Saturday, July 28, 2007

Bloodlust and restoration

Roger Scruton has an essay in this month's Prospect that doesn't seek to take on Hitchens, Dawkins, et al head-on, but does seek to address a question that militant athiests answer inadequately at best: why is religion so widespread, if not necessary?

Scruton's answer, expressed through a summary of René Girard's La violence et le sacré (1972) is fundamentally a negative one. Religion is necessary to deal with the violence, sexual competition and resentment that exists in every society and is a consequence of people living together. Its true origin

is in acts of communal violence. Primitive societies are invaded by "mimetic desire," as rivals struggle to match each other's social and material acquisitions, so heightening antagonism and precipitating the cycle of revenge. The solution is to identify a victim, one marked by fate as outside the community and therefore not entitled to vengeance against it, who can be the target of the accumulated bloodlust, and who can bring the chain of retribution to an end. Scapegoating is society's way of recreating "difference" and so restoring itself. By uniting against the scapegoat, people are released from their rivalries and reconciled. Through his death, the scapegoat purges society of its accumulated violence. The scapegoat's resulting sanctity is the long-term echo of the awe, relief and visceral re-attachment to the community that was experienced at his death.

His argument is that religion is not the cause of this violence, but the necessary means of dealing with it. The violence is a given; religion is a ritual for channelling and bringing it to closure.

A practicing Christian quotes a Catholic author. Obviously, the abstract 'scapegoat' here will lead to the ultimate scapegoat, Christ, so the argument seems a little restrictive.

However, there are other, more pragmatic, reasons for taking religion seriously, not the least of which is the need, if you are Hitchens or Dawkins, to dismiss as gullible fools the vast majority of human beings living and dead. I'd be hesitant to go down that road.

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