or what is to blame for the massacre at Pulse, a gay night club in Orlando, Florida (June 12, 2016)? Muslims? Religious people in general? Islam? Religion in general? Or just the twisted mindset of a troubled individual?

Omar Mateen, a 29 year old American Muslim of Afghan descent leaves 49 people dead and 53 injured after opening fire at Pulse, the gay night club he allegedly visited himself on a regular basis. He was eventually shot by the police. Being a regular visitor of the club, as well as his use of gay dating sites, suggest Mateen was gay himself. His ex-wife also made the claim that he was gay. So maybe it was ressentiment that drove him (for similar examples, click here)?

Whatever the case, there is no doubt that religion often advocates intolerance and hatred against LGBT people. Religious leaders past and present have discriminated against LGBT people. For instance, two days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Christian evangelicals Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson blamed gays and lesbians, among other people, for the attacks (which they interpreted as “the wrath of God”). Jerry Falwell stated (for more on this, click here):

Muslim Lesbian Gay HappyI really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way – all of them who have tried to secularize America – I point the finger in their face and say “you helped this happen.”

In other words, some religious people hold LGBT people themselves responsible for the oppression and violence they have to endure, allegedly “because they don’t respect God and His laws”. Seen from the perspective of René Girard’s mimetic theory, this is a form of scapegoating: instead of taking responsibility for their own intolerant and sometimes violent attitude, the perpetrators of hate crimes blame the victims and even God for their own terrorist behavior.

The aversion to LGBT people and their sexuality by certain religious people is sometimes mirrored by an aversion to religion by certain “anti-theists”. In the words of Girard, this makes the latter doubles of their theist counterparts. Because religion is seen as one of the main causes of evil, hatred and violence in the world, certain people would rather eradicate religion, blaming religious people for fostering one of the main breeding grounds for evil, and thus start scapegoating themselves. Bill Maher, for example, in the mockumentary Religulous:

LGBT MuslimsThis is why rational people, anti-religionists, must end their timidity and come out of the closet and assert themselves. And those who consider themselves only moderately religious really need to look in the mirror and realize that the solace and comfort that religion brings you actually comes at a terrible price. […] If you belonged to a political party or a social club that was tied to as much bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, violence and sheer ignorance as religion is, you’d resign in protest. To do otherwise is to be an enabler, a Mafia wife, with the true devils of extremism that draw their legitimacy from the billions of their fellow travelers. If the world does come to an end here or wherever, or if it limps into the future, decimated by the effects of a religion-inspired nuclear terrorism, let’s remember what the real problem was: That we learned how to precipitate mass death before we got past the neurological disorder of wishing for it. That’s it. Grow up or die.

Well, seen from Bill Maher’s perspective, you’re in big trouble if you are gay and Muslim. You shouldn’t be surprised that you experience violence because being a Muslim, being religious is, in the words of Bill Maher, being “an enabler of homophobia and violence”. Once again the (potential) victim, in this case the gay Muslim, is held responsible, this time by so-called anti-religionists, for the violence the victim might have to endure.

In short, some people scapegoat people for being gay, others scapegoat people for being religious. Being gay and muslim means running the risk of being twice the scapegoat.

I am Gay and Muslim

From a spiritual perspective we are challenged to criticize ourselves by listening to the Voice of our (potential) Victim, by listening to the voice of the scapegoat, in order to become “the change we want to see”. Maybe “true Islam” is not a religion of bigotry, misogyny, homophobia and violence. Maybe “true Islam” is the religion of a “radical minority” that testifies to the Love of “the Merciful One”.

In the words of a gay Muslim man from the documentary I am Gay and Muslim:

No one has the right to tell me whether I’m a good Muslim or not.

To put things in perspective, an overview of mass shootings in the US of the last decades shows that most of the murderers didn’t need religion to get them to kill people. Some even hated religion. All they needed was easy access to guns and all too human characteristics played out in the wrong circumstances:

July 18, 1984: unemployed security guard James Oliver Huberty kills 21 people at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California. He is killed himself by a police sniper.

October 16, 1991: George Jo Hennard crashes his pickup into a Luby’s cafetaria and begins firing, killing 22 people before taking his own life.

April 20, 1999: Columbine High School students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold kill 13 people before taking their own lives.

April 16, 2007: student Seung-hui Cho kills 32 people on Virginia Tech campus and eventually commits suicide.

April 3, 2009: Jiverly Voong kills 13 people when attacking Binghampton immigration center in New York state.

November 5, 2009: Major Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, attacks Fort Hood in Texas and kills 13 people.

July 20, 2012: James Holmes kills 12 people in what became known as the Colorado cinema shooting, during the screening of the new Batman movie.

December 14, 2012: Adam Lanza kills 27 people, including himself, during an attack on Newtown school in Connecticut.

September 16, 2013: Aaron Alexis, a Navy contractor, kills 12 people at Washington Navy Yard.

June 18, 2015: Dylann Roof kills 9 people at Charleston prayer meeting.

December 2, 2015: Syed Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik kill 14 people at a community centre in San Bernardino. They die in police shootout.

June 12, 2016: Omar Mateen kills 49 people and injures another 53 at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

no to homophobia islamophobia

On Human Sacrifice (Article Nature)

I can’t help but quote the following article by Philip Ball in its entirety. It summarizes an interesting paper that appeared in Nature by Joseph Watts, Ritual human sacrifice promoted and sustained the evolution of stratified societies Nature 532, 228–231 (14 April 2016). For those of us who are familiar with the work of René Girard and mimetic theory, it offers some great factual perspectives. I’ve highlighted sentences that are especially remarkable from a Girardian point of view in purple.

Find more information on how to interpret the following article and similar research from a Girardian perspective by clicking here.

How human sacrifice propped up the social order


James Frazer’s classic anthropological study The Golden Bough1 contains a harrowing chapter on human sacrifice in rituals of crop fertility and harvest among historical cultures around the world. Frazer describes sacrificial victims being crushed under huge toppling stones, slow-roasted over fires and dismembered alive.

Frazer’s methods of analysis wouldn’t all pass muster among anthropologists today (his work was first published in 1890), but it is hard not to conclude from his descriptions that what industrialized societies today would regard as the most extreme psychopathy has in the past been seen as normal — and indeed sacred — behaviour.

In almost all societies, killing within a tribe or clan has been strongly taboo; exemption is granted only to those with great authority. Anthropologists have suspected that ritual human sacrifice serves to cement power structures — that is, it signifies who sits at the top of the social hierarchy.

Florilegius/SSPL/Getty Images

An Aztec priest removes a man’s heart in a sacrificial ritual and offers it to the god Huitzilopochtli (from handcoloured engraving by Giulio Ferrario’s Ancient and Modern Costumes of all the Peoples of the World, Florence, Italy, 1843).

Sacrifice for social order

The idea makes intuitive sense, but until now there has been no clear evidence to support it. In a study published in Nature2, Joseph Watts, a specialist in cultural evolution at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, and his colleagues have analysed 93 traditional cultures in Austronesia (the region that loosely embraces the many small and island states in the Pacific and Indonesia) as they were before they were influenced by colonization and major world religions (generally in the late 19th and early 20th centuries).

By delving into ethnographic records, the researchers tried to tease out the relationship between human sacrifice and social hierarchy. They find that the prevalence of sacrifice increased with the degree of social stratification: it occurred in 25% of cultures with little or no stratification, 37% of those with moderately stratified societies, and 67% of those that had a pronounced hierarchy.

And by mapping the evolutionary relationships between cultures, the team suggests that human sacrifice and social hierarchy co-evolved. Although societies can become more or less stratified over time, societies that practised sacrifice were less apt to revert to milder degrees of stratification.

In other words, human sacrifice seems to bolster stratification: it helped to stabilize hierarchy, and conceivably, therefore, had a common role in the development of highly stratified societies that generally persist even today.

Religious undertones

Human sacrifice seems to have been largely the privilege of priests or others who claimed religious authority. Watts and colleagues say that their results therefore disclose a “dark side” to the social role of religion. (They have previously shown that belief in supernatural punishing agencies in Austronesian cultures encouraged moral observance, and thereby promoted the emergence of stratified and complex social structures3).

There’s a danger of overgeneralization from any study of this kind. Human sacrifice is no more likely than, for instance, music to have had a single role in early societies. In the third century bc, for example, Chinese administrator Li Bing eliminated the sacrifice of young maidens to a river god during the conquest of Sichuan by the First Emperor. Some have suggested that he called the bluff of a local racket in which families rid themselves of unwanted daughters while getting rich on the compensation they received. Whether or not that is true, it’s easy to imagine how rituals could be abused for prosaic gain.

And even in Austronesia, add Watts’s team, sacrifice wasn’t always conducted for purely religious reasons. It could have other motivations, including to punish taboo violations, demoralize underclasses, mark class boundaries and instil fear of social elites, all of which aim at building and maintaining social control. For this reason, says Michael Winkelman, an anthropologist now retired from Arizona State University in Tempe, “I suspect that Watts et al. are assessing some general notion of social legitimated killing.”

Such considerations complicate any interpretation of Watts’s results, but it also gives them considerably more contemporary resonance.

Death-penalty parallels

By today’s standards, human sacrifice scarcely seems to fall within the norms of good morality. But one doesn’t need to be a moral relativist to accept that the connections between human sacrifice, obedience to authority and stable governance persist. To perceive a link between ancient, “savage” human sacrifices and the death penalty in some modern societies isn’t to exaggerate or indulge in melodrama, as Winkelman’s remarks testify.

Certainly the suggestion could seem glib, and the parallels cannot be taken too far. Unlike today’s death penalties, traditional ritual sacrifice was generally for religious purposes and it tended to exhibit no bloodlust or contempt for the victims. Often they were seen as godlike, and before their sacrifice, they might be treated with reverence and affection, and perhaps fed well like the biblical fatted calf. The remains of the dead body — it’s not even clear whether the word “victim” is appropriate — were imbued with power. If the flesh was chopped up, it was to share out this potent relic among the tribe.

Yet a contemporary state’s arrogation of the right to slaughter through the death penalty — breaking an otherwise rigid prohibition — still serves as, among other things, a demonstration of authority and a ritual of appeasement, whether towards supposed religious strictures or public opinion.

To future anthropologists, whatever explanations or justifications states offer today for imposing capital punishment may seem less revealing than the broader view of how such sanctified killing reinforces the social order. We can expect time’s retrospective gaze to lay bare the real reasons why we, no less than the ancient Aztecs or Samoans, valorize murder.


  1. Frazer, J. G. The Golden Bough (Macmillan, 1890).
  2. Watts, J., Sheehan, O., Atkinson, Q. D., Bulbulia, J. & Gray, R. D. Nature (2016).
  3. Watts, J. et al. Proc. R. Soc. B 282, 20142556 (2015).

One of the oldest written religious texts, the Rig-Veda (the oldest of the four Vedas of Hindu religion), contains a creation myth that tells about the sacrifice of the giant Purusha. This sacrifice serves as the basis for the Indian caste system. Once again, in light of mimetic theory and the above mentioned scientific research, the existence of such stories comes as no surprise.

From the Rig-Veda

Thousand-headed Purusha, thousand-eyed, thousand-footed he, having pervaded the earth on all sides, still extends ten fingers beyond it.

Purusha alone is all this—whatever has been and whatever is going to be. Further, he is the lord of immortality and also of what grows on account of food.

Such is his greatness; greater, indeed, than this is Purusha. All creatures constitute but one quarter of him, his three-quarters are the immortal in the heaven.

With his three-quarters did Purusha rise up; one quarter of him again remains here. With it did he variously spread out on all sides over what eats and what eats not.

From him was Viraj born, from Viraj evolved Purusha. He, being born, projected himself behind the earth as also before it.

When the gods performed the sacrifice with Purusha as the oblation, then the spring was its clarified butter, the summer the sacrificial fuel, and the autumn the oblation.

The sacrificial victim, namely, Purusha, born at the very beginning, they sprinkled with sacred water upon the sacrificial grass. With him as oblation the gods performed the sacrifice, and also the Sadhyas [a class of semidivine beings] and the rishis [ancient seers].

From that wholly offered sacrificial oblation were born the verses and the sacred chants; from it were born the meters; the sacrificial formula was born from it.

From it horses were born and also those animals who have double rows [i.e., upper and lower] of teeth; cows were born from it, from it were born goats and sheep.

Purusha MandalaWhen they divided Purusha, in how many different portions did they arrange him? What became of his mouth, what of his two arms? What were his two thighs and his two feet called?

His mouth became the brahman; his two arms were made into the rajanya; his two thighs the vaishyas; from his two feet the shudra was born.

The moon was born from the mind, from the eye the sun was born; from the mouth Indra and Agni, from the breath the wind was born.

From the navel was the atmosphere created, from the head the heaven issued forth; from the two feet was born the earth and the quarters [the cardinal directions] from the ear. Thus did they fashion the worlds.

Seven were the enclosing sticks in this sacrifice, thrice seven were the fire-sticks made, when the gods, performing the sacrifice, bound down Purusha, the sacrificial victim.

With this sacrificial oblation did the gods offer the sacrifice. These were the first norms [dharma] of sacrifice. These greatnesses reached to the sky wherein live the ancient Sadhyas and gods.

Source: The Rig-Veda, 10.90, in Sources of Indian Tradition by Theodore de Bary (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), pp. 16-17.

Find more information and an alternative, younger version of this myth by clicking here.


Saved from the Denial of Death?

Ernest BeckerIn 1973, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker (1924-1974) published his seminal book The Denial of Death. Because of this publication, a year later and two months after his death, Becker was granted the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction.

The Denial of Death elaborates the following thesis:

The basic motivation for human behavior is our biological need to control our basic anxiety, to deny the terror of death.

One of the most important functions of culture therefore is to provide symbolic defense mechanisms against the knowledge of mortality. Culture, and religion in particular, can be understood as an attempt to deny death. In this context Becker writes about immortality projects. These projects allow us to create a symbolic, so-called meaningful and heroic self-concept that we feel outlasts our physical self and time on earth.

Combined with the insights of yet another “out of the box” thinking literary critic and anthropologist, René Girard (1923-2015), we might conclude that the creation of our heroic self-concepts is possible because of our mimetic (i.e. imitative) nature.

The way we think about ourselves and the way we develop a sense of identity is always mediated by our social environment. And that which makes something like a social environment possible precisely is our – indeed mimetic – ability to put ourselves in each other’s shoes. Neuroscientists have discovered that so-called mirror neurons in our brains play a very important role in this regard. These brain cells allow us to imitate others. They allow us to pretend that we’re someone else and to take another person’s point of view. And this allows us to imagine what others are experiencing, thinking, expecting or even desiring. In short, our mimetic ability is the conditio sine qua non to empathize and bond with others, and to develop a sense of self.

Of course our imaginative projections about others can be wrong. That’s why we, rather unwittingly, constantly look for the confirmation of mutually established social expectations. The question “Am I doing this right?” seems to be the ever present subtext to our behavior. It really structures the interaction between ourselves and others. To quote sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998), we expect that others have certain expectations and act accordingly. That’s how a social order is established in a particular culture.

Each (sub-)cultural environment establishes its own identity concepts, based on particular mimetic interactions. Those identity concepts are models that we use to create a meaningful image for ourselves. As stated earlier, according to Becker, a meaningful culturally defined self-image can be understood as an attempt to escape the realization that we are mortal beings. In other words,

our attempt to create an image that is loved by others whose respect we (mimetically) learned to desire = an attempt to deny death.

Although they might provide us with a good and secure feeling, there’s a downside to our immortality projects. We might become so obsessed with our symbolic, so-called meaningful self-image that we might be prepared to literally sacrifice ourselves to it. As anxious persons, we show the tendency to act according to the supposed expectations of “meaningful” others in order to gain their approval. As we become more obsessed with our social status, we might accomplish exactly what we were trying to move away from, death! Think of workaholics who destroy their own health, or think of ISIL suicide bombers, who sacrifice themselves in order to gain a supposedly “sacred” identity. Jesus of Nazareth formulates this tragic, failed and paradoxical attempt at “the denial of death” in our cultural and/or religious projects very succinctly in the Gospels (Matthew 16:25a-26a):

For whoever would save his life will lose it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?

And not only that, we might also be prepared to sacrifice those others we deem a threat to our self-image. Jesus himself becomes a victim of people (among them are his own disciples!) who try to protect their “socially acceptable” self-image.

In short, if we make it our goal “to be loved” by so-called meaningful others, we tend to become auto- and hetero-aggressive.

ernest-becker-quote-the-idea-of-deathThe question is whether we can be saved from our sacrificial tendencies. Since we are relational beings [or since our being is essentially relational], we can only be saved from these tendencies if we receive an identity from a being that is not at all interested in “being loved” (a being that comes from outside the human game of mutually established social expectations). This can only be a being that is not mortal, since it is mortality that leads human beings to the desire “to be loved”. If we experience the love of such a being, we can distance ourselves more and more from the desire to adjust ourselves to a self-image that seeks the approval of others. Moreover, since we diminish our auto-aggressive tendencies we will also diminish our hetero-aggressive tendencies. We will no longer defend a so-called socially acceptable self-image at the expense of others. Paradoxically, the acknowledgment of ourselves and our mortality might allow us to surrender to that Love that is “not defined by death”. Our newly found ability “to love” will enable others to love themselves as well, and save them as well from their auto-aggressive tendencies, thus enabling them to love others, etcetera. Until the whole world is “saved” by this Love.

Christians are convinced that the “Spirit of Love” springs from the relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and his so-called “Father”. They believe that God can be experienced as a Love – at least at the human level – that is not defined by death. One of the images they use to speak of this Love indeed is the image of the Trinity (love means “relation”, thus the image of a relation between a Father and a Son, and the Spirit that springs from that relation, is appropriate). To be loved by Jesus of Nazareth thus means to be loved by a being that allows us to more fully accept ourselves and others.

In other words,

the Love incarnated by Jesus potentially saves us from our cultural (be it secular or religious) illusional immortality projects.

Denkgelacherig atheïstisch narcisme


De volgehouden logica in de evangeliën en de verder ontwikkelde christelijke traditie, wijst in de richting van “Jezus als ultieme, soms pijnlijk consequente realist in een wereld van narcisten”. [Voor meer hierover: klik hier]. Dat bepaalde mensen, ondanks alle rationele argumenten, blind blijven voor die logica, heeft niet te maken met een veronderstelde “vaagheid” van de christelijke bronnen, maar met een koppig narcisme.

God works in mysterious waysFundamentalistische christenen, bijvoorbeeld, hangen nogal eens vast aan het geloof in een almachtige God in een eigenlijk niet-christelijke zin [Voor meer hierover: klik hier]. De ervaring leert dat zij moeilijk afstappen van een godsbeeld dat incompatibel is met het godsbeeld dat kan afgeleid worden uit de Christusfiguur van de evangeliën. Als ultieme verdediging van kromme redeneringen trekken zij vaak de kaart van het adagium “Gods wegen zijn ondoorgrondelijk”. Daarmee beëindigen ze iedere vorm van dialoog, discussie en kritische (zelf)reflectie. Maar ook sommige atheïsten houden liever vast aan hun ideeën over het christelijke verhaal (en theologie of zelfs godsdienst in het algemeen) dan dat ze die in vraag zouden stellen. Narcistische, intellectuele zelfgenoegzaamheid is niemand vreemd. Vooral niet als een eerder vijandige opvatting tegenover het christelijke verhaal identiteitsbepalend is. De commentaar van sommige atheïsten, wier blik veelal door negatieve emoties wordt bepaald, op het betoog uit een vorige post [Voor meer hierover: klik hier] is dan ook voorspelbaar: “Dit is een particuliere, misschien zelfs hoogst individuele interpretatie, en uiteindelijk is het allemaal relatief. Wat kunnen we uiteindelijk weten? Met ‘theologie’ kun je alle kanten op!” Alweer duikt het gemakzuchtige en laffe “argument” van “ondoorgrondelijke wegen” op. Tja, voor wie gelooft in rationele argumenten, ondersteund door wetenschappelijke inzichten (van literatuurwetenschap en geschiedenis tot antropologie) zal de ene interpretatie beter en plausibeler zijn dan de andere. Het is allemaal niet zo “ondoorgrondelijk” of “vaag” of “incoherent”.

Op de vragen “Welke beweringen doet het christelijke verhaal en wat is de essentie van het christelijke geloof?” bestaan wel degelijk antwoorden die, vanuit rationeel en wetenschappelijk verantwoord onderzoek, plausibeler zijn dan andere. Wat narcisten ook mogen beweren. Zowel gelovigen als ongelovigen kunnen een onderzoek instellen naar het antwoord op die vragen.

Wat het intellectuele narcisme van sommige atheïsten betreft, is een “debat” dat georganiseerd werd door Het Denkgelag een mooi voorbeeld. Op 17 oktober 2013 hielden Daniel Dennett, Lawrence Krauss en Massimo Pigliucci onder de modererende leiding van filosoof Maarten Boudry een panelgesprek over “de grenzen van de wetenschap”.

Dit theekransje van atheïsten oversteeg zelden het niveau van filosofische cafépraat, maar misschien was dat wel de bedoeling – om de drempel laag te houden. In ieder geval, je zou denken dat het “om te lachen” was als ze zichzelf niet zo ernstig namen. Genant was onder andere hoe bioloog en filosoof Massimo Pigliucci en filosoof Daniel Dennett aan fysicus Lawrence Krauss moesten uitleggen dat de criteria om te oordelen over het morele of immorele karakter van menselijke daden niet door de wetenschap kunnen bepaald worden. Eens die criteria bepaald zijn – eventueel door langdurig na te denken, dus door “rationaliteit” -, kan wetenschap natuurlijk informatie opleveren aangaande de vraag hoe die morele opvattingen het best in de praktijk worden omgezet. Als je bijvoorbeeld gelooft dat het morele gehalte van een daad bepaald wordt door het geluksniveau dat het oplevert, kun je wetenschappelijk kennis vergaren over de mate waarin een daad in “geluk” resulteert. Op voorwaarde natuurlijk dat je eerst gedefinieerd hebt wat “geluk” dan inhoudt. Wat alweer impliceert dat een filosofische, rationele discussie over “geluk” voorafgaat aan ieder mogelijk wetenschappelijk onderzoek. Het is bijzonder eigenaardig dat dergelijke basisinzichten in het lang en het breed (expliciet een twintigtal minuten) moeten uitgesmeerd worden op een avond die pretendeert een hoogmis voor de rationaliteit te zijn. De aanvankelijke “onenigheid” tussen Pigliucci en Krauss had dan ook geen enkele intellectuele spankracht. Ze was gewoon te wijten aan een gebrekkig inzicht bij Krauss. Pigliucci vat de les wijsbegeerte voor eerstejaarsstudenten uiteindelijk samen (tussen minuut 42:40 en 44:00 van het gesprek):

“Nobody in his right mind, no philosopher in his right mind, I think, is saying that empirical facts, or even some scientific facts – as should be clear by now, I take a more restrictive definition of science or concept of science than Lawrence does – but even if we want to talk about empirical facts, broadly speaking, nobody is denying […] that empirical facts are relevant to ethical decisions. That’s not the question. The question is […] that the empirical facts, most of the times, if not all the times, in ethical decision making, are going to underdetermine those decisions, those value judgements that we make. So the way I think of ethics is of essentially ‘applied rationality’. You start with certain general ideas. Are you adopting a utilitarian framework? Are you adopting a deontological framework, a virtue ethics framework or whatever it is? And then that essentially plays the equivalent role of, sort of, general axioms, if you will, in mathematics or general assumptions in logic. And from there you incorporate knowledge, empirical knowledge, about, among other things, what kind of beings humans are. Ethics, let’s not forget, is about human beings.”

Terecht wees Pigliucci er trouwens op dat Sam Harris in zijn boek The Moral Landscape eigenlijk een gelijkaardige denkfout maakt als Krauss. Harris zal wel veel verdiend hebben aan de verkoop van zijn boek, maar bij nader inzien is het intellectuele volksverlakkerij die weinig om het lijf heeft. Niet verwonderlijk dat Pigliucci er het volgende over zegt (48:22 – 48:44):

the moral landscape“Sam Harris, who you [Maarten Boudry] introduced as a philosopher, I would characterize mostly as a neuroscience based person. I think he would do it that way. When I read his book, ‘The Moral Landscape’ which promised a scientific way of handling ethical questions. I got through the entire book and I didn’t learn anything at all, zero, new about ethics, right?”

Daarnaast ergert Pigliucci zich, opnieuw reagerend op een aantal beweringen van Krauss, aan wetenschappers die generaliserende uitspraken doen over filosofie zonder eigenlijk enig idee te hebben waarover ze spreken (1:12:57 – 1:13:28):

“First of all, most philosophy of science is not at all about helping scientists answer questions. So it is no surprise that it doesn’t. So when people like your colleague Stephen Hawking – to name names – starts out a book and says that philosophy is dead because it hasn’t contributed anything to science, he literally does not know what he is talking about. That is not the point of philosophy of science, most of the time.”

Kortom, de onenigheid die soms dreigde te ontstaan tussen Pigliucci en Dennett aan de ene kant en Krauss aan de andere werd telkens opgelost door Krauss een aantal “bijlessen” te geven. Pigliucci was dan nog zo vriendelijk om dat vaak ietwat onrechtstreeks te doen, maar het is duidelijk dat zijn zojuist vermelde commentaar op Stephen Hawking een manier was om Krauss terecht te wijzen over zijn “red herring” (de herhaalde opmerking van Krauss dat (wetenschaps)filosofie vandaag geen bijdragen levert aan wetenschap is irrelevant omdat ze dat ook niet beoogt). Pigliucci besloot deze discussie met een analogie (1:13:59 – 1:14:12):

“So, yes, philosophy of science doesn’t contribute to science, just like science does not contribute to, you know, English literature. Or literary criticism, whatever you want to put it. But so what, no one is blaming the physicists for not coming up with something new about Jane Austen.”

Je zou verwachten dat Pigliucci dergelijke analogie consequent toepast als het gaat om de afbakening van verschillende onderzoeksvelden, maar toen het over theologie ging nam hij plotseling ook de weinig doordachte houding van Krauss aan. Boudry en Dennett sloten zich trouwens eensgezind bij hun gesprekspartners aan. Blijkbaar hadden deze atheïsten een doodverklaarde “vijand” gevonden – de theologie – die hen verenigde (1:13:46 – 1:13:48):

Lawrence Krauss: “Well, theology, you could say is a dead field…”
Massimo Pigliucci: “Yes, you can say that. Right!”

Aan het begin van de avond bleek al dat de heren op dit vlak zeker van hun stuk waren:

20:11 – 20:21
Maarten Boudry: “Do you think that science, no matter how you define it, or maybe it depends, has disproven or refuted god’s existence?”

21:10 – 21:30
Lawrence Krauss: “What we can say, and what I think is really important, is that science is inconsistent with every religion in the world. That every organized religion based on scripture and doctrine is inconsistent with science. So they’re all garbage and nonsense. That you can say with definitive authority.”

21:50 – 22:42
Massimo Pigliucci: “I get nervous whenever I hear people talking about ‘the god hypothesis’. Because I think that’s conceding too much. Well, it seems to me, in order to talk about a hypothesis, you really have to have something fairly well articulated, coherent, that makes predictions that are actually falsifiable. All that sort of stuff. […] All these [god-] concepts are incoherent, badly put together, if put together at all. […] There is nothing to defeat there. It’s an incoherent, badly articulated concept.”

De eerder uitgewerkte post over de al dan niet narcistische Jezusfiguur van het Nieuwe Testament is een eerste falsificatie van de beweringen van Krauss en Pigliucci. Georganiseerde religie, gebaseerd op zogenoemde openbaringsgeschriften en dogma’s, is niet per definitie inconsistent met wetenschap. Het nieuwtestamentishe godsbeeld is bovendien allesbehalve incoherent. Een korte samenvatting van de desbetreffende vorige post mag dit verduidelijken [Voor meer hierover: klik hier].

De mensen die ten grondslag liggen aan de tradities die uiteindelijk resulteren in de geschriften van het Nieuwe Testament geloven dat God zich op het niveau van de mensheid openbaart als een liefde die mensen in staat stelt om op een waarachtige wijze zichzelf en anderen te aanvaarden. Zulke, niet direct zichtbare liefde bevat het potentieel om mensen te bevrijden van een leven in functie van het verlangen naar erkenning of, anders gezegd, van een leven uit liefde voor een onwaarachtig imago dat waardering moet opleveren. De auteurs van het Nieuwe Testament definiëren op die manier wat “redding” (Engels: “salvation”) is: wie zich bemind weet, wordt meer en meer bevrijd van de neiging om zichzelf en anderen op te offeren aan “de afgodendienst van het sociale prestige”. Tegelijk geloven de nieuwtestamentische schrijvers dat de liefde die dergelijke offers weigert op een uitzonderlijke wijze belichaamd wordt in Jezus van Nazaret, die precies hierom “Christus” wordt genoemd en als dusdanig wordt geportretteerd ter navolging.

Via onder andere literatuurwetenschappelijk onderzoek kunnen deze heren atheïsten voor zichzelf nagaan in welke mate deze karakterisering van de nieuwtestamentische beweringen de kern van het christelijke geloof bevat. Misschien moeten ze dat eens doen vooraleer ze zich overgeven aan de narcistische pretentie om gezaghebbende uitspraken te doen over “alle theologie”. Het blijft vreemd dat Pigliucci zich ergert aan een fout die sommige natuurwetenschappers wel eens maken met betrekking tot “filosofie”, terwijl hij zelf die fout maakt met betrekking tot “theologie”. Vandaag houdt theologie zich bezig met het interdisciplinair wetenschappelijk onderzoek naar het godsbeeld van een bepaalde religieuze traditie, en met de eventuele implicaties daarvan. Dit heeft overigens niets te maken met geloven of niet geloven in God. Om een analogie te gebruiken: je moet het uiteindelijk niet eens zijn met het mensbeeld van Shakespeare om een onderzoek in te stellen naar de mensvisie die in zijn werken tot uiting komt. Kortom, de vragen waarmee theologen zich bezighouden zijn van een fundamenteel andere aard dan de vragen waarmee natuurwetenschappers zich bezighouden, en er moeten op een fundamenteel niveau dus ook geen conflicten verwacht worden tussen beide onderzoeksvelden. In de woorden van Pigliucci’s eerder geciteerde analogie om het onderscheid tussen natuurwetenschap en filosofie in de verf te zetten: “No one is blaming the physicists for not coming up with something new about Jane Austen.”

Georges Lemaître and Albert EinsteinMisschien moeten Pigliucci en co maar een voorbeeld nemen aan Georges Lemaître, Belgisch katholiek priester en vermaard fysicus (onder andere grondlegger van de “Big Bang” hypothese). Lemaître maakt een duidelijk onderscheid tussen de vragen waarmee moderne natuurwetenschappers zich bezighouden en de vragen waarmee de auteurs van het Nieuwe Testament bezig zijn. Sterker nog, volgens Lemaître hebben natuurwetenschappelijke vraagstukken niets met theologie te maken, en vice versa. De gelovige natuurwetenschapper kan zijn geloof dan ook geen enkele rol laten spelen in het strikt natuurwetenschappelijke onderzoek. Enkele citaten van Lemaître uit een artikel (klik hier om het te lezen) van Joseph R. Laracy verduidelijken zijn positie aangaande de verhouding tussen de theologie en de moderne natuurwetenschap:

“Should a priest reject relativity because it contains no authoritative exposition on the doctrine of the Trinity? Once you realize that the Bible does not purport to be a textbook of science, the old controversy between religion and science vanishes . . . The doctrine of the Trinity is much more abstruse than anything in relativity or quantum mechanics; but, being necessary for salvation, the doctrine is stated in the Bible. If the theory of relativity had also been necessary for salvation, it would have been revealed to Saint Paul or to Moses . . . As a matter of fact neither Saint Paul nor Moses had the slightest idea of relativity.”

“The Christian researcher has to master and apply with sagacity the technique appropriate to his problem. His investigative means are the same as those of his non-believer colleague . . . In a sense, the researcher makes an abstraction of his faith in his researches. He does this not because his faith could involve him in difficulties, but because it has directly nothing in common with his scientific activity. After all, a Christian does not act differently from any non-believer as far as walking, or running, or swimming is concerned.”

The writers of the Bible were illuminated more or less — some more than others — on the question of salvation. On other questions they were as wise or ignorant as their generation. Hence it is utterly unimportant that errors in historic and scientific fact should be found in the Bible, especially if the errors related to events that were not directly observed by those who wrote about them . . . The idea that because they were right in their doctrine of immortality and salvation they must also be right on all other subjects, is simply the fallacy of people who have an incomplete understanding of why the Bible was given to us at all.”

De vraag naar wat “redding” of “heil” betekent in nieuwtestamentische zin is inderdaad anders dan bijvoorbeeld de vraag waarom en hoe objecten vallen. Zo eenvoudig kan een inzicht zijn om niet langer als een heroïsche maar narcistische Don Quichot “windmolens” te moeten bevechten. Maar een mens moet zich natuurlijk geen illusies maken: de Maarten Boudry’s van deze wereld gaan zelden of nooit de uitdaging aan om hun geloof aangaande de aard van theologie en religie op een wetenschappelijk verantwoorde manier in vraag te stellen. Maar misschien spreekt nu het narcisme van een theoloog🙂 ?

atheists and fundamentalists

Nochtans draagt Boudry wetenschap hoog in het vaandel. Zijn vraag aan het publiek aan het begin van de avond luidde dan ook (16:58 – 17:30): “Do you think that science is the sole source of knowing?” Er waren veel mensen die bevestigend antwoordden op deze vraag. Dit impliceert dan dat je een persoon die je nog nooit ontmoet hebt beter kent dan een persoon die je iedere dag ziet als je maar accurate en gedetailleerde wetenschappelijke beschrijvingen hebt van de persoon die je nooit bent tegengekomen (en geen wetenschappelijke beschrijvingen van de persoon die je iedere dag ziet). Een beetje een vreemde vaststelling. Ergens zou je toch geneigd zijn om te denken dat je een persoon die zich iedere dag, oprecht en in vertrouwen, aan jou openbaart beter kent dan de wetenschappelijk beschreven persoon die je nooit hebt ontmoet… Of zou de “echte” en “volledige” identiteit van een persoon (zijn “ziel”, om met een oud woord te spreken) te herleiden zijn tot wat er wetenschappelijk kan over gezegd worden? Opnieuw een beetje vreemd dat je de persoonlijkheid van iemand zou “opsluiten” in wetenschappelijke analyses…

Wat er ook van zij, natuurlijk zijn Maarten Boudry, Massimo Pigliucci, Lawrence Krauss en Daniel Dennett niet louter narcisten. Het is niet omdat ze aangaande theologie weinig zelfkritische ideeën etaleren dat ze op hun eigen onderzoeksdomeinen geen uitstekend werk verrichten. Maar niets menselijks is de mens vreemd. Iedereen is bij tijd en wijle wel eens een narcist. Scholen kunnen een bijdrage leveren om mensen vrijer te maken van hun eigen narcistische impulsen door hen te oefenen in het onderscheiden van hun eigen motivaties: handelen mensen vanuit een narcistisch verlangen naar erkenning, of is de eventuele erkenning die mensen verwerven een gevolg van een liefde die ze ontwikkeld hebben voor mens, natuur en samenleving? 


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