By: Will Blasingame, Editor
In 2006 the term “New Atheism” was coined to describe the view by some atheists that not only is religion wrong, but it is somewhat dangerous to society. Controversial from the start, this specific view has faced more backlash in recent years from figures like Dr. Jordan B. Peterson who argue that religious stories and mythologies provide guiding wisdom as to how to live the best life.
While Dr. Peterson focuses on Biblical narratives partly because of their cultural familiarity, he also also esteems parts of Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and other mythologies as equally valid in their application to one’s life. This begs the question: is the underlying narrative of Christianity, the gospel story, just another expression of classic myths, or is Jesus’s teachings, life, death, and resurrection fundamentally contradictory to other mythologies?
As a anthropologist, professor, and author, Rene Girard developed Mimetic Theory to explain human behavior. In general, Mimetic Theory states that the default human position is to imitate others, someone they choose as their model. When one person imitates a model, they desire what the model desires. In his book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard claims this human ability and instinct to imitate others is what gives us free will. He states:
“If our desires were not mimetic, they would be forever fixed on predetermined objects; they would be a particular form of instinct. Human beings could no more change their desire than cows their appetite for grass. Without mimetic desire there would be neither freedom nor humanity. Mimetic desire is intrinsically good” (Girard 15).
That being said, in many cases our mimetic desire causes issues. When one person imitates another, both are in competition over their same desire. This causes a series of conflicts which continually escalate and draw more people in on both sides. In the foreword to the aforementioned book, James G. Williams notes that “when this kind of situation [conflict] occurs often enough…those involved must ‘let off steam’ or the social fabric will burst.” Everyone involved then places blame on a single individual, a scapegoat, who is sacrificed so that the society remains at peace until the cycle begins again.
Myths Viewed through a Mimetic Theory Lens
A defining characteristic of myths is that, although it is often viewed as tragic, the sacrifice of the scapegoat is viewed as good. In the article “Are the Gospels Mythical?” Girard notes that “The Dionysiac myths regard even the most horrible lynchings as legitimate. Pentheus in the Bacchae is legitimately slain by his mother and sisters, for his contempt of the god Dionysus is a fault serious enough to warrant his death” (Girard 29). Oedipus did kill his father and marry his mother making him “truly responsible for the plague that ravages Thebes.” Even if they are not shown to be guilty of a crime, “mythical victims are still supposed to die for a good cause, and their innocence makes their deaths no less legitimate. In the Vedic myth of Purusha, for instance, no wrongdoing is mentioned—but the tearing apart of the victim is nonetheless a holy deed. The pieces of Purusha’s body are needed to create the three great castes, the mainstay of Indian society. In myth, violent death is always justified.”
The Counter Narrative of Christianity
This is not the case in Biblical stories. In Genesis with the story of Cain and Abel, Cain is punished for murdering Abel, an innocent figure. There is no justification for Cain. The story of Jesus is the ultimate example of a free and perfect individual sacrificed by the hands of a twisted mimetic pattern. By his sacrifice, Christians recognize that it is sin itself, even their own sin, that led to killing Jesus. From this position, they are at a point to repent and stand as individuals apart from the perverted mimetic motions of the world. In believing Jesus is raised from the dead, Christians have hope that standing as individuals apart from the world is worth the sacrifice, that Jesus’s resurrection is a foreshadowing of a future resurrection and through him, God will bring a “New Heaven” and a “New Earth”. Jesus is the perfect model who desires The Father.
If you find this interesting, I suggest reading Girard’s article “The First Stone” which goes into more detail of the differences between a certain pagan myth and a gospel story. In addition, I recommend “Are the Gospels Mythical?” by Girard. For now I will leave you with a perfect quote from that article that counters the core idea of postmodernism.
“We hear nowadays that, behind every text and every event, there are an infinite number of interpretations, all more or less equivalent. Mimetic victimization makes the absurdity of this view manifest. Only two possible reactions to the mimetic contagion exist, and they make an enormous difference. Either we surrender and join the persecuting crowd, or we resist and stand alone. The first way is the unanimous self-deception we call mythology. The second way is the road to the truth followed by the Bible.” (Girard 30).
Girard, René. “Are the Gospels Mythical?” First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion &
Public Life, Institute of Religion & Public Life , Apr. 1996.
Girard René. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Orbis Books, 2011.