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Girard is wrong about sacrifice
on October 6, 2005
When I first read Girard's book, I was impressed with his analysis of violence in relation to religion. I admit that his concept of mimesis is fascinating. I even referred to his theory in my own general book on violence and culture (titled, aptly enough, "Violence and Culture" (Wadsworth, 2005).
However, as an anthropologist who has done subsequent research on religion and violence, I have discovered that he is profoundly wrong about his interpretation of violence and the sacred. For one thing, he equates violence with sacrifice. However, sacrifice is not even the earliest or most universal form of religious violence. Hunting and gathering societies--which, you would think, would suffer from the most mimetic desire since there is so little differentiation in those groups--do not practice sacrifice. Rather, as Jonathan Z. Smith has noted, sacrifice almost always involves domesticated species, which could not exist in the earliest (foraging) societies.
Further, religious violence takes many other forms, and an exclusive focus on sacrifice is more than wrong but downright misleading and counterproductive. What about self-mortification, martyrdom, ethno-religious conflict, persecution, as well as the hackneyed topics of terrorism and holy war?
Second, his analysis of sacrifice is incorrect. As a non-anthropologist, perhaps he could not know this. But then, if he does not know the cross-cultural facts, he should not be writing on the subject. As mentioned, sacrifice is NOT the universal religious practice that he thinks it is. For another, most sacrifice has nothing to do with scape-goating; that is one--and a particularly Judeo-Christian--version of it. To impose one religion's conceptions on all religions, or generalize it as characteristic of religion, is ethnocentric and falsifying.
Happily, Girard another specific prediction, in addition to his (false) claim of the universality of sacrifice. He predicts that societies with legal systems to control violence should not engage in sacrifice. This turns out to be completely wrong. The most extensive cases of sacrifice have been associated with complex politically centralized societies, like the Greeks and Romans, the Aztec, the Hawaiians, the Dahomey, and of course the Hebrews. Indeed, sacrifice is often the political act par excellence, the leader's exercise of life and death.
It is very dangerous and unfortunate that this book has been accepted so uncritically. It has set the cross-cultural study of sacrifice, and religious violence in general, back by two or three decades. People think that the definitive analysis of sacrifice has been made, when Girard has described one local version of one small part of religious violence and elevated it to the very essence of both religion and violence. We will look back on this detour with regret.