An Introduction to Mimetic Theory

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I compiled the following documentary film on the origin of cultures, in three parts, introducing some major topics of mimetic theory and René Girard’s thinking. Transcription of the videos (in English & Dutch) is available below, beneath PART III.

PART I of the film explores the fundamental role of mimesis (imitation) in human development on several levels (biological, psychological, sociological, cultural). René Girard’s originality lies in his  introduction of a connection between this old philosophical concept and human desire. He speaks of a certain mimetic desire and ascribes to it a vital role in our social interaction. It explains our often competitive and envious tendencies. More specifically, Girard considers mimetic desire as the source for a type of conflict that is foundational to the way human culture originates and develops. In his view the primal cultural institutions are religious. Following a sociologist like Émile Durkheim, Girard first considers religion as a means to organize our social fabric, and to manage violence within communities.

The more specific question the first part of this documentary tries to answer is the following: where do sacrifices, as rituals belonging to the first signs of human culture, originally come from? How can they be explained? Click to watch:

PART II starts off with a summary and then further insists on the fundamental role of the so-called scapegoat mechanism in the origin of religious and cultural phenomena.

PART III explores the world of mythology and human storytelling in the light of Girard’s theory on certain types of culture founding conflicts and scapegoat mechanisms. Girard comes to surprising conclusions regarding storytelling in Judeo-Christian Scripture. 

CLICK HERE FOR FULL VIDEO TRANSCRIPTION (PDF)

KLIK HIER VOOR EEN VERTALING (PDF)

KLIK HIER VOOR EEN OVERZICHT (PDF)

CURSUSMATERIAAL AFGELEID VAN VROUWEN, JEZUS EN ROCK-‘N-ROLL

COURSE MATERIAL BASED ON VROUWEN, JEZUS EN ROCK ‘N’ ROLL

 

Tussen 9/11 (Twin Towers) en 11/9 (Trump Tower)

Op 7 september 2005, beïnvloed door het werk van politicoloog Benjamin Barber en socioloog Manuel Castells, schreef ik onder andere het volgende voor een artikel in Tertio. Blijkbaar is er sindsdien niet zoveel veranderd in de wereld. Enkele evoluties hebben zich gewoon doorgezet (ik geef een aantal voorbeelden tussen haakjes):

In Europa, maar ook daarbuiten, is aan de ene kant een soms merkwaardige alliantie ontstaan tussen linkse krachten en moslims [ook nu nog, bijvoorbeeld: moslim Dyab Abou Jahjah in De Afspraak op één, 22 november 2016, die zijn sympathie uitspreekt voor sp.a, groen en PVDA] die de islamitische zaak bepleiten tegenover de rechtse politiek van een George W. Bush – vertegenwoordiger van een soort ‘christelijk patriottisme’ –, en aan de andere kant een even opportunistisch verbond tussen joodse en christelijke fundamentalisten met extreemrechtse tendensen [ook nu nog, bijvoorbeeld: de – door sommigen genoemde – ‘christelijke kruisvaarder’ van het kabinet van Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, die goed bevriend was met wijlen Andrew Breitbart, een overtuigde jood; beiden zijn bekend van het rechtse Breitbart News Network].Beide partijen gaan elkaar te lijf met – alweer, hoe kan het ook anders – het recht op vrije meningsuiting. Dat conflict dreigt ons af te leiden van het echte probleem, namelijk dat zowel linkse als rechtse Europese politici en mediafiguren zich almaar meer uitspreken tegen een of andere vorm van geloof en godsdienst [ook nu nog, bijvoorbeeld: Filip Dewinter die de koran een ‘licence to kill’ noemt op 22 januari 2015, in het Belgische federale parlement; Joël De Ceulaer die op 13 januari 2015 via de website van Knack oproept om het godsdienstonderwijs af te schaffen na de aanslagen op Charlie Hebdo – zie ook Maarten Boudry in dit straatje, die ‘het politiek niet correcte denken over islam niet gemonopoliseerd wil zien door extreemrechts’; zie in dit verband: The Fascism of Anti-religious Utopians].

We mogen niet vergeten dat fundamentalistische christenen en moslims bondgenoten zijn in zoverre ze beiden strijden tegen een in hun ogen decadente westerse consumptiemaatschappij die geen voordeel haalt uit duurzame principes en levensprojecten, en er daarom ook weinig of geen ruimte aan biedt.

Kortom, de markteconomische ontwrichting van het sociale weefsel leidt, globaal, tot psychosociale problemen van autoagressieve aard (toename van het aantal depressies, zelfmoorden, zelfdestructieve verslavingen en eetstoornissen), alsook tot psychosociale problemen van heteroagressieve aard (extremistische, vaak gewelddadige en terroristische ‘tegenculturen’ – van zowel religieuze als seculiere aard – die hun leden een duidelijke identiteit verschaffen).

Polariserende identiteitsconstructies in onze samenleving, à la Trump, zullen niet gauw verdwijnen zolang de mainstream media weinig ruimte bieden aan diversiteit. Wie, bijvoorbeeld, als gelovige, maar ook als ongelovige, argumenteert tégen (de propaganda van) het mainstream idee over geloof en godsdienst, wordt vaak weggezet als ‘een uitzondering’. Als gelovige krijg je dan meestal te horen dat de eigen, individuele geloofsopvatting niet van tel is omdat ze niet zou overeenstemmen met wat en hoe ‘de meeste gelovigen’ geloven. Dat is alweer een standaardreactie die nauwelijks in vraag wordt gesteld.

Wat een Etienne Vermeersch als bevooroordeelde anti-theïst over godsdienst te vertellen heeft, krijgt in de mainstream meer ruimte dan wat een (eveneens bevooroordeelde) gelovige als Rik Torfs daarover kwijt kan. Het geloof van Torfs zou dan ‘te intellectueel, te gesofisticeerd en te specifiek’ zijn om er veel aandacht aan te besteden in de publieke sfeer. Verlichte geesten houden bij hun beoordeling van een bepaald gegeven echter geen rekening met wat een zogezegde meerderheid daarover te vertellen heeft. Verlichte geesten zullen nagaan of de rationele en wetenschappelijke argumenten die Torfs gebruikt in de voorstelling van – in zijn geval – het christelijk geloof al dan niet meer steek houden dan de argumenten die Vermeersch hanteert in de voorstelling van dat geloof. Of een meerderheid van gelovigen eerder aansluit bij Torfs dan wel Vermeersch is in eerste instantie niet belangrijk voor wie gelooft in de kracht van rationaliteit en wetenschap.

Los daarvan is de (minstens impliciete) opvatting dat de meeste gelovigen naïeve fundamentalisten zijn (van wie het geloof bijvoorbeeld in conflict zou komen met de moderne natuurwetenschappen) en/of enggeestige lieden (van wie de denkbeelden een voedingsbodem vormen voor geweld) misschien vandaag een van de hardnekkigste enggeestige vooroordelen. ‘De massa’ is altijd op zoek naar houvast en zekerheid. Vroeger vond de massa in Vlaanderen die in een vanzelfsprekend, nauwelijks bekritiseerd en gesocialiseerd katholicisme. Vandaag vindt de massa in Vlaanderen haar zekerheid in een vanzelfsprekend, nauwelijks bekritiseerd en gesocialiseerd atheïsme. Daarnaast zullen er altijd verlichte individuen zijn, zowel aan gelovige als aan ongelovige zijde, die ruimte bieden aan de twijfel.

In onzekere tijden, waarin mensen zich gemakkelijk laten verleiden door populistische extremen die zekerheid beloven, mag er misschien meer aandacht gaan naar de kunst om te twijfelen – ook aan onze eigen zekerheden en onze eigen neiging tot conformisme, diabolisering en polarisering (à la Trump?).

Hierna het volledige artikel uit 2005 (klik op de afbeeldingen om ze te vergroten):

 

Tertio 7 september 2005Tertio 7 september 2005_2

 

P.S.: In het weekblad Knack van 30 november 2016 staat op pagina 29 een vertaald interview uit Der Spiegel met Brits historicus en publicist Timothy Garton Ash. Een fragment:

Heeft de liberaal het ook niet moeilijk met meningen die hij verwerpelijk vindt? De atheïst verdraagt de gelovige soms even moeilijk als de gelovige de atheïst.

GARTON ASH: Consequent zijn in de tolerantie is voor liberalen soms inderdaad een uitdaging. Ik noem een concreet voorbeeld: de christen die beweert dat homoseksualiteit een zonde is, mag om die reden niet benadeeld worden. Dat verandert als die christen zich niet tot woorden beperkt. Als hij een homoseksuele persoon schade berokkent, bijvoorbeeld door hem een job te weigeren, is de grens overschreden.

Vergelijk dit met een voorbeeld uit het artikel van 2005:

De Italiaanse katholiek Rocco Buttiglione werd bijvoorbeeld niet aanvaardbaar geacht zitting te nemen in de Europese Commissie. Hij had gezegd dat hij homoseksualiteit zondig vond. […] Linkse politici wilden […] Buttiglione uit de Europese Commissie, ook al onderschreef die het principe van de scheiding tussen kerk en staat zeer duidelijk. De filosofieprofessor verklaarde immers dat het belangrijk is “een onderscheid te maken tussen moraal en recht. Vele dingen kunnen als immoreel worden beschouwd en moeten toch niet worden verboden. Ik kan homoseksualiteit een zonde vinden, maar dat heeft geen gevolgen zolang ik het geen misdaad noem. De staat heeft niet het recht zich op dit gebied te mengen.”

Voor alle duidelijkheid: lang niet alle christenen vinden homoseksualiteit een zonde (ik ben zelf christen en beschouw homoseksualiteit niet als zondig). Dat betekent echter niet dat anderen geen andere mening mogen hebben (hoezeer ik het ook oneens ben met die mening). Het is de discriminatie van mensen met een andere dan de zogezegd “liberale, progressieve” mening die een quasi geïnstitutionaliseerde vorm van hypocrisie openbaart. Het westers liberalisme blijkt helemaal niet zo tolerant te zijn als het van zichzelf beweert. Zoiets wordt vroeg of laat afgestraft. De verkiezing van Donald Trump heeft óók daarmee te maken. De satiricus Jonathan Pie zegt het goed:

In plaats van mensen te diaboliseren, ga je er beter mee in debat, en voer je discussies op grond van rationele argumenten. Dát zou “verlicht” zijn. Mensen met een andere mening dan de “liberaal progressieve” afschilderen als “kwaadaardig” en/of “achterlijk”, is een vorm van paternalistisch levensbeschouwelijk imperialisme, een vorm van cultureel totalitarisme. En daar zijn “we” zogezegd toch tegen?

Truth, Goodness, Beauty

I’m wondering… When was the last time you’ve measured the hertz of the joy you felt while gaining a new insight?

I’m wondering… Have you recently written down the mass density of your deepest friendships or the miles of your biggest loves?

I’m wondering… How many pounds of beauty have you experienced already this week?

Agreed, these are strange questions about truth, goodness and beauty, impossible to answer. Maybe that tells us something. Let’s take a look at the facts first.

FIRST CLUSTER OF FACTS

Human beings are gifted with a rational ability to discover truth.

We did not create this ability ourselves. Already in this sense, truth and the rational ability to discover it transcend us.

Although knowledge can be useful, truth does not necessarily answer to our needs or demands. Thus truth cannot be reduced to a merely human construct at the service of, for instance, our survival instinct. Also in this sense, the revelation of truth before our rational minds transcends us.

Science might explain how our rational ability came into being, but it cannot explain the fact that we live in a universe where truth can be found. Once again, truth and the ability to find it transcend us.

SECOND CLUSTER OF FACTS

Human beings are gifted with the ability to develop goodness – respect, friendship and love for fellow human beings.

We did not create this ability ourselves. It transcends us.

Although relationships can be useful, goodness does not necessarily answer to our needs or demands. Happiness or sadness because of the happiness or sadness of others are possible consequences of the loving connection we can make with others. As with goodness itself, the others we meet cannot be reduced to mere means at the service of our needs and desires, nor to products of our imagination. Again, goodness, respecting others, transcends us.

Science might explain how our ability to develop goodness came into being, but it cannot explain the fact that we live in a universe where goodness can be found and developed. Once again, goodness and the ability to develop it transcend us.

einstein-quote-on-truth-goodness-beautyTHIRD CLUSTER OF FACTS

Human beings are gifted with the ability to experience beauty.

We did not create this ability ourselves. It transcends us.

Although there can be cultural differences concerning the things that trigger the experience of beauty, the ability itself to experience beauty cannot be reduced to an individual or particular cultural taste or style. Again, the ability to experience beauty precedes and transcends our eventually developed preferences or cultural needs.

Science might explain how our ability to experience beauty came into being, but it cannot explain the fact that we live in a universe where beauty can be experienced. Indeed, once again, beauty and the ability to experience it transcend us.

A REFLECTION FROM RENÉ GIRARD’S MIMETIC THEORY

We can be the most destructive of beings, as our mimetic faculty can move us beyond the things we need from a merely biological point of view. For instance, we can develop eating disorders like anorexia. Or we can go so far as to kill ourselves while (mimetically) competing with others, because of a so-called heroic cause. Every time we do such a thing we of course picture ourselves in a certain way. This ability to picture ourselves in a certain way, to be self-conscious, is nothing else than the ability to duplicate ourselves, which rests on our highly mimetic faculties (a duplication is a form of mimesis, a form of imitation).

On the other hand, we can also be the most creative of beings, as, well yes, our mimetic faculty can move us beyond the things we need from a merely biological point of view. It allows us to develop an interest in or love for the world (which leads to the experience of truth), our fellow human beings (which leads to the experience of goodness), and the value of life (which is the experience of beauty).

Although our love for the world, our fellow human beings, and the value of life is itself invisible and immeasurable (we indeed cannot measure its “hertz, mass density, miles or pounds”), it is nevertheless very real. It is a reality that can be noticed indirectly. The love that carries us and inspires us may be invisible, its effects are not. Love for the world becomes visible, for instance, in the work of scientists who discover gravitational waves. Love for others might become visible in kind words, a warm embrace, a tender kiss. Finally, the creation and experience of beauty in nature, culture and art are visible expressions of the grateful realization that life is valuable, so valuable it’s priceless.

MEANINGLESS OR MEANINGFUL FACTS? A MATTER OF INTERPRETATION

Some atheists might interpret the fact that we live in a universe that allows for the ability to discover and develop truth, goodness and beauty as something meaningless.

I don’t know. Maybe our notions of truth, goodness and beauty are gateways to an awareness of a more complete Reality of Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Maybe our notions of truth, goodness and beauty are ever incomplete and anticipating mimetic models of an eventually fulfilling Understanding, Love and Joy. Just maybe.

In any case, we are living this great mystery (‘magnum mysterium’) of a reality that gracefully allows for the experience of truth, goodness and beauty. And sometimes, just sometimes, all the distracting noise disappears, and we find ourselves in tune with those transcending forces which connect us to an immensely fertile ‘cosmos’… and to ourselves. In the words of Tom, a treble from the world-famous choir of King’s College, Cambridge:

“When I sing in the choir, sometimes, there are moments when everything seems to go away, and you’re just there, which is an amazing feeling…”

Enjoy these particles of the spiritual life. From a documentary on Carols from King’s:

O Magnum Mysterium (Morten Lauridsen):

“The public has a distorted view of science because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries.”

Freeman John Dyson (born 1923).

In Memoriam Michaël Ghijs

gabriel-garridoSaturday, February 23, 2008. Gabriel Garrido, a renowned conductor of Latin American baroque music, is about to begin an evening concert at Cité de la Musique, Paris. His equally famous Ensemble Elyma is ready, together with eleven members of the Belgian boy and men choir Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino. All of a sudden, maestro Garrido turns around and addresses the audience:

“We are saddened to inform you that two days ago, on Thursday, Reverend Michaël Ghijs, the widely acclaimed conductor of the Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino from Aalst, Belgium, passed away. We would like to dedicate this concert to his memory.”

Then he turns again and looks us straight in the eyes. We, the members of the Cantate Domino choir, all have a lump in the throat. We all try to hold back our tears. Finally, maestro Garrido raises his hands and off we go to sing Cantate Domino’s first concert after the death of its founder. We all know things will never be the same again (footage from the concert):

Only 5 months before, on October 8, 2007, on his 74th birthday, Reverend Michaël Ghijs got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I still remember it vividly, because we used to celebrate our birthdays together (mine is on October 6).

Michaël Ghijs conducts his choir one last time during Mass on Sunday, February 3, 2008, in the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula in Brussels. He is literally deathly sick at the time, no longer able to accompany his boys during the entrance procession, but still he manages to direct them for the remainder of the Mass. It is but one example of his tremendous willpower and passion. Of course, these personality traits make him stubborn at times. For instance, during a concert tour in Asia he asks me wether or not to include Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy for an afternoon programme. My answer is not to include it, because I have the impression that the young trebles don’t seem sure about themselves. From his reaction I immediately know I shouldn’t have said that. He starts rehearsal with the Choral Fantasy, saying that the sopranos will show everyone who doubts them what they are capable of. Eventually, he shows me wrong. He is, as always, proud of the achievements of his singers. It is no coincidence that many former members of Cantate Domino have a career in music.

philippe-herrewegheMichaël Ghijs is proud of and grateful for the hard work and successes of the people he works with, yet he is not driven by pride. Although he can be stubborn, he can also say that he is sorry and admit to making mistakes. It is characteristic of the way he leads the choir. Conflicts are possible, meaning that Michaël Ghijs is not just a commander-in-chief who expects blind obedience. On the other hand, great discipline is needed and established because he wants to perform the often difficult music the best he can. Not because he wants to make a career or because he chases some kind of success, but simply because he loves the (mostly religious) music and the message it contains. I guess this is difficult to understand for people who are primarily driven by a desire to make a career and/or to become rich. True, eventually the Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino works with famous conductors like Colin Davis, Laszlo Heltay, Ronald Zollman, Philippe Herreweghe, Michael Tilson Thomas, Pierre Cao, Claudio Abbado, Alexander Rahbari, Johan Duijck, Rudolf Werthen and Dirk Brossé; with musicians like Vladimir Ashkenazy, José van Dam and even Toots Thielemans; with ensembles like Capilla Flamenca and the above mentioned Ensemble Elyma – listen to an excerpt from the collaboration on the CD Corpus Christi à Cusco (K617, 2006):

The choir even participates in the movies Daens and In BrugesNothing of the choir’s impressive resume, however, has ever been a goal. It’s just been a consequence of passion and hard work (the trebles alone practice up to 15 hours a week!). Moreover, Cantate Domino has never been a merely artistic project.

jose-van-damtoots-thielemans

in-bruges

Michaël Ghijs has a hard time refusing boys who can’t really sing. Those who persevere find a way of making themselves helpful in the practical organisation of the choir. They are welcome to join the choir on its concert tours. Regarding these tours, Michaël Ghijs also has a hard time refusing members who don’t really deserve to come along because of longer periods of absence. Sometimes the yearly concert tours are undertaken by a group of around eighty individuals, making them a financially challenging operation. Yet Reverend Ghijs often pays the entire trip out of his own pocket for members whose financial situation doesn’t otherwise allow them to travel. The choir indeed is open to people of all sorts of cultural and social backgrounds. Reverend Ghijs also makes it a point to look after members and former members when they experience difficulties in their lives. For instance, he provides shelter for a young man who came out of the closet as a homosexual and whose parents threw him out because of that. Or he gives daily calls to a former member of the choir who is in the hospital for a treatment of meningitis. There are so many situations to mention… Perhaps it is in these social aspects that the priestly vocation of Ghijs is most apparent. The choir never is a money making machine. Singing at funerals and marriages, or performing in care homes, prisons, whatever: the choir often just receives enough to pay the bill of the bus (sometimes to the chagrin of the older members who are in charge of the finances).

diapason-cover-june-2005In any case, what Michaël Ghijs achieves with his choir, with boys who often don’t have any proper education in music, is nothing short of a miracle. One of his best qualities is his firm belief in the abilities of young people before they even believe in themselves. When some of us think we will never be able to properly perform Amen by Henryk Mikolaj Górecki, Michaël Ghijs pulls us through. He even wants us to sing it at the Belgian provincial choir tournaments, next to, among other music, Bach’s motet Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied. In the end he is right. Our perfomance places us, once again, in the highest division. In the same period an album is recorded by Capilla Flamenca together with some trebles of Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino. Ten years later, this CD is listed among “the 25 most beautiful recordings of boy choirs” by renowned French magazine Diapason (June, 2005):

diapason-review-of-cantate-domino-aalst

Listen to an excerpt from the CD Missa Alleluia (Eufoda, 1996):

If anything, these things prove that Michaël Ghijs above all educated young people to enable them to shine and to share their talents with the world. Of course, there will always be cynical minds who regard the work of a priest with young boys and men with suspicion. I know Reverend Ghijs got called names sometimes by so-called rebellious teenagers when he crossed the street with his boy sopranos. The words are not worth repeating. Reverend Ghijs, unlike me, ignored them and always continued his work with the same energy, passion, eagerness to learn and genuine concern for what happened in the lives of his singers.

I’ve had the privilege to have known this man, a true friend and mentor, for almost twenty years. Like everyone else, he was a complex human being with flaws and weaknesses, with doubts and frustrations. He dared to be vulnerable. He kept reading and studying, knowing that he never knew enough. He questioned the personal assumptions of his Christian faith and developed his theology in a different direction over the years (in no small part because he discovered the work of James Alison). He loved the good life and could enjoy delicious food and drinks in good company.

Michaël Ghijs is missed by friends all over the world, from the Americas over Spain, Italy, Bulgaria and a range of other European countries to South Africa, Israel, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and many other places. In the course of his lifetime, Reverend Michaël Ghijs discovered his own limits and cultural boundaries, not as ends in themselves to separate himself from others, but, on the contrary, as means to encounter others. His legacy is a spirituality to be imitated and a work to be continued, in whatever context, in true friendship and in gratitude.

May God bless him.

 

My trip down memory lane, compiled from different tv performances, pictures and records – life in Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino:

The Myth of “The Evil, Unenlightened Catholic Church”

We all know the story:

  • The Christian faith is, by its very nature, an enemy of science.
  • The Catholic Church has, during its history, vehemently and violently suppressed scientists who came up with new scientific ideas.
  • Scientists from the past who believed in God did so because of their upbringing, or they faked it because they feared prosecution by religious authorities.
  • For proof of all of the above, one just has to look at what happened to Galileo Galilei or Giordano Bruno.
  • Historians who criticize these views are biased Catholic apologists.

galileo-goes-to-jailToday we should know that this story is itself biased and apologetic of the view that the Catholic Church (or even religion in general) is one of the main sources of superstitious darkness and evil in the world. One of the books that dismantles the myth of the Catholic Church as sworn enemy to science, is Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (pdf). It was edited by Prof. Ronald L. Numbers and published by Harvard University Press in 2009. The word myth in the title means what it means in everyday conversation and thus refers to a claim that is false.

In his introduction, Numbers briefly mentions the ideological background of the 25 authors who each debunk a myth on the relation between science and religion. Perhaps because he is aware that some people don’t necessarily have a scientific mindset (although they might claim the opposite). A scientist normally reads what is written, critically weighing the rational and scientific arguments that are brought up. If someone asks who wrote something to judge whether a text is truthful, he or she is not really judging from scientific criteria. Anti-theists (from the so-called “new atheist” corner) often think that the religious views of an author automatically get in the way of scientific research, and then close themselves off from further reading. This close-mindedness is, of course, not a sole preserve of new atheists. Theists also might not be free enough to hear what atheists have to say, thinking that atheists are automatically anti-theists, who push an often emotionally driven campaign against religion. Seemingly to reassure the lesser scientific minds on both sides, Numbers gives his overview: nearly half of the book’s contributors (twelve out of twenty-five) are unbelievers (agnostic or atheist), five are mainstream Protestants, two are evangelical Protestants, one is a Roman Catholic, one a Jew, another a Muslim, one a Buddhist, and the beliefs of yet two others fit no conventional category. This already makes clear that not everyone who criticizes the above mentioned myth is a biased Catholic, since there is only one Roman Catholic among the 25 authors of Galileo Goes to Jail.

Among many other interesting facts, the book provides and proves some important points regarding the Galileo Galilei and Giordano Bruno case. Both Galileo and Bruno defended heliocentrism, a view that was at the time developed most prominently by Nicolaus Copernicus. Both men received their education within the Catholic Church. However, while Galileo remained a genuinely pious Roman Catholic (a fact that is overlooked sometimes), Bruno converted to the so-called Hermetic Tradition (Hermeticism). The reason why Bruno was an adherent of heliocentrism, was because of his religious views (and not because of a scientific insight independent of religion!). As is also the case for his contemporary scientific colleagues, Bruno did not separate matters of science (“natural philosophy” at the time) from religious matters. (Natural) philosophy and theology were, eventually, one and the same. From Galileo Goes to Jail, pp 66-67:

In Bruno’s day, indeed in his own writings, theology and philosophy were of one piece, inseparable. He stated this succinctly in the prefatory letter dedicating The Cabala of Pegasus (1585) to the fictional Bishop of Casamarciano: “I don’t know if you are a theologian, philosopher, or cabalist – but I know for sure that you are all of these… And therefore, here you have it – cabala, theology and philosophy; I mean, a cabala of theological philosophy, a philosophy of kabbalistic theology, a theology of philosophical cabala.” Clearly Bruno thought of his work as all three and incomplete if construed as any one of them alone; he wrote as a philosopher but reckoned himself a Professor of Sacred Theology.

Also, Ibid., p 98:

Seventeenth-century natural philosophers were not modern scientists. Their exploration of the natural world was not cut off from their religious views and theological assumptions. That separation came later. Reading the past from the standpoint of later developments has led to serious misunderstandings of the Scientific Revolution. For many of the natural philosophers of the seventeenth century, science and religion – or, better, natural philosophy and theology – were inseparable, part and parcel of the endeavor to understand our world.

giordano_bruno_campo_dei_fioriGiordano Bruno was eventually burned at the stake in 1600. Although this is of course an appalling punishment, Bruno was not burned because of an anachronistic modern scientific worldview, but because of a number of so-called religious heresies (which he didn’t fake, by the way; apparently he was even prepared to die for them). His “Pythagorean” convictions (the way the heliocentric hypothesis was sometimes referred to at the time) included, for instance, the belief in the transmigration of souls. As is known, the Catholic Church had just gone through a period of a stricter attention to orthodoxy, because of the turmoil created by the Reformation and Counter-reformation. Therefore the Church, as all human endeavors tend to do in circumstances questioning the cornerstones of their sense of identity, could barely stand what it experienced as new attacks on its identity. It may remind some people of the difficulty certain anti-theists experience to accept criticism on their views about religion. Of course anti-theists don’t burn people at the stake, unless, of course, their hatred of religion comes from some “neo-Stalinist” worldview. In that case, theists should run for their lives.

All these matters aside, in fact, essentially the debate between Catholics (and others) who were defending the heliocentric hypothesis and Catholics (and others) who weren’t, was a debate between ancient Greek philosophers with slightly different religious convictions. For centuries, the worldview of Aristotle and Ptolemy had dominated intellectual life, as it was adopted by Christian theology. People like Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler challenged this view, at the same time challenging mainstream medieval theology. From Galileo Goes to Jail, p 83:

In the sixteenth century, Nicolaus Copernicus’s (1473–1543) view that the sun is at the center of the universe was often called the “Pythagorean hypothesis,” and Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) and Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) both traced the roots of their innovations back to Plato. These men and their contemporaries all knew what some today have forgotten, that Christian astronomers (and other students of nature) owe a great debt to their Greek forebears.

Observations like these already debunk another myth, namely that Christianity gave birth to modern science. Although the Catholic Church played a significant role (see below) in the birth and development of modern science, it was self-evidently not the sole factor. Again, from Galileo Goes to Jail, p 83:

Christian astronomers (and other students of nature) owe a great debt to their Greek forebears. This was not the only debt outstanding for Christian philosophers of nature. They had also benefited directly and indirectly from Muslim and, to a lesser degree, Jewish philosophers of nature who used Arabic to describe their investigations. It was in Muslim lands that natural philosophy received the most careful and creative attention from the seventh to the twelfth century.

Nevertheless, the discussion about heliocentrism at the dawn of the modern era was also (and perhaps mainly) a discussion within the Church, among Catholics (intellectuals engaged in matters of natural philosophy)! A more extended quote from Galileo Goes to Jail, pp 101-106:

It would of course be absurd to claim that there have been no instances of Catholic laymen or clerics opposing scientific work in some form or other. Without question, such examples can be found, and quite easily. Yet it would be equally absurd to extend these examples of opposition – no matter how ignorant or illconceived – to the Catholic church or to Catholics as a whole. This act would be to commit the historical sin of overgeneralization, that is, the unwarrantable extension of the actions or thought of one member of a collective body to the entire body as a whole. (For example, there are apparently American flatearthers alive today, yet it is not correct then to say that twentyfirst-century Americans in general believe that the earth is flat.)

The Catholic church is not, and has never been (perhaps to the chagrin of some pontiffs), a monolithic or unanimous entity; it is composed of individuals and groups who often hold widely divergent viewpoints. This diversity of opinion was in full evidence even in the celebrated case of Galileo, where clerics and laymen are to be found distributed across the whole spectrum of responses from support to condemnation. The question, then, is what the preponderant attitude was, and in this case it is clear from the historical record that the Catholic church has been probably the largest single and longest-term patron of science in history, that many contributors to the Scientific Revolution were themselves Catholic, and that several Catholic institutions and perspectives were key influences upon the rise of modern science.

In contrast to our starting myth, it is an easy matter to point to important figures of the Scientific Revolution who were themselves Catholics. The man often credited with the first major step of the Scientific Revolution, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543), was not only Catholic but in Holy Orders as a cathedral canon (a cleric charged with administrative duties). And lest it be said that he was simultaneously persecuted for his astronomical work, it must be pointed out that much of his audience and support came from within the Catholic hierarchy, and especially the Papal Court. His book begins with a dedication to Pope Paul III that contains an account of the various church officials who supported his work and urged its completion and publication. Galileo, too, despite his celebrated and much mythologized face-off with church officials, was and remained Catholic, and there is no reason to question the sincerity of his faith.

A catalog of Catholic contributors to the Scientific Revolution would run to many pages and exhaust the reader’s patience. Thus it will suffice to mention just a very few other representatives from various scientific disciplines. In the medical sciences, there is Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564), the famous anatomist of Brussels; while another Fleming, Joan Baptista Van Helmont (1579–1644), one of the most innovative and influential voices in seventeenth-century medicine and chemistry, was a devout Catholic with strong mystical leanings. In Italy, the microscopist Marcello Malpighi (1628–1694) first observed capillaries, thus proving the circulation of the blood. Niels Stensen (or Nicolaus Steno, 1638–1686), who remains known today for his foundational work on fossils and the geological formation of rock strata, converted to Catholicism during his scientific work and became first a priest, then a bishop, and is currently a beatus (a title preliminary to official sainthood). [Another famous convert to Christianity from the same period is the brilliant French mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal]. The revival and adaptation of ancient atomic ideas was due in no small part to the work of the Catholic priest Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655). The Minim friar Marin Mersenne (1588–1648), besides his own competence in mathematics, orchestrated a network of correspondence to disseminate scientific and mathematical discoveries, perhaps most notably the ideas of René Descartes (1596–1650), another Catholic.

accademia-dei-lincei-sala-letturaBesides individuals there are also institutions to be mentioned. The first scientific societies were organized in Italy and were financed and populated by Catholics. The earliest of these, the Accademia dei Lincei, was founded in Rome in 1603. Many other societies followed across Italy, including the Accademia del Cimento, founded in Florence in 1657, that brought together many experimentalists and former students of Galileo. Later, the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris, founded in 1666 and probably the most stable and productive of all early scientific societies, had a majority of Catholic members, such as Gian Domenico Cassini (1625–1712), famed for his observations of Jupiter and Saturn, and Wilhelm Homberg (1653–1715), a convert to Catholicism and one of the most renowned and productive chemists of his day. Four of the early members were in orders, including the abbe Jean Picard (1620–1682), a noted astronomer, and the abbe Edme Mariotte (ca. 1620–1684), an important physicist. Even the Royal Society of London, founded in very Protestant England in 1660, had a few Catholic members, such as Sir Kenelm Digby (1603–1665), and kept up a vigorous correspondence with Catholic natural philosophers in Italy, France, and elsewhere.

Catholic religious orders provided a variety of opportunities for natural-philosophical work. One of Galileo’s closest early students and supporters, and his successor to the chair of mathematics at the University of Pisa, was the Benedictine monk Benedetto Castelli (1578–1643). But on a broader scale, during the Scientific Revolution, Catholic monks, friars, and priests in missions constituted a virtual worldwide web of correspondents and data collectors. Information on local geography, flora, fauna, mineralogy, and other subjects as well as a wealth of astronomical, meteorological, and seismological observations flooded back into Europe from far-flung Catholic missions in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. The data and specimens they sent back were channeled into natural-philosophical treatises and studies by Catholics and Protestants alike. This massive collection of new scientific information was carried out by Franciscans, Dominicans, Benedictines, and, perhaps most of all, Jesuits.

No account of Catholic involvement with science could be complete without mention of the Jesuits (officially called the Society of Jesus). Formally established in 1540, the society placed such special emphasis on education that by 1625 they had founded nearly 450 colleges in Europe and elsewhere. Many Jesuit priests were deeply involved in scientific issues, and many made important contributions. The reformed calendar, enacted under Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 and still in use today, was worked out by the Jesuit mathematician and astronomer Christoph Clavius (1538–1612). Optics and astronomy were topics of special interest for Jesuits. Christoph Scheiner (1573–1650) studied sunspots, Orazio Grassi (1583–1654) comets, and Giambattista Riccioli (1598–1671) provided a star catalog, a detailed lunar map that provided the names still used today for many of its features, and experimentally confirmed Galileo’s laws of falling bodies by measuring their exact rates of acceleration during descent. Jesuit investigators of optics and light include Francesco Maria Grimaldi (1618–1663), who, among other things (such as collaborating with Riccioli on the lunar map), discovered the phenomenon of the diffraction of light and named it. Magnetism as well was studied by several Jesuits, and it was Niccolo Cabeo (1586–1650) who devised the technique of visualizing the magnetic field lines by sprinkling iron filings on a sheet of paper laid on top of a magnet. By 1700, Jesuits held a majority of the chairs of mathematics in European universities.

Undergirding such scientific activities in the early-modern period was the firm conviction that the study of nature is itself an inherently religious activity. The secrets of nature are the secrets of God. By coming to know the natural world we should, if we observe and understand rightly, come to a better understanding of their Creator. This attitude was by no means unique to Catholics, but many of the priests and other religious involved in teaching and studying natural philosophy underscored this connection. For example, the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680) envisioned the study of magnetism not only as teaching about an invisible physical force of nature but also as providing a powerful emblem of the divine love of God that holds all creation together and draws the faithful inexorably to Him. Indeed, if Jesuit work remains today inadequately represented in accounts of scientific discovery, it is in part because science proceeded down a path of literalism and dissection rather than following the Jesuits’ path of comprehensive and emblematic holism.

Finally, historians of science now recognize that the impressive developments of the period called the Scientific Revolution depended in large part on positive contributions and foundations dating from the High Middle Ages, that is to say, before the origins of Protestantism. This fact too must be brought to bear on the role of Catholics and their church in the Scientific Revolution. Medieval observations and theories of optics, kinematics, astronomy, matter, and other fields provided essential information and starting points for developments of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The medieval establishment of universities, the development of a culture of disputation, and the logical rigor of Scholastic theology all helped to provide a climate and culture necessary for the Scientific Revolution.

Neither interest and activity in science nor criticism and suppression of its tenets align with the confessional boundary between Catholics and Protestants. Modern science is not a product of Protestantism and certainly not of atheism or agnosticism. Catholics and Protestants alike made essential and fundamental contributions to the developments of the period we have called the Scientific Revolution.

Indeed, as the above quoted text mentions, within the Catholic Church the order of the Jesuits holds a special place regarding the origins and further development of modern science. As the astronomer George Coyne points out, himself a Jesuit priest, Galileo’s observations caused tensions within the Jesuit order at the time, and eventually Jesuits at the Roman College confirmed the earth-shaking ideas of their fellow Catholic. It is truly worth reading Coyne’s paper on the relationship between Galileo and his Jesuit colleagues, The Jesuits and Galileo: Fidelity to Tradition and the Adventure of Discovery (pdf).

Some people, especially so-called anti-theistic new atheists, claim that all those great Catholic or other Christian scientists and mathematicians from the past believed in God simply because they were raised that way, or because they feared prosecution. Maybe some anti-theists have special powers, able to read the minds of people who died a long time back. In any case, what those scientists wrote about their own faith suggests otherwise. Alright, maybe they all participated in a conspiracy to raise the impression that they had a strong spiritual mind, thinking profoundly, honestly and individually about the Christian tradition. However, so long as we don’t have any proof of such a conspiracy, and as long as we don’t have any proof of anti-theistic paranormal powers, we should perhaps abandon the paternalistic claim that those great, innovative minds were not able to think about their faith in a mature way. Once again, from Galileo Goes to Jail, p 81:

sir-isaac-newtonRené Descartes (1596–1650) boasted of his physics that “my new philosophy is in much better agreement with all the truths of faith than that of Aristotle.” Isaac Newton (1642–1727) believed that his system restored the original divine wisdom God had provided to Moses and had no doubt that his Christianity bolstered his physics – and that his physics bolstered his Christianity.

Or take Galileo, Ibid., p 96:

Another theme common to early-modern discussions about the possibility of human knowledge of the creation was that expressed by the metaphor of God’s two books: the book of God’s word (the Bible) and the book of God’s work (the created world). Natural philosophers regarded both books as legitimate sources of knowledge. Early in the seventeenth century, Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) appealed to this metaphor in the context of a discussion of the relative importance of studying the Bible and observing natural phenomena: “the holy Bible and the phenomena of nature proceed alike from the divine Word, the former as the dictate of the Holy Ghost and the latter as the observant executrix of God’s commands.”

As for the further relationship between what became modern science and the Christian Bible, it should be clear how it eventually developed. Georges Lemaître‘s ideas may serve as an example. This Belgian Catholic priest and famous physicist (founder of the “Big Bang” hypothesis among others) clearly distinguishes the questions of modern science from the questions the New Testament authors deal with. In fact, according to Lemaître, questions of modern science have nothing to do with theology, and vice versa. The Christian scientist thus cannot let his faith be of any importance for his scientific work. Some quotes from Lemaître, taken from an article by Joseph R. Laracy (click to read) clarify his position regarding the relationship between theology and modern science:

Georges Lemaître and Albert EinsteinShould a priest reject relativity because it contains no authoritative exposition on the doctrine of the Trinity? Once you realize that the Bible does not purport to be a textbook of science, the old controversy between religion and science vanishes… The doctrine of the Trinity is much more abstruse than anything in relativity or quantum mechanics; but, being necessary for salvation, the doctrine is stated in the Bible. If the theory of relativity had also been necessary for salvation, it would have been revealed to Saint Paul or to Moses… As a matter of fact neither Saint Paul nor Moses had the slightest idea of relativity.

The Christian researcher has to master and apply with sagacity the technique appropriate to his problem. His investigative means are the same as those of his non-believer colleague… In a sense, the researcher makes an abstraction of his faith in his researches. He does this not because his faith could involve him in difficulties, but because it has directly nothing in common with his scientific activity. After all, a Christian does not act differently from any non-believer as far as walking, or running, or swimming is concerned.

The writers of the Bible were illuminated more or less – some more than others – on the question of salvation. On other questions they were as wise or ignorant as their generation. Hence it is utterly unimportant that errors in historic and scientific fact should be found in the Bible, especially if the errors related to events that were not directly observed by those who wrote about them… The idea that because they were right in their doctrine of immortality and salvation they must also be right on all other subjects, is simply the fallacy of people who have an incomplete understanding of why the Bible was given to us at all.

The question about the meaning of “salvation” in the light of the New Testament indeed is different from, for instance, the question how and why objects fall down. That’s how plain and simple an insight can be in order to stop battling windmills like some heroic but mad and narcissistic Don Quixote.

For more on Lemaître, click the following (pdf): The Faith and Reason of Father Georges Lemaître & Priestly Contributions to Modern Science.

The already mentioned astronomer and Jesuit George Coyne also points to the false conflict between modern science and the Bible, for instance in the “mockumentary” Religulous (click here for more):

The Christian Scriptures were written between about 2,000 years before Christ to about 200 years after Christ. That’s it. Modern science came to be with Galileo up through Newton, up through Einstein. What we know as modern science, okay, is in that period. How in the world could there be any science in Scripture? There cannot be. Just the two historical periods are separated by so much. The Scriptures are not teaching science. It’s very hard for me to accept, not just a literal interpretation of scripture, but a fundamentalist approach to religious belief. It’s kind of a plague. It presents itself as science and it’s not.

Not insignificant note: the Roman Catholic Church accepts all kinds of interpretive approaches to the Bible, but it decisively rejects one approach, namely a fundamentalist reading of the Bible (click here for more).

Maybe Coyne says it more beautifully in this TED-talk (click to watch):

Hopefully, together with both Lemaître and Coyne, and with countless other researchers from different ideological backgrounds, it’s a bit more clear now that the story this post started with is indeed a biased myth, even plain propaganda. In the words of Prof. Ronald L. Numbers, from the introduction to Galileo Goes to Jail, pp 1-6:

The greatest myth in the history of science and religion holds that they have been in a state of constant conflict. No one bears more responsibility for promoting this notion than two nineteenth-century American polemicists: Andrew Dickson White (1832–1918) and John William Draper (1811–1882).

[…]

history-of-the-conflict-between-religion-and-scienceHistorians of science have known for years that White’s and Draper’s accounts are more propaganda than history. Yet the message has rarely escaped the ivory tower. The secular public, if it thinks about such issues at all, knows that organized religion has always opposed scientific progress (witness the attacks on Galileo, Darwin, and Scopes). The religious public knows that science has taken the leading role in corroding faith (through naturalism and antibiblicism). As a first step toward correcting these misperceptions we must dispel the hoary myths that continue to pass as historical truths. No scientist, to our knowledge, ever lost his life because of his scientific views, though, the Italian Inquisition did incinerate the sixteenth-century Copernican Giordano Bruno for his heretical theological notions.

Unlike the master mythmakers White and Draper, the contributors to this volume have no obvious scientific or theological axes to grind.

Perhaps the reason why some atheists stubbornly still swallow and believe the propaganda that began with people like White and Draper, is that they need an outside “enemy” to build their identity. If religion in general, and the Catholic Church in particular, can be depicted as a bulwark of stupidity and evil, some atheists can more easily see themselves as belonging to the intelligent and moral part of humanity. Of course, as we know from the Gospels and other spiritual resources: to see the stupidity and immorality of someone else does not automatically make oneself intelligent and moral. Apparently, creating an “us vs them” to get a sense of superiority is a universally human temptation. The French-American anthropologist and literary critic, René Girard (1923-2015), had a profound insight in this matter and its implications.

The way certain atheists build part of their identity by their emotionally driven aversion to religion, also explains why they consider religion as one of the main sources of violence in the world. A claim that can be highly debated, especially from an atheist point of view! Before being religious or secular (communist or nationalistic or whatever), violence is always human violence. Religious ideas originated in humans, they did not come from divine revelation (at least from an atheist perspective). Thus – this can be reasonably expected, as is also clear from a human history of violence – human characteristics that gave birth to certain religious ideas legitimating violence will continue to generate ideas to legitimate violence, whether of a religious or secular nature. The disappearance of one religious or secular ideology legitimating violence does not take away the universally human characteristics that gave birth to the violence in the first place.

These considerations on the origin of violence might lead to a better assessment of the basic sources of any type of violence. For instance while interpreting recent 10 year average data of annually killed Americans. According to these data, 9 Americans are killed annually by Islamic jihadist terrorists (including jihadists who are US citizens), while 11,737 (almost twelve thousand!) Americans are killed annually by other Americans. Is it really far-fetched to think that those 9 jihadist terrorists would have found other outlets for their psychologically developed frustrations, anger and aggressive tendencies anyway? In the case a violent Islamist ideology was not available? The focus on so-called religious violence (9 killed) gets in the way of attacking the real problem, namely human violence (11,737 + 9).

number-of-americans-killed-annually

For instance, the man who killed 84 people in Nice, France, by driving a lorry through a crowd (click here for more), 31 year old Tunisian delivery man Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, clearly had identity and social issues. It should be stressed that this “Nice killer” not only searched the web for “jihadist” terror attacks, but that he also looked at shootings like the one in Dallas, where a black army veteran shot five police officers. He was apparently interested in violent acts that would put him in the spotlight and give him a sense of significance, no matter under what flag. The Nice killer thus showed signs of the “copycat effect” (a mimetic phenomenon, indeed): sensational media exposure about violent suicides and murders results in more of the same through imitation. Moreover, this terrorist showed no interest in religion until only a few weeks before his violent act. In short, violent Islamist ideology seemed to be one of the coincidental guises he could use to perform his act. If it were not available, it is very likely that he would have used something else.

Of course it is easy to prove that something is bad or evil. If I would list all the rapes and other acts of sexual violence that happen daily around the world, I could maybe make the claim that “sex is evil”. But that would, luckily, not be the whole story.

In short, if you still believe the story of the Catholic Church as the age-old sworn enemy of science, your historical views belong, metaphorically speaking, to the Middle Ages.

Invitations to Explorations (COV&R 2016)

COV&R 2016The annual and 26th conference of the Colloquium on Violence & Religion (COV&R) coincided with the 6th annual conference of the Australian Girard Seminar. It was the first meeting of its kind after the passing of René Girard (December 25, 1923 – November 4, 2015), whose groundbreaking interdisciplinary work and eventually developed mimetic theory is further explored by an ever growing number of scholars on these occasions. Certainly and sadly in this day and age, the theme of the conference couldn’t have been more appropriate: Violence in the Name of Religion. The academic yet also cordial gathering was held at the campus of ACU (Australian Catholic University) from Wednesday 13 July until Sunday 17 July 2016 in Melbourne, Australia.

As is always the case, also at this COV&R the participants gave each other lots of inspiration. In the coming months I will probably share some explorations I felt invited to on this blog. For now I’d like to highlight some of the ideas I thought were quite inspiring (at least to me).

WEDNESDAY, 13 JULY

The Myth of Religious ViolenceProf. William T. Cavanaugh started off the event by giving the Raymund Schwager Memorial Lecture. AS PEOPLE USED TO BELIEVE IN THE GODS – Girard and the Myth of Religious Violence was the provocative title of his contribution, which essentially stated that violence is not a religious problem but a universally human reality (as Dr. Petra Steinmair-Pösel succinctly pointed out in her response to the lecture).

Cavanaugh summarized the myth many people believe in nowadays as follows:

  1. There is a trans-historical and transcultural essence of religion that distinguishes it from essentially secular phenomena like reason, or politics and economics: religions like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism [Cavanaugh was aware that some people might not call Buddhism a religion] are essentially different from secular phenomena like nationalism, consumerism, and Marxism.
  2. Religion has more of a tendency to promote violence than secular phenomena.
  3. Therefore, religion should be marginalized from public power and secularism should be encouraged.

He then went on to debunk this myth by pointing out how the religious/secular dichotomy originated as a typically western phenomenon. In the words of Cavanaugh:

The religious/secular distinction is not trans-historical and transcultural: it is a contingent product of the modern West. What counts as religious and what counts as secular in any given circumstance depends on the political purposes of the one making the distinction. The distinction is commonly used to endorse as rational and peacemaking certain beliefs and practices, labeled secular, and to condemn others, labeled religious, as essentially irrational and prone to violence. The distinction does not simply describe the way the world is, but rather tells us about how the West distributes power.

The creation of the sovereign state meant that the ambit of ecclesiastical authorities would gradually be confined to religion – the realm of belief – while the civil authorities would take charge of the political. The religious/secular and religion/politics distinctions helped eventually to create the expectation that the natural place of the church was the private sphere.

Some more explanation might be in place here for some readers. Following René Girard, the possibility itself of a dichotomy between the religious and the secular can be considered as a consequence of the Judeo-Christian unveiling of the lie at the heart of archaic religious systems, namely the scapegoat mechanism. As such the Judeo-Christian tradition is, in principle, responsible for the gradual loss of belief in the effectiveness of ancient ritual sacrifices (even if these were sometimes revived in so-called Christian societies; criticism of these practices comes from the Gospel itself, for instance by Erasmus, “Prince of the Humanists”). Ritual sacrifices contained violence in a twofold sense (see also Prof. Jean-Pierre Dupuy): they were themselves of course a form of bloody violence, but they were also believed to control the possibility of greater violent (natural and/or social) disasters understood as “the wrath of the gods” (= violence transferred to a sacred or transcendent realm).

While secularism no longer endorses the belief that potentially violent gods should be appeased by bloody sacrifices to establish an eventually peaceful world order, it does try to locate potential sources of violence or disorder that should be eliminated (“sacrificed” in a sense). It is no accident that Dr. Steinmair-Pösel, in her response to the lecture, spoke of secularism “as a mutilated version of Judeo-Christian tradition” in that it “scapegoats the scapegoaters”. In this sense it goes against the heart of Christianity as a call for forgiveness (from the part of the victim) and conversion (to neighborly love that is, from the part of the perpetrator). The imitation of the “kenotic movement of Christ” should result in attitudes refraining from revenge. Nevertheless, in today’s globalized human community, people often rival each other’s claim to be “victims” and as such feel entitled to sometimes violently prosecute others who are considered “perpetrators”. While we’re Wolfgang Palaver COV&R 2016at it, Prof. Wolfgang Palaver would later on, in his own lecture, rightly point to the fact that many of today’s terrorists legitimize themselves as victims or defenders of victims (from groups like ISIS to Aum Shinrikyo and people like Anders Breivik). Secularism thus is, in certain circumstances, but one of several contemporary ideological systems that can legitimize marginalization and even (violent) discrimination of certain groups in the name of victims. Mosques have been set to fire after ISIS attacks, for instance. As a means of victimizing others in turn, however, secularism tragically adds to the problem of violent extremism: it makes it more easy for organizations like ISIS to claim that “their people” are indeed “victims” or that they are being “marginalized”. And so the vicious circle goes on and on. In short, by labeling religion in general and its believers as “often dangerously irrational”, “potentially violent” and therefore “better if gone, eliminated or destroyed”, secularism ironically becomes a religious system itself. A religious system is understood then as a social order arising out of so-called necessary sacrifices to prevent potentially violent mayhem. All of this, again, in the words of Prof. Cavanaugh:

The point is not only that people are just as likely to kill for secular things like Marxism and capitalism [remember the Gulag or the Cold War] as they are for religious things like Islam and Hinduism. The point is that the religious/secular distinction is itself an act of power that labels certain things “religious” and therefore essentially irrational and potentially dangerous, while authorizing as “secular” other belief systems and practices whose violence is accepted as rational and peacemaking.

[Cavanaugh eventually quotes Girard on religion and religion in the secular, and provides further explanation (I took the picture on the right from the core of the ANZAC War Memorial in Sydney):]

IMAG2676_1_1Girard: “Any phenomenon associated with the acts of remembering, commemorating, and perpetuating a unanimity that springs from the murder of a surrogate victim can be termed ‘religious’.”

Religion, in this sense, is not a sui generis phenomenon that can be separated out from culture, reason, politics, economics, or society.

Girard uses religion in a narrow sense to refer to the archaic (mis)representation of sacrificial violence, and in a broader sense to refer to the ways that all societies – even modern secular ones – employ the same mechanisms to legitimate and control violence. In good Durkheimian fashion, Girard uses the term “religion” to name the way that any society – including any “secular” society – represents itself to itself. As Girard writes “There is no society without religion because without religion society cannot exist.”

[From Girard’s anthropological perspective on secularism and anti-religion, the religious/secular dichotomy indeed becomes part of one of today’s most important myths (the discourse that establishes a distinction between illegitimate and legitimate violence). Cavanaugh continues and concludes:]

The religious/secular dichotomy is itself part of the apparatus whereby violence is concealed. Girard’s goal is to reveal it, and thereby undermine the religious/secular dichotomy.

As Girard says, the Christian “Revelation deprives people of religion, and it is this deprivation that can increasingly be seen around us, in the naïve illusion that we are finished with it… Today’s anti-religion combines so much error and nonsense about religion that it can barely be satirized. It serves the cause that it would undermine, and secretly defends the mistakes that it believes it is correcting.”

During the remainder of my time in Australia, about a week after the conference, I discovered that the myth of secularism is alive and well on Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, Sydney:

IMAG2574 IMAG2575 IMAG2577

Secularism “as a mutilated version of Judeo-Christian tradition” (see higher, Dr. Steinmair-Pösel) thus contains a warning for Christians themselves (and for all who try to develop a spiritual attitude that goes beyond the convenient and comfortable dualism of “good versus evil”, be it for instance “good secularism versus evil religion”): Jesus never attempted to completely abolish the existing cultural (religious) traditions and social systems, he merely tried to transform his own Jewish religion, whenever and wherever needed, in light of neighborly love. In their covert and overt attempts to completely remove religion from the public sphere, certain secularists attain the exact opposite of what they’re trying to accomplish: they continue an essentially sacrificial (“religious”) system. As Dr. Steinmair-Pösel concluded in her response to the first plenary session, the difference between so-called archaic religion and Judeo-Christian tradition (or religion and “secularism” for that matter) therefore can never result in a complete “separation” with one destroying the other, but should be thought of as a distinction. In other words and as I understand it, the ultimate human possibility of a humanitarian ethos, materializing in whatever cultural form, ceases to exist whenever one culture establishes itself at the expense of another (for sure, the colonial history of certain so-called Christians implied the disappearance of humanitarianism).

Evening Drink with COV&R friends Melbourne 2016Well, one thing became clear on the first evening of the conference. The organizers not only provided the participants with a great reception and dinner, they indeed also promised copious food for thought.

THURSDAY, 14 JULY

The high expectations for the rest of the conference were already met on the second day. Religion and Violence in Girard’s Mimetic Theory, the second plenary session, saw Prof. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Dr. Sarah Bachelard and Dr. Chris Fleming engage in a discussion with Girard’s thought to approach modern politics and contemporary social phenomena.

Jean-Pierre Dupuy COV&R 2016From the lectures of Prof. Dupuy and Dr. Bachelard I became more aware of the difference between the terror of today’s violent extremism on the one hand, and the terror of “the fear of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction)” by a nuclear war during the Cold War on the other. During the Cold War, the threat of total annihilation served as a third party, a non-human entity (an exteriorization of violence) to which both the US and the USSR bowed. A “cold war” thus resulted in a “hot peace” (a nuclear peace). Today’s suicidal terrorists, however, don’t fear annihilation in any way. So the threat of annihilation as a means to establish an ever precarious peace doesn’t work. This means that we are challenged to look for other attempts to create peace which don’t alienate us from “the best of ourselves”.

Prof. Dupuy also made an intriguing remark on the relationship between “victim” and “crowd”. While the old sacred is based on the gathering of an undifferentiated crowd around a sacrificial victim (or a series of victims), today’s violent extremism basically consists of one or more murderous suicidal subjects who attack and disperse an undifferentiated crowd. Dupuy therefore considers modern terrorism as a sham or simulacrum of the foundational event (of the old sacred). The UNANIMITY of the crowd is swapped for the ANONIMITY of the crowd. Instead of containing violence, the self-sacrifice of the suicide terrorist implies not contained violence. In one of the concurrent sessions I attended, The Sham Incarnation of the Antichrist: Some Girardian Dimensions, Prof. Thomas Ryba pointed to the difference between the dynamic of Christ and its “satanic” reversal, which joins the thought of Dupuy from a Christian perspective. Jesus is one who is willing to die for all (because he refuses the sacrifice of others to save himself), while a suicide terrorist wants all to die for one (for the purpose of his self-aggrandizement).

Dr. Fleming concluded the second plenary session by pointing to an interesting (mimetically opposing) parallel between the political left and right when it comes to interpreting violent extremism. Depending on the external features of the violent extremists in question, both the political left and right easily replace structural theories with theories of agency in explaining human behavior. For instance, the right tends to explain the violence of a Muslim shooter from the ideological structure that is Islam, while the left in this case generally claims that the problem lies in the individual and not in Islam. The reverse will happen in the case of a white (Christian) shooter, for instance. In other words, from a certain political left, Islam structurally remains something pure and worthy of protection by scapegoating an individual agent, i.e. the Muslim shooter. On the other hand, from a certain political right, Christianity structurally remains something pure and worthy of protection by, once again, scapegoating an individual agent, this time a Christian shooter. Contenders on both sides would try to generalize the disposition of one agent to a collective disposition of THE Muslim or THE Christian, or even THE believer (if certain atheists were to be believed). If you belong to a certain group and you want to protect the image of purity of that group, you might attribute the terrorist behavior of one of your own to specific circumstances explaining the erratic behavior of that individual. So there are different levels of attribution (see attribution theory in social psychology, click here) in all these cases.

In any case, it seems that violent extremists try to escape the limits of human existence by committing “non-negotiable” acts which make them feel like gods. In the words of Fleming, “gods don’t need politics.” Which made me suddenly think about the saying, “All’s fair in love and war…” A reflection that is to be continued, for sure.

The third plenary session, on the evening of the second day, was a lecture by Prof. Asma Afsaruddin, Islam and Violence: Debunking Myths. She gave a challenging assessment of the relationship between Islam and violence, stressing the point that poor religious education and a very limited understanding of Islam facilitate the connection between Islam and violence. Once again, removing a religion like Islam from serious public and academic debate and leaving it to the hands of self-declared imams on the worldwide web seems like a very bad idea. I can only highly recommend the work of Prof. Afsaruddin to clear some important misconceptions.

FRIDAY, 15 JULY

The first plenary session on Friday morning started with some turmoil. Prof. Wolfgang Palaver, Prof. Greg Barton and Dr. Julian Droogan eventually talked about Religious Extremism, Terrorism and Islam. Their session, sadly enough, was all the more topical since news of a terrorist attack in Nice, France, on Bastille Day had just arrived. Prof. Greg Barton came in a bit late because he was asked, being a counter-terrorist expert, about his first thoughts on the attack for Australian TV.

Dr. Droogan began his lecture by describing the main conceptual problems with “radicalization” as an explanatory tool for violent extremism. Again, also in this lecture, some common assumptions were challenged:

  • The assumption that violent extremism is caused by radical beliefs is not born out by research that suggests that violent extremism is more often supported by social dynamics and perceptions of identity.
  • By assuming that it is radical ideas that primarily lead people to violent extremism, an easy assumption is made linking religious or political concepts as the primary drivers of violence.
  • De-radicalization? It is a difficult and sensitive task to convince an individual to make changes to cognitive beliefs especially when these are tied to a person’s identity / reinforced through social networks.

So de-radicalization programs which merely focus on “ideas” won’t work, since violent extremism has more to do with building an identity than with ideology as such.

No wonder then that violent extremists like ISIS find their most ardent supporters in youth groups, traditionally groups in the midst of developing their identity. As Droogan pointed out, a 2014 ICM poll revealed that more than 25 % of French youth (of all religions and backgrounds between the ages of 18 and 24) had a favorable attitude towards ISIS.

The man who killed 84 people in Nice by driving a lorry through a crowd, 31 year old Tunisian delivery man Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, clearly had identity and social issues as well. Dr. Droogan presented the profile of an ISIS fighter in the western diaspora, containing characteristics that would prove to be true for this terrorist too (inserted information about the Nice killer comes from BBC News, in italics):

Young – grew up in the post 9/11 world of counter terrorism and “clash of civilizations” rhetoric.

75 % joined Al Qaeda or ISIS through friends – social networks.

Almost 25 % joined through family or acquaintances.

Speak of the importance of finding meaning in their lives – a search for meaning and identity.

Very rare that parents were at all aware of their children’s desire; international affairs, foreign policy or terrorism not discussed at home.

Lahouaiej-Bouhlel last visited Tunisia four years ago, people in his hometown Msaken told the BBC’s Rana Jawad. They said many people knew his family and were shocked by his actions. “We remember him as a normal person from a wealthy family,” a town resident told her.

Mostly youth in transitional stages of their lives:

Students

Immigrants

Between jobs

Between relationships

Police say Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was married with three children, although he no longer lived with his wife. She was detained for questioning by police on 15 July but has since been released. A woman who knows the family told the BBC Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had been thrown out of their home in the Le Ray area of Nice more than a year ago after allegedly beating his wife.

Left or about to leave their family

Looking for new family or friends or community of like-minded passionate idealists

Mostly youth who are deeply concerned with finding meaning, value and significance in their lives, and have a commitment to action

Examinations of Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s browsing history showed he had carried out research for his attack. On 1 July he searched for details of the Bastille Day celebrations in Nice as well as videos showing “terrible” fatal traffic accidents. He had also read about recent attacks in Orlando, where a man proclaiming allegiance to IS shot 49 people in a gay nightclub, Dallas, where a black army veteran shot five police officers, and Magnanville near Paris, where a French jihadist stabbed two police officials to death. In the days before the attack, he twice drove to the Promenade des Anglais in his rented lorry, sold his van and attempted to withdraw money, Mr Molins said. This showed that his act was “premeditated and deliberate”, he said. He reserved the 19-tonne refrigeration lorry on 4 July and collected it on 11 July in Saint-Laurent-du-Var, just west of Nice. During his reconnaissance trips, he sent a selfie photo from the driver’s cabin. Just minutes before launching his attack, he sent text messages asking accomplices to give him more weapons and boasting about having obtained a pistol. He fired that pistol at police during his rampage, before police shot him dead. “Bring more weapons, bring five to C,” one of the messages said. Police are trying to identify who the message was sent to.

No traditional religious education

The Nice killer lived a life “far from religion”, eating pork, taking drugs and indulging in a “wild” sex life, French prosecutor François Molins said.

Some “born again” or “conversion” experience

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the Nice killer had apparently been radicalized very quickly. From 1 July, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel made more or less daily internet searches for verses of the Koran and “nasheeds” – jihadist propaganda chants. He also researched the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr. Investigators found photos of dead bodies and images linked to radical Islamism on his computer, including the flag of so-called Islamic State, the cover of an issue of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo – attacked by gunmen in January 2015 – and photos of Osama bin Laden and Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar. In the eight days leading up to the attack, he grew a beard and told friends this was for “religious reasons”. He also told them he did not understand why IS could not hold territory and showed them a video of a beheading on his mobile phone. In response to their shock, he said he was “used to it”. However, there was no evidence that he had pledged allegiance to any radical groups or had contact with known Islamists.

Those who do practice religious ritual may have been expelled from the mosque for expressing radical political beliefs

Religious Extremism, Terrorism and Islam COV&R 2016As is also clear from the research conducted by Prof. Barton, many of the recent terrorists have a history of violence and petty crime.

Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had been in trouble with police between 2010 and 2016 for threatening behaviour, violence and petty theft. In March, a court in Nice convicted him of assaulting a motorist with an improvised weapon – a wooden pallet – during an altercation. He was given a six-month suspended prison sentence and ordered to contact police once a week, which he did. Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was “never flagged for signs of radicalization”, officials say, and he was not on France’s “Fiche S” high-security watch list. The majority of attacks carried out in the country since January 2015 have been staged by men designated “Fiche S”, and also linked to IS. In 2014, IS spokesman Mohammed al-Adnani told supporters in an audio message: “If you can’t detonate a bomb or fire a shot, manage by yourself… run them over with your car.” Many of France’s jihadist killers, starting with Mohammed Merah in Toulouse in 2012, also began their journey towards militant Islam as petty criminals.

Dr. Droogan concluded that groups like ISIS capitalize on youth rebelliousness and the search for significance and glory. It should be stressed that the Nice killer, for instance, not only searched the web for “jihadist” terror attacks, but also looked at shootings like the one in Dallas, where a black army veteran shot five police officers. He was apparently interested in violent acts that would put him in the spotlight and give him a sense of significance, no matter under what flag. The Nice killer thus showed signs of the “copycat effect” (a mimetic phenomenon, indeed): sensational media exposure about violent suicides and murders results in more of the same through imitation. Moreover, the Nice killer apparently had mental issues as well. Add this to the equation and you might get a very explosive, dangerous mindset.

A psychiatrist, Chamseddine Hamouda, carried out a mental assessment of the killer a few years ago after his father became concerned about his “troubling behaviour of a psychotic nature”. “He was a stranger to himself,” Mr Hamouda said. “I advised his parents that he needed treatment. At the time he exhibited violent behaviour towards his family… I’m sure that in the past 12 years something else happened that perhaps influenced how he thought.”

In short, ISIS is one of possible organizations, and a popular one at that, which provide an outlet for people who became extremely violent. These violent tendencies mainly have other causes than some twisted ideology. The allegiance with a twisted ideology should be understood more as a consequence of the obsession to achieve significance, attention or recognition through a highly publicized act of violence.

ProfSolidarity with France & Nice (because of terror attack) in Melbourne. Wolfgang Palaver’s contribution for this plenary session was all the more challenging as it highlighted the inspiration Islamic tradition itself could provide to create a more peaceful world. Prof. Palaver situated Islam within the Abrahamic tradition’s potential to criticize “sacred” phenomena born from bloody sacrifices. In the words of René Girard, “The peoples of the world do not invent their gods, they deify their victims.” This could be said of the way ISIS glorifies its suicide terrorists as well. In this context Palaver distinguished between the sacred and the holy, the first basically being the false transcendence of idolatry (as in ISIS claimed suicide attacks), while the latter points to the mysterious transcendence of a “God” who is other than the human projections of power. Seems like a grace needed in this ever broken world…

SATURDAY, 16 JULY

The final plenary session again was packed with impulses for further explorations. Prof. Frank Brennan SJ, Assoc. Prof. Kathleen Butler, Archbishop Philip Freier & Ms Naomi Wolfe formed the panel for Religion and Violence in Australian-Indigenous History.

One realization in particular struck me. When white people first came to Australia, they asked themselves whether aboriginals were actually “real human beings”, and tried to think of aboriginals as somewhat being in an animal stage instead. Similarly, however, aboriginals too asked themselves whether white people were actually “real human beings”, thinking of white people as ghosts instead.

I guess there is no greater challenge in human relationships than to think of the other as “other” without, however, situating that “otherness” in “something less” or “something more” than oneself. Idolatry of one’s self-image as “better than others” or of others as “better than myself” only leads to alienation, narcissistic illusions, hypodermic frustrations, self-loathing, hatred of others and eventually violence.

We are limited human beings, and as such we’re always called to the never-ending exploration and acceptance of the mystery we are to ourselves and to each other. Us is a life sizzling with creativity.

This COV&R has only been the third I went to (the first two I attended were in the US – Cedar Falls, 2013 & Saint Louis, 2015), but I must say that I always feel charged with energy when coming back. For this I’m very grateful. I’d like to end this report by explicitly thanking the organizers of all COV&R conferences, on this occasion the organizers of the 2016 COV&R.

So thank you:

COV&R 2016 Gala DinnerACU (Australian Catholic University)

Centre for Public and Contextual Theology (Charles Sturt University)

IMITATIO

THE RAVEN FOUNDATION (Suzanne & Keith Ross)

THE AUSTRALIAN GIRARD SEMINAR (especially Prof. Scott Cowdell, Dr. Chris Fleming, Dr. Joel Hodge, Dr. Carly Osborn, Wojtek Kaftanski)

The Theory of René Girard by Carly Osborn

I’d also like to congratulate Yevgen Galona, Lukasz Mudrak and Elizabeth Culhane for winning the Raymund Schwager Memorial Essay Prize (place one to three, respectively).

Concurrent Session on Madmen COV&R 2016I’d like to thank the lecturers of the concurrent sessions I went to (they were all delightful): Jonathan Cole (The Jihadist Current and the West: The Clash of Conceptuality), Susan Wright (Rekindling a Sacrificial Crisis in the Eucharist: John’s Midrashic Reversal of the ‘Manna’ Metaphors), Chloé Collier (American Presidents and Apocalyptic Discourse: Justifying Violent Foreign Policies in Times of Crisis), Suzanne Ross (Acquisitive Desire in Early Childhood: Rethinking Rivalry in the Playroom), Mathias Moosbrugger (Ignatius of Loyola and Mimetic Theory: Is it a Thing?), Wojtek Kaftanski (Mimesis as the Problem and the Cure: Kierkegaard and Girard on Human Autonomy and Authenticity), Scott Cowdell (A Five-Act Girardian Theo-Drama), David Gore (The Call to Follow Jesus), Thomas Ryba (The Sham Incarnation of the Antichrist: Some Girardian Dimensions), Jeremiah Alberg (Forbidding What We Desire; Desiring What We Are Forbidden – Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue *), Diego Bubbio (The Self in Crisis: A Mimetic Theory of Mad Men), Paul Dumouchel (About Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing).Dekalog Kieslowski

* In his presentation on Kieslowski’s The Decalogue, Prof. Jeremiah Alberg mentioned that the co-scenarist for these groundbreaking movies, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, declared that his ideas are based on the books of René Girard. Something to look at more thoroughly in the future. For more on this, click here: Krzysztof Kieslowski – Jeux interdits – Essai sur le Décalogue de Kieslowski (extrait), Yves Vaillancourt (pdf).

Finally, I’d like to thank every single participant for making this a warm, loving gathering as well, with an ever present spirit of kindness and friendship. I’m already looking forward to the COV&R of 2017, in Madrid.

Lunch Field Trip COV&R 2016COV&R 2016 participantsLunch & Wine Tasting Field Trip COV&R 2016