Professor, Stanford University And Author
"Religion, Justice and Violence"
November 7, 2003
am a theoretician of religion. I’m really-- what should
I say? —a follower of what one calls today the old anthropology.
1850, late 1875 to 1950, from Frazer to Freud. And these people
wanted to define religion and they wanted to do it a scientific
way. They were all mostly antireligious except one of the first
Robertson Smith. But they all believed in science and they quickly
discovered that to go to the center of religion, archaic religion
– I am going to talk mostly about archaic religion, and
then a little about Christianity—you have to go to sacrifice.
And I believe they were right in this and but they failed. You
know, they never managed to define sacrifice in religion, and
it is a very dangerous enterprise to follow in their footsteps
and try to do the same thing. But I have been doing it all my
life and I am going to continue.
All I can do with you is to summarize my views. But I think today
we live in an evolutionary world so one of the problems this anthropology
is it was too humanistic. It was trying to ask the question in
a “now” context, which did not include evolutionary
theory. Today if we think science, we have to think inside evolutionary
theory even if we are religious. I mean that is another problem.
I am going to talk to you as a pseudo perhaps, but as a would-be
In a way, the evolutionary scientists—the neo-Darwinians—today
come to the help of the people who want to define religion Because
for the old humanist, religion was mostly a story, a narrative,
the wrong explanation of the world that some day science would
replace. But they had a very telling argument against that; even
people like Winston, you know the inventor of sociobiology who
says religion is nonsense. But whatever we think of it, it is
too old to be useless. If it had been useless, if it had been
only some kind of addiction, a harmful addiction, either mankind
would have perished or religion would have perished. But the two
cannot have evolved together for so long and religion still to
be with us without having some fundamental usefulness to humankind.
I think many people who are against the theory of evolution should
know about the fact that in a way, the theory of evolution respects
religion more than the humanism coming of the enlightenment. There
is a great difference between man and the animals. It is very
fashionable to say that man is the most aggressive animal and
it is true because human beings kill each other. We are in a good
position to know that whereas animals normally inside the same
species do not kill each other. They fight, you know they fight
for females, and they have rivalries, but they do not kill each
other. And no one knows why.
So people like Conrad Lorenz, you know him; they used to say that
you try to interpret human violence through the concept of aggression.
The problem of the concept of aggression is that it is a very
aggressive concept. Why? Because it has to divide the world between
the aggressors and the aggressed. There are the good people who’re
not aggressors like all of us and then there are the bad people
who are aggressors. And we have to study them, you know, from
a distance because we have nothing to do with them. But that is
not true. We know very well that conflict, human conflict, is
two sided. When you have a conflict, everybody believes very sincerely
that the other one is the aggressor. And therefore the notion
of aggression is part of the problem of human aggression and certainly
not a solution.
So I had another idea, you know, and this idea of mimetic desire,
which was my first book about literature. What is mimetic desire?
You know, animals have appetites. We have appetites too and the
same as animals, but we have that more problematic yearning which
call desire. And we don’t know where it is and in our world
we would like to believe that we get our desires from ourselves.
But how could that be? When we desire something, we feel we laugh
at something because it is not there, it is not in us. So where
does desire come from? And I think desire obviously desire comes
from other people, the social world. We desire what people tell
us is desirable. Absolutely, this is true for everything. But
most ancient philosophers beginning with Plato and Aristotle have
seen the tremendous importance of imitation or mimesis as they
say in Greek.
But they haven’t seen one very important thing, which is
if we desire the same desire as our fellow man, as our brother,
we are going to desire the same object. And this object will have
value because it is desired by our rival. But very soon our own
desire is going to reinforce the desire of the models. So the
model will become an imitator and we imitators will become the
models of our models. Therefore desire is a vicious circle, intensified
more and more as we keep the ball rolling. I think mimetic desire
is really the source of human violence.
That does not mean you should condemn mimetic desire because obviously
imitation is also the power of learning. You know when a teacher
is teaching a very good student he is very happy; but if this
student is very proud of being admired by his teacher, and enwrapped
in it, he will go on to a Ph.D. and then he will do research and
maybe very soon he will do better than his teacher. And then maybe
the teacher will have a problem with his student, you know. And
the relative situation is going to change and there might be born
what I call mimetic rivalry. And this mimetic rivalry can be very
productive because we can let it loose and we know what marvelous
consequences it has in the field of economy and so forth.
But at the same time it is very dangerous because we know it can
turn into great and insoluble conflict and the whole problem of
politics and managing society is really managing mimetic desire
and mimetic rivalries. I think the old societies, you know, with
archaic religion; their main attitude was just to prevent rivalry.
When societies were divided not even in classes, but in castes
like old India, each caste could desire in the superior caste—look
above-- but at the same time they could not compete with them
so there could not be any fight. There couldn’t be any negative
conflict; there couldn’t be any positive rivalry that would
be created so there was a tendency for this society to be motionless.
We in the West, we don’t like that; we prefer movement and
we feel we have mastered it to a certain extent, which is true,
because when we say that our society is very bad, very conflictual,
it is true. But there is an enormous number of people in our society
who manage to repress their envy and jealousy because there are
people around them who succeed better than they do and so forth.
So we should see this of course but there is no history of this.
There is only a history of the conflicts that are viewed to mimic
rivalry. But we usually prefer avoid naming the real source of
Now, where does religion come from, you know? I think religion
comes from mimetic desire but how does it come from mimetic desire?
If you look at myth, you know great myth like the Oedipus myth,
you will see that they usually have the shape of a great Pisces,
which is followed by a single victim: drama. For since there is
the plague in Thebes in Oedipus the King, which is in there. And
one discovers that the king Oedipus, who has quite a history behind
him, is responsible for the plague. Why is he responsible for
the plague? Well because he has violated the greatest laws of
human association: he has married his mother, and he has killed
his father. In addition, he is responsible for the plague. So
how could you be more guilty than that man? And we have to expel
him. And the myth believes that it is true. Today we have repeated
the myth, we have reinforced the myth. Mr. Freud has come and
has persuaded that we are all Oedipus’; that we are all
guilty of patricide and incest exactly like Oedipus. I call this
a reinforcement of the myth.
Before continuing with the myth, I am going to shock you by saying
let’s go to the Christian gospels? Look at this departure.
We are in the Judea, just before the end of the Jewish state.
Therefore we have a big crisis and in a way the presence of Jesus
and the crucifixion of Jesus is going to be a consequence of that
crisis. As the High Priest Kaifa says, “it is better that
one man die and the whole people do not perish.” And we
must face the fact that it is not the words of a criminal, it
is the words of an excellent politician. If you are in danger
and you have only to give up one victim, you know, you are doing
pretty well—much better than most states and so forth. But
in another way, this I think is what sacrifice is.
From the first century A.D., there was a man named Celsus who
said, “but look this Christianity is very much like our
myths. And they claimed they are absolutely unique, nothing like
it before and so forth. But look at the way it is built. “
And Celsus in the first century A.D. was saying exactly what I
am saying now. The profile of the gospels, the great Pisces, then
the single victim drama who is the victim of the whole community,
this profile is there. Just as it is there, in an enormous quantity
of myth, you will be able to quote me myth but I am not that way,
but myth can be changed practically at will. The thing which is
amazing is that this is so true. In other words, the violence
in mythology and religion is usually collective.
And there is one man who discovered that and I think it is his
greatest discovery. People think he has made much greater discoveries
than that but I don’t believe it. It is Freud. You know,
I think the one true thing that Freud said in his whole career
is an anthropological truth. He said that behind mythology there
is lynching, some kind lynching, a collective death. So most people
today there have been so many failures about finding the meaning
and structure of religion that they don’t believe in the
possibility of defining religion. They love to say that these
facts are purely fiction though. That they affect us like fiction
affects a little child and so forth but nothing more.
But I am going to tell you some arguments why I don’t believe
that it is. In many myths, the lynchers sound terrified by their
prospective victim that they see like a monster. But ultimately
look at every myth, the lynchers remain alive and they are well
and all alike and the victim is dead. The victim is turned into
a god later on but the victim always died. Two, many of the crimes
attributed to the single victims are obviously stereotypes, like
parasite and incest. When a mob is in a lynching mood, they say
parasite and incest. It was true in the old South when they were
lynching blacks you know. You still had parasite and incest, rape
and bestiality as the main crimes. And they keep coming back and
coming back in such a monotonous way in mythology that to call
them poetry or something makes no sense to me. It is much closer
to the spirit of the mode.
Another sign I think that the lynching mode is there is the physical
clues of mythical heroes or archaic gods. There are some Greek
gods that are hunchback. Votan, you know the great dramatic god,
is blind in one eye. Why do they have all these physical defects?
You know predators, when the are looking for a victim, if they
see one in a flock of zebras or something like that, if they see
one that has a physical defect that doesn’t run quite the
same, that’s the one they go after. I think human beings
in a mob are just the same way. Another sign still, which is so
interesting, is how many foreigners there are? Which is the place
where the apostles during the Passion, when the servant in the
courtyard says to Peter, “You have a Galilean accent”?
He becomes terrified. As a matter of fact, Oedipus is also a foreigner
because he was really born in Thebes but he was raised outside,
so to his subjects he is a foreigner.
So all these things together I think designate the type of victim
that is selected by a mob on a rampage that has no real reason
to pick this rather than that victim. The only reason is the mob
itself. And what is happening to the mob, you know? What is happening
to the mob? Why is the mob looking for a victim? I think that
their descriptions of the gospels are absolutely superior. Since
the victim is innocent, what is the force that unites each time
a large group of violent men against an innocent victim? If not
innocent in absolute terms like Jesus, irrelevant victim. The
answer is imitation once again.
But in the gospels it is very visible. If you read a description
of the Passion the synoptic gospel will make it obvious that all
witnesses of the crucifixion behaved magically. Peter’s
denial is a spectacular example. How does a mob get into existence?
It gets into existence because as soon as you join the mob you
have to behave like the mob. Exactly the same way. That is what
happened to Peter. People are looking for all sorts of psychological
explanations for Peter. They are totally uninteresting. They all
mean, “If I had been in Peter’s place, I would not
have betrayed Christ.”
But Peter was weak, he was humanly weak, he was well known for
that. He is not a very firm character. He is the best of the apostles.
He does not betray Christ in the gospels because he is the worst
of the apostles after Judas but because he is the best and therefore
his case is more significant. It means that we, human beings,
when we are surrounded by people who think in a certain way, we
have to think the same way. No one ultimately is able to resist
the pressure of the crowd, which is the pressure of society itself
So another example, which is probably the most striking in the
gospels and always has tremendous affect of imitation, is Pilot.
Why is Pilot presented as having a preference for saving Jesus?
Not because the gospels are anti-Semitic and so forth. It is modernization
of the gospel; I think it doesn’t make any sense. They want
to show that a partition never really leads the crowd, but follows
But the most caricature example of imitation is still something
else in the crucifixion stories, which are magnificent things.
It is two thieves crucified with Jesus. Only one in Luke I know,
but in Mark and Matthew everybody is against Jesus. It is especially
true in Mark, which is a relentless gospel and probably the oldest.
And they are crucified. Therefore you feel some solidarity with
the man who was crucified with them. But what if their deepest
desire is not to be crucified but to go back to the crowd. Therefore
they imitate the crowd in the last hope of belonging to the crowd
and they shout insults against Jesus just like the crowd. So the
crucifixion story is the most amazing, description of what a mob
does, how a mob behaves, how a mob is formed and what finally
it does, which is to kill a single victim.
And once the mob is totally unified against that victim, what
happens? All resentments, hatred, and so forth are shifted to
that victim, artificially. Why does it happen? Because I told
you first that this mimetic desire, mimetic rivalry divides people.
It fragments the society, the community; it makes it fall apart,
disintegrates. The more it intensifies, the more the objects people
are fighting about tend to disappear, to be eaten, to be devoured,
to be forgotten because the hatred becomes too intense. And then
of course the hatred refocuses not on object but the antagonist.
And something strange happens; people who desire the same object
will never be reconciled. We know this but people will hate the
Hate is the best substitute for love, mysteriously, when it comes
to being reconciled. It is a very bad substitute but it is the
only substitute so when people regroup against enemies they focus
against fewer and fewer enemies until finally they are all united
against the same one because they imitate each other. So the mimesis
that was dispersion, fragmentation, and so forth suddenly polarizes
against a victim. And then everybody is reconciled. When the people
thus reconcile are very grateful to their victim they see it as
a miracle, they start worshipping that victim and they think it
is over for ever. And that is not true. Human nature being what
it is, mimetic rivalries are going to reappear pretty soon.
So what do people do? They try to divide the antagonist. They
separate brothers. They force one brother to marry this girl,
another brother to marry that girl. We call that ‘systems
of kinship.’ In other words, in anthropological terms, taboos:
what is forbidden. Religions are not stories. Religions are about
what is forbidden and what you cannot do and what you must do
and what you must do is the opposite. What you cannot do is fighting.
Therefore, we separate the people who are likely to fight. But
very often it does not work. The fight never rests.
So what are you going to do: you are going to do the opposite.
These people they remember that they had a first great crisis
and that it was resolved. What through? A victim. So they say,
“why not try a victim of the same type. Exactly like the
first time.” And this is, I think the first human invention
that really takes humanity out of animal life. When they invent
ritual sacrifice. They stop sacrificing ritual victims. It is
pretty horrendous view of the beginning of human culture. That
is the reason I think the old systems of the world are all systems
of eternal return. They are really the eternal return of religion.
If you read the great pre-Socratic philosophers of Greece you
will see that the circle that they describe is the circle of what
I call ‘the single victim.’
So what is religion? The question that people ask today is “Is
religion responsible for violence?” It is a type of question
that a culture likes to ask. Is tobacco dangerous for your health?
Does this or that cause high blood pressure? Is religion bad for
you? This would mean that we are totally out of religion, looking
at it from outside as a creation which has nothing to do with
you. What I’m trying to show to you is that religion is
inherent to human right. If you have a very big crisis you come
out of it in a more religious way than you went into it. Therefore
we can never talk about religion and violence in terms of a religion
being non-violent and a religion being violent because the violence
that Christianity destroys is sacrificial violence, the sacrifice
that prevents us from being violent. Therefore when you prevent
sacrificial violence like Christianity does, you in a way invite
more violence. It doesn’t mean you are doing bad things.
And the reverse is true.
Therefore, violence and non-violence, because of the sacrificial
super-infrastructure of our society, is always around. And it
is still with us; we cannot do without. We have the American army,
we have the American flag, we have political power, we couldn’t
do without the police. These are sacrificial institutions. We
cannot condemn them. It would be hypocritical. If we condemn them
in the name of pacifism we are inviting more violence. So the
whole battle today between right and left is about this. But the
questions are never honestly posed. You cannot be for one side
against the other because the relationship between violence and
non-violence in the human world is so complex and ambiguous that
it cannot be defined in an immediate, easy way which would be
good forever and for all people.
Thank you very much.