Saturday, September 01, 2012

Robert Bellah: Brief Remark on Girard's Scapegoat Theory

I've previously expressed interest in René Girard's scapegoat theory, though I know it mostly secondhand. From the little I've read, Girard argues that people mimic the desires of others, and this applies to groups, including competing ethnic groups, and that religion based on the sacrifice of a scapegoat -- not necessarily a goat -- was constructed to check the violence endemic to rival groups, thereby making possible the evolution of religion. The first culturally organized killing was thus of a 'scapegoat' (often human). My old doctoral advisor Robert Bellah disagrees:
I have referred to the despotic founders of early states, who came to power through blood and terror as they almost always did, as upstarts of the kind that tribal society usually managed to repress. As opposed to Girard's theory, it would seem that the first killing among culturally organized humans was not the killing of a scapegoat, but the killing of an upstart who genuinely threatened to revive the despotism of the old primate alpha male. (Robert Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, page 260)
I put this forward as a query for any Girardians who might be reading my blog, for there has been a Girardian or two who left comments here previously. Bellah doesn't offer much of a critique of Girard here in this one passage, but he has previously presented his detailed views on archaic violence. Anyone interested can read Bellah's' book for more of those details.

But if Girard should happen to be wrong about the initial culturally organized violence, would this prove fatal to Girard's interpretation of the scapegoat's archaic role in checking the violence of rival groups?

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At 12:01 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

What's all this about space goats?

At 12:08 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sorry, I meant "scrape" goats.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:40 PM, Blogger skholiast said...

I am not a Girard expert, but my read is that it would not derail the whole theory. Of course, the question arises why Bellah does not think (or at least, does not say in your gloss -- I have not read the book to which you refer) that the first orgamized killing was the insurrection against the alpha male? (This would be, I take it, the Freudian theory in Totem & Taboo.)

At 2:26 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

It is similar to Freud's theory, but Bellah bases his view on his own knowledge of tribal societies and their religious practices, so he has an empirical basis that Freud lacked, and his theory of religion's function is far different than Freud's -- he doesn't consider religion an illusion.

Jeffery Hodges

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