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Does Religion Cause Violence?

Does religion cause violence

Does religion cause violence?

It’s one of the biggest questions of our time. There are many who claim that religion is a force for evil and violence in the world and we would be better off without it. 

There are others who claim that religion is a force for good and love in the world and we would be worse off without it.

One of my favorite teachers on this topic is René Girard, a literary critic who was also a student of anthropology and religion. Girard created a simple, yet profound, understanding of human nature and religion called “mimetic theory.”

Mimetic Theory, Desire, and Violence

Mimetic theory centers around a theory of desire. Girard stated that human desire is mimetic. Mimetic is a fancy word for non-consciously imitative. We are not consciously aware of the way our desires work. Simply stated, after our basic needs are met, we desire according to the desires of another. 

Whether it’s for the same position at work or a love interest or that amazing one-of-a-kind jacket that’s on the department store rack that some jerk just picked up and I hope he puts it back on the rack because it’s awesome and I didn’t really want it before but now that I see someone else looking at suddenly I want it even more since he is looking at it that must mean it is the most glorious jacket of all time AND I NEED IT!! PUT IT BACK ON THE RACK YOU JERK!!!

Okay. Thank you for letting me get that out of my system.

Girard makes the seemingly counterintuitive claim that we don’t fight because of our differences; we fight because of our similarities. More to the point, we fight because of our shared desires for power, control, or jackets.

The Origins of Religion

Girard’s research into anthropology and the origins of human development led him to postulate that as our species became human, we were plagued by the violence that came from shared desire. Indeed, anthropological studies have shown that many of the first hominid groups self-destructed in a war of all against all.

But over a long period of time, a solution began to emerge. Simply put, one person pointed a finger of accusation at another, and others mimicked that accusation. Pretty soon a war of all against all turned into a war of all against one. As the group united against a common enemy and killed their scapegoat, a sense of peace descended upon the group.

Where there was one conflict and violence, there was now peace.

The blood of the scapegoat washed away the dissensions in the group and brought cohesion.

The group perceived their new sense of peace as a gift from the gods.

This process began the development of religion. Whenever conflicts emerged within the group over shared desires, the gods demanded another violent sacrifice, and peace was restored from the blood of the scapegoat.

So for Girard, violence came before religion. In other words, religion didn’t cause violence. Religion formed as a way to channel violence away from the chaos of all against all into the violence of all against one.

Girard called these early religions “archaic religions.” These archaic religions did something very good and also something very bad. They managed chaotic violence that threatened the group, but in doing so they sacrificed and killed a scapegoat. The peace that this process brought was a good thing, but the method of sacrifice lacked any kind of justice and never brought lasting peace. 

We see the vestiges of archaic religions today whenever we find a sense of community by uniting against a common enemy.

Revealed Religions

But fortunately, this is not the end of the story when it comes to religion. Girard claimed that another form of religion began to develop. He called this form “revealed religions.” These religions are a more recent development in human history. While they contain elements of archaic religion’s sacrificial system, they also reveal the solution to sacrificial violence.

I’ll develop this much more in the upcoming ebook, but the solution is revealed in prophets like Hosea, who stated that God “desires mercy, not sacrifice.” Jesus quoted Hosea on multiple occasions and encouraged his listeners to live into that principle. The Qur’an also reveals this when it states, “If God had so willed, He would have made you one community, but He wanted to test you through that which He has given you, so race to do good: you will all return to God and He will make clear to you the matters you differed about” (5:48).

Conclusion: Does Religion Cause Violence?

So for Girard, religion doesn’t cause violence. Violence was already there. Archaic religions *contained* in both senses of the word. Because humans tend to be violent, religion contains violence within it. But religion also contains violence in that it controls or restrains violence by channeling chaotic violence that threatens the entire community against a single sacrificial victim.

Revealed religions contain elements of archaic religion, but they also try to overcome the sacrificial impulse of archaic religions with the revelation that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. 

If you are interested in more info on Girard’s work, the Girard Reader is a good place to start.

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Adam Ericksen

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