Community Conversation notes

Brite Divinity School, March 31, 2005

Charles Bellinger



I. “religion causes violence”


I begin with a quotation from a book called Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer. The book tells the story of Dan Lafferty, a Mormon fundamentalist who murdered his sister-in-law and her toddler. Lafferty claimed that God had commanded him to commit the murders:


Although the far territory of the extreme can exert an intoxicating pull on susceptible individuals of all bents, extremism seems to be especially prevalent among those inclined by temperment or upbringing toward religious pursuits. Faith is the very antithesis of reason, injudiciousness a crucial component of spiritual devotion. And when religious fanaticism supplants reasoning, all bets are suddenly off. Anything can happen. Absolutely anything. Common sense is no match for the voice of God—as the actions of Dan Lafferty vividly attest.

            It is the aim of this book to cast some light on Lafferty and his ilk. If trying to understand such people is a daunting exercise, it also seems a useful one—for what it may tell us about the roots of brutality, perhaps, but even more for what might be learned about the nature of faith.[1]


There are so many philosophical errors in this passage that it is difficult for me to know where to begin in criticizing them. I will merely content myself with the observation that the author seems to have begun writing his book with a definition of the word “faith” already in place in his thinking. And his research did not cause him to question the validity or the simplistic nature of that definition in even the tiniest way. He seems to assume that anyone who claims to be religious or who uses religious language is a person of “faith.” The key concept that is missing from the author’s vocabulary is obviously idolatry. If the two uses of the word “faith” in the above quotation were replaced with the word “idolatry,” the force of what I’m saying would come through very clearly. The concept of idolatry means that a person can be “religious” in an outward or superficial sense, while remaining inwardly unfaithful to God. A person can appear to be religious and yet live in a state of profound existential rebellion against God. This rebellion will lead the person to invent a new image of God that is projected out of the person’s own warped mind. This is clearly the case with the murderer that Krakauer describes and also with the 9/11 hijackers. The concept of idolatry is not new; it was articulated very clearly in the Torah and developed at length in the words of the Prophets. It forms the basis of the Ten Commandments. Yet even today there are many people whose small-minded vision of the world cannot comprehend the concept of idolatry.


The assertion that “religion causes violence” was one aspect of the attempt by the Enlightenment thinkers to undermine and privatize religion in the modern world. That assertion is so lame and has been refuted so thoroughly, that the only people who repeat it today are those whose intellects are so immature and incompetent that they can’t even earn positive reviews from other agnostics and atheists.[2] The most basic flaw in the assertion is that “religion,” whatever that is, is not a “cause” of human behavior. Religion is a product of human behavior, not the other way around. If we want to understand human behavior we need to engage in very thorough psychological study of the human will. But to posit an abstract, amorphous entity such as “religion” as the explanation we are looking for is a move that has no usefulness at all. In other words, while it does not make sense to say that religion causes violence, it does make sense to ask psychological questions about human willing and how it sometimes becomes derailed in the direction of violence. The human will is the “cause,” if we must use that term, of both violence and religion.



II. “violence causes religion”


This observation is the perfect segue into the insight at which we have arrived. The assertion “religion causes violence” can be turned on its head: violence causes religion. In other words, human beings are violent (for reasons that are best understood psychologically), and religion is one cultural form that we have invented for channeling, controlling, limiting, and perhaps giving meaning to, our violence. Of course, the state is another cultural form that we have invented to do much the same thing, which partially explains the perennial tension involved in the relationship between “church and state.”


The notion that “violence causes religion” is one way of summarizing the very influential theory of violence put forward by Rene Girard.[3] He argues that the root of human behavior is mimetic, or imitative, or competitive desire. We want to possess things because we see that other people possess those things. We feel diminished and inferior if we do not have what they have. Because our desire is mimetic, we enter into rivalrous relationships with others. Rivalry leads to conflict, struggle, violence. Because society as a whole uses mimetic desire as its basic animating principle, and this leads to conflict, then there is a danger of social meltdown: a war of all against all. Girard argues that the "plan" human culture has devised to escape from this trap utilizes a "scapegoat mechanism." The members of a society can tacitly agree to channel their violent impulses in the direction of a hapless victim who becomes a lightning rod for the cathartic discharge of violence. An individual or a minority group within society is lynched by a mob so that the animosity and competitiveness that was threatening to undo society is transformed into a new sense of unanimity of purpose. This newly found sense of peace, when before there had been strife, is experienced as salvific. Out of the ashes of the violent lynching there thus arises a new mythology or religion that contains within it a distorted memory of the event of scapegoating. This memory must be distorted because the crowd cannot possibly become fully aware of what it is doing.


Notice the basic structure of Girard’s theory of violence: he is arguing very clearly that religion is an aftereffect of human violence. The roots of this violence need to be interpreted using psychological concepts. The concept of idolatry is present in Girard’s thought, as that term is another way of expressing the mythology or religion that arises out of the event of scapegoating. In other words, Girard recognizes very clearly that human culture is a factory that produces idols—idols that live off the blood of victims. Human culture is a vampire that never dies.



III. “religion overcomes violence by comprehending it and liberating the human spirit from its grip”


But is this all that we can say about the relationship between religion and violence? It is not, because we have been spoken to by God, the God we come to know through the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. The true God, who is not an idol of our imagination, can free us from the grip of the scapegoat mechanism. Thus we need to consider a third assertion in addition to “religion causes violence” and “violence causes religion.” This third assertion is that “religion overcomes violence by comprehending it and liberating the human spirit from its grip.” If we replace the word “religion” in this assertion with the word “faith,” then we have a much more viable definition of faith than the one used by Mr. Krakauer above. Faith needs to be understood in a substantive and normative way. An individual is a “person of faith” if he or she is in a trusting and growing relationship with the Creator whose will seeks the flourishing of human life. If a person shows through their actions a rejection of the value of their own life and the lives of their neighbors on this planet, then they are demonstrating that they are not a person of faith. Instead, they are an idolater whose actions spring from a rejection of the call of creation and the command to love God, to love oneself, and to love one’s neighbor.


To say that faith overcomes violence by comprehending it means that human beings are not condemned to live in eternal ignorance regarding their own psychology. We can actually understand, to a great extent, why we do what we do. This knowledge is a gift given to us by the Bible when we read it with eyes that have been tutored by perceptive interpreters such as Girard and Kierkegaard.[4] In other words, the wide variety of ways in which our psyches become twisted and warped as a result of our misrelationship with our Creator can and already have been mapped out. Violence is not a phenomenon that is opaque and mysterious; it has already been well understood by various thinkers. But this understanding has not been conveyed to human culture in general, which means that we are in a situation analogous to 1500s when Copernicus had already made his breakthrough in understanding, but it had not yet become common knowledge.


The second part of the last assertion is that “faith liberates the human spirit from the grip of violence.” I use the word “spirit” here intentionally because this event of which we are speaking is the work of the Holy Spirit. What Girard has described as the scapegoat mechanism has another name, a proper name, in fact: Satan. When Blacks were lynched in the South by the KKK, that was the work of Satan. When the Nazis rounded up Jews and herded them into death camps, that was the work of Satan. When members of one Rwandan tribe slaughtered members of another tribe, that was the work of Satan. When planes were flown into buildings in New York City, that was the work of Satan. Satan does not have horns and hooves, but he is real. He is present whenever human beings misuse their free will to destroy other human beings in defiance of God’s intention for the protection and flourishing of human life. Satan is the Accuser, the one who seeks to lead human beings into the endless spiral of hypocritical accusation, violence, and revenge. The Holy Spirit is the Attorney for the Defense. The Holy Spirit leads persons out of the trap that is idolatrous human culture. The Holy Spirit completes the work of the Son, Jesus Christ, whose death on the cross unveiled the false accusation that is always hurled at the crowd’s scapegoat: “You are guilty. You deserve to die.” Jesus was not guilty. He did not deserve to die. That simple observation, which forms the backbone of the Gospels, is the word that overturns the falsity and idolatry of human culture. The fact that we can see these things with greater and greater clarity is a sign of the work of the Holy Spirit in our day, which is touching us and releasing us from the grip of violence.





[1] Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (New York: Doubleday, 2003), xxiii.

[2] See, for example, Chris Lehmann, “Among the Non-Believers: The Tedium of Dogmatic Atheism,” which harshly reviews The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, by Sam Harris. accessed March 16, 2005.

[3] See Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001).

[4] See Charles Bellinger, The Genealogy of Violence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).