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Intimacy of religion and violence

Without doubt one of the big issues of our time is how to deal with violence inspired by religion. Underlying this is the thorny issue of understanding the connection between religion and violence.

Popular analysis of this is highly polarised. Believers tend to say their religion fosters peace, and anyone committing violence in the name of religion is not a true member of that faith. Non-believers — the new atheists are the most strident members of this camp — tend to argue the opposite, that religion is one of the main causes of violence.

French-born philosopher, Rene Girard, now in his mid-80s and living in the USA, is increasingly recognised as providing a cogent framework for understanding the connection between religion and violence.

In fact, his insights into violence — part of an all-embracing theory encompassing the beginnings and development of human culture, language and religion — are so lauded that he has been called a modern day prophet. And when he was admitted to the highly prestigious Academie Francaise in 2005, one prominent academic even called him the Charles Darwin of the human sciences.

This interview on Eureka Street TV is with one of the world's leading exponents of Girard's philosophy, Austrian lay Catholic theologian, Wolfgang Palaver. It was recorded at a conference on Girard held at the University of Sydney earlier this year, and is the first of two conversations with Girardian experts.

Girard argues there is an intimate connection between religion and violence, so much so that the two were the main drivers of the beginnings and evolution of human language and culture. He makes his argument in a number of steps.

Firstly he says that what inspires human desires is imitation, or mimesis of others. This is how we work out not only what we desire, the goods we want, but also what we want to be and what we want to become. On the positive side, this is how and why we learn and develop. But on the down side it leads to jealousy, even to deadly rivalry, and this is the base cause of the conflict and violence that has plagued human society.

He goes on to observe that in the earliest human communities, the very first religions developed in an effort to deal with this conundrum of rivalry and violence. All primordial religions revolved in one way or another around establishing a sacrificial victim which ameliorated the violence — what he calls 'the scapegoat mechanism' — and the divinising of this victim.

And finally Girard saw in the biblical tradition, and particularly in Christianity, a further development in religion in that it sided with the victim rather than with the powerful who create the scapegoat, thus creating a potent tool for defusing rivalry, conflict and violence.

Wolfgang Palaver had unlikely beginnings for his work as a professional Catholic theologian. His parents were not church goers, and he wasn't brought up as a Christian. But when he was nine, they put him into a Franciscan boarding school where he remained for four years, after which he went to a technical high school.

In his late teenage years, he was attracted to the Catholic youth movement, and through this, to activism for peace. In the mid 1970s Palaver became one of Austria's first legal conscientious objectors, opting out of compulsory military service and doing community work instead. He began studying theology, with a focus on theories of peace and conflict which drew him to the work of Rene Girard.

He is now Chair of the Institute of Systematic Theology at the University of Innsbruck, and is a member of the university's research group on World Order, Religion and Violence. He's much in demand as a speaker, and has written a number of books including Rene Girard: Violence and Religion and Rene Girard's Mimetic Theory. 

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Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant with a master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.

Topic tags: Peter Kirkwood, Wolfgang Palaver, religious violence, Rene Girard