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  • Violence and Religion:Walter Burkert and René Girard in Comparison
  • Wolfgang Palaver (bio)
    Translated by Gabriel Borrud1

Since the attacks of September 11th, 2001, the relationship between violence and religion has been the center of focus of ever more discussions and examinations. Often, however, these inquiries lack a profound theory that will enable a real understanding of how the two phenomena are related. Walter Burkert and René Girard are two thinkers who grasp the connection between religion and violence, and the present essay will take a closer look at how the two understand this connection. There are similarities and differences between the two thinkers, and these will be highlighted in three sections. In the first, attention will be turned to Burkert and Girard's interpretation of how religion and violence are related—and how this understanding can offer an evolutionary explanation of religion. The second section will examine Girard's thoughts on the mimetic roots of violence, which will serve as a frame of comparison between the two thinkers. A final section will contrast Burkert and Girard with regard to the biblical religions of Judaism and Christianity. [End Page 121]

1. Two "Seismographs" for the Relationship Between Religion and Violence

The art historian and scholar Aby Warburg once called Jakob Burkhardt and Friedrich Nietzsche "sensitive seismographs," referring to their ability to register the ramifications of the past with uncanny precision.2 Warburg's characterization is appropriate for Burkert and Girard as well, as each shows a hypersensitive understanding of the role religion and violence play in the origins and stability of human culture. It is no coincidence that Burkert and Girard arrived at their respective theories almost simultaneously—both mentioned the significance of violence and religion for the foundation of civilization in works published in 1972. Just years after World War II, the atrocities in the Nazi concentration camps, and the United States's dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Girard and Burkert revealed in explicit terms just how central violence and religion were in the formation of human culture.

The significance of Girard and Burkert's ideas only grows in the context of contemporary critiques of religion, especially those coming from Darwinian circles. The virulent critique of the evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, for instance, comes to mind. In all of Dawkins's prolific work, however, he fails to offer a convincing explanation of the evolutionary nature of religion: in a word, he doesn't adequately answer the question of why religion is a universal cultural phenomenon.3 Dawkins asserts that religion is a mere by-product of certain psychological dispositions—for instance, a by-product of the naïve readiness to place one's trust in a superior, or a by-product of an instinctive dualism. However, by implementing a mere cognitive construct in his explanation of how religious rituals have shaped human culture over thousands of years, he only broaches the subject matter. One of the main reasons why Dawkins falls short of explaining the omnipresence of religion in human civilization is his rather one-sided and rash explication of violence, which in his opinion stems solely from religion.4 Dawkins proposes that humans are peaceful, quasi-Rousseauian beings that inherit their violent streak only through religious agitation. Following Dawkins's line of thought, the abolition of religion would mean the creation of a world of peace; however, even those who support his very legitimate critique of religious fundamentalism will find these thoughts rather naïve.

Burkert and Girard, meanwhile, are able to delve into the essence of religion by explaining both its ritualistic nature and its importance for human evolution. In the case of Burkert, one sees his interest in evolutionary theory from the outset, as his book Homo Necans (first published 1972)5 contains passages [End Page 122] that refer directly to the work of the behavioral scientist Konrad Lorenz. In the "Gifford Lectures" of 1989, Burkert even speaks of the "tracks of biology in early religion."6 In an article published in 2000, Burkert shows that religion is an indispensable part of the process of humanization—and fundamental to the evolution of human culture.7

The concrete examples that Burkert employs to...


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pp. 121-137
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