An Introduction to Mimetic Theory

•March 12, 2011 • 14 Comments




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. 




Course material derived from Vrouwen, Jezus en rock-‘n-roll (Averbode, 2009), click here.

Cursusmateriaal afgeleid van Vrouwen, Jezus en rock-‘n-roll (Averbode, 2009), klik hier.

Pleasantville and Biblical Feminism

•May 16, 2015 • 1 Comment

Once again, this post is a translation from a chapter in my book Vrouwen, Jezus en rock-‘n-roll – Met René Girard naar een dialoog tussen het christelijk verhaal en de populaire cultuur (Women, Jesus and rock-‘n-roll. Taking René Girard to a dialogue between the Christian story and popular culture).

Pleasantville (Gary Ross, 1998) is a movie about the twins David and Jennifer who miraculously end up in David’s favorite TV-show, Pleasantville, and become Bud and Mary Sue Parker. At first everything is, also literally, very black and white in their new world. Life is very predictable, every citizen has a clearly defined role, even the roads are like the daily routine: they go in a circle. There’s nothing outside the enclosed 1950’s world order of small town Pleasantville.

Pleasantville 17Pleasantville 16

Bit by bit, however, things start to change with the arrival of David/Bud and Jennifer/Mary Sue. Some people divert from their normal activities and turn from black, grey and white into technicolor. Bill Johnson, for instance, Bud’s boss at the soda shop where he is working, discovers his creativity and artistic freedom as a painter. Other citizens become avid readers, studying books and using their minds to gain wisdom and imagine things “outside of Pleasantville”. In the end, the road doesn’t go in a circle anymore but “keeps going”. This means that life is no longer predictable, the future is open-ended, and individuals get more chances, as well as responsibilities, to work out their own project in life. In other words, the people in Pleasantville abandon the cyclical worldview that was aimed at preserving an order installed by “higher powers”. In yet other words, they move from the ancient mythical view of time as circular to a Jewish and Christian “linear” view of time: instead of leading a life according to the so-called scenario of “the powers that be”, people are liberated to write their own history.

Cyclical vs Linear

Thomas Cahill wrote a very interesting book on this shift, The Gifts of the Jews – How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels. From the cover: “The Gifts of the Jews reveals the critical change that made western civilization possible. Within the matrix of ancient religions and philosophies, life was seen as part of an endless cycle of birth and death; time was like a wheel, spinning ceaselessly. Yet somehow, the ancient Jews began to see time differently. For them, time had a beginning and an end; it was a narrative, whose triumphant conclusion would come in the future. From this insight came a new conception of men and women as individuals with unique destinies—a conception that would inform the Declaration of Independence—and our hopeful belief in progress and the sense that tomorrow can be better than today.”

On the other hand, a sense of stability and certainty seems forever lost with the arrival of the linear view of history. No wonder, then, that the anxious community in Pleasantville at first tries to suppress the newly found creativity and individual liberties: books are burned, rock ‘n’ roll music is forbidden, painters are not allowed to use colors besides black, white and grey, “(techni)colored” people are separated from the others and sexuality, in particular female sexuality, is considered inappropriate.

Pleasantville 14

Pleasantville 11

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Indeed, the women especially begin to question the status quo of the patriarchal society in Pleasantville. Following the example of Mary Sue (a powerful “mimetic model”), girls invite their boyfriends into the garden of Lover’s Lane to explore their sexuality. Bud also imitates his sister, as he takes Margaret on a date to Lover’s Lane…

Pleasantville 9

There, Bud is offered an apple by his girlfriend. Afterwards he is reproached for eating it by the deus ex machina of the movie, a mysterious TV repairman, who yells at him that he doesn’t deserve “to live in this paradise”. This all too obvious reference to the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis raises questions about whether or not Judeo-Christian tradition supports oppressive patriarchal social structures. The story of the Fall from Eden eventually blames the woman, Eve, for being the first to succumb to an inappropriate desire, causing her man Adam to sin and resulting in them both being banned from the Garden. The obvious message of the story concerning women seems clear: like her Greek counterpart Pandora, Eve and her female boldness means trouble (for more on this, click here). So far for the Jewish critique of archetypal mythic structures, so it seems…

Pleasantville 4

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René Girard helps us understand why women are depicted as troublemakers and how they, more specifically (sexually) emancipated women, become scapegoats, unjustly held responsible for all kinds of evil in the world. The sexist reasoning often goes something like this. Emancipated women are no longer dependent on their husbands. This means that they can more easily divorce them. Divorces potentially trouble the mind of children and youngsters, who might lose the security of a “home”. Hence juvenile delinquency could increase as young people get together in gangs to create a sense of self-worth and identity. Thus the stability of society as a whole is threatened by women who refuse to remain faithful to the man they’re married off to. Moreover, sexually independent women can stir rivalry and violence between men, which once again destabilizes the internal cohesion of a community. Indeed, sex (eros) might lead to death (thanatos).

To avoid these potential troubles patriarchal societies have the tendency to suppress the freedom of women. This means women have to pay for the potential rivalry between men and the potential lack of responsibility of other members of the society. Instead of taking responsibility for their rivalrous and even violent desires and instead of taking control of them, patriarchal men blame women for their own behavior. And instead of taking more responsibility as a parent, patriarchal men also blame women if their offspring ends up on the wrong track… Peace and order in society, according to the patriarchal system, can only be obtained by keeping women in check. In other words, women and their freedom are violently sacrificed in order to establish “peace and quiet”.

As said, the Genesis story of the Garden and the Fall (the third chapter of the book) seems to support this view and seems to legitimize the sacrificial structure of the patriarchal society. More specifically, the story seems to consider (female) sexuality taboo. Eve invites Adam “to eat from the fruits” of the “Tree of Knowledge” in a “Garden Paradise”. In ancient Middle Eastern Cultures gardens are symbolical of sexuality and female sexuality in particular. The Song of Songs for instance, one of the smallest books of the Bible, gives voice to a young woman in a dialogue with her beloved man. At some point she invites her lover to “come into her garden and taste its choice fruits”. Talk of sending a clear message… Moreover, “knowing” often has a sexual meaning or erotic tone in Hebrew. “To know someone” has to do with “intimate wisdom”, with “gaining insight” by “penetrating into” something. So eating from the “Tree of Knowledge” and discovering, afterwards, that you are “naked” adds to the interpretation of the story as containing a taboo on sexuality and the female lust for “knowledge”. No wonder then, again, that the citizens of Pleasantville fear women who “go to the library”, “think” and take the initiative to go to Lover’s Lane… Women shouldn’t become too smart, as “shrewd” women are hard to control, and the third chapter of Genesis seems yet one other sexist story that gets this message across.

Song of Solomon (Raoul Martinez)

A strange thing happens, however, when Genesis chapter three is compared to the already mentioned Song of Songs. At a certain moment, the young woman of the Song complains about the patriarchal society and its taboos. She went looking for her lover but the “watchmen of the city” violently punished her for having an intimate relationship with a man outside her family or outside the ritualized context of marriage. Thereon she eventually sighs (Song of Songs 8:1): If only you were to me like a brother, who was nursed at my mother’s breasts! Then, if I found you outside, I would kiss you, and no one would despise me.” So the Song of Songs lets the victim of patriarchal violence speak out and act against the regular patriarchal order. A comparison between Eve in Genesis and the young woman in the Song of Songs might shed new light on how to interpret the emancipation of women in the story of Pleasantville from a Biblical point of view. Here it is (CLICK THE PAGES TO ENLARGE OR CLICK HERE FOR PDF):

Pleasantville Garden of Eden and Garden of Female Sexuality

Pleasantville Watchmen

The question from this comparison is whether the God of the Genesis story is on the side of the watchmen who are supporting the patriarchal society and who harass (sexually) emancipated women. At first glance, it seems that this is the case. However, the Song of Songs does allow the victim of patriarchal violence to speak out against this kind of discrimination.

In order to get a fuller understanding of what is actually condemned by the Genesis story, the broader context of the book of Genesis is needed. Read in the broader context of Genesis and the story that immediately follows (Cain and Abel), Eve is not condemned because she is a woman, but because she cannot respect the difference between herself and someone else (“the Lord God”) – just like Cain cannot respect the difference between himself and someone else (“Abel”). Both stories condemn an anxious type of envy and even resentment! In the case of the confrontation between the young woman and her harassers in the Song of Songs, it is clear that the harassers are led by envy, resentment and fear. From the particular Biblical point of view, developed from the broader context in Genesis, they’re the ones whose acts are to be condemned. They fear the emancipation of women because this might mean that women no longer automatically obey the men they’re married off to – which is very frightening for patriarchal men’s status and sense of self-worth. Most probably their wives too resent the emancipated woman, as they secretly envy the life she leads but dare not abandon their own situation for fear of being punished.

The Gospels show how Jesus of Nazareth also takes sides with the woman as a potential victim of patriarchal violence. More specifically in John 8:1-11, when he is confronted with a woman caught in adultery. It might be good to take a fresh look at this well-known text:

Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area, and all the people started coming to him, and he sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

A Depiction of Jesus and the Woman taken in Adultery (Vasily Polenov)

Jesus prevents the establishment of an order based on sacrifice by making people reflect on their own desires and trespasses, as they might be similar to those of the adulterous woman. Jesus believes God desires “mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13).

It is telling that Jesus approaches the woman, who already committed adultery, mildly while he firmly condemns men who merely think of adultery (Matthew 5:27-30):

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”

It’s his hyperbolic verbal way of compensating for the double standard in patriarchal societies, where adulterous men are often all too easily justified as “victims” of “evil, seductive women” (who are all too easily condemned by the patriarchal system). Apart from this, there are other “feminist” traits in the behavior of Jesus. The situation between Jesus, the crowd and the adulterous woman as it is told in the Gospel of John contains a subtle clue for a subversive, anti-patriarchal reading of the third chapter in Genesis (John 8:3): The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle.” Indeed, the woman is said to stand “in the middle”. Compare this to Genesis 3:3, as Eve responds to the snake: God told us, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden. You must not even touch it, or you will die.‘” In other words, Jesus wants to prevent the crowd from “touching” what “stands in the middle” just like the God figure in the Genesis story wants to prevent Adam and Eve from eating from the tree “in the middle of the garden”. In both situations, the acts of “touching what’s in the middle” imply that people are led by envy, resentment and lust for prestige, that they are unable to respect “the other”, and that they want to erase the differences between themselves and the other (by killing themselves or the other – for more on this: click here).

In consonance with Genesis, Jesus calls out for love of one’s neighbor and a refusal of the sacrifice of the other to establish a “peace”. That’s why he says (Matthew 10:34-36):Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” The “sword” Jesus talks about is not the sword of “violence” (indeed, in Matthew 26:52 Jesus, upon being arrested, clearly warns against violence, when he demands one of his companions who tries to defend him: Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”). It is reminiscent of the sword at the end of the Genesis story about the Fall: The Lord God placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and the flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. This sword is a symbol of a Love that creates and preserves differences between people – differences of “color” and personality that is, not of “hierarchy”.

not peace but a swordPeace I leave with you

Jesus time and again questions a peace, order and unity based on the expulsion of a common enemy (a “scapegoat”) and on dictatorial, oppressive leadership (often of a “patriarch”). He tells people, “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44), which causes conflicts within the groups people belong to but once again prevents people from establishing a community at the expense of certain “enemy victims”. That’s why he can say that his kingdom – his way of organizing society – is, most of the time, “not of this world” (John 18:36). And that’s why he can also say: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

In short, Jesus as a Jew, in consonance with the Scriptures of the Jewish people, wants to establish a peace that allows for non-violent conflicts between people (as people dare to show their “true colors” and thus might clash with each other), while he refuses to establish a violent “easy” peace based on sacrifice (the “Pax Romana”).

In Pleasantville, Bud prevents the community of condemning his mother Betty. She committed adultery, leaving her husband George for Bill Johnson, the owner of the soda shop. Bill painted a portrait of a naked Betty on the front window of his shop, after which an agitated and scandalized crowd “stoned” it. Like Jesus confronted with a crowd and a woman caught in adultery, Bud prevents further violence. He enables people to discover that they’re not so different from Betty and other “coloreds” – which, paradoxically, allows them to respect Betty’s and the others’ own “color” and choices in life.

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Of course, life doesn’t become much easier if we’re trying to respect one another, protesting against “easy sacrifices” of vulnerable victims. Society does become more complex, the future more open and uncertain, but also more interesting, fertile and creative. It certainly is a challenge to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, to allow for relationships that are based on a Love born from freedom, and not based on a fear for punishment or a desire to be rewarded and compensated. But hey, it’s better to have an emancipated woman love her man than to have a bitter, scared “slave” stick to her husband, isn’t it? In the words of 1 John 4:18:

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

no fear in love

‘Guess we all still have some growing to do, but on a personal note: deep down inside, I do prefer the peace of Christ’s “critical” and flexible Love to the peace of the sacrificial powers in our world. A lot of growing to do, though, but happy to…

To conclude, Bruce Springsteen on the “secret garden she hides…” – CLICK HERE…

More from my book Vrouwen, Jezus en rock-‘n-roll – Met René Girard naar een dialoog tussen het christelijk verhaal en de populaire cultuur (Women, Jesus and rock-‘n-roll. Taking René Girard to a dialogue between the Christian story and popular culture):

  1. Mimetic Theory in High School (click to read)
  2. Types of the Scapegoat Mechanism (click to read)
  3. Scapegoating in American Beauty (click to read)
  4. Philosophy in American Beauty (click to read)
  5. Real Life Cases of Ressentiment (click to read)
  6. Eminem Reads the Bible (click to read)
  7. The Grace of Prostitutes (click to read)

See also: Achever… the Social Sciences (click to read)

A Midsummer Night’s Mimetic Desire

•February 24, 2015 • Leave a Comment

René Girard devotes six chapters to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in A Theater of Envy, his book on William Shakespeare (for references I use the edition of St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend, Indiana, 2004 – originally this title was edited by Oxford University Press, 1991). I’ve tried to rework some of Girard’s insights by using the diagrams I’ve developed (for more information, click here for “Types of the Scapegoat Mechanism”). But first things first: a plot summary.


A Midsummer Night's Dream by MukilteoCasualtie

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies, portrays some strange events surrounding the wedding of Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. The play consists of three plots, interconnected by the noble marriage.

First there is the story of four young Athenian lovers who are invited to the celebration. Fair Hermia is in love with Lysander and refuses to submit to her father Egeus’ demand that she wed Demetrius. Meanwhile, her childhood friend Helena desperately falls for Demetrius. Hermia and Lysander escape to an enchanted forest outside Athens. Informed by the still desperate Helena, Demetrius follows them in hopes of killing Lysander. Helena chases Demetrius, promising to love him more than Hermia, but he rejects her offer with cruel insults.

Oberon, king of the fairies and at that time in an envious quarrel over a changeling with his wife and queen Titania, observes the cruelty of Demetrius. This second plot about the fairies intervenes with the first one when Oberon asks his servant, Robin “Puck” Goodfellow, to apply a magical juice to the eyelids of the sleeping Demetrius. The juice is derived from a flower called “love-in-idleness” and causes awakening persons to fall in love with the first creature they see. Oberon hopes to let Demetrius fall in love with Helena. However, Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius and Lysander falls in love with Helena. Oberon is able to correct Puck’s mistake and uses the magic to let Demetrius fall in love with Helena as well. Rivaling Lysander and Demetrius then end up seeking a place to duel each other, leaving Hermia enraged and desperate as she accuses Helena of stealing Lysander away from her. Puck, following Oberon’s orders, prevents the duel from happening and removes the charm from Lysander. Lysander returns to loving Hermia, while Demetrius now loves Helena.

The four young lovers return to Athens to witness the celebration of Theseus’ wedding. A group of six amateur actors performs “Pyramus and Thisbe”. These six craftsmen (among them a guy named Bottom who is eager to play nearly every role) prepared themselves in the enchanted forest and went through some upheaval as well. Like the tale of the four lovers, this third plot again is connected to the world of the fairies by Puck’s magical love potion. Oberon lets his wife fall in love with Bottom so he can blackmail her and claim her changeling. He succeeds and after removing the spell from his wife he goes to Athens with her to bless the house of Theseus. All’s well that ends well, so it seems…


O hell to choose love by another's eyes (Shakespeare quote A Midsummer Night's Dream)I will focus on the subplot of the four young Athenian lovers. René Girard, in the aforementioned book A Theater of Envy, interprets the love shenanigans during the fairy night as consequences of the mimetic nature of the young lovers’ desires. Surprise, surprise. Each individual competes with another one for the recognition or love of a third party. Girard argues that this kind of competition is eventually based on mimetic (i.e. imitative) interplays, and he demonstrates how Shakespeare, throughout his works, developed fundamental insights in this essential human interaction. The lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream don’t compete with each other because they accidentally desire the same person, but they desire the same person because they imitate one another. They are led by mimetic desire. Ever more rapidly during the play they all take another person as model or mediator for their desire. This results in self-loathing (a form of auto-aggression) and divinization of their model on the one hand, or in self-aggrandizement and loathing (a form of hetero-aggression) of their model on the other. In the words of Hermia, which summarize the guiding mimetic principles of the play (in Act I, Scene 1):

O hell! to choose love by another’s eyes.

Of course, no one is eager to admit that his or her desire is not his or her own. Although the play at first glance lends itself to a romantic interpretation of the ties between the four lovers, Shakespeare comically undermines the belief in “true love” and “true love’s desire” (understood as “unmediated desire”). In the words of René Girard (A Theater of Envy, p.34-35 & p.36-37):

The history of the night continues its prehistory with different characters in the various mimetic roles. Before the midsummer night began, in other words, it had already begun. First Demetrius was unfaithful to Helena, then Hermia was unfaithful to Demetrius, then Lysander to Hermia, and finally Demetrius to Hermia. The four infidelities are arranged in such a way that the minimum number of incidents illustrates the maximum amount of mimetic theory.

It is important to observe that the love juice cannot be invoked as an excuse for the infidelities that occur before the midsummer night. Everything can and must be explained mimetically, that is, rationally. If we had only the infidelities that occur before our eyes, the examples would be too few to lead us unquestionably to the mimetic law, but the addition of the prehistory and the history is sufficient to the purpose. So instead of a single triangular conflict that remains unchanged until the conclusion, A Midsummer Night’s Dream suggests a kaleidoscope, a number of combinations that generate one another at an accelerating pace. Shakespeare gives several objects in succession to the same mimetic rivals for a comic demonstration of the mediator’s predominance in the triangle of mimetic desire.


A Theater of Envy (1991)Shakespeare satirizes a society of would-be individualists completely enslaved to one another. He is mocking a desire that always seeks to differentiate and distinguish itself through the imitation of someone else but always achieves the opposite result: A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an early triumph of unisex and uni-everything else. It involves a process of increasing symmetry among all characters, yet not so obviously perfect a one that the demonstration becomes heavy-handed.

Unlike the skeptical Puck, who mocks the lovers because he understands everything, Oberon is full of reverence for “true love,” but his language plays occasional tricks upon him and suggests the very reverse of what he intends to say. After Puck has picked the wrong man for his dispensations of love juice, Oberon sounds indignant, as if the difference between “true” and “false” love were so huge that Puck’s mistaking the two were unforgivable. His actual words suggest the very reverse [from Act III, Scene 2]:

What hast thou done? thou hast mistaken quite
And laid the love-juice on some true-love’s sight:
Of thy misprision must perforce ensue
Some true love turn’d and not a false turn’d true.

Who will tell the difference between some “true love turned” and “a false turned true”? It all sounds the same, and the distinction upon which the pious Oberon insists is humorously undermined. The supposed discrepancy between “true love” and its mimetic counterfeit echoes the inferiority of the copy versus the original in traditional aesthetics. The problem is that no original is available: everything is imitation.

The cacophonic circularity of “true love turned” and “false turned true” ironically suggests the paradoxical contribution of differential and individualistic ideologies to the growing mimetic uniformity; differentialism is the ideology of the mimetic urge at its most comically self-defeating. All this amazingly resembles our own contemporary world.


The first mimetic triangle we encounter in the play structures itself from Helena’s perspective. Helena compares herself to Hermia and this reinforces her desire to obtain (the recognition of) Demetrius – the object of her desire [the left side of the diagram]. All this eventually results in Helena’s self-loathing (a form of auto-aggression) and the divinization of her “model”, Hermia – Helena wants to erase (the confrontation with) the difference between herself and Hermia, she wants to be Hermia [the right side of the diagram]. The desire for Hermia’s being – the mediator – turns out to be more important than the desire for Demetrius.


MND Autoaggression of Helena

Again, in the words of Girard himself (ibid., p.43-44):

Being is what mimetic desire is really after, and Helena says so explicitly.

Helena wants to be “translated” to Hermia.


Helena is desperately in love with Demetrius, but he is hardly mentioned; gigantic in the absence of Hermia, his stature shrinks to almost nothing in her presence. Thus the real priorities of mimetic desire are revealed: however desirable the object may be, it pales in comparison with the model who gives it its value.

Hermia and Helena (Washington Allston 1818)A remarkable aspect of our text is its sensuousness. Helena wants to catch Hermia’s “favour” as she would a disease, contagiously, through physical contact. She wants every part of her body to match Hermia’s corresponding part. She wants the whole body of Hermia. The homosexual connotations of this text are not “unconscious” but deliberate, and it is difficult to see what kind of help psychoanalysis could provide. Shakespeare portrays the tendency of unsuccessful desire to focus more and more on the cause of its failure and to turn the mediator into a second erotic object – necessarily homosexual, if the original desire is heterosexual; the erotic rival is an individual of the same sex as the subject. The homosexual connotations are inseparable from the growing emphasis on the mediator.

Helena will show a little later that she has not forgotten Demetrius; her behavior with him is more “masochistically” erotic during the night than that of any other character.


What Helena is going through is part of her “midsummer night.” Many adolescents experience an intense fascination for successful school friends, and it may or it may not affect them permanently.

Girard explores the love/hate – dynamics generated by the mimetic interactions between the four lovers more extensively further on (ibid., p.50-51):

We must examine a striking feature in the amorous language of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the proliferation of animal images. In order to express her self-abasement, Helena compares herself to various beasts. In opposition to these metaphors of lowliness, images of sublimity and divinity express the transcendence of the inaccessible object, Demetrius, and of the triumphant mediator, Hermia.


In all intensely mimetic relations, the subject tries to combat the self-contempt that necessarily accompanies the overvaluation of the mediator. Helena reveres her mediator but also hates her as a rival, and vainly tries to regain the upper hand in a relationship that has become completely unbalanced. The more divine Hermia and Demetrius seem to Helena, the more beastly she herself feels. The animal images are a privileged means of expressing the self-abasement that mimetic desire generates. Instead of rising to the near-divinity that they perceive in their models, the subjects of desire sink to the level of animality.

It’s time to put Girard’s analysis to the test and to take a look at how The Bard himself portrays Helena’s self-loathing in relation to Hermia and Demetrius.

From Act I, Scene I

God speed fair Helena! whither away?

Call you me fair? that fair again unsay.
Demetrius loves your fair: O happy fair!
Your eyes are lode-stars; and your tongue’s sweet air
More tuneable than lark to shepherd’s ear,
When wheat is green, when hawthorn buds appear.
Sickness is catching: O, were favour so,
Yours would I catch, fair Hermia, ere I go;
My ear should catch your voice, my eye your eye,
My tongue should catch your tongue’s sweet melody.
Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated,
The rest I’d give to be to you translated.
O, teach me how you look, and with what art
You sway the motion of Demetrius’ heart.

I frown upon him, yet he loves me still.

O that your frowns would teach my smiles such skill!

I give him curses, yet he gives me love.

O that my prayers could such affection move!

The more I hate, the more he follows me.

The more I love, the more he hateth me.

His folly, Helena, is no fault of mine.

None, but your beauty: would that fault were mine!

Hermia and Lysander (John Simmons 1870)HERMIA
Take comfort: he no more shall see my face;
Lysander and myself will fly this place.
Before the time I did Lysander see,
Seem’d Athens as a paradise to me:
O, then, what graces in my love do dwell,
That he hath turn’d a heaven unto a hell!

From Act II, Scene I

I love thee not, therefore pursue me not.
Where is Lysander and fair Hermia?
The one I’ll slay, the other slayeth me.
Thou told’st me they were stolen unto this wood;
And here am I, and wode within this wood,
Because I cannot meet my Hermia.
Hence, get thee gone, and follow me no more.

You draw me, you hard-hearted adamant;
But yet you draw not iron, for my heart
Is true as steel: leave you your power to draw,
And I shall have no power to follow you.

Do I entice you? do I speak you fair?
Or, rather, do I not in plainest truth
Tell you, I do not, nor I cannot love you?

And even for that do I love you the more.
I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,
The more you beat me, I will fawn on you:
Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you.
What worser place can I beg in your love,–
And yet a place of high respect with me,–
Than to be used as you use your dog?

One of the strongest arguments for the kind of interpretation of the play we’ve been exploring, i.e. in terms of mimetic interactions, is Girard’s reference to what happened before the play begins. The prehistory of the midsummer night is summarized in the very first scene of the play. Girard (ibid., p.33-34):

In the beginning Helena was in love with Demetrius and Demetrius with her. This happy state of affairs did not last. The gentle Helena explains in a soliloquy that her love affair was destroyed by Hermia:

For ere Demetrius look’d on Hermia’s eyne,
He hail’d down oaths that he was only mine;
And when this hail some heat from Hermia felt,
So he dissolved, and showers of oaths did melt.

Why should Hermia attempt to seduce Demetrius away from her best friend? Since Hermia now wants to marry the other boy, Lysander, she could not be motivated by genuine “true love.” What else could it be? Do we have to ask? The mimetic nature of the enterprise is suggested by the close similarity […] with The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Hermia and Helena are the same type of friends as Valentine and Proteus: they have lived together since infancy; they have been educated together; they always act, think, feel, and desire alike.

In our prehistory we have a first mimetic triangle. […]

Demetrius is still very much in love with Hermia because she is the one who jilted him, just as Demetrius himself had jilted Helena a little before. The enterprising Hermia first stole the lover of her best friend and then lost interest in him, thus making two people hysterically unhappy instead of one. If Hermia lived in our time, she would probably claim that a bright, modern, independent young woman like herself needs “more challenging friends” than Demetrius and Helena. Demetrius and Helena seem insufficiently challenging to Hermia because she found it too easy to dominate them. First, she roundly defeated Helena in the battle for Demetrius, which destroyed the prestige of this friend as a mediator. Being no longer transfigured by the power of mimetic rivalry, Demetrius too lost his prestige and did not seem desirable any longer. Whenever an imitator successfully appropriates the object designated by his or her model, the transfiguration machine ceases to function. With no threatening rival in sight, Hermia found Demetrius uninspiring and turned to the more exotic Lysander.

This explanation is also valid for Demetrius, our first example of infidelity. He yielded to Hermia’s blandishments because Helena was too gentle and loving; she did not make things difficult enough for her lover. When mimetic desire is thwarted, it intensifies and, when it succeeds, it withers away. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the play in which these two aspects are discreetly but systematically exploited. The two together make up the dynamics of the midsummer night.


Indeed, from the observations about the prehistory of the midsummer night it is plausible to consider the alternative love triangle at the climax of the midsummer night as a consequence of (Shakespeare’s insight into) mimetic logic. Puck’s love potion hardly conceals Shakespeare’s deconstruction of the “true love” illusion. The reality of mimetic desire brings any stable “forever and ever” romanticism to an end. Once again, René Girard (ibid., p.51):

god dogAs the end approaches, the metaphysical absolute shifts from character to character and the mimetic relation loses all stability. When the two boys abandon Hermia and turn to Helena, the entire configuration is reorganized on the basis of the same polarities but with a new distribution of roles. A formerly despised member of the group has become its idol, and a former idol has lost all prestige; in the language of our metaphoric polarity, it really means that a beast has turned into a god and, reciprocally, a god has turned into a beast. Up is down and down is up. When Lysander and Demetrius fall in love with Helena, it is Hermia’s turn to feel like a dog.

The diagram from the perspective of Hermia thus looks like this:


MND Heteroaggression of Hermia

Helena cannot believe that the two boys now rival each other to obtain her (all the while, of course, mimetically reinforcing each other’s desire). Of course Hermia is not happy with this turn of events. At the same time as she “masochistically” loathes her own “dwarfish stature”, she loathes Helena. Hermia, comparing herself with Helena, is even prepared to fight her friend. The Bard:

From Act III, Scene II

O spite! O hell! I see you all are bent
To set against me for your merriment:
If you were civil and knew courtesy,
You would not do me thus much injury.
Can you not hate me, as I know you do,
But you must join in souls to mock me too?
If you were men, as men you are in show,
You would not use a gentle lady so;
To vow, and swear, and superpraise my parts,
When I am sure you hate me with your hearts.
You both are rivals, and love Hermia;
And now both rivals, to mock Helena:
A trim exploit, a manly enterprise,
To conjure tears up in a poor maid’s eyes
With your derision! none of noble sort
Would so offend a virgin, and extort
A poor soul’s patience, all to make you sport.


What, can you do me greater harm than hate?
Hate me! wherefore? O me! what news, my love!
Am not I Hermia? are not you Lysander?
I am as fair now as I was erewhile.
Since night you loved me; yet since night you left me:
Why, then you left me–O, the gods forbid!–
In earnest, shall I say?

Ay, by my life;
And never did desire to see thee more.
Therefore be out of hope, of question, of doubt;
Be certain, nothing truer; ’tis no jest
That I do hate thee and love Helena.

O me! you juggler! you canker-blossom!
You thief of love! what, have you come by night
And stolen my love’s heart from him?

Fine, i’faith!
Have you no modesty, no maiden shame,
No touch of bashfulness? What, will you tear
Impatient answers from my gentle tongue?
Fie, fie! you counterfeit, you puppet, you!

Puppet? why so? ay, that way goes the game.
Now I perceive that she hath made compare
Between our statures; she hath urged her height;
And with her personage, her tall personage,
Her height, forsooth, she hath prevail’d with him.
And are you grown so high in his esteem;
Because I am so dwarfish and so low?
How low am I, thou painted maypole? speak;
How low am I? I am not yet so low
But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes.


Finally, the mimetic logic is also at work in the behavior of the two boys. René Girard (ibid., p.32-33):

The first thing to observe is that, even though the two boys are never in love with any girl for very long, both of them at any given time are always in love with the same girl. We can also observe great similarities in their two discourses, which remain unchanged when both of them shift from one girl to the other, except, of course, for the minor adjustments required by the fact that Helena is a tall blonde, whereas Hermia is short and dark-haired.


[Demetrius] imitates Lysander because Lysander took Hermia away from him, and like all defeated rivals, he is horribly mediated by his victorious opponent. His desire for Hermia remains intense as long as Lysander provides it with a model; as soon as Lysander shifts to Helena, Demetrius also shifts. This perfect parrot is a more comic version of Proteus [from The Two Gentlemen of Verona]. Imitation is so compulsive with him that, were there a third girl in the group, he would certainly fall in love with her, but not before Lysander did.

In short, Demetrius compares himself to Lysander, and this reinforces his desire for Hermia [the left side of the diagram]. All this results in Demetrius’ desire to erase (the confrontation with the difference between him and) Lysander [the right side of the diagram]. Hence the full diagram:

MND Heteroaggression of Demetrius

In the words of The Bard:

From Act II, Scene I

I love thee not, therefore pursue me not.
Where is Lysander and fair Hermia?
The one I’ll slay, the other slayeth me.
Thou told’st me they were stolen unto this wood;
And here am I, and wode within this wood,
Because I cannot meet my Hermia.
Hence, get thee gone, and follow me no more.

You draw me, you hard-hearted adamant;
But yet you draw not iron, for my heart
Is true as steel: leave you your power to draw,
And I shall have no power to follow you.


Lysander at first seems more independent than Demetrius, but we should not be fooled. René Girard (ibid., p.33-34):

What about Lysander himself? When he shifts to Helena, he has no possible model, since no one is in love with the poor girl. Does that mean that his desire is truly spontaneous?


the chase is better than the catchIn The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare emphasized the strength and stability of unfulfilled desire. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream this emphasis remains, but it is supplemented by an equal emphasis on the instability of fulfilled desire. We can now understand why Lysander abandons Hermia, for all desertions are rooted in the disenchantment of peaceful possession. Lysander has triumphed over his mimetic rival Demetrius. Hermia truly belongs to him, so he lacks the indispensable stimulus of mimetic rivalry. Helena must seem attractive at this point because she has given no indication of being interested in Lysander; besides, there is no one else to turn to.

In other words, Lysander compares himself to Demetrius and reinforces his desire for (the recognition of) Helena, to the point where he wants to get rid of Demetrius. Hence the diagram:

MND Heteroaggression of Lysander

From Act II, Scene II

O, I am out of breath in this fond chase!
The more my prayer, the lesser is my grace.
Happy is Hermia, wheresoe’er she lies;
For she hath blessed and attractive eyes.
How came her eyes so bright? Not with salt tears:
If so, my eyes are oftener wash’d than hers.
No, no, I am as ugly as a bear;
For beasts that meet me run away for fear:
Therefore no marvel though Demetrius
Do, as a monster fly my presence thus.
What wicked and dissembling glass of mine
Made me compare with Hermia’s sphery eyne?
But who is here? Lysander! on the ground!
Dead? or asleep? I see no blood, no wound.
Lysander if you live, good sir, awake.

[Awaking] And run through fire I will for thy sweet sake.
Transparent Helena! Nature shows art,
That through thy bosom makes me see thy heart.
Where is Demetrius? O, how fit a word
Is that vile name to perish on my sword!

Do not say so, Lysander; say not so
What though he love your Hermia? Lord, what though?
Yet Hermia still loves you: then be content.

Content with Hermia! No; I do repent
The tedious minutes I with her have spent.
Not Hermia but Helena I love:
Who will not change a raven for a dove?
The will of man is by his reason sway’d;
And reason says you are the worthier maid.
Things growing are not ripe until their season
So I, being young, till now ripe not to reason;
And touching now the point of human skill,
Reason becomes the marshal to my will
And leads me to your eyes, where I o’erlook
Love’s stories written in love’s richest book.


Without further ado, René Girard’s main conclusion on A Midsummer Night’s Dream (ibid., p.64):

The symmetry of the two human subplots suggests that aesthetic imitation and the mimetic Eros are two modalities of the same principle. Bottom’s desire for mimesis spreads as contagiously among the craftsmen as erotic desire among the lovers and has the same disruptive effects upon the two groups; it produces the same mythology [the midsummer night’s dream].

In his theatrical subplot, Shakespeare reinjects the ingredient that the aestheticians always leave out – competitive desire. In the lovers’ subplot he reinjects the ingredient that the students of desire never take into account – imitation. This double restitution turns the two subplots into faithful mirrors of each other, the two complementary halves of a single challenge against the Western philosophical and anthropological tradition.


The enormous force of Shakespeare comes from his ability to rid himself of two bad abstractions simultaneously: solipsistic desire and the bland, disembodied imitation of the aestheticians. The love of mimesis that sustains the aesthetic enterprise is one and the same with mimetic desire. This is the real message of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The Western philosophical and scientific tradition is based on the opposite principle. Mimesis and Eros are seen as separate. The myth of their mutual independence goes back to Plato, who never associates the two concepts, even though his frantic fear of mimetic contagion and his distrust of art, more particularly of the theater, points to the unity that his formal system repudiates.


Shakespeare’s spectacular marriage of mimesis and desire is the unity of the three subplots and the unity of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


Lord What Fools these Mortals be

The play ends with Puck addressing the audience. It seems he tries to reassure us that “true love” can only be disturbed by a magical dream. As if a certain configuration of relationships is true and “real” and an alternative one can only be false and “dreamlike appearance”. We don’t like to admit that our desires are subject to mimetic antics. We would like to escape the realization that our desires are guided by emotions like envy and jealousy, or pride. And yet, Puck ironically reveals that there indeed is a “serpent’s tongue” (i.e. the principle of mimetic comparing, as the serpent refers to the creature that seduces Adam and Eve to compare themselves to God in the Genesis story of the Garden of Eden). Thus Puck is the liar (“merely a character in a play”) who tells the truth. And so he gets the last laugh…

From Act V, Scene I

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.


Here are some previous posts concerning the same issues:

  1. Mimetic Theory in High School (click to read)
  2. Types of the Scapegoat Mechanism (click to read)
  3. Scapegoating in American Beauty (click to read)
  4. Philosophy in American Beauty (click to read)
  5. Real Life Cases of Ressentiment (click to read)
  6. Eminem Reads the Bible (click to read)
  7. The Grace of Prostitutes (click to read)

See also: Achever… the Social Sciences (click to read)

Het fascisme van antireligieuze utopisten

•January 30, 2015 • Leave a Comment

[Deze post is een vertaling en herwerking van een vorige post, met name The Fascism of Anti-religious Utopians; ze kadert in de discussie over het vak LEF – klik hier voor meer artikels op de Thomas-website van de KU Leuven].

“Niemand wordt homoseksueel geboren. Homoseksualiteit is een pervertering van de menselijke natuur. Vandaag zijn er al genoeg problemen op het vlak van relatievorming en seksualiteit die onze samenleving ontwrichten. We moeten onze jeugd behoeden voor nog meer seksueel geweld. Wordt het daarom geen tijd dat wij de homoseksuele leraren uit onze scholen ranselen? Zij mogen onze jeugd niet langer corrumperen. Zeg hen: blijf met uw fikken van de ziel van mijn kind!”

Deze redenering is wel eens te horen in veelal eerder rechtse kringen, al dan niet met een religieus sausje. In de nasleep van 9/11 zijn er in de Verenigde Staten zelfs fundamentalistische christenen die terroristische aanslagen beschouwen als “een straf van God” omdat de Amerikaanse samenleving te tolerant zou zijn tegenover “feministen, homo’s en lesbiennes” (dixit bijvoorbeeld Jerry Falwell, op 13 september 2001, in The 700 Club).

Wat mij betreft, wordt deze manier van denken terecht bekritiseerd, en zeker ook als ze komt uit hoeken die zelf niet altijd een toonbeeld van seksuele ethiek blijken. Natuurlijk zullen er homoseksuelen zijn die zich, zoals ook sommige heteroseksuelen, bezondigen aan verkrachtingen en andere vormen van seksueel geweld, maar dat betekent niet dat homoseksualiteit op zich een perversie is. Terecht moeten we homoseksuelen in bescherming nemen tegen discriminerende maatregelen. Het homofobe uitgangspunt is bovendien sterk betwijfelbaar. Dat homoseksuele neigingen genetisch zouden zijn, lijkt mij evenwel geen goed argument om te bepalen of homoseksualiteit geoorloofd is. Een gelijkaardige redenering gaat misschien op voor pedofilie, en dan zouden we, ondanks een eventueel biologische oorsprong, nog altijd besluiten dat deze vorm van seksualiteit moreel verwerpelijk is. In ieder geval zijn er voldoende andere morele en wettelijke criteria om de rechten van homoseksuelen te verdedigen. Er is dus hoop.

De vraag is of ook andere groepen in onze samenleving dezelfde hoop kunnen blijven koesteren. Recentelijk steekt volgende redenering meer en meer de kop op:

“Niemand wordt religieus geboren. Religie is een pervertering van de menselijke natuur. Vandaag zijn er al genoeg problemen op het vlak van religieus gemotiveerd geweld en fanatisme die onze samenleving ontwrichten. We moeten onze jeugd behoeden voor nog meer religieus geweld. Wordt het daarom geen tijd dat wij de levensbeschouwelijke kooplieden uit onze scholen ranselen? (Joël De Ceulaer op de website van Knack, 13 januari 2015). Zij mogen onze jeugd niet langer corrumperen. Zeg hen: blijf met uw fikken van de ziel van mijn kind! (De Ceulaer, ibid.).”

Journalist Joël De Ceulaer en de zijnen stellen al enkele jaren expliciet de vraag om de levensbeschouwelijke vakken in onze scholen te vervangen door “één neutraal vak levensbeschouwing” (het fameuze LEF – “Levensbeschouwingen, Ethiek, Filosofie”), liefst gegeven door “neutrale leraren”. De lijken van de slachtoffers waren amper koud of De Ceulaer lanceerde deze oproep opnieuw naar aanleiding van de aanslag op Charlie Hebdo. Daarmee gaat hij nog een stap verder dan de islamofobie waartoe Filip Dewinter (Vlaams Belang) onlangs weer wou aanzetten in de Kamer. Dewinter zwaaide met een Koran en noemde het boek “de reden van heel wat onheil”. Door zijn oproep voor een vak LEF in de context van islamistische terreurdreigingen te plaatsen, verbreedt De Ceulaer de islamofobie van Dewinter de facto tot een algemene religiefobie.

Zelf ben ik een van de “levensbeschouwelijke kooplieden” die De Ceulaer uit onze scholen wil “ranselen”. Ik zou hem en zijn ideologische bondgenoten graag een aantal bedenkingen voorleggen. Het is ten eerste betwijfelbaar of “religieuze neigingen” niet behoren tot onze natuur. Met name sommige atheïsten gewagen zelfs graag van een “God-gen” dat aan de oorsprong van religieuze gevoeligheden zou liggen. (Eigenaardig wel dat de veronderstelde genetische oorsprong van homoseksualiteit vaak als een argument pro gebruikt wordt, terwijl dat in het geval van religie vaak als een argument contra geldt.) Natuurlijk wordt niemand geboren met een particuliere religie of levensbeschouwing, zoals er ook geen homoseksueel geboren wordt met een particuliere partner, maar de mogelijkheid om een religieuze of seksuele gevoeligheid in een specifieke zin te cultiveren is van bij het begin – al dan niet genetisch – aan de mens gegeven (die gevoeligheden komen in ieder geval niet van Mars). Het contact, van kindsbeen af, met mensen die op een gezonde manier getuigen van hun levensbeschouwelijke verbintenissen kan een inspiratie vormen voor een eigen levensbeschouwelijke zoektocht. Zoals de getuigenis van liefde bij (al dan niet homoseksuele) koppels de eigen kijk op relaties van kinderen en jongeren vormt. Je wacht toch ook niet met het spreken van een bepaalde taal omdat je kind, zoals alle mensen, met talige mogelijkheden geboren wordt maar niet met “één specifieke taal”? Het is precies het intense, niet zelf gekozen contact met één taal dat je kind de vrijheid schenkt om ook andere talen te leren en eigen ideeën te ontwikkelen. Je moet je kind natuurlijk niet wijsmaken dat er geen andere talen zijn. Dat zou de feiten geweld aandoen.

Een levensbeschouwelijke cultuur is in wezen als een taal: geen doel op zich, maar een vertrekpunt dat mensen toelaat om in relatie te treden met een wereld die gekleurd wordt door een veelheid aan talen en culturen. Nu zou je kunnen argumenteren dat een taal noodzakelijker en daarom fundamenteler is dan een levensbeschouwelijke overtuiging, en op basis daarvan een intenser contact met één levensbeschouwelijk perspectief uit het onderwijs weren. Dat is een levensbeschouwelijke optie. Het belang of de waarde van iets laten afhangen van een vraag naar nut, is natuurlijk niet neutraal. Afgezien daarvan is er een steeds groter levensbeschouwelijk analfabetisme in onze samenleving dat eigen problemen met zich mee brengt. Als er dan toch een “nut” moet zijn voor een levensbeschouwelijk vak, ligt het misschien daar. Uit vele verhalen van islamistische “bekeerlingen” blijkt dat het vaak gaat om jongeren die nauwelijks een expliciet islamitische opvoeding kregen. Sommigen hebben zelfs helemaal geen contact met religie tot voor hun plotse bekering. Hun beleving van de Islam is dan ook eerder te begrijpen als het gevolg van bepaalde frustraties en gewelddadige neigingen dan dat ze er de oorzaak van zou zijn.

Tien jaar na 9/11 schreef de militante atheïst Sam Harris op zijn blog: “Vanuit onze onwetendheid, angst en hunker naar orde schiepen we de goden. En onwetendheid, angst en hunker houden ze bij ons.” Het wereldbeeld van religieuze fundamentalisten teert inderdaad op een mix van die menselijke eigenschappen. Het wereldbeeld van antireligieuze fanatici echter evenzeer. Beide groepen beantwoorden de utopische hunker naar orde door hun perspectief op de werkelijkheid te verabsoluteren en eigenlijk te vergeten dat het een perspectief is. De enen noemen hun standpunt “goddelijk”, de anderen “neutraal”, en dat is tweemaal gelogen. Je kan objectiviteit nastreven in levensbeschouwelijk onderwijs, maar geen neutraliteit. Je kan bijvoorbeeld van atheïstische, boeddhistische, christelijke of islamitische leraren verwachten dat ze een gelijkaardig verhaal vertellen als ze het christelijk geloof voorstellen vanuit het werk van Karl Rahner, George Coyne of James Alison – alle drie katholieke theologen. Of vanuit het denken van Ignatius van Loyola, Franciscus van Assisi of Benedictus van Nursia. Vervolgens kun je de dialoog aangaan met andere levensbeschouwelijke perspectieven, met het fundamentalisme van Jerry Falwell bijvoorbeeld. Je kunt ook de vraag stellen hoe je leerlingen zich, vanuit hun eigen culturele achtergrond, verhouden tot die levensbeschouwelijke perspectieven. Maar met een zogezegd “goddelijk” of “neutraal” perspectief valt niet te dialogeren. Dat is gewoon aan te nemen, zonder discussie, en is een vorm van indoctrinatie. Ten slotte cultiveren zowel religieuze fundamentalisten als antireligieuze fanatici ook een cultuur van angst. De zogenaamd verlichte rationaliteit van Harris zelf wordt gevoed door religiefobie. Hij zegt bijvoorbeeld: “Ik denk dat religie de gevaarlijkste ideologie is die we ooit hebben voortgebracht, de voornaamste bron van verdeeldheid.” Bij wie zich angstvallig ingraaft in een ideologische cocon is de onwetendheid groot. Ook bij Harris uit zich dat in zogezegd “nuchtere” stereotyperingen.

Je kan alle overtollige culturele en literaire elementen uit een taal weren en kinderen opvoeden in een overzichtelijk, eenduidig en efficiënt idioom. Daarmee ontzeg je hen echter de toegang tot een groot deel van de menselijke werkelijkheidsbeleving en wie wereldvreemd is, reageert doorgaans angstig op wat niet tot de eigen, verkleinde wereld behoort. En zo is de cirkel rond. Taalarmoede en levensbeschouwelijk analfabetisme houden de spoken van het totalitarisme en fascisme bij ons, of die nu van religieuze of antireligieuze demagogen komen. Angstig moeten we evenwel niet zijn. Het zijn maar spoken van irrealistische maatschappelijke dromen. En spoken bestaan niet. Dat maken de (zowel gelovige als atheïstische) spirituele geesten in ons midden ons vroeg of laat wel weer duidelijk.

The Fascism of Anti-religious Utopians

•January 25, 2015 • 1 Comment


1.Right and Left united against “evil religion”, the common scapegoat enemy

“The Qur’an is a licence to kill.”

Filip Dewinter KoranThese words come from Filip Dewinter, one of the leading members of far-right political party Vlaams Belang, who spoke during a session of Belgium’s federal parliament (January 22, 2015).

Dewinter sounds a lot like the members of Islamic State (IS) whose conclusion on the issue of beheadings drawn from their reading of the Qur’an goes as follows:

“The Qur’an justifies these killings.”

It seems a bit ironic, but Dewinter and the members of Islamic State actually agree on the so-called “true nature of Islam”. Dewinter literally echoes the words of Hussein bin Mahmoud, a Jihadi cleric, who said (from an article posted August 21, 2014 on the Shumoukh Al-Islam forum):

Islam-Behead-Infidels“Islam is a religion of power, fighting, jihad, beheading and bloodshed.” 

For some it’s a small step to go from this so-called “true, violent nature of Islam” to the so-called “true, violent nature of religion in general”. That’s in fact an even more extreme version of Dewinter’s discourse and, once again ironically, if Dewinter would deliver that statement he would find some allies on the far-left side of the political spectrum (heir to Marx’s idea that “religion is the opium of the people”). As the French would say, eventually Les extrêmes se touchent”, the extremes meet one another.

In fact, many atheists today believe (hmm, “atheists believe…”), whether from the political “right” or “left”, that “religion must die for mankind to live” (Bill Maher in the mockumentary Religulous). Yet many of them claim to nevertheless have respect for people who believe in God, although some of them make a distinction between “respecting the people” (for instance Muslims) and “disrespecting their belief” (for instance Islam – And then you get things like: “I’m not saying you, as a Muslim, are violent, I’m saying Islam is violent!”). That’s a bit like some Catholics who say that they don’t have any problems with homosexuals, only with homosexuality (“I’m not saying you are perverted, I’m saying your sexuality is!”). For more on this analogy, see below (chapter 4 of this post).

religion is to blameAnyway, as René Girard points out in his mimetic theory, to sacrifice what is considered to bring about violent mayhem – a “scapegoat” – is a mechanism as old as humanity itself. In the words of Karen Armstrong:

As one who speaks on religion, I constantly hear how cruel and aggressive it has been, a view that, eerily, is expressed in the same way almost every time: “Religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history.” I have heard this sentence recited like a mantra by American commentators and psychiatrists, London taxi drivers and Oxford academics. It is an odd remark. Obviously the two world wars were not fought on account of religion . . . Experts in political violence or terrorism insist that people commit atrocities for a complex range of reasons. Yet so indelible is the aggressive image of religious faith in our secular consciousness that we routinely load the violent sins of the 20th century on to the back of “religion” and drive it out into the political wilderness.

2. Mimetic doubling of religious fascism by some (“liberal”) humanists

Our ancestors attributed all sorts of violence to the gods or, more generally speaking, “a sacred realm”. In order to prevent “the wrath of the gods” – experienced in violent rivalry tearing a community apart, but also in the violence of a pandemic or a natural disaster – and receive “peace and order from the gods”, ancient cultures held on to different systems of taboos and rituals. The taboos on violence and the things that were considered to bring about violence could only be transgressed in rituals and sacrificial rituals (which included wars and ceremonial battles). The ritualistic violence of sacrifices, ceremonial battles and wars was considered permissible and necessary violence, sanctioned by the gods, and ultimately aimed at the establishment of a new peace and order. In short, sacrifice – “the good of a stabilized violence” – was considered necessary to expel “the evil of destabilizing violent mayhem”.

Some atheists, dreaming of a “non-religious” world, might pat themselves on the back now and point to the backward nature of the religiously motivated sacrifices by Islamic State:

• Clearly the sacrificial violence of Islamic State (whether suicidal or aimed at others) is primitive and barbaric, rooted in a pre-modern world-view when people could still believe that violence comes from a non-human realm, from a divine or sacred realm.

In short, according to Islamic State, God is violent (although he can grant us peace as well, if we are willing to live according to his rules).

• By using God as a justification for sacrifices the members of Islamic State cowardly try to avoid their own responsibility and accountability for the violent acts they commit. Moreover, the members of Islamic State make themselves dependent on a set of so-called divine rules (sharia), unable to even take responsibility for their own lives as a whole.

In short, the members of Islamic State use God as a scapegoat, blaming God for the violence they commit themselves.

In this regard one would expect that atheists see religion for what it is – at least in this context: religious beliefs and practices are (imaginary) answers to the problem of human violence. Religion is a consequence of the need to deal with our own (tendencies towards) violence. Sure many “islamists” in Europe grew up without religion, or without the religion of their parents (hence the generation gap between some Muslim parents and their radicalized children). The sudden “conversion” of young people in Europe and their violent opinions on Islam can therefore indeed be understood as a consequence of certain frustrations and aggressive tendencies, more than as a cause of those frustrations and aggressive tendencies. The atheist analysis of religiously motivated violence should therefore read as follows:

• In case human beings use violence, this violence comes from a human realm. Violence is not divine or sacred, it is human.

In short, according to atheism, humans are violent (although we can be peaceful as well, of course).

• Atheists claim that God does not exist. A creature that does not exist, cannot be responsible for anything, let alone for the violent acts performed by humans themselves. Humans cannot blame anything other than themselves for violence.

In short, according to atheists, humans carry responsibility for violence.

However, a strange thing occurs in some atheist quarters. The analysis of religiously motivated violence often goes like this:

Gods don't kill people• In case religious people use violence, it is caused by their religion. Since no man is born with a religion, it is clear that the roots of religiously motivated violence lie outside man [as if religion comes from Mars or something, as if religion is alien to (“the true nature of”) man?!]. Of course, it’s true as well that no man is born with any particular language, but the big difference is that we need languages to communicate and work together in order to survive, while we don’t need religion – on the contrary, religion might prevent the survival of the human race! [Note: to determine the value of something by measuring its supposed “usefulness” is not “neutral”, it’s already dependent on a certain outlook on life or world-view].

In short, following this type of reasoning, religion is violent.

According to some atheists, religion is not a consequence of man’s violent tendencies. On the contrary, religion is one of the main causes of man’s violence. Human violence does not cause religion or the need for religious justifications. It’s the other way around: religion causes human violence.

In short, according to some atheists, religion is to blame for violence.

evil-twinThere is a striking resemblance between the way in which some religious fanatics view the reality of religiously motivated violence and the views of some atheists. In the words of René Girard, some atheists are imitative twins or mimetic doubles to their intolerant religious counterparts.

Both groups believe that the roots of violence lie in a realm which somewhat transcends humans (a supernatural or perverted realm respectively). “God orders violence.” Or, “religion causes violence”.

Both groups also share a common view on how to achieve a peaceful world: humans should live according to their “true” nature.

The members of Islamic State believe that humans who live without belief in God (or, more extreme even, without belief in the “true” God) invoke the “violent wrath of God”. Thus peace is only possible if the “infidels” are willing to sacrifice their pagan or secular opinions and lifestyle, and convert to God. If they are unwilling to sacrifice their sinful way of life, they should be sacrificed in order to prevent more “violent wrath of God”.

Some atheists believe that humans who live with belief in God are sustaining some of the major conditions that invoke violence. In the words of Bill Maher (again from his mockumentary Religulous):

Religion is dangerous… This 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.

sam harris religion is dangerous

Thus peace is only possible if “theists” are willing to sacrifice their barbaric and primitive opinions and lifestyle, and convert to atheism. After all, according to these atheists, no human being is born with a religion, hence the truly “natural” state of man is non-religious. Note: the zealous advocates of an “Enlightened Reason” that is supposedly very different from “all those fear-rooted religions” constantly refer to “the dangers of religion”. Quite ironic. Ah, well…

Sam Harris fear

3. The Fascism of Anti-religious Utopians – Joël De Ceulaer joins Filip Dewinter

The atheist camp might point to a difference that still seems to exist between “theists” and “atheists”. Although some atheists ask theists to consider abandoning their beliefs, they don’t use any violence against people. At best they use “verbal violence” against “weird ideas” or “weird behaviors” – you know, again, this is analogous to some Catholics who tolerate gay people while condemning homosexuality. They don’t sacrifice people, unlike some theists. Some regard this as a confirmation of their claim that it is really religion that drives people to violence. Moreover, most atheists are able to tolerate religious people, even if their religion is the cause of so much violence! Surely, atheism leads to a better, more tolerant world, no?

The so-called “humanist” atheist tolerance towards “theists” often comes across a bit strange. The atheist who stresses that the belief of his fellow man “is not a problem” to him actually implies that “this could be an issue in normal circumstances”. As if it’s not self-evident. As if the atheist is in the superior position from which he grants the theist the right to be who he is or wants to be. What if people who claim tolerance towards gay people would stress that they don’t have any problems with gay people every time they meet someone who is gay? A bit odd…

But, oh, I forgot to mention other signs of tolerance among atheists. Many of them have no problem whatsoever to attend Turkish restaurants run by Muslims. Also, many atheists already paid a visit to a mosque. Of course none of them would consider conversion to Islam a reasonable option, but look, even if they know that they are in the superior, more progressed and enlightened position, they still take the time to get to know a little bit more about a “less advanced” culture.

Joel De Ceulaer Patrick Loobuyck Jan HautekietDespite the seeming tolerance, intolerance towards religious people is never far in some atheist quarters. In the wake of the terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo, Belgian journalist Joël De Ceulaer expands the Islamophobia of Filip Dewinter to religiophobia. Unlike Dewinter, who still somewhat tried to make a distinction between the Qur’an and Muslims, De Ceulaer immediately becomes personal. The journalist and his ideological friends want to “get rid of all merchants of religion and other world-views” in Belgian schools and replace their respective curricula by one, supposedly “neutral” curriculum on “world-views, ethics and philosophy” (Dutch: “LEF – Levensbeschouwingen, Ethiek, Filosofie”), taught by “neutral” teachers. It’s still not clear what a “neutral” use of rationality and science to study different world-views actually looks like, but De Ceulaer (interviewed on Belgian television program Reyers Laat, January 19, 2015) is convinced that:

“It is a train that cannot be stopped.”

Wow. A neutral curriculum as an antidote to the violence of religious fanatics. It seems De Ceulaer is one of those utopistic atheists John Gray writes about in an article for The New Statesman (October 1, 2014):

The idea that religion is fading away has been replaced in conventional wisdom by the notion that religion lies behind most of the world’s conflicts. Many among the present crop of atheists hold both ideas at the same time. They will fulminate against religion, declaring that it is responsible for much of the violence of the present time, then a moment later tell you with equally dogmatic fervour that religion is in rapid decline. Of course it’s a mistake to expect logic from rationalists. More than anything else, the evangelical atheism of recent years is a symptom of moral panic. Worldwide secularisation, which was believed to be an integral part of the process of becoming modern, shows no signs of happening. Quite the contrary: in much of the world, religion is in the ascendant. For many people the result is a condition of acute cognitive dissonance.

As I already mentioned, both religious and anti-religious fanatics claim that religiously motivated violence is ultimately rooted in a realm that transcends human nature (a supernatural or alienating/perverted realm respectively). Both camps also claim to have access to “The Truth”. The members of Islamic State claim to possess the source of full knowledge (that is, within the limits of human possibilities) of “what’s true” and “what’s right”, revealed to them in the Qur’an. De Ceulaer and his lobbyists also claim to possess the source of full knowledge (again, within the limits of human possibilities) of “what’s true” and “what’s right”, namely reason and science.

In short, both religious and anti-religious fanatics are convinced that they can occupy a viewpoint which transcends “all particular viewpoints”. Call it Divine, call it Neutral – I call it Totalitarian and Idolatrous, implying the self-divinization of Man and the disappearance of any true belief in a transcendent realm. One can expect OBJECTIVITY from teachers of religion and world-views, NOT NEUTRALITY. Atheist, Buddhist, Christian or Islamic teachers who present Christianity from the viewpoints of, say, Karl Rahner, George Coyne or James Alison (all Catholic theologians) will tell similar things to their students if they’re objective. They will be able to confront those views with the views of fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. With the views of past Catholics like Benedict of Nursia, Francis of Assisi or Ignatius of Loyola. They will be able to point to similarities and differences. They will also create the possibility of a dialogue with the perspectives and cultural background of their students. A so-called “DIVINE” or “NEUTRAL” viewpoint does not call for dialogue. It demands to be accepted without any discussion, and is a form of mind control or brainwashing.

merchants of religionI’m one of those so-called “merchants” De Ceulaer refers to. What am I selling, according to him? Lies – maybe even deliberately? Violence? When will I be replaced by a colleague who teaches from the “neutral”, state-imposed viewpoint? Clearly, this has to be done – and I will give De Ceulaer one more reason to demonize the “merchants” – because I will never ever claim or agree to speak from a so-called “neutral” perspective. That would be the biggest lie! I’m trying to teach what Christianity is all about from a Catholic perspective (“a”, not “the”). This should enable my students to form their own opinions on Catholicism, but also on other types of Christianity, and other religions and world-views, because I’m able to point to differences and similarities from my particular perspective. Rest assured, it is not my task to try to convert people to Catholicism, it is my task to enable them to form their own opinions on things they very often know nothing about.

While I wait for De Ceulaer’s unstoppable train of “a state-imposed neutral viewpoint” (I thought we were passed the violence – indeed! – of totalitarian atheist regimes in Europe), there’s another train coming as well. De Ceulaer’s words inadvertently made me think of a statement by Islamist preacher Anjem Choudary, who was interviewed by CNN-host Brian Stelter (on the August 31, 2014 edition of the program Reliable Sources):

“I believe that the Sharia is the best way of life. I believe that one day it will come to America and the rest of the world.”

Apparently we are living in “end times”.

The apocalyptic battle is on. Which train will win?

 freedom of speech megaphone

4. Some more words on the religion/homosexuality analogy

Some atheists say:

“No man is born religiously, religion is a perversion of human nature.”

Note: some argue that the inclination to believe in God can be situated in the brain – since when are brains “unnatural”? Of course, it is not because something is “natural” that it is “good” – maybe pedophilia is also a natural inclination, that doesn’t mean it’s good. It is quite funny, though, how some atheists argue that homosexuality should be allowed because of a “gay gene”, while at the same time they argue that theists should no longer allow their faith because of a “God gene”.

Some religious people (but there are atheists as well who think like this) say:

“No man is born gay, homosexuality is a perversion of human nature.”

Well, of course no one is born with a particular gay partner and a particular way to experience his homosexuality, but the homosexual inclination is there. And no, lovingly or passionately talking about a partner is not synonymous with an attempt to convince other people that they should also start an intense relationship with that partner. They’re still free to choose their own partners, but at least they get a testimony on what it means to be in a relationship with someone.

Are there homosexuals with a distorted, disrespectful sexual life (disrespectful towards other gays)? Sure, like there are heterosexuals with a distorted sexuality; this doesn’t mean that homosexuality as such is a perversion.

Well, of course no one is born with a particular religion and a particular way to experience his sense of awe for what transcends human life (atheists have this spiritual experience as well as theists), but we could argue that a “religious inclination” is there. And no, lovingly or passionately talking about a religion is not synonymous with an attempt to convince other people that they should also start an intense relationship with that religion. They’re still free to choose their own religions, but at least they get a testimony on what it means to be religious.

Most sexual relationships don’t involve rape. The same reasoning goes for religion: most religious beliefs and conducts don’t involve violence. Of course, certain media and polarizing populists often don’t like “the ordinary” – they go for “the sensational”.

Are there religious people with a distorted, disrespectful religious life (disrespectful towards other people)? Sure, like there are atheists with a world-view that encourages disrespectful attitudes towards other people; this doesn’t mean that every religion or world-view is a perversion.

Anyway, some fundamentalist Christians blame homosexuals for some of the main evils in the world (click here for my previous post on this), like some atheists blame religious people (“people with gods kill people”) for some of the main evils in the world. That’s why De Ceulaer says: “Get rid of the merchants of religion in our schools!” As if we’re perverting the youth. This mirrors the reasoning of some religious fundamentalists who ask to “Get rid of the merchants of sexual perversion – homosexuality – in our schools!” As if gays are perverting the youth.

The paradox is that so-called “anti-religionists” create a new religious structure according to a scapegoat mechanism. However, there are enough spiritual minds (whether theist or atheist) who can free us from our scapegoating impulses (whether theist or atheist).


Every ideological, non-spiritual religion its scapegoat, whether atheist or theist?

Mythical Thinking after 9/11

•January 18, 2015 • 2 Comments

René Girard is among those scholars who like to point to the similarities between myths from around the globe. In this regard his work follows in the footsteps of people like James Frazer, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade. Girard’s explanation of the source of mythological structures and motives, however, is quite different from the approaches of his colleagues. Girard maintains that the archetypal mythological pattern is eventually rooted in a so-called scapegoat mechanism, following a typical ritualistic pattern that is rooted in the same mechanism (for more on this, click here).

Aztec human sacrificeMyths can be considered as tales which contain the worldview of a culture, transmitting from generation to generation the belief that certain phenomena (from certain things to certain persons and acts) are sacred or belong to the gods. Traditionally, the realm of the gods or the sacred is also the realm of violence. If the sacred order of things is not respected or approached in a proper (i.e. ritualistic) way it brings about violent chaos, diseases, death and destruction in the (human) world. Next to connecting chaotic situations to the realm of the sacred (portraying chaos as “the wrath of god(s)” or “bad karma”), myths also contain messages on how to transform sacred disorder into sacred order. Following René Girard, myths can thus be understood, more specifically, as justifications of certain taboos and of certain types of sacrifice which should help to conserve or renew order in the world.

In short, according to René Girard, mythical thinking consists in connecting violent mayhem, natural disasters and contagious diseases to “god(s)” or “a sacred realm”. As such, violent mayhem etc. are explained as necessary moments of disorder from which a new order is generated. This never ending mythical cycle of “disorder – order – disorder – order – …” at the same time often functions as justification of the sacrifice of certain people whose death should bring about order.

A comparison between some ancient myths and contemporary interpretations of today’s international terrorism makes clear that mythical thinking as Girard understands it is on the rise again, especially in an eschatological sense and also in secular circles that hold on to a naïve version of the myth of human progress. Just take a look at the schematic presentation below presenting the mythical structure, time and again… (for more on the sexist implications of many myths, click here).

A) The Greek myth of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods

Prometheus Gustave Moreau1) A WORLD ORDER
(“ORDO” or “COSMOS”)
with a clear distinction between different realms
=> Fire belongs to the gods and is considered TABOO

with a challenge (the “call”) to restore the balance in the world
=> Prometheus steals the fire from the gods

3) Some kind of SACRIFICE (as the pinnacle of a “HERO’S JOURNEY” or “QUEST”)
with a transformation of the identity of the hero figure(s) – into “monster(s)” or “savior(s)”
=> Prometheus is banned to the Caucasus mountains, where he is chained and tortured

again with clear distinctions between different realms

B) The Hebrew myth of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden

(“ORDO” or “COSMOS”)
with a clear distinction between different realmsAdam and Eve driven out of Eden by Gustave Dore (1866)
=> Fruits of the Tree of Knowledge belong to God and are considered TABOO

with a challenge (the “call”) to restore the balance in the world
=> Adam and Eve “eat from the forbidden fruit”
[from a comparison with the Song of Songs: this is a transgression of the taboo on sex]

• Some kind of SACRIFICE (as the pinnacle of a “HERO’S JOURNEY” or “QUEST”)
with a transformation of the identity of the hero figure(s) – into “monster(s)” or “savior(s)”
=> Adam and Eve are banned from Eden and have to accept a life with suffering and death

again with clear distinctions between different realms

C) The Greek myth of Oedipus

(“ORDO” or “COSMOS”)
with a clear distinction between different realms
=> Killing the “father-king” and taking the “mother-queen” is considered TABOO
[Note: “thanatos” and “eros” motif]

with a challenge (the “call”) to restore the balance in the world
=> Oedipus kills his father, the king, and marries his mother, the queen and allegedly causes a plague in the city of Thebes

Oedipus stabs out his eyes• Some kind of SACRIFICE (as the pinnacle of a “HERO’S JOURNEY” or “QUEST”)
with a transformation of the identity of the hero figure(s) – into “monster(s)” or “savior(s)”
=> Oedipus stabs out his eyes and goes into exile

again with clear distinctions between different realms

D) A religious fundamentalist mythical interpretation of 9/11 (“end times”)

(Jerry Falwell & Pat Robertson)

(“ORDO” or “COSMOS”)
with a clear distinction between different realms
=> Types of relationships which differ from the “traditional”, patriarchal family are TABOO

with a challenge (the “call”) to restore the balance in the world
=> Feminists, gays, lesbians and other “liberals” challenge the patriarchal family structure

• Some kind of SACRIFICE (as the pinnacle of a “HERO’S JOURNEY” or “QUEST”)
with a transformation of the identity of the hero figure(s) – into “monster(s)” or “savior(s)”
=> Two days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, two evangelicals, shared their “theological” views on the terrorist violence (transcript from the 700 club, a well-known evangelical television program in the States – September 13, 2001). Especially these comments are telling (for more, watch the video below the transcripts):
survivors of 9-11 attacksJERRY FALWELL: The ACLU’s got to take a lot of blame for this.
JERRY FALWELL: And, I know that I’ll hear from them for this. But, throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I 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.”
PAT ROBERTSON: Well, I totally concur…

In other words, 9/11 is interpreted as an unavoidable SACRIFICE, sanctioned by God; it is “the wrath of God” caused by people who keep on transgressing “sacred” laws and taboos. This sacrifice manifests itself in a twofold manner: the autoaggression of the terrorists’ suicide implies the heteroaggression against the victims in the planes and the twin towers.

Conclusion: “Secularists” or “the secularist lifestyle” (as Falwell and Robertson understand this – which corresponds to the Islamic fundamentalists’ notion of “the satanic West”) should be abandoned or banned.

again with clear distinctions between different realms

To conclude this post, I’d like to mention an article by John Gray on the book The Pursuit of the Millenium by Norman Cohn. Gray points to the eschatological myths of religious and secular political ideologies, from Christian Millenarianism (especially in today’s context we might think of Islamic Millenarianism as well) to Nazism and Communism. All these ideologies have justified sacrifices and massacres to bring about a new world order, a “paradise” – hence every utopia turns into dystopia… At the end of his article, Gray also warns for new versions of the eschatological myth in “liberal humanism”:

There is a line of reasoning which accepts that totalitarian ideologies were shaped by apocalyptic and utopian thinking, while insisting that liberal humanism is entirely different. They – the Nazis and communists – may have been deluded and irrational; we – enlightened meliorists – have purged our minds of myth. In fact, the belief in progress in ethics and politics, which animates liberal rationalism, is itself a myth: a view of history as a process of redemption without the Christian belief in a single transforming event, but nonetheless a faith-based narrative of human salvation. It is obvious that human life can sometimes be improved. Equally, however, such gains are normally lost in the course of time. The idea that history is a process of amelioration is an article of faith, not the result of observation or reasoning.

Reading Cohn will not lead secular thinkers to relinquish their cherished myths. The need to believe in them is far more powerful than intellectual curiosity. But, for those who want to understand the origins of the conflicts of the past century and the present time, The Pursuit of the Millennium may be, as it was for me, a life-changing book.

Considering all this, we might want to rethink the concept of “eschatological battle” as a struggle we have to face within ourselves, in the depths of our soul… The true fight is a spiritual one, as we are converted from our human violence (and all our man-made gods, idols and ideologies justifying that violence) to the absolute non-violence of the God of Love, The Merciful One… 

The challenge is to build an order and a “peace” that is not built on the violence of sacrifices, but to build a peace that allows for “non-violent conflicts…” (a “non-totalitarian peace”).

Als het geweld zegeviert…

•January 8, 2015 • Leave a Comment

… is God dood? … is de Mens dood?

De religieuze fanaticus die terroristische daden pleegt, verschuilt zich achter “god”.

De atheïst zal hem vertellen dat die “god” niet bestaat.

De atheïstische analyse van religieus gemotiveerd geweld leidt tot de onvermijdelijke conclusie dat niet “god” het probleem is – dat wezen bestaat dan immers niet – maar wel “de mens”.

De vraag is dus, vanuit de atheïstische analyse, welke menselijke eigenschappen aan de oorsprong liggen van het geweld dat in naam van al dan niet religieuze ideologieën (alweer creaties van de mens) wordt gepleegd.

Een mens zou er moedeloos van worden…

fundamentalism same coinKunnen we nog geloven in de mens, in onszelf, als we de geschiedenis overzien en beseffen tot welke vormen van geweld we in staat zijn?

Kunnen we nog geloven in de mens als we denken aan de kruistochten, de shoah, de goelag, de genocide in Rwanda, etc.?

Kunnen we nog geloven in de mens als we denken aan haatpredikers en haatpropaganda – van nazistische karikaturen van Joden en fundamentalistische christenen die korans verbranden tot extremistische moslims die oproepen tot daden van terreur?

Naar aanleiding van de terroristische aanslagen op de redactie van het Franse satirische weekblad Charlie Hebdo (gisteren, 7 januari 2015), heb ik nog eens een van de artikelen van onder het stof gehaald die ik schreef voor het weekblad Tertio (7 september 2005). Ik probeerde hierin de maatschappelijke context te schetsen waarin het hedendaagse godsdienstonderwijs functioneert. Het sociologische aspect van dit artikel was grotendeels gebaseerd op het werk van politicologen/sociologen als Benjamin Barber en Manuel Castells, maar ook de mimetische theorie van René Girard speelde een niet te onderschatten rol in de analyse (wie vertrouwd is met deze theorie zal dat onmiddellijk merken bij het lezen van het artikel).

dialogueJammer genoeg is er sinds 2005 weinig veranderd. Een levensbeschouwelijke dialoog zou moeten bijdragen tot de ontwikkeling van het broodnodige vertrouwen tussen mensen met uiteenlopende overtuigingen. Alleen wordt die dialoog onvoldoende ontwikkeld. Daardoor kan humor door haatpredikers gemakkelijk voorgesteld worden als “een aanval op de identiteit”. Een context waarin mensen elkaar vertrouwen maakt zelfrelativerende humor mogelijk. Als die ontbreekt wordt “plagen” al te gemakkelijk geïnterpreteerd als “pesten”, en dan springen mensen op de kar die niets liever doen dan polariseren…

In de Verenigde Staten krijgen de zogezegd “linkse rakkers” (liberals) van The New York Times en The Washington Post het verwijt, vanuit rechts conservatieve hoek (conservatives), dat ze toegeven aan de moslimterroristen omdat ze de cartoons van Charlie Hebdo niet publiceren… “Links” zou “te vriendelijk” zijn voor de islam en voor de moslims. Ook wat dat betreft, is er aan de oppervlakte van de polarisering weinig veranderd sinds 2005…

Hieronder het artikel – klik op de afbeeldingen om ze te vergroten:

Tertio 7 september 2005Tertio 7 september 2005_2

P.S.: Intussen laait ook de discussie over het godsdienstonderwijs opnieuw op. Vanmorgen (dinsdag 13 januari 2013) op Radio 1 ging het programma Hautekiet over de vraag of alle levensbeschouwelijke schoolvakken afgeschaft moeten worden (met opnieuw een pleidooi voor LEF – levensbeschouwing, ethiek en filosofie).

Enkele bedenkingen (voor meer: klik hier om “(Theïstisch?) Sermoentje” te lezen):

Levensbeschouwelijke apartheid afschaffen: natuurlijk!

Maar vanwaar toch de pretentie dat er zoiets zou bestaan als een “neutraal” perspectief aangaande levensbeschouwingen?

Twee zaken onderscheiden:

1) Een wetenschappelijk verantwoorde studie van levensbeschouwingen (om vragen te beantwoorden als: “Hoe worden de verschillende literaire genres in de Bijbel geïnterpreteerd – zowel vroeger als nu?”, of “Welke visie op God komt aan de oppervlakte in het soefisme?”, of nog “Wat zijn de voornaamste verschillen in levensvisie tussen eerder westerse ‘lineaire’ levensbeschouwingen die groeiden uit de joods-christelijke tradities, en eerder (ver) oosterse ‘cyclische’ levensbeschouwingen die groeiden uit de hindoeïstische tradities?”).

2) Levensbeschouwelijke reflectie en het maken van levensbeschouwelijke keuzes. Dit proces gebeurt grotendeels buiten de schoolmuren, zelfs als kinderen op school een of ander confessioneel vak krijgen. De wetenschappelijk verantwoorde dialoog met een confessioneel vak, dat zich niet profileert als “neutraal” of “de objectieve waarheid in pacht hebbend”, kan een model zijn om levensbeschouwelijke dialoog en reflectie een plaats te geven in het eigen leven (je moet niet alle talen van de wereld krijgen op school om aan de hand van enkele talen te leren hoe “een taal” eigenlijk werkt en zelf andere talen te gaan studeren).

Kortom, het streven naar “objectiviteit” (wetenschappelijk verantwoorde studie van levensbeschouwingen) mag niet verward worden met “neutraliteit” (een pedagogische positie die niet zou berusten op levensbeschouwelijke keuzes).

De verwarring van “objectiviteit” en “neutraliteit” is kenmerkend voor iedere vorm van (religieus of seculier) totalitarisme dat meent “dé waarheid” in pacht te hebben.

Bij wijze van uitdrukking (voor de secularisten onder ons ;) ): “God behoede ons voor een maatschappelijk scenario zoals dat beschreven wordt in George Orwells 1984!”

Bij wijze van analogie: porno op het internet, vrouwenhandel en verkrachtingen verdwijnen niet als je van seks een taboe maakt op scholen… Misschien zelfs integendeel? Seksuele opvoeding is meer dan het verschaffen van encyclopedische kennis over de seksuele daad…

Christmas Concert (by Incensum)

•December 21, 2014 • 2 Comments

On December 14, 2014, Incensum, the vocal ensemble I am part of, performed a concert (in Aalst, Kerk OLV van Bijstand) for the occasion of Advent and Christmas, together with a choir from South Africa – Bergrivierkoor.

We’ve recorded this concert and you can hear Incensum sing its parts by clicking the film below [or open download file]. It is not a professional recording but I do think you get a pretty good idea of our sound. There are six of us:

Colin De Pelsmaker: first alto, countertenor
Erik Buys: second alto, countertenor
Luc Claessens: tenor
Miguel Van de Velde: tenor
Simon Bomon: bass
Piet De Laender: bass

For more information on the songs we sang (lyrics and translation), click here (pdf).


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