Posts Tagged ‘Mimetic Theory’

Will Same-Sex Marriage Bring About an Unraveling of Natural Law and Unleash the Forces of Social Disorder?

March 29, 2012

Gil Bailie quotes historian Glenn Olsen on The Cornerstone Forum’s Facebook page:

For a Catholic, part of the strangeness of living in America is living in a land only superficially touched by natural law teaching. … When someone favorable to religion today wants to defend some bizarre practice, such as killing chickens in one’s rites, the defense very well may take the line that religious belief per se must be respected. Of course in a national experience properly rooted in the natural law this would not be so. In a Catholic position, reason and revelation must be in harmony, and one has no obligation to respect a religious belief which is in opposition to reason.

And Bailie adds,

This is important because there exist today religions that solemnly sanction the killing, not of chickens, but of infidels and apostates and others. In trying, for example, to redefine marriage to include homosexual relationships, we undermine the natural law argument for deeming polygamy illicit or for refusing to interfere with a religion whose highest authorities sanction both polygamy and the murder of homosexuals.

Natural law certainly has an illustrious history, and the laws enshrined in our own Constitution have their roots in it. But it cannot be used as a platform for contemporary American jurisprudence because it has no stable meaning. You can ask a Catholic, a Protestant, and a Muslim to define it, and you will get very different answers. So for historian Glenn Olsen, whom Bailie quotes, natural law must be understood as the Catholic variety. I am not a Catholic, but I am an American citizen, and so I would not like to see our country’s legal tradition uprooted to make way for natural law redux.

Sacrificing chickens is of course bizarre, but so is baptism, whether for the dead or the living. The Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation seems very bizarre to most non-Catholics, but neither it nor baptism hurts anyone, so a state that respects religious liberty has no compelling interest in prohibiting these practices. Sacrificing chickens is no more bizarre than transubstantiation or baptism, but it is borderline form of cruelty, depending on how the chickens are slaughtered and whether they’re eaten afterwards. Denying contraceptive insurance coverage to one’s employees may be motivated by religious belief, but it deserves no respect from government because it results in harm to the employees.

So I would disagree with Olsen when he writes, “…one has no obligation to respect a religious belief which is in opposition to reason.” Reason is simply the wrong criterion. We respect unreasonable beliefs all the time, and there is no real harm to anyone. Most religious beliefs are in fact irrational, but it’s only when they become harmful that the state has a compelling interest in prohibiting them.

But there are two meanings of “respect.” One is “allow,” as in “the state respects religion.” The other is “have regard for.” I may not have much respect for a belief, but I will respect your right to hold it. However, I may disrespect a religious practice while also supporting efforts to have it outlawed. Denial of contraceptive coverage on religious grounds falls into this latter category.

Killing infidels and apostates, which the Catholic Church used to approve not so long ago, is a religious practice that deserves no respect in either sense of the word.

The Church’s campaign against same-sex marriage (SSM) is based on an irrational belief that I do not respect but that its adherents have a right to hold. However, I do not believe Catholic institutions (other than churches) should have the right to discriminate against homosexuals in hiring or in provision of services.

As for polygamy and the murder of homosexuals, both are of course odious, but no less odious than the effort to link them to same-sex marriage. There is a vast difference between murder and marriage and between polygamy and monogamy. In each case, the former is harmful and the latter is generally beneficial. Recognizing this difference gives us the proper basis for legislation regarding murder and polygamy.

The grim scenario in Bailie’s final paragraph assumes that natural law is preventing both polygamy and the murder of homosexuals. It is not, of course. Constitutional law is serving this function, so there is no need to worry that same-sex marriage will unleash the forces of social disorder and lawlessness. It has not done so in countries or states where SSM has been legalized.

Such scenarios are one more example of the fear tactics and scapegoating that Gil Bailie routinely resorts to. The underlying formula is always the same: X (an individual or group) causes social disorder; order can be restored only by stigmatizing and expelling X. This is the classic scapegoating paradigm as articulated by Gil Bailie’s own mentor, René Girard, and it is unmistakably present in everything Bailie has written about homosexuality during the six or so years that I have been following his blogs. It is one thing to say that homosexuality is wrong according to God’s law, but it is another to suggest that homosexuality is a root cause of social disorder and civilizational collapse. Such irrational accusations are calculated to stoke fear and generate unanimity about the guilt of the intended victim.

Girard’s theory of scapegoating is very powerful and perceptive. I believe he must feel deeply saddened to see it used as an instruction manual for scapegoating.


A Mimetic Reading of Stanley Kubrick’s Film, “2001, A Space Odyssey”

September 19, 2009

Sun_Earth_Moon cropped

The following reading of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” is re-published by permission from its author, “Dean,” who submitted it recently for the enjoyment of bloggers on the Reflections on Faith and Culture site. Dean views the film’s story through the lens of René Girard’s mimetic theory.

In the famous Dawn of Man sequence an ape overcomes his fear and touches the monolith, which has suddenly appeared during the night, a sentinel planted by some unseen and vast intelligence. There is a sense of numinous awe in the film, as the mysterious black basaltic slab appears over and over again throughout the movie. This is the divine agency of the film–the burning bush. The ape in the initial scene then turns bones into tools. He learns how to use his new “tool” as a murder weapon against a rival tribe of apes, and although that was not the intention of the caretakers who imparted the knowledge, the rival apes at the business end of a jagged thigh bone may have thought differently.

A klaxon is sounded, as the sentinel telegraphs its message to the stars signaling the changed status of the apes.  From that point on, the monolith patiently stands as a silent beacon, through aeons of time, in different locations, awaiting the next visitation in the distant future when it will impart a new chapter of knowledge further along the evolutionary path as the unseen caretakers surveil our progress from behind the scenes. The tree in Genesis as well as the cross at Calvary and the Monolith in Space Odyssey are essentially the same: preparations for participation in a grand mystery. But the agency behind that mystery remains unseen, or seen only through a glass darkly, which is the central tension both of the film and of our lives. Each discovery emboldens us to go another step further on our personal and collective odyssey.


Abortion is not Genocide

September 16, 2009

by Cheryl Maslow

During the course of an extended blog discussion about a wide range of issues, including abortion (see comments following several posts on Gil Bailie’s blog log, Reflections on Faith and Culture, from July through September 2009), I noticed that several writers in the group were describing abortion as murder or as genocide. This is standard pro-life rhetoric, and it is hyperbolic. Both of these words have straightforward dictionary and legal definitions that make them unsuitable for describing abortion. Then, an exchange between two of the participants, Paul and Athos (following the post of 9/6/09), stirred up my thoughts about a book I read over a year ago: Carolyn Marvin’s “Blood Sacrifice and the Nation.” Marvin argues that collective victimage constructs American national identity, and she develops her ideas out of a reading of René Girard and Emil Durkheim. But I sensed that many of her insights have implications for the abortion issue and its weighting against other issues that we discussed on the blog, particularly climate change, income disparity, and health care. Because both Paul and Athos had read René Girard and understood the sacrificial mechanism he illuminates, I decided to spin out my thoughts about abortion as sacrifice and to challenge the notion that abortion is genocide. My motive was less to defend abortion than to develop my intuition that not all sacrifice involves scapegoating. The following paragraphs are a revised and expanded version of a three-part comment that I submitted. A basic familiarity with Girard’s mimetic theory is helpful in reading them.

Athos writes: “When a conventional culture begins to break down, it tries to surcharge its victimary mechanism by either increasing the prestige of its victims or number of victims: regicide or genocide. … We’re in the latter stage, and we’re sacrificing our unborn children.”

The word “genocide” seems misapplied when used to describe abortion. (Genocide is the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group, according to Merriam-Webster.) This is not just a quibble over definitions. We have a much better chance of understanding both abortion and genocide as sacrificial phenomena if we make careful distinctions.

Athos was of course correct in describing the pre-born as “defenseless, innocent, and voiceless.” I say “of course” because both the pre-born and infants are universally regarded in this way—squalling infants on buses excepted. This doesn’t prevent their being killed in abortions and wartime bombings or neglected to the point of starvation or disease-related death. I am not the first to point out that caring for the pre-born and the newly-born requires caring for the mothers that are carrying or nursing them, for the fathers that support these mothers financially and emotionally, and even for the broader society and ecology that sustains them all. This means that the abortion issue is also the health care issue and the income disparity issue and the environmental quality issue. And it is a part of a vast web of many other issues as well.

How many millions of the unborn or newly born have suffered and died in the Sahel because of water shortages resulting from mismanagement and over-exploitation of resources? These deaths could have been prevented, but tribes and sovereign nations decided that other matters were more important. This is sacrifice, but it’s not necessarily “victimage” in the Girardian sense. These deaths did not restore harmony to a community in crisis as the victimage mechanism does. Rather, the powerful (the state, multinational corporations, tribal leaders, warlords, etc.) decided that these individuals were expendable, and the cause-effect relationship went missing in time, space, and human memory.