An Introduction to Mimetic Theory





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

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

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

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

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







Gay & Muslim, Twice the Scapegoat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am Gay and Muslim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

no to homophobia islamophobia

On Human Sacrifice (Article Nature)

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

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

How human sacrifice propped up the social order


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

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

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

Florilegius/SSPL/Getty Images

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

Sacrifice for social order

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

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

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

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

Religious undertones

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

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

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

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

Death-penalty parallels

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

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

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

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


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

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

From the Rig-Veda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saved from the Denial of Death?

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

The Denial of Death elaborates the following thesis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words,

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

Denkgelacherig atheïstisch narcisme


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

atheists and fundamentalists

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

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

Prince (1958-2016)

On Thursday, April 21, 2016 legendary pop artist Prince was found dead in his studio.

Love him or hate him, without a doubt he was a true musical genius who inspired and will inspire countless musicians, artists, performers and fans. His was a genuine celebration of Life.

Sometimes it snows in April…

A tribute:


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