Does Violence Give Rise to Religion?

Many people today are convinced that religion gives rise to violence. But what if we have the essential relation between the two backwards? What if violence actually gives rise to religion? So argued literary scholar, anthropologist, and social psychologist René Girard, who died on November 4th. Described as the “Darwin of the human sciences,” he was elected to the Académie Française in 2005 for his seminal theories of sacred violence. Girard’s theories deserve wider appreciation as America and Europe fend off panic over religious violence, especially the threat from militant Islam.


Girard certainly agreed that violence is at the heart of religious rituals and rhetoric; he was well aware that religious passions can lead to terrible persecutions. But Girard provocatively claimed that violence is even more primordial in human life than religion and that this primordial violence is, in fact, what gives rise to religion. What makes religion so violent, he argued, is that religious practices function to sublimate, regulate, and discharge human violence in controlled rituals.


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


By some imaginative leap, never fully explained by Girard, our individual rivalries suddenly become focused on a single victim, and the war of all against all gives way to the war of all against one. A random scapegoat is selected on the basis of some social stigma and then killed. At once, a society riven by myriad conflicts comes together in harmony. All social order, claimed Girard, stems from the unity of a lynch mob.


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


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


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


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


Girard himself came to worry about the possible cultural effects of his own scholarship. His endorsement of the moral perspective of the victim provides a theoretical foundation, said his critics, for our whole culture of aggrieved “victimhood.” Girard responded, however, that today’s victims often become persecutors in turn, showing that they do not understand the logic of victimization.


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


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

James B. Murphy, Ph.D. is Professor of Government, Director of the Daniel Webster Project, and Faculty Director of Politics, Philosophy, and Economics at Dartmouth University.


For Professor Murphy's full treatment of this question:

Murphy, James Bernard, A Genealogy of Violence and Religion: René Girard in Dialogue (Sussex Academic Publishers, 2018).