On religion and violence (i).

A very elderly couple, Abraham and Sarah, have at last a child.  Yet, while still a boy, God demands that Abraham sacrifices the child; only when Abraham shows himself ready to slaughter the boy does God seemingly relent and provide an alternative, a ram caught by its horns in nearby bushes (Genesis 21-22).
This is one of the most famous of all bible stories, and just about the most controversial.  Christian theologians have seen in it a prefiguration of the crucifixion, with the idea being that although God saved, in the end, Isaac, he was prepared to allow his own son to die (the picture of Isaac carrying the wood for the sacrifice is compared with Jesus carrying the cross).  Kierkegaard saw in it the quintessential image of the demands of the holy being super-ethical; for one cannot understand such a demand in moral terms.  
More recently, of course, this story has been taken as the type of the wanton cruelty of the Old Testament God: however could one pretend to base our morality on such a model? ask bewildered/furious "brights". Dawkins in the God Delusion considers this to reveal that God is an evil monster, and a child abusing bully.  But that is really all he says: showing a curious lack of interest about such a striking story.  How was it, after all, that such a story, apparently casting God in such a bad light, and apparently so in conflict with the image of the "good" God that the writers of the OT elsewhere want to convey, could have found its way into the bible?  The same question, of course, might be asked of the "cursing of the fig tree" that appears to cast Jesus in such a bad light (especially as it was not the season for figs!).  How come the final revisers didn't spot the obvious inconsistency?  They were clearly not stupid, after all.  How come that the Commandments say "commit no murder", yet God apparently entices Abraham to do just that?  
Rather than being the occasion for blanket condemnation, I think such apparent inconsistencies call out for explanation; and one that is not just "religious people are too muddled to think clearly".  In fact, one of the most interesting theories about all this is set out in René Girard's remarkable "Violence and the Sacred", which tackles the association of violence and religion head-on.  

For such stories indeed might make sense if seen in a slightly broader perspective, one that acknowledges the centrality of sacrifice in religion.  Again, annoyed atheists see this is all just primitive bloodletting, but this is to entirely miss the point.  The question that Girard poses is: in a society without a justice system (plus the complex infrastructure this implies), how does one prevent violence?  Here is the nightmare scenario.  Two families live close to each other in a tribe.  A member of one of them, caught hunting in the same area as a member of the other, ends up in a violent conflict with him, and kills him.  The members of the wronged family find out and take their revenge by killing someone in the first family.  At this point, violence spirals out of control and mass death occurs on both sides.
We know that this is a plausible scenario because we have seen many instances of these sorts of massacring disasters in recent times.  Note that the prime reason for the perpetuation of the violence is not religion, but rather vengeance; and that, once the cycle of violence starts, it is incredibly hard to stop. We see this pattern over and over again even in the modern world, even in supposedly civilised societies such as America, the UK, and so on.

Paradoxically, Girard thinks that this sort of conflict arises, not because of differences between people, but the collapse of such distinctions: it is when one wants something the other wants that the conflict starts.  And this desire is "mimetic"; ie we want something,  not because of what it is, but simply because someone else wants it too.

Girard's thesis is that sacrifice of someone of something not closely (but not entirely divorced) from the victim of violence satisfies the lust for violence without calling forth revenge; and thus manages to forestall the cycle of violence.  He argues that such practices originated in real events; in particular, during violent convulsions, one eventually finds unanimous scapegoating, where one single person is "discovered" (arbitrarily) to be the "cause" of the violence (of course, this is a deception); and is slaughtered.  And at that point, the mob find themselves strangely at peace and satisfied.  Thus, the sacrificial victim comes to be seen both as the bringer of discord, in their assumed "guilt" for the original violence, and as the figure who also resolves the conflict and brings peace.  Of course, the truth is that the violence lies in the acts of the mob, and have nothing to do with the sacrifice; but this point must be concealed if the sacrifice is to remain effective.  Thus the communal violent origin of sacrifice is concealed as myth; the life-bringing god-like figure of the sacrifice.  Of course, part of the deception is to remove the sacrifice away from the violence, so that we do not spot the connection; so sacrifice becomes engulfed in ritual and becomes stylised.  

Pentheus being ripped apart in the Bacchae by his own mother...

Of course, sacrifice only works for a time; and thus needs regular repetition, and must be surrounded by piety, or it starts to lose its effectiveness.  And indeed, the Old Testament prophets (and the Greek tragedians) regularly bewail such events, that Girard terms the "sacrificial crisis".  It comes about through two ways; either the sacrificial victim becomes too closely associated with the community and thus fails to forestall violent revenge; or it becomes too detached and thus fails to satisfy the need for violence.  

Thus, violence and religion lie at the heart of human culture; although culture (and aesthetics?? Discuss.) is itself a systematic denial of its own violent origins.  But religion is not, in this view, the cause of violence, but the attempt to suppress it, to alleviate its disastrous and all-invasive influence.  Its need for the delicate balance for the scapegoat means that it is not always successful, and it is easy for it to be infected with the very cyclical violence its aim is to appease.  And Girard also argues that Christianity, with its declaration of the innocence of the victim at its heart, rather than mythologising it, turns primitive religion on its head, even though it constantly lapses back into it.  

What is particularly disturbing is how much the scapegoating of the outsider is relevant to today's conflicts.  Anders Rasmussen's blog has a quotation from an Islamic fundamentalist: "Behead those who say Islam is a violent religion."  Whilst I believe that such apparently bizarre comments can be interpreted in the light of Girard's theories, such ironic self-contradictions are also found in the general response to such threats: as usual, violence begets violence.  If *only* we could eliminate the irrational and violent among us, *then* we would have peace!  But this is just scapegoating again, and thus perpetuates the cycle of violence; worse still, it does it under the concealing myth that hides the disgraceful truth: we are the violent and irrational.  The increasing calls for the "control" of the scapegoat - Islam in this case, made by the most rational among us - is just one more tired manifestation of the violence that is the secret of human society.

Finally, here is Girard on Frazer, author of the Golden Bough: but it could just as easily be about Dawkins, Hitchens, or a whole row of other rationalists:

"The modern mind still cannot bring itself to acknowledge the basic principle behind that mechanism  which, in a single decisive movement, curtails reciprocal violence and imposes structure on the community.  Because of this willful blindness, modern thinkers continue to see religion as an isolate, wholly fictitious phenomenon cherished only by a few backward peoples or milieus.  And these same thinkers can now project upon religion alone the responsibility for a violent projection of violence that truly pertains to all societies including our own.  This attitude is seen at its most flagrant in the writing of that gentleman-ethnologist Sir James Frazer. Frazer, along with his rationalist colleagues and disciples, was perpetually engaged in a ritualistic expulsion and consummation of religion itself, which he used as a sort of scape-goat for all human thought.  Frazer, like many another modern thinker, washed his hands of all the sordid acts perpetuated by religion, and pronounced himself free of all taint of superstition.  He was evidently unaware that this act of handwashing has long been recognized as a purely intellectual, nonpolluting equivalent of some of the most ancient customs of mankind.  His writings amount to a fanatical and superstitious dismissal of all the fanaticism and superstition he had spent the better part of a lifetime studying".

Postat av: Bliseezek

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てくせ ビジネス コンサルタント こうちょう すいぎゅう やすうり ぶっかとうき せんしゅけん はやりっこ ゆきあかり ソフト ドリンクス ギャップ とまりこみ てまくら クッション カバー ねんしょう

2013-09-16 @ 03:45:45

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