to scapegoats everywhere: René Girard has died!

"Scapegoat" cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward

“René Girard: Scapegoat” cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward

The French philosopher, René Girard, passed away yesterday.

The first book I read of his was I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, and I knew I discovered something exciting! He has a huge impact on how I do community.

According to Wikipedia, this is a summary of his ideas:

“Girard’s fundamental ideas, which he had developed throughout his career and provided the foundation for his thinking, was that desire is mimetic (all of our desires are borrowed from other people), that all conflict originates in mimetic desire (mimetic rivalry), that the scapegoat mechanism is the origin of sacrifice and the foundation of human culture, and religion was necessary in human evolution to control the violence that can come from mimetic rivalry, and that the Bible reveals these ideas and denounces the scapegoat mechanism.”

Apparently, his book Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World is considered the best summation of his ideas. I’m looking forward to reading it.

I’m glad he left behind his important ideas. He certainly changed my life. He will be missed.

How did he influence you?


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41 Responses

  1. Bernardo says:

    Then there is this:

    “One of the main sources of criticism of Girard’s work comes from intellectuals who claim that his comparison of Judeo-Christian texts vis-à-vis other religions leaves something to be desired.[49] There are also those who find the interpretation of the Christ event—as a purely human event, having nothing to do with redemption from sin—an unconvincing one, given what the Gospels themselves say.[32] Yet, Roger Scruton notes, Girard’s account has a divine Jesus: “that Jesus was the first scapegoat to understand the need for his death and to forgive those who inflicted it… Girard argues, Jesus gave the best evidence… of his divine nature.”[50]

    That Jesus understood the need for his death and to forgive those who inflicted it. Bit much to swallow in the 21st century.

  2. Even if it is just a story, a myth, the import of Girard’s philosophy about it still stands.

  3. Sabio Lantz says:

    Before seeing your post, I read Girard’s obituary in the Stanford News, his home University.

    I agree with this quote from the obituary:

    “He argued that human conflict was not caused by our differences, but rather by our sameness. Individuals and societies offload blame and culpability onto an outsider, a scapegoat, whose elimination reconciles antagonists and restores unity.”

    We see this in international conflicts all the time and in personal relationships.

    I also read wiki notes on his theology and the like.

    David, you quote wiki about his ideas saying:

    “the scapegoat mechanism is the origin of sacrifice and the foundation of human culture, and religion was necessary in human evolution to control the violence that can come from mimetic rivalry, and that the Bible reveals these ideas and denounces the scapegoat mechanism.”

    Yet we know that many books of the Bible (an anthology, not a homogenous work) is full of support for scapegoats. Indeed Jesus was scapegoat theology to majority of Christianities.

    (Oh, I just read Bernardo’s comment. Yeah, the Jesus myth propagates the scapegoat idea. Liberal spins try to mitigate that spin — and heck, if the myth has to persist, I hope their spins help because scapegoat mentality is bad — and I trust Girard helped lessen it too.)

  4. Adam Julians says:

    So whether a factual account or not, Jesus’ death affirms Girard’s thesis about the bible’s denunciation of scapegoating and the need for religion to control violence.


    It seem not dissimilar to Neitzche’s “God is dead ” meaning that secular and church acting as if he is. Predicting towards the end of his life this resulting in something worse than what had gone before, just before the two world wars. Events that even Richard Dawkins comments had nothing to do with religion.

  5. Betsy Hansbrough says:

    25 years ago I read “the Scapegoat” and a book by Bailie, “Violence Unveiled”. It was as if there was a new lens on everything I encountered. Have read pretty much all of it now, have a large group of Girardeau friends, read and write and try to pass on this work. It opened the Gospel. Girard made clear what i could not have seen. Grateful for his life and work and for all those who are passing it on.

  6. On leaving a zealous charismatic sect where one was constantly bombarded by desire in the guise of Spirit, my life was falling apart. That is until I was blessed to meet a close friend and colleague of Girard, the Dutch psychologist and cleric, Roel Kaptein. Role introduced me to Girardeau thought and it spontaneously answered all my questions about the weird group dynamics that I’d previously encountered. Read most of Girard’s works and they a foundational influence on my own spiritual writing, along with many others who held him in high regard. And most wonderful of all he was a deeply humble man. He will be missed by this Irish pilgrim.

  7. Bernardo says:

    Said RG appears to have been just another minion albeit an intelligent one brainwashed in the bible and who did not venture past the embellishments, myths and half-truths of said book. Details previously presented.

  8. Sabio Lantz says:

    Well, I sort of have to agree with Bernardo.
    If Girard were born Hindu or Muslim or Buddhist, he may have put spins on their theologies — “buying into it” because it dominated his life and was easier to work with it, rather than outside. This happens all the time.
    Question is — was he self-deceived and partially spinning nonsense on nonsense, well, we all are — it is a matter of degree, no?
    Ph.D’s just Pile it Higher and Deeper — as do philosophers and theologians. No?

  9. I would agree to some extent, but I reject the dismissive tone concerning someone who contributed important ideas into religion rather than just from it. Yes, we all have ideologies woven inexorably in our personal DNAs. But this doesn’t necessarily negate or disqualify the insights or conclusions. Even Krishnamurti, who claimed that belonging to any religion was a form of violence, was himself unmistakably Eastern in his approach, heavily influenced by Hinduism and Spiritualism. But his conclusions, I think, were sound. I think good theologians, philosophers, and thinkers, learn how to engage the universe of thought from within whichever paradigm they might find themselves in.

  10. Adam Julians says:

    Self deceived and piling on nonsense? I wouldn’t see things that way necessarily being as nihilistic as that with a PhD. It’s not convincing to argue nonsense about studying a doctorate, unless that was made ironically.

    I would take the approach of there being presuppositions and assumptions we all come with for a myriad of reasons. Some damaging due to our own choices and / or social influences I grant you that, but then also with opportunities for understanding as these meet with others in awe inspiring and enlightening ways at times.

    Of course atheism is not immune from deception and fundamentalism just as any of the religions.

    So scapegoating and violence. Anything that comes along and denounces these while offering an alternative – isn’t it worth considering?

  11. Sabio Lantz says:

    @ Adam,
    Having had that level of education, I am not speaking with irony.
    And the fuzzier the subject, the deeper the piling.
    The more educated we are, the more sophisticated and recalcitrant our self-deception (this has been tested).

    But I didn’t really understand your final question. What should we feel is worth considering?

  12. Adam Julians says:

    Sabio, I am only educated to masters level so can’t comment first had about PhD. But for me it resulting in my horizons expanding, not disappearing up my own arse.

    All I am asking in the light of the op is that any better alternative to violence and scapegoating has got to be worth considering has it not? Thereby suggesting something profitable in Girard’s conclusions or by inference anyone else’s in whatever form it takes PhD or no.

  13. Sabio Lantz says:

    Is any alternative to violence worth considering?
    Well, if there are lots of alternatives to violence like:
    (1) Become a nonviolent Muslim
    (2) Become a nonviolent Hindu
    (3) Take up searching for aliens to fill your time
    (4) Join Scientology
    (5) Become an ascetic
    (6) Embrace a certain Jesus story
    (7) understand the danger of violence without using religion or superstition

    Then one of those sounds better than others. We don’t have to consider them all.
    But if you have been hypnotized your whole life, some will seem more promising than others.

  14. Are any of us free from brainwashing? That is, conditioning?

  15. Sabio Lantz says:

    Yeah, we are all brainwashed — so everything is cool. Accept anything in your tradition if it sounds good. Don’t leave your tradition because, hell, we are all brainwashed and you’ll just be joining another brainwashed crew.

    Nope, can’t say I agree.

  16. You don’t think you are conditioned at all Sabio?

  17. Sabio Lantz says:

    Of course I am conditioned. [I assume that was rhetorical but let me anticipate the script…]

    So should I just surrender to my conditioning. Stay within the tradition because it is my home and everywhere else is going to be conditioned anyway? No one conditioning is better than another. We should never criticize , never question. Well, question is OK, but for God’s sake, don’t jump out of the tradition. Or at least not too far. Because it is all metaphor and truth wherever your turn: Christian Scientists, Mormons, Liberal Christians, North Korean patriotism, — it is all conditioning, no one is better than the other. Just stay inside and find truth there. For everything is limited.

    You don’t really believe that, do you David?

  18. Adam Julians says:

    “if you have been hypnotized your whole life”, Sabio
    “Are any of us free from… conditioning?” David
    “should I just surrender to my conditioning” Sabio
    “Nope” David

    So then we all have assumptions and presuppositions based on “conditioning” and choices we have made to align ourselves with. It’s never easy when these are challenged but out horizons are broadened when they are, if we allow.

    So yes we don’t have to consider all alternatives to violence and suffering but if we all make choice to that effect with our differing inclinations through “conditioning” or anything else then isn’t that better than violence and scapegoating continuing.

    So for Girard religion was necessary to control rivalry. I say if that helped him to be an influence for good then who would not be in favour of that?

    His philosophy stands because it has substance and resonance.

  19. Sabio Lantz says:

    Hey Adam,

    I have not read Girard at all. And because I no longer buy into the Christian stories, I have not interest. But I answered your question in my first comment in this thread when I said, “.. and heck, if the [Jesus] myth has to persist, I hope their spins [Girard’s and other liberal Christians] help because scapegoat mentality [conservative Christianity] is bad”

    But, I am saying that I consider the compromises and reinforcement that even Liberal Christianity do are less than desirable — for we have better options.

    Does that make sense?

  20. Adam Julians says:

    Hey Sabio,

    There will be different conclusions we come to and that is OK. Difference isn’t always bad but never having difference is.

    You have chosen to “no longer buy into the Christian stories” but you do have the charity to “hope… Gerard’s.. [“spins”] help…. because scapegoat mentality is bad. I think that makes sense.

    On the other hand your focus on “conservative Christianity”, if I may suggest suggest, may come across as scapegoating and the kind of rivalry that Girard would argue that religion was necessary for to control.

    The reality is that scapegoating / violence isn’t exclusive to the conservative or religious though is may be popular to portray it as such. If we are honest, it is at least a temptation that we all face. Therefore its useful to consider Girard’s thesis and others that may help us all make the world a better place to live in.

    Is that OK?

  21. Brad says:

    Rene, who I was privileged to spend a day with (thanks Michael Hardin), taught me to see the scapegoating mechanism in action all around me. He gave me the eyes to see it, along with the pseudo-peace it purported to offer, and the hidden conflicts it was trying to cover up. For example, show me a pastor who rails against the gay agenda and I’ll show you a church on the verge of splitting that he’s trying hold together through mutual hatred of a common enemy. That is, the great fear in that case is NOT the scapegoat, but the threat of self-destruction itself. Rene showed me the mechanism used for diffusing the tension and the way it victimizes to do so. Thanks Rene. See you later.

  22. Brad says:

    Girard, of course, did not begin with Christian stories at all. He first saw this mechanism in literature … everywhere, most especially Shakespeare and other classics. It was so ubiquitous in the literature that he thought it must be derived from culture. This is where he shifted to sociological studies that confirmed this very phenomenon across virtually every ancient culture and thus discovered it everywhere in modern culture, right down to the mimetic desire of virtually every advertisement you look at: if you see a celebrity with a product, you want the product. The mimetic desire leads to mimetic rivalry (think Israeli’s and Palestinians fighting over that little rockpile of hatred) that would lead to mutual destruction … But wait, we find a mechanism to diffuse the tension before it blows: a shared scapegoat. AFTER seeing this in literature and culture, Girard then checked to see if it was in the Bible and not only did he find it there: he found it EXPOSED there, for the first time, for the fraud that the whole mechanism is. It was this that led to his conversion because he discovered that through the Cross event/story, not only is redemptive violence and sacrifice exposed, it dismantles it. This explained for him why, wherever the Christian story has travelled, it is the end of sacrificial systems. The problem is that once you lose your scapegoating sacrifices, if you don’t pursue the Jesus alternative, you’re now disarmed from the efficacy of the mechanism and there’s no peaceful alternative. Cf. tonight’s news. In his later years, seeing this, Rene was not too optimistic about human destiny: Christ takes away scapegoating + we reject Christ’s way of peace = mutually assured destruction. It gets pretty apocalyptic from there … OR we go back to a kind of denial that re-activates scapegoating and welcome back to witch-burning (or fundi-burning for that matter).

  23. Adam Julians says:

    “Pseudo-peace… trying hold together through mutual hatred of a common enemy” yup not unlike Albert Goldstein and two minute of hate in Orwell’s 1984 in which the proletariat find emotional release for their wretched lives at the hands of an oppressive government.

    In other words – brainwashing or social conditioning.

    So, “Christ takes away scapegoating + we reject Christ’s way of peace”. I suppose then we are left with the freedom to choose that rejection or not. From what you say Brad, Rene was not too optimistic about human destiny.

    Surely what happens depends on choice and and as long as there is there is choice, destiny is not yet written?

  24. Erik says:

    How René Girard influenced me? Well, this might shed a light:

    Hope you get something out of it.
    Best regards!

  25. Mark says:

    @Brad “…[Girard] taught me to see the scapegoating mechanism in action all around me. He gave me the eyes to see it, along with the pseudo-peace it purported to offer…”

    This so captures the practical outworking of Girard’s insights for us. My wife and frequently (often jokingly) point out how we behave mimetically with the scapegoat in view. I had come across in my scripture reading the word exousia which is frequently translated “authority” and often “power”. It means having the power of choice; doing as one pleases. This is hugely important to me as it seems to carry a concomitant power to “break from the herd” of mimetic entanglement at some level.

    Those who have eyes to see can now resist (or repent) and offer into the social engagement another option; Although if pressed too far against the crowd may find themselves the outcast other.

  26. Caryn LeMur says:

    Erik: wonderful link. Thank you for sharing it. Enjoyed it very much.

    I am familiar with the concept of scapegoating within family dynamics, as are many transsexuals. It seems the family must assume you hated your father (because you change your name), or hated them (because you speak of a difficult internal past when they remember only the external joy)….

    and therefore, they are justified in cutting you off, running from you, and even stealing as much as possible. It is the ‘mentality of the mob’ as Girard stated.

    And ‘scapegoating’ helps to explain family dynamics.

    Seeing it in a larger institutional church context helps to explain some interesting ‘we are better than them’ dynamics.

  27. Cathy says:

    I learned of Girard through the book, Raising Abel. and what was powerful was placing the universal dynamic of scapegoating and “splitting” from object relations theory into theology. He reframes sacrifice. While I do not swallow his own structure, there are parts that are wise. His work reminds me of a quote that “religion gives ideas traction in history” I believe by Smith. Religion is a mixed bag and sometimes I need to be reminded that it has brought some measure of beauty and community into the world.

  28. Bernardo says:

    We emphasize the Christianity, the NT, and the Judaism, the OT, in said discussions when in fact we would have been better off following some of the first written words on living a moral and ethical lifes and not making it more complex with a non-atoning Jewish peasant/preacher being crucified on a cross who never resurrected or with two mythical characters from the OT, Abraham and Moses. Once again from the Egyptian Book of the Dead:

    “Hail to thee, great God, Lord of the Two Truths. I have come unto thee, my Lord, that thou mayest bring me to see thy beauty. I know thee, I know thy name, I know the names of the 42 Gods who are with thee in this broad hall of the Two Truths . . . Behold, I am come unto thee. I have brought thee truth; I have done away with sin for thee. I have not sinned against anyone. I have not mistreated people. I have not done evil instead of righteousness . . .
    I have not reviled the God.
    I have not laid violent hands on an orphan.
    I have not done what the God abominates . . .
    I have not killed; I have not turned anyone over to a killer.
    I have not caused anyone’s suffering . . .
    I have not copulated (illicitly); I have not been unchaste.
    I have not increased nor diminished the measure, I have not diminished the palm; I have not encroached upon the fields.
    I have not added to the balance weights; I have not tempered with the plumb bob of the balance.
    I have not taken milk from a child’s mouth; I have not driven small cattle from their herbage…
    I have not stopped (the flow of) water in its seasons; I have not built a dam against flowing water.
    I have not quenched a fire in its time . . .
    I have not kept cattle away from the God’s property.
    I have not blocked the God at his processions.”

    “The Book of the Dead was written circa 1800 BCE. 2 The Schofield Reference Bible estimates that the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt (another myth) and the provision of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai occurred in 1491 BCE., some three centuries later. Many religious liberals, historians, and secularists have concluded that the Hebrew Scripture’s Ten Commandments were based on this earlier document, rather than vice-versa.”

  29. There’s nothing abnormal or surprising, is there Bernardo, for words to be given as if universal and hopefully believed in universally? I mean, that’s what you would like done with your ideas. This is the human drama in words.

  30. Bernardo says:

    Human drama in words? Better that we spend time creating cures for diseases and caring for the sick and aging than reading the tired, very overdone analyses of biblical myths, embellishments and semi-fictional accounts written by men we basically know little about or should care about.

  31. rodney neill says:

    I really appreciate your picture and think it is an excellent tribute to Rene Girard.

  32. Shannon Mullen says:

    David, Rene Girard changed my life. I appreciate your generous willingness not to define yourself against the other in your responses to comments which are rooted in a lack of knowledge of what Girard is about.

    This may be the first time I have ever understood the phrase “delicious irony:” the things that these comments seem to be against are exactly the things that mimetic anthropology exposes. Indeed, I am convinced that postmodern culture’s desire for religious demythologization is rooted in the demythologising of sacred violence which occurs in the story of Jesus, as revealed by the work of Girard and others like him who have discovered generative power of the story of the forgiving victim. The fact that these comments, presenting ideas formed out of a culture on the journey of being transformed by the power of interdividual anthropology and the power is self giving love to end violence, are yet presented so combatively illustrates the difficulty of the transformation!

    Your willingness to engage pacifically and without rivalrous mimesis is fabulous! Thank you, thank you, thank you for the illustration.

  33. Wow Shannon. Thank you! I appreciate your kind and encouraging words and insights.