I often hear people claim that science and religion are not in conflict with each other because they explore two different things.
Science seeks the truth about the material world.
Religion seeks the truth about the spiritual world.
I generally agree with this line of thinking, but some major scientists do not. Take the late, great Stephen Hawking for example. Hawking talked about understanding “the mind of God” in his book A Brief History of Time, but apparently many people of faith misunderstood his statement. Hawking later explained that before modern science, it was “natural to believe that God created the universe. But now science offers a more convincing explanation. What I meant by ‘we would know the mind of God’ is, we would know everything that God would know, if there were a God, which there isn’t. I’m an atheist.”
So, there you have it. Arguably the most influential scientist of our times declaring that science proves there is no God.
But what if I told you about a scientific theory that provides evidence for God?
René Girard called it mimetic theory. It’s an anthropological theory. As such, it is a science of being human. A scientific theory looks at the evidence and tries to come up with an explanation that is as simple, but as comprehensive as possible. Girard has been called the Charles Darwin of the social sciences. Like Darwin who observed data that naturalist compiled to produce a theory about the natural world, Girard observed data anthropologists gathered to produce a theory about human relationships. Girard’s theory is elegant and possesses extraordinary explanatory power not only for understanding our past but also our present circumstances. Girard’s theory has three basic parts.
The Science of Mimetic Theory Part 1: Mimetic Desire
First, Girard stated that humans are mimetic, or imitative. We learn how to be in the world by observing how others behave. It’s important to note that we do this non-consciously. We don’t realize that we’re imitating others. In fact, deep down we want to deny that we are imitative because we want to be autonomous. But this desire for autonomy is evidence for Girard’s point. We learn the desire to be autonomous by watching others. We wouldn’t desire autonomy if others didn’t desire autonomy, too.
Interestingly, 50 years after Girard first hypothesized mimetic theory, neuroscientists discovered mirror neurons. These neurons activate every time we observe someone else doing something. Mirror neurons automatically mimic the action we are observing. It’s as if we are performing the action. We cannot control our mirror neurons. They activate non-consciously.
Girard emphasized the mimetic aspect of desire. We learn what to desire by watching others. If you reach for a glass of water on the table, my mirror neurons start to flash and I instinctively reach for a glass of water. But what happens if we share a desire for something that cannot be shared, like a job, or that we are unwilling to share, like a prized possession or love interest? The inevitable outcome is conflict. If one side does not relinquish its claim, the conflict may escalate to violence.
The Science of Mimetic Theory Part 2: The Scapegoat
We may come to blows. But there’s another option. Girard postulates that we might channel our mutual hostility against a scapegoat.
This is mimetic theory in a blog-post nutshell. You can look at the natural world and observe whether his account is accurate. With all the conflicts and scapegoating in the world, I think there’s ample evidence that Girard was correct.
But Girard took his theory to the beginnings of human culture. Mimetic theory doesn’t tell us about the creation of the world, but it does tell us about the creation of human culture. From the very beginning, mimetic desire ran amuck. Groups of our ancient ancestors often fell into apocalyptic wars of all against all and many self-destructed before cultures could form. But there were a few groups that survived because they developed an important, albeit traumatic, pattern.
Those early human groups survived because they fell into the pattern of scapegoating. Like mimetic desire, scapegoating is non-conscious. When we scapegoat, we don’t realize we are doing it. The target of our anger and violence appears to be completely evil and the cause of all our problems. As conflicts threaten our community, we still instinctively seek someone to blame. And that’s what these early groups did. The war of all against all turned into a war of all against one.
Notice that scapegoating violence had an anthropological function. Where the chaos of runaway violence threatened the group, scapegoating channeled violence against a single victim. The act of sacrifice saved the community, but at the expense of another. Where violence threatened the survival of the group, sacrifice brought a sense of temporary peace, and over time proto-human evolved rituals of sacrifice that reenacted the violence that saved the community from self-destruction. Ritual sacrifice of human and animal victims maintained peace and cohesion, enabling the creation of cultural institutions.
Though we no longer practice ancient ritual sacrifice, we can observe this human pattern of scapegoating in our world today. Whenever internal conflicts threaten a community, we seek someone else to blame. We seek a scapegoat to sacrifice or expel from our midst.
The problem is never really solved by scapegoating, because the scapegoat isn’t the problem. The problem is the internal conflicts that threaten to destroy our community.
Girard says that this pattern is so embedded in our human consciousness that it’s impossible for us to break free from it by ourselves. To quote another brilliant mind of the 20th century, Albert Einstein, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”
Mimetic Theory Part 3: The Bible: Breaking Free from Scapegoating
Girard was left with the question, if humans are so trapped in scapegoating and sacrifice that we cannot solve it, how is it possible to break free from the pattern? He stated that something or someone from outside of the human pattern of sacrifice must break into our lives to break the pattern.
That’s as far as Girard took the scientific aspect of his theory. After this, he admits we must enter into the biblical account, which is the third aspect of mimetic theory.
Girard says that the Bible is a “text in travail.” It falls into the pattern of human sacrifice, while at the same time breaking us free from that pattern.
I’ll give you two major examples. First, there’s the anti-sacrificial story of Abraham and Isaac. In this “R-rated” story, Abraham heard God, named Elohim at this point in the story, tell him to sacrifice his son Isaac. So Abraham took Isaac up a mountain, bound him to a large stone, and lifted his knife to sacrifice his son. Then God, now named Yahweh, stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac.
This name change is significant. Elohim was a general term for “god” in the ancient middle east. In fact, the name literally means “gods.” It’s the “gods” who demand child sacrifice. And if you want a more specific god of the Bible who demands child sacrifice, that god’s name is Baal.
But the specific name of Israel’s God is Yahweh. Yahweh stops the sacrifice. In place of human sacrifice, Yahweh provides a ram. This is a huge step in breaking the pattern of human sacrifice. No longer can we sacrifice people. God provides another way for us to deal with our inner hostility by sacrificing an animal.
Mercy Not Sacrifice
And the Bible takes it a step further. The psalms claim that God doesn’t even want the smell of burnt animal sacrifices. The prophet Hosea says God desires mercy, not sacrifice. And Jeremiah continues that anti-sacrificial strand of the Hebrew tradition by stating that after the Israelites left Egypt, God didn’t command them to perform sacrifices.
Which leads me to the second major story I want to tell you about – Jesus and the cross. Yes, many claim that the Gospel is that God channeled His wrath against Jesus so that it wouldn’t be channeled against us. But that’s not how the story is told in the Gospels. Rather, the Gospels are clear that it was human wrath that killed Jesus, not divine wrath.
But Jesus stopped the mimetic cycle of violence. He took violence out of circulation by offering forgiveness on the cross, where he didn’t speak words of revenge, but offered words of forgiveness. The Gospel of Luke records Jesus praying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Jesus knew that nonconscious element of human nature that mimetic theory explains. We don’t know what we are doing when we join the violent crowd. That’s because we join in mimetic fashion. It is non-conscious.
Transformation of Human Consciousness
By going to the cross, Jesus revealed what we couldn’t figure out on our own. He was on a different level of consciousness than the human level that was stuck in the scapegoat mechanism. He followed in the footsteps of the Hebrew prophets who sought to steer us away from the pattern of violence and into the pattern of forgiveness.
Which leads us back to science. Mimetic theory is a science of being human. As an anthropology, it helps us understand how humans have been trapped in the scapegoat mechanism. Whenever we choose mercy over scapegoating, whenever we relinquish our claim to something so another can have it instead, whenever we seek relationships of mutual giving and receiving in the spirit of love, we are mirroring the Christ consciousness that leads us away from the human trap of rivalry and violence.
We’ve needed something that transcends our non-consciousness to reveal the scapegoating mechanism to us and to offer us a way out. As such, mimetic theory is the science that provides evidence for the transcendence of God.