Source: Religion News Service
By James Bernard Murphy
A professor of government at Dartmouth College and has just completed a book manuscript titled “A Genealogy of Violence: Rene Girard in Dialogue.”
It’s often argued that religion gives rise to violence. But what if it were really the other way around? What if violence actually gave rise to religion?
So argued the French anthropologist and philosopher René Girard, who died Nov. 4. Described as the “Darwin of the human sciences,” he was elected to the French Academy in 2005 for his seminal theories of sacred violence.
Mass killings by a group that calls itself the Islamic State have triggered a heated debate about Islam and violence.
Regardless of the dubiousness of the group’s claim to leadership of the faith, Girard’s theories deserve wider appreciation as we confront the threat from militant Islam and our sometimes panicked responses. Perhaps he can shed some light on why we find ourselves ineluctably drawn into a horrific cycle of revenge and reprisal.
Girard acknowledged 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; it is violence, in fact, that leads to religion. He argued 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 love triangle: A man desires a woman 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. 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.