Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Scruton (with help from Girard) on New Atheism

Saw and read this article by Roger Scruton (hat tip: DailyGoose) on Rene Girard. (Actually the article ranges over a number of topics, many well argued, and then focuses towards the tail end on Girard. I'm only going to focus on Girard for this post...I think Scruton's depiction of Girard is in essentials correct.)

Girard (his wiki is good) was famous (infamous?) for his theory of scapegoating and its role in diminishing violence rather than in increasing it. Scruton uses this to point out that the brand of New Atheists has missed this point completely, saying in effect religion is the cause of all evil.

Here is how Scruton summarizes Girard (good summary):
And like Nietzsche, Girard sees the primeval condition of society as one of conflict. It is in the effort to resolve this conflict that the experience of the sacred is born. This experience comes to us in many forms—religious ritual, prayer, tragedy—but 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.

Now regarding Girard's theories (memetic desire, scapegoating), I do not think he is wrong just not the final truth on the matter.

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Because, among other things, Girard veers towards a kind of anthropological reductionism towards religion. He does not go as far in that direction as say Emile Durkheim, but he is heading that way I think. Girard sees himself more as theologian, but his writings leave open a reductionistic trend I think. He is not, but it's to see how one could easily take his writings in that light (Scruton as example?).

But by using Girard to counter New Atheism, Scruton only gets it half-right (and half-wrong) imo.

There's no doubt, a la Girard and Scruton, that violence is inherent in ancient societies, in life itself frankly. But brutally so in the ancient world. Bob Godwin has chartered child abuse across the centuries (and in currently premodern societies) and it is tragically high.

Girard is also right that the scapegoat did in fact release some of this violence/tension within the group, thereby creating/re-creating the sense of "self" by the creation of an Other. Self and Other, like left and right hands, are mutually interdependent. The key is to grow both in self and realization of expanding others. Until the final realization which transcends and includes all selfhood and otherhood notions, because the Ultimate/Godhead is neither self nor other nor both nor neither (to quote Nagarjuna).

The source of the conflict however is deeper than Girard ever realized--hence his slide towards reductionism. (Emphasis on slide). The deeper source, so says the mystical tradition (which I am going to call in at this point to counter Girard) is that the communal violence, the memetic desire, etc. are themselves only symptoms of the deeper dis-ease. Namely the inherent contraction that is the self-sense and the un-reality of the Relative truth (alone).

The Atman Project. The inability to face the final annihilation (per identity not literal body) of the self-sense. In that sense, Girard is very close to the Nondual with his writings on the Crucifixion as a Icon, as a Gaze, Christ as one who gets the "game" and makes himself the scapegoat, healing everybody else. But it goes a layer deeper (from the Nondual state): we are to become Christ on the cross. We have to willingly accept the crucifixion of our own selfhood and rise into Absolute Awakened state. Where the Redemption has always already occurred. We must become, like Christ, a sacrifice.

[And in that sense I'm more with oddly Georges Bataille than Girard. Bataille said that the only really real religious impulse is sacrifice. Bataille didn't quite understand from whence that is true, which drove him insane, but he got the right idea.]

Now back to Scruton and the New Atheism. Scruton (via Girard) is right that the scapegoating mechanism did release tension/diminish violence in the ancient context. And created a larger communal self sense.

However if you read which groups this scapegoating applies to it is clans and tribes. Purple and (more significantly) red in Spiral terms. Or hunter-gatherer and early horticulturalists.

The scapegoating then reduced purple and red violence but helped create the blue structure, which then brought about a new wave of violence on the earth. The blue wave creates a meta-identity of trans-tribalism, a People. But that group now becomes locked into civilizational conflict (Huntington) which is the history of the classical periods. It creates Empires that must convert the world to its form of Rule in order to bring peace. A la Caesar: military victory/conquest then Peace.

Only orange-modernity with its multiplistic capacity allowed multiple civilizations to exist without inherent conflict between them. Multiplistic because it recognizes multiples (multiple civilizations) but leans towards one: modernity. Which historically was more equated with Western Europe but is more and more an embrace of the trans-national economic and political infrastructure of WTO, etc.

The New Atheists when they criticize religion generally (esp. Harris, Hitchens) point to mythic-blue violence. Crusades, Jihads, Inquisitions, ultra-Zionism (religious or secular),
Hinduization/Sanskritization in India, etc.

So Scruton is right that the New Atheists don't take into account the other half of the story which is traditional religion diminished violence (by using violence let us remember in many cases of actual human sacrifice, better when performed and not actually enacted). But Scruton has missed that the New Atheists (as orange) still have a point: religion is still the cause of violence (blue).

The (seeming) paradox is: scapegoating religion both diminished one kind of violence (tribal red) but increased another (mythic blue). Girard only points to the former; New Atheists to the latter.

The New Atheists are right that entry into the modern world overall reduces violence---it reduces mythic blue violence. It then creates another set of violence (orange violence): ecological destruction, devastation of traditional cultures, spread of criminality, black markets, etc. What New Atheists won't recognize is there is a way into modernity (on equal footing in terms of depth) that is religious and need not be Atheist. [But with Steven Pinker, overall violence goes down in the modern world---not to mention most of the violence is pre-modern values using modern weaponry and technology. Habermas' dialectic of progress].

By not realizing Scruton's (and Girard) point though that religion diminishes tribal violence (Roman Catholic Church converted the Germanic "barbarians" and Vikings btw), New Atheists by their total one-sided attack on (traditional) religion, end up helping to foster a re-animated tribalism. A revived red across the planet. Or worse purple. Although I hear that Dawkins is after New Agers now, meaning he's crushing purple too, leaving beige I suppose.

The key as always is to create a way in which blue can do what blue is meant to do--keep a lip on red violence, build identity beyond tribes--and yet not become fixated or attack higher moral/value structures.


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