John Gray, René Girard, and the return of tribal religion

I stuck around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the czar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain …
Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name, oh yeah
Ah, what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game, oh yeah

—The Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil”

A couple of months ago readers of the Guardian were presented with the peculiar spectacle of an atheist intellectual calling out his fellow atheists for being, of all things, too religious, of engaging in what the author coined “missionary atheism.” The author was the intrepid John Gray and his article was “What Scares the New Atheists.” The religious faith he accused his atheist cohorts of was a crusading belief in the scientific and rational basis of liberal values. Mr. Gray then follows with various examples of atheism’s inconvenient history of collusion with some of the West’s most unfortunate and bloody ideological projects. The irony of the New Atheism, Gray goes on to assert, is that it is driven not by reason, but rather by fear that the march of secularism may be faltering; rather than demonstrating the self-awareness of say, a Freud or Schopenhauer, both of whom understood religion’s important roles in society, New Atheism simply offers another variant of evangelical movement based on a faith that dare not acknowledge itself as such even while crusading against other faiths.

Mr. Gray’s article comes some months after a similar though lesser-known episode between prominent New Atheist Sam Harris and the psychologist—and also self-described atheist—Jonathan Haidt. Haidt wrote “Why Sam Harris is Unlikely to Change His Mind” using the occasion of a bet Harris has made to anyone who can disprove to his satisfaction the scientific basis Harris proposes that undergird liberal morality. Drawing from studies used in his recent book book cover imageThe Righteous Mind, Haidt explains that Harris will most assuredly not lose his bet, but only because Harris, like all mere humans, must rely on faculties that too readily succumb to the propensity to rationalize preexisting biases. The premise of Harris’s challenge, and by implication the premises of New Atheism, rest upon a presumed objective clarity that human beings systematically demonstrate not to be in their intellectual character.

As if to illustrate these critiques, recent events appear to be making Gray and Haidt’s case, for the more secular we have become, the less liberal secular liberalism seems to be. Whether you are a conservative Christian business owner, the Little Sisters of the Poor, or an otherwise reliable liberal voice opining in New York Magazine about how the liberal project has been co-opted by a cult of political correctness, we seem to be approaching some threshold where the “party of science” is reverting to theparty of the tribe.

According to Haidt, none of this is new. In The Righteous Mind, Haidt proposes that the profile of human nature emerging from recent studies suggest that humans are not as rational as many secularists would like to believe. Rather Haidt describes our species as “90 percent chimp, 10 percent bee”—that deep in our “caveman software” is what he refers to as a “hive switch,” an override that operates that part of us which is “groupish,” and that much of what motivates us in terms of values, politics, and religious persuasion are really the banners we are preternaturally disposed to run to when that switch turns on. But here alongside Haidt, the work of literary theorist René Girard should be considered, for two reasons. First, Girard offers a helpful model to understand the psychology of overly ideological times, and second, the soil from which he developed this theory was primarily the writings of that great psychologist of ideology and extremism, Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Dostoyevsky once famously wrote that if his fellow Russians ever became atheists they would turn atheism into a religion. Girard’s account elaborates on this theme, suggesting that beyond a certain secular horizon, society does not cease to be religious, but rather returns to a more primitive and tribal form of religion.

Like Haidt, Girard observes that ideology becomes a source of tribal identity, but at its most extreme it becomes increasingly dependent not on the principles that it espouses but on the psychological kinetics of its adversarial relationship to its rivals. Positive philosophy gives way to the need to feed on rivalry as a source of meaning. This is why extremist ideologies tend to be built upon fabulist views of a possible future: the more spectacular the vision, the more unreachable the goal, the more immersive the cause. book cover image Girard’s term of art for this is “mimetic rivalry.” It is mimetic, or imitative, because it depends upon and even apes the aspirations to power of the enemies it dedicates itself to defeating. Thus the mimetic ideologue’s battle never ends, because in “mimetic rivalry” it is the battle, not possession of the territory, that gives meaning and identity. Consequently, when victorious the revolution proceeds to turn on its own internal factions, and when it consolidates its power carries on its battle against the counterrevolutionaries hiding in the shadows.

But often these movements have innocent beginnings. In his novel The Possessed, Dostoyevsky explores how the cosmopolitan liberalism of his day gave birth to a new generation of ideological monomaniacal children. The glorious achievements of the generation of Turgenev, which included liberation of the serfs, was quickly succeeded by a generation of Jacobins that would bring terror to Russia. And in fact, within a decade of Dostoyevsky’s passing a young Russian liberal, stunned by the death of his brother at the hands of the Czar, would leave behind his enthusiasms for Turgenev and embrace this same revolutionary Jacobinism. His name was Vladimir Lenin.

In the ensuing decades of Girard’s career, his discovery of mimetic rivalry would lead to a cascade of further insights about the nature of societal violence and primitive religion. Girard would come to hypothesize that all primitive societies have some originating violent event, in which mimetic rivalry between primitive factions culminates in a massacre, leavingone party victorious to found the new society. The residue of the founding event is cryptically memorialized in the culture’s mythology and religion, consistingof cultural taboos intended to prevent reoccurrence of the violent founding event. Like dysfunctional families, primitive societies are held together by secrets and prohibitions intended to conceal the original crime and avoid its reoccurrence. In a manner of speaking, Dostoyevsky’s witness to the collapse of Russia revealed to Girard a model of violence and refounding that is as old as mankind. Rather than ushering in a new age, Lenin would return Russia to primitivism in the garb of scientific materialism. Viewed through this lens, present-day “trigger warning” prohibitions and “safe spaces” appear as potential harbingers of a return to this problematic pattern in our own time.

But Dostoyevsky, says Girard, points us to a way out. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky reconfigures the ideological themes of his The Possessed into the microcosm of the dysfunctional Karamazov family fathered by the flamboyantly cruel Fyodor Karamazov. The novel’s plot centers upon an act of parricide, the murder of the father by one of his sons, but its symbolism is about the nature and cost of deicide, the murder of God by ideology. The instigator of murder and middle son Ivan Karamazov is an atheist intellectual whose reasons for his crime, the cruelty of the father, are echoes of his arguments for his ideological commitment to atheism. As if to foreshadow what Ivan Karamazov’s generation would inflict upon Russia, what follows in the aftermath of the revelation of Ivan’s culpability is the surreal but revelatory episode of Ivan arguing with a vision of the Devil.

According to Girard, mimetic rivalry at its most extreme manifestation is a game the Devil, figuratively speaking, plays upon those who work to displace God. In The Brothers Karamazov the reader is introduced to many such figures, some in religious robes such as the Grand Inquisitor, others revolutionaries like Ivan. The game is that in the end, all the aspiration to transform the world by coercion or violence is really but the expression of unbounded vanity that feeds the mind full of visions of paradise while bringing only hell to the world.

When Ivan shares his reasons for his atheism to his younger brother Alexi, a novice in a Russian Orthodox monastic order, the younger brother is stunned by the emotional force of Ivan’s argument: children are suffering and God is nowhere to be seen. But what Ivan uses to rationalize his metaphysical revolt drives Alexi to seek out and to help in his community just those children who exemplify Ivan’s argument. Alexi takes to heart, even mimics, the legitimate concern expressed by his brother, but chooses to respond by healing, not ideology. Thus does Dostoyevsky show how imitation is not necessarily exclusively diabolical, but alternatively can direct the better angels of our nature.

In what is perhaps one of the more revealingly misunderstood endings to a novel, the reader, after being drawn into this melodramatic storyline is left with a seemingly anti-climactic final scene: Alexi among his ragamuffins and street urchins celebrating one of their number who had just passed away. Typically viewed as a false note to an otherwise epic storyline, the Russian is really revealing something about the modern reader. The epic, it turns out, is really in the seemingly mundane: love your neighbor as yourself. In contrast, the revolutionary is revealed as a vain banality: a vanity that claims to love mankind while displaying indifference toward individual human beings who are obstacles to his vision—or, as Lenin would refer to them, “broken eggs.” What distinguishes the Ivans from the Alexis is the dramatic difference in the scope of their ambitions, reflecting respectively the magnitude of their self-importance and humility.

In the penultimate chapter of The Righteous Mind, Haidt shares with the reader the disorienting moment when he realized conservatism wasn’t so backward and parochial after all. He was well into the studies that would make up most of his book when, among the stacks in a library, he pulled out book cover imagea large brown tome titled Conservatism edited by historian Jerry Muller. As he read the volume he saw, to his astonishment, that conservatism was really a political expression of concern for the kinds of local mediating institutions the importance of which were validated by Haidt’s own studies:

As a lifelong liberal, I had assumed that conservatism = orthodoxy = religion = faith = rejection of science. It followed, therefore that as an atheist and a scientist, I was obligated to be a liberal. But Muller asserted that modern conservatism is really about creating the best possible society, the one that brings about the greatest happiness given local circumstances … Muller went through a series of claims about human nature and institutions, which he said are the core beliefs of conservatism. Conservatives believe that people are inherently imperfect and are prone to act badly when all constraints and accountability are removed. Our reasoning is flawed and prone to overconfidence, so it’s dangerous to construct theories based on pure reason, unconstrained by intuition and historical experience. Institutions emerge gradually as social facts, which we then respect and even sacralize, but if we strip these institutions of authority and treat them as arbitrary contrivances that exist only for our benefit, we render them less effective. We then expose ourselves to increased anomie and social disorder.

He goes on:

Based on my own research, I had no choice but to agree with these conservative claims. As I continued to read the writings of conservative intellectuals, from Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century through Friedrich Hayek and Thomas Sowell in the twentieth, I began to see that they had attained a crucial insight into the sociology of morality that I had never encountered before.

As it happens, Haidt’s surprise was not anomalous. In a study he describes in his own book, he reveals that when it comes to understanding the opposing political persuasion liberals are quite blind to conservative principles while conservatives have a much clearer understanding of liberal principles. Ideologically speaking, liberals tend to suffer from left-sighted vision while conservatives have something like 20/20 vision. The primary difference is that while liberals tend to found their understanding of the world primarily upon moral concerns of care, liberty, and fairness, conservatives more equally distribute their understanding of the world upon these themes as well as on loyalty, authority, and sanctity. The importance of these latter principles—as elaborated by those such as Burke, Hayek, and Sowell, and unintentionally vindicated by Haidt’s own work—reveals that only one side of the political spectrum appears to see the world in its full moral spectrum. What Girard and Dostoyevsky reveal is that when these concerns are not taken into account, more still when they are discarded, what takes place after the revolution is not a new age, but a very old, very violent and primitive one. Haidt puts it this way: “You can’t help the bees by destroying the hive.”

As Western elites lurch seemingly further to the secular left, the ability to see and appreciate the import of mediating institutions appears not only to have dangerously diminished but to have paved the way for the hive-destroying Mr. Haidt warns against. If Haidt is correct that conservatives are unique in understanding the stakes, then Girard’s insights suggest that this is the reason conservativesfind themselves the rival of choice for so many of today’s ideologically Possessed. 

Forfare Davis is a writer and has contributed to First Things, National Review, and The Imaginative Conservative. You can follow Mr. Davis on Twitter at @Pseudoplotinus.