Mimetic Theory and the Science of Religion

The French-American literary critic, religious scholar, anthropologist and philosopher René Girard (b.1923) is known today as one of the more influential and controversial contemporary thinkers. During the course of forty-five years he has developed an interdisciplinary cultural theory based on research in the field of literary theory, anthropology, the science of religion, philosophy, psychology and theology. In the early 1990’s an international colloquium (Colloquium on Violence & Religion) was founded where scholars, mainly from USA and Europe began to meet once a year to explore and develop mimetic theory. Girard’s theory has become quite influential within the field of literature and theology. And, within the science of religion, his theory on victimization has been well received.

However, there have been very few attempts to place and compare Girard's religious thinking within the context of the science of religion as such. And perhaps it is here Girardian theory primarily belongs - more than in literature, anthropology, psychology or theology. It is, however, important to have in mind that people dealing with the religious parts of Girard’s theory tend to focus mainly on the scapegoat mechanism, while the force which engenders scapegoating, mimetic desire, seems to be neglected.

Let me begin by giving a short introduction to how Girard interprets religion. His system is extremely ambitious as he tries to re-think the founding principles of human culture from basically two structures: mimetic desire and the scapegoat mechanism. According to Girard, his system has been developed at a most inconvenient time. The great systems, which flourished in the 19th century, appear to have vanished with Freud. Today there is an immense scepticism surrounding this kind of thought.

Girard’s system is a scientific hypothesis. On a par with Darwin’s hypothesis of evolution Girard’s aim is to provide a coherent theory on cultural origin and development. He does not claim to have found the only truth concerning human development, but he postulates a hypothesis, capable of integrating a number of facts that make historical phenomena plausible.

In La Violence et le sacré (Violence and the Sacred) from 1972, Girard outlines a cultural theory by giving an anthropological interpretation of the sacred in myths and rituals, emphasizing Greek drama. The sacred in Violence and the Sacred is perceived as ways to control the violence in a society of scapegoating. According to Finn Frandsen, Girard projects his theory from the psychological to the cultural. Although he begins, in Violence and the Sacred, by analysing the sacred, mimesis/mimetic desire is introduced and is seen as a force which leads to scapegoating.

In the mimetic delirium which arises when a society is afflicted or in crisis, a frenetic activity arises whereby someone has to be found responsible for this terrible situation, someone who, by being sacrificed, can restore peace. In other words, sacrifice has to come about in order to prevent a disintegrating society dissolving into violence. The conflicts, caused by mimetic desire, can reach apocalyptic dimensions where the all-against-all finds a solution in all-against-one. The choice of scapegoat can be arbitrary, but it tends to be someone marginal, who differs from the community or has some kind of weakness. This means that it may be a foreigner, a child, a woman, somebody with a physical or psychological deficiency. But it could also mean someone of high rank, for example, in some cultures, the sacrifice of a king. According to Girard, the most primitive and basic sacrifice was probably made spontaneously, in a raw and unconscious manner. Gradually it became more conscious and ritualistic. Thus there has been a certain evolution from violent to less violent types of sacrifices.

Not only the rituals but also the myths reflect this violence. From a mimetic reading of myths, Girard claims that all myths originate in this collective violence. Myths try, in different ways, to hide the violence, often by a transformation of this same violence. The last thing a writer of myths will admit is the guilt and wrongdoing of the community's violence. Myths are written from the community's point of view, meaning the sacrificers’ point of view. In this respect myths have a legitimising effect on society. But usually the immolation is transformed into something fantastic and heroic. The victim is very often divinised, which indicates that the community cannot bear its own violence.

Myths try to cover up violence. But, at the same time, myths can, when interpreted rationally, from an anti-sacrificial and de-mythologized point of view, be read as texts of victimizing. Myths, usually, in a hidden way, refer to some sort of violent origin. It is from such a suspicious reading Girard uses mythical texts to discover and uncover collective violence. In this way myths can be seen as an attempt to hide reality. Myths both displace and refer to violence in a society. According to Girard, violence is the force which displaces and mythologizes reality. Seen in this perspective violence is the birth of culture, since expulsion creates difference and division, an inside and an outside, a them-and-us, a society.


Religion expresses this birth of culture in a logical way. In order to prevent a community from going under in violence, one establishes a surrogate victim in order to re-establish peace. In this way religion upholds society.  And because the victim is capable of bringing peace, he/she/it is often divinised. Sacrificial religion is therefore a force capable of bringing order to a society, an order which is peace-oriented yet requires violence. In this respect the community does not worship the killing, but the peace which is a consequence of the killing. One might say that Girard defines religion as the attempt to prevent violence by the aid of the surrogate victim.

The Relevance of Mimetic Theory in the Science of Religion

Mimesis seen from a Girardian point of view is the force governing all human relationships and cultural life. The hypothesis that people are mimetic had been scarcely elaborated before Girard’s theory had been worked out (and it is still in the process of being worked out). And Girard's main hypothesis: culture is formed by mimetic desire and thereby transformed into scapegoating, indicates a new theory on cultural origins and development. Before Girard's work, neither mimetic desire nor the scapegoat mechanism had been given any central position in explaining the principles governing people and culture.

Thinking religion as a part of mimetic desire means thinking religion primarily as a force exerting an influence in society. Religious thought devoid of mimesis may mean missing out on certain generative aspects of religion and, simultaneously, convey the somewhat exotic feeling of something vaguely distant, important perhaps for understanding people in the past or from more primitive backgrounds, but not something that really grasps the structures of daily existence. Rituals, myths, sacrifice, evil, apocalypse, which are typical religious motifs, have often been seen as metaphysical concepts and autonomous ideas, devoid of any mimetic structure. These phenomena should be seen as being linked to one another, as well as to other less central religious phenomena. Mimetic desire could be interpreted as one way of mediating such phenomena. In the field of theology there seems to be a similar problem with regard to introducing mimesis. The study of rites, myth, sacrifice, sin, evil and so on are usually regarded, if imitative at all, then imitative in a Platonic way, and therefore presented as representations. But rites, myths, sin, evil and other religious motifs, might turn out to be more concrete and relevant if related to desire and acquisition.

This, however, does not mean that mimesis will necessarily bridge the gap between religious studies and secular culture – although I think it could have beneficial effects, perhaps even reinvigorating the study of religion by integrating the cultural context into a more religious mode of thinking, and vice versa.

Mimetic Theory and Phenomenology

Mimetic desire is clearly related to phenomenology. A phenomenological approach, in the same way as mimetic theory, is focused exclusively on essential relations and structures and not on particular facts or events as such. Neither phenomenology nor mimetic theory is focused on factual accounts of origins.  Also the act of acquiring phenomena in intentional acts corresponds to the acquisitive way in which mimesis operates. However, Husserl’s scientific ideal seems so divorced from social reality that its method needs to be supplemented. Especially in the context of interpreting mimetic theory, phenomenology lacks a centre and a relational system. Husserl’s understanding of the psychic structures in humans, the access to immanent experiences, would, from a Girardian point of view, be seen as resulting from mimetic desire. Both Husserl and Girard see motivation as taking place in the mind and are somewhat reluctant to explain motivation and desire biologically.

The trend in the phenomenology of religion has been to divide the sacred and the profane into two different compartments, thus preventing one of approaching religious phenomena as a dynamic element in society. By introducing violence, scapegoating and desire as central to religion, mimetic theory tries to enhance the psychological, sociological and anthropological dimension of religion.

Mimetic theory, like most universal theories, deals exclusively with history only when it is relevant to its purpose. In this respect most universal theories on religion are eclectic, using historical evidence whenever it supports empirically a particular theory. Despite the fact that Girard continually refers to history, his theory, especially the more hypothetical parts of it, is, as in the case of Claude Lévi-Strauss, founded on structural history rather than on historic history. Especially his theory on origins is dominated by this kind of hypothetical-structural outlook. Calling mimetic theory a phenomenology of religion would be inaccurate, as it is drastically reductionistic, both in the way that it is highly eclectic and in its claim that religious themes can be explained outside the realm of religion. There is an ontological reduction in mimetic theory which is contrary to the phenomenological ideals of anti-reductionism and pure description. Also mimetic theory is more explanative than descriptive, which is contrary to the ideals in phenomenology.

However, there are phenomenological approaches in mimetic theory. Especially in Girard’s first major work, Deceit, Desire and the Novel, there is a certain phenomenological approach in the way desire is described. In phenomenology, the desire (in the mind) to possess objects is clearly related to desire in mimetic theory. Also, the phenomenological attempt to reach methodically some sort of essence is a characteristic trait of mimetic theory. Mimetic theory, however, both starts and ends in a transcendental and essential understanding of life. And mimesis mediates this transcendence because it can be seen as a mediating force between humans and the divine. Also the victimage mechanism is generated by mimetic desire, and mimetic desire, in my view, is basically a psychological drive. The emphasis on mimetic desire necessarily contains a psychological dimension. The chaos evolving in a society prior to scapegoating is a result of mimetic conflicts, and the violent result is no more than different kinds of mimetic desires colliding and creating turbulence. By laying greater stress on mimesis, the religious dimension in mimetic theory will have more of a psychological touch about it.

Girard’s approach to religion is clearly comparative, especially when it comes to developing an understanding of origin, myths, ritual and, also, the sacred as such. But in contrast to many scholars of phenomenology of religion, Girard has attempted to relate his findings to a philosophy of religion, by aiming to uncover the meaning behind the sacred, the myths and the rituals - despite the fact that he has resisted any attempt to turn these findings into a coherent philosophy of religion. Mimetic theory, however, is developed by consciously omitting a philosphic vocabulary.  Thus, more so than a philosophy of religion, one could label mimetic theory as an anthropology of religion. Firstly, mimetic theory is set against a background of anthropological works, such as Frazer, Tylor, Hubert, Mauss and Lévi-Strauss. Secondly, mimetic theory has been developed through a reading of religious myths and practice and related to a general understanding of how society functions. This understanding, however, is seen through the lens of mimetic desire, which is understood as the basic generative force behind all anthropology.

Religion and Violence

According to Gilhus and Mikaelsson, the three main horizons within which to understand religion are the essentialistic, reductionistic and hermeneutical.  Usually, an essentialistic approach excludes a reductionistic one, and vice versa. But in mimetic theory one could possibly speak of a twofold perspective regarding the essentialistic and reductionistic approach, since religion is both truth and something other than truth, something which the believers claim it to be, but which it is not. Primarily and paradoxically, it is the violent acts of the sacred which blinds people to see what religion really is. Girard's religious approach differs from an essentialistic approach when such an essentialistic approach claims that religious phenomena are something sui generis, something in their own right, which should be viewed only as such. Contrary to this view Girard claims that most religious phenomena can be seen as anthropological, thus referring mainly to something other than what they nominally refer to. Religion can, however, be called essentialistic, since the sacred, the attempt to avoid or modify violence with the aid of the victimage mechanism, refers to peoples' ultimate concern. Also Girard, more eagerly than most religious scholars, underlines the essentialistic character of religion by arguing for the anthropological truths revealed by Jesus’ death.  Despite the fact that Girard’s theory is reductionistic, aiming to demythologize the concepts of violent transcendence, and thereby provide an anthropological explanation for the concepts of violent godheads, those ‘theologies’ which he dismisses can also be labelled essentialistic, in so far as they also deal with religion as an ultimate concern. The act of eradicating violence through violence means that sacrifice is able to create both peace and divinities. Thus, violent theologies are essentialistic without being reductionistic.

By analysing violence in religion, mimetic theory claims that religion is not what the believers claim it to be. Thus religion must be described and understood otherwise than from the believer’s point of view. There must also be a critique of religion. Girardian theory contains such a critique based on revealing the inherent violence in myths, rituals and sacred mentalities. According to mimetic theory, religion is located within society where scapegoating regulates the acts. The more peaceful enactments of religious life are not considered. From this rather reductionistic perspective, mimetic theory cannot be labelled a phenomenology of religion.

Despite its attempt to translate and transfer meaning, mimetic theory does not consist in dismissing religious belief as did Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and other nineteenth- and twentieth-century critics of religion. Although Girardian theory is reductionistic, such ideals as empathy and understanding, so vividly stressed among phenomenologists of religion, are not alien to Girard’s methodological approach. Empathy and understanding, in order to penetrate an essence do correspond, however, to the ideals of earlier phenomenologists such as Scheler and Gründler. The aim in present-day phenomenology of religion, however, is not to investigate the essence of religion, rather the essence of the phenomenology of religion. This will clearly limit what I would call a desire for meaning, and enhance a tendency to focus on diversity and non-meaning.

Girard also seems to give Judaism and Christianity priority in relation to truth, by claiming that they are the religions which most fundamentally have questioned the scapegoat mechanism. The tendency to favour Christianity has also been used as a critique against Eliade, despite Eliade’s attempt to practise epoché, the suspension of beliefs and assumptions as regards other religions. Girard’s apology, though, is pronounced, because he sees the anthropology of the cross as a key to a rational understanding of both humanity and religion. However, he claims that his theory does not presuppose leaps in faith. On the contrary, he claims that his basic analysis is anthropologically sound. This has been eagerly refuted by a number of scholars.

Within the science of religion a certain critique has recently been raised against the tendency (especially in phenomenology of religion) to present religion in a rather sugary way. In the field of the science of religion, there seems to have been greater reluctance to discuss and present religious violence than in other disciplines such as general history and church history, where religious wars and antagonisms are indeed a focus. (This is somewhat surprising. From a populist point of view the theme of violence evokes extraordinary interest among ordinary people, and is often used as the main argument against religion.) The fact that remarkably little work has been done on the destructive sides of religion, within the science of religion, could partly be because there has been a certain reluctance among religious scholars to see religion as part of general history, culture and society. Especially within the phenomenology of religion, not only all religions but also all religious phenomena tend to be presented in a positive and egalitarian manner.

Considering its westernized and imperialistic past combined with the attitude of promoting western people’s superiority (a clear tendency in late nineteen century anthropology, the science of religion and theology) through evolutionary models, such a tendency is understandable. But the question remains as to why religious violence, which is such a common, obvious and fundamental issue, has, until recently, been so neglected? Is it out of fear of ethnocentrism? Is not such an approach also a subjective mentality, an antithesis to the periods of ethnocentrism, and guilt towards one’s ethnocentric past, recently motivated by political correctness? The reluctance to deal with the obvious and highly relevant theme of religious violence, makes one wonder whether there is an underlying desire not to provoke; especially in the west there is a tendency not to provoke contemporary religions other than one’s own. This desire can look at times as though it is competing with and, partly, hindering a more scientific desire to reach a more precise understanding of religious phenomena.

Both Girard’s Violence and the Sacred  and Burkert’s  Homo Necans marked, at the time of their publication (1972), an unorthodox approach to religion by emphasizing violence. Girard’s attempt to uncover violence in religion is perhaps the theme which has had the most immediate impact on the science of religion. Girard’s thesis on how the revealing of the victimage mechanism has created new religious and social orders and enhanced secularization, needs to be further elaborated in order to investigate how religion has been relevant to the formation of cultural institutions. Also, the highly suggestive theme, only hinted at in Deceit, Desire and the Novel (and never pursued in later works), of how an idolized sacred mentality flows over the earth when the imitation of God is substituted by imitation of human models, could bring, if further elaborated, some new insights into the understanding of the relationship between anthropology and religion, invigorating the rather contourless dichotomy between the sacred and the profane. Also, the attempt to compare motifs from the religious and theological approach could give a more complementary insight into different religious themes. This more eclectic approach, where the dogmatic barriers between theology and the science of religion loosen up, seeing their findings as supplemental, as different strategies towards the same goal, could make mimetic theory more relevant as there does not seem to be the same need among scholars of religion and theology today to aggressively preserve their territories in order to be allowed to undertake ‘free research’.

Girard’s attempt to discuss different religious motifs together and view them as relevant to anthropology and the science of religion and theology, could turn out to be enriching, even furthering specific aspects of religious thought on its own premises. Also, the basic understanding of mimetic desire, originally taken from literature, and then transferred to religious motifs, could invigorate the study of religion. This last point I would see as potentially daring (and also necessary) in order to make the study of religion less static, more generative in understanding the dialectical and interchangeable relationship between art and religion as well as between religion and secular culture.

My overall view is that mimetic desire, if it were to become a fundamental part of a generally accepted anthropology, could make religious phenomena more relevant in order to understand how society works. The tendency to establish different compartments for the sacred and the profane has undoubtedly been beneficial as to systematizing different religious phenomena, but it seems to have been a disaster as to understanding the ‘dynamics of faith’ in relation to society.