Violence & Religion

 

Conflict is one of the most pervasive features of human existence.   Violence--intimate, civil, global--shapes our lives, raising profound questions about human nature.  Extensive resources of the humanities, social and natural sciences, are devoted to analyzing violence and to discovering preventive measures.  Throughout my professional life, my research and teaching has focused specifically on intersections between religion and violence.   I have regularly found that mimetic theory is a vital resource for understanding violence and its links with religion.  Moreover, mimetic theory offers insights that can lead to the non-violent resolution of conflict. 

 

 

 

 

Sketch of Mimetic Theory: “Mimesis” is a Greek word meaning “to imitate.”  This imitation can be of words, actions, or behaviors of another individual or group.  For René Girard, imitation is associated with desire, the desire to be another.  Humans are subject to this form of desire because we desire the fullness of being.  We desire being because we feel insufficient, inadequate, and impoverished (materially, spiritually, psychologically). Specifically, because we lack being and others seem to possess being (i.e., they appear to be self-sufficient, adequate or superior to their peers, and either literally or metaphorically wealthy) we look to others to inform ourselves of what we should desire in order to acquire being.  We do this because the other already seems superior to us in their being:  whatever they desire (and apparently have a track record of acquiring) should enable us, if we access it, to also access being.  As a consequence, looking to another to inform us of what we should desire in order to be, we find our attention drawn not toward the object that the other recommends but toward the other who we perceive is capable of conferring an even greater plenitude of being.  But the closer we come to acquisition of the object of the model's desire and, through that acquisition, to the model, the greater is our rejection or refusal by the model.  Finally, the model becomes a monstrous double by whom we are repulsed and from whom we seek distance.  This mimetic conflict ends in a sacrifice that we experience as conferring the plenitude of being it previously has sought. 

Girard describes this conflict as a kind of contagion and notes that it can involve more than two individuals, increasing so as to place an entire society at risk.  When mimetic conflict reaches a crisis point, a scapegoat mechanism is triggered.  One person is singled out as the cause of this great disorder in being and is expelled or killed by the group. This person is the scapegoat.  Peace is restored because people believe that with the sacrifice of the scapegoat, a fullness of being (and its attendant feelings of peace and harmony) has been achieved.  Unfortunately, because humans continue to lack being and because mimetic desire is endemic to the human condition, the cycle of desire regularly begins again.

 

  

  

 

 

 

René Girard and his importance:  An historian by training, Girard won international recognition initially as a literary theorist rather than as an historian when he developed a theory of mimetic desire and applied it to literature, particularly in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel.  Girard consolidated his scholarly reputation with an anthropology of religion set forth in Violence and the Sacred and Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World.  Girard argues that mimetic processes he previously explored in literature are at the root of all violence.  Cultures respond to violence and put an end to it through the sacrifice of a scapegoat (e.g., the persecution of Jews during the Inquisition, the witch hunts of early modern Europe).  Establishing that society and religion are built on a mechanism of scapegoating and that collective rituals of sacrificial violence are recorded in cultural myths, Girard offers scholars a theory about the most basic roots of human behavior.  Girard’s mimetic theory, albeit controversial in its broad scope, has garnered increasing interest and recognition by scholars, confirming his standing as one of the most important thinkers of our time.  Girard is a member of the prestigious Académie française in recognition of his outstanding contributions to philosophical anthropology, joining previous members that have included Victor Hugo, Louis Pasteur, Alexandre Dumas, and Voltaire.  The growing secondary literature on Girard spans the disciplines and includes theorists and empirical researchers.  Seven journals have devoted special issues to Girard’s work; he has been the subject of four festschrifts; and his books have been translated into fifteen languages.  

 

    Key organizations that support education and research on Mimetic Theory:   Three international organizations promote research on Girard's mimetic theory.
    In addition, the Raven Foundation is an important resource for educating young people about mimetic theory.  

    Please click on the title in the right column to access the website of each organization.

 

  

 

 

The Colloquium on Violence and Religion is an international association of scholars founded in 1990.  It is dedicated to the exploration, criticism, and development of René Girard’s mimetic model of the relationship between violence and religion in the genesis and maintenance of culture.  In promoting research in mimetic theory, COV&R welcomes scholars from diverse fields and theoretical orientations who are interested in the foundational role of imitation in individual human lives and cultures.  In addition to gathering at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, the Colloquium meets each summer, alternating between North American and European venues.  COV&R’s publications include the website, a book series, Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, published by Michigan State University Press, the journal Contagion and a biannual newsletter (Bulletin of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion).  The coordinator of COV&R at the AAR is Professor Martha Reineke, University of Northern Iowa (martha.reineke@uni.edu).  COV&R membership information:  http://www.uibk.ac.at/theol/cover/membership/

 

 

 

 

 

 

Imitatio Inc. was conceived by Peter Thiel and Robert Hamerton-Kelly in 2007 as an agent for pressing forward the consequences of René Girard's remarkable breakthrough insight into human behavior as mimetic. The board met for the first time in October in Paris at the Georges V hotel to plan an ambitious program of research and publication, as well as the sponsoring of conferences and fellowships.  In April, 2008 forty Girardian scholars met at Stanford University to formalize the work of Imitatio through publication, research, and education committees.  Professor Martha Reineke is a member of the Publication Committee. 

The purpose of the Imitatio Inc website is to

bulletprovide searchable primary texts including the canonical Girard in original languages
bulletprovide video and audio access to events and important members of the mimetic research community
bulletconduct discussions of current research and other issues
bulletannounce research opportunities and fellowships
bulletdeliver conference information
bulletindicate other sites pertinent to our research

 

       

 

The Raven Foundation seeks to promote healing, hope, reconciliation and peace by offering insight into the dynamics of conflict and violence.

The Foundation makes available books, study guides, guest speakers, workshops, downloadable recordings and other resources for use at home, in schools and in the workplace.  Helpful publications include a YouTube series on "Mimetic Theory 101." Please click to play: 

  Mimetic Theory 101:  Session 1:  Keeping up with the Jones

  Mimetic Theory 101:  Session 2:  How I Scapegoated the Jones

  Mimetic Theory 101:  Session 3:  Great Literature:  Shakespeare's Julius Caesar

 


 

                     

                   

 

The Association Recherches Mimétiques is focused on support for and dissemination of Girard's mimetic Theory.  It is a French-language resource:

L'Association a pour objet de structurer la recherche liée, d'une manière ou d'une autre, à la théorie mimétique issue des travaux de René Girard - membre de l'Académie française - et d'organiser sa diffusion en langue française. The Association website is primarily in the French language. 

 

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© Martha J. Reineke.     Please send correspondence to martha.reineke@uni.edu