Girard on the Origin of Religion

Okay, this post eventually is about this documentary clip (from a previous post – click here for Monkey Business):

Rest assured, I’m getting there, but I have to tell a little story first…

watching a soap opera (Pacheco Mexican family)Mary was watching a soap opera on a big screen TV in the living room. Her brother, Martin, came in and joined her on the sofa. “You know, there’s a lecture by Stephen Hawking on the Discovery Channel right now”, Martin said. And he continued: “It’s his explanation about the origin of the universe. Maybe we can watch it together?” “Oh, come on Martin”, his sister replied, “that’s so boring; I’d rather watch this soap, it’s really exciting and I’m curious how that new girl character will overcome the break up with her boyfriend…”

We can all imagine this type of situation. More often than not, people choose to enjoy stories that allow them to identify with certain characters and events over a desire to explain things. Most of us are no Nobel Prize winning scientists. Flash back to prehistoric times: would our so-called primitive ancestors be any different? I’ve always wondered why we would accept the notion that religion and belief in spirits and gods arose out of prehistoric man’s innate desire to explain things. I can imagine prehistoric man trying to survive in an often hostile, barren environment. I can also imagine prehistoric man, further on in evolution, listening to (sometimes contradictory) mythical stories that express and justify a certain world-view and way of doing things, allowing him to develop a sense of identity within his tribe (see the quote by the Indigenous Peoples of California below). But I cannot imagine prehistoric man as a would-be scientist. It goes against a day-to-day experience and observation of myself and fellow human beings.Indigenous Peoples of California (Quote on Storytelling) Showbizz websites with spectacular stories about celebrities get more views than academic websites…

I know that an argument based on intuition and personal experience might not be very convincing, but there are other problems connected to the idea that animism or primitive religion arose out of prehistoric man’s desire to explain things. Consider for a moment a reasoning that often goes something like this: “Because primitive man had not yet developed science, he tried to explain the world in which he lived by spiritual, invisible or supernatural forces…” The problem is that this reasoning already somewhat presupposes the belief in a spiritual or supernatural realm to explain the origins of such a belief. That’s a circular argument that, in this case, actually doesn’t explain anything about the origin of religion. Of course it is true that religion has been used to explain things, but before it can function like that it has to already exist. It is not because electricity has been used to bring trains into motion that electricity originated from the desire “to move trains”. It is not because religion has been used to explain things that religion arose from the desire “to explain”. And, once again, early mythology and storytelling is not concerned with the question “What really happened?” They are considered true in another sense, namely in that they (“archetypically”) express and mold life experiences and views on life.

Indian Storytelling (stories are true)

So let’s consider René Girard’s idea again that primitive religion arose out of certain associations made concerning the victims of group violence. From this point of view, it is no coincidence that sacrificial rituals belong to the oldest expressions of religious behavior. Moreover, seen from Girard’s perspective, it is no coincidence that creation myths or myths of heroes from all over the world contain the theme of sacrifice as a way to establish, renew or preserve a world order.

René Girard considers the very first sacrificial rituals as imitations of a scapegoat mechanism in groups of primitive humans whose internal (mimetic) rivalry threatened to destroy the group itself. Primitive human societies experienced the killing of one member of their group by a significant part of the community as something which restored calm and order. This must have happened so much in primitive human societies that they started making certain associations.

On the one hand primitive societies experience turmoil as long as ‘the common enemy’ is alive, while on the other hand they experience peace after he is beaten to death. Gradually they will associate new situations of disorder with the resurgence of a former victim of group violence. In other words, they experience a person who is not visibly present anymore, but whose presence is ‘felt’ in situations of turmoil. In other words still, one of the former victims of group violence has become a ‘ghost’ or a ‘god’. At the same time, primitive human societies also ‘learn’ that killing someone apparently restores order. So together with the belief in ghosts and gods considered responsible for all kinds of possible violent disasters, the belief originates concerning the effectiveness of sacrifices to restore, renew or keep order, life and stability in human society. If primitive societies would have seen that the victims of group violence are no more responsible for violence than other members of the group, they would not have developed these beliefs. Violence became something sacred because the victims of group violence were considered exclusively responsible for the violence they were associated with. Those victims were, in other words, scapegoats.

ancient human sacrificeGirard argues that all other associations regarding ‘the sacred’ rest on this first association between violence and divinized victims of group violence. Everything that can be associated with violence had the potential to become sacred or divinized as well. Sexuality became sacred. Indeed, sometimes males fight over females. Food became sacred. Indeed, people fight over food sometimes. Territory  became sacred. Indeed, people go to war sometimes because of territory. Nature as a whole became sacred. Indeed, natural disasters are ‘violent’ and provoke violence if they cause lack of food and water… And so the world and the experience of man became sacred.

Religions came and went, but the age-old associations regarding the sacred were transmitted down the generations, albeit in varying forms (human sacrifice becoming animal sacrifice, for instance). The Greeks still had Ares, god of war, as they had their goddess of love, Aphrodite. The Romans copied (indeed, ‘imitated’) the Greeks and spoke of Mars and Venus.

Asked why they perform their rituals and sacrifices and why they respect their taboos, primitive societies always answer: “Because our ancestors did it, and because we have to respect the ghosts and the gods in order to sustain our community…”

Could it really be true that the structure of ancient human sacrifice goes back to a mechanism that can still be observed in our ape cousins? And that this mechanism provides the foundation of the archaic sacred? Is it far-fetched to suspect that the former fact (the structure of ancient human sacrifice, which begins with a fight!) has something to do with the latter fact (the scapegoat mechanism)?

Pavlov DogGirard has argued that the dividing line between human and ape lies in the way mimetic quarrels became a fearful threat to the survival of primitive human communities (it is no surprise that prehistoric massacre mass graves exist – click here for an example). Precisely because the mimetic ability of humans grew, their tendency towards near uncontrollable mimetic rivalry increased likewise. Hence it became possible that humans began to make associations that their ape cousins could not make regarding the communal killing of a group member. Compare to Pavlov’s dog: a dog who has only arbitrarily or sporadically heard a signal while getting food will not drool if he hears the signal, while Pavlov’s dog who has systematically heard the signal while getting food will at some point start to drool from the moment he merely hears the signal… Apes won’t associate turmoil with a victim, while primitive humans will start to do exactly that at some point. The consequences can be suspected: primitive humans will start to consciously ritualize the scapegoat mechanism, while apes only experience this mechanism sporadically. The above posted fragment of a documentary on monkeys shows a powerful example of the mechanism. The monkeys gather around the corpse of their former leader who has been killed after a fight for control over the group. “They are unusually silent as they gather around…” We can almost observe how it must have been like that ‘a loathed enemy’ became ‘a revered god’. This also explains why gods have a ‘dual’, ‘ambiguous’ quality.They’re good and bad… Good aspects of the gods can be allowed in rituals, while bad aspects of the gods are forbidden and taboo. For instance, sacrifice is a form of ‘good’ (controlled) sacred violence to be distinguished from ‘bad’ sacred violence, which is to be avoided and is taboo…


(with some examples of similar behavior observed in groups of chimpanzees)

Pimu Alpha Male Chimpanzee killed by fellow chimps Mahala Park Tanzania 2011