ACCORDING to René Girard, religion preceded culture. He argued that culture is a product of primitive religion, which itself arose out of an act of collective murder, which, in turn, resulted from the chaotic violence caused by mimetic rivalry. And mimetic rivalry — the imitation of each other’s desires and the consequent competition over desired objects — is what distinguished early humans from other animal species.
To oversimplify a complex anthropological theory, this was the mechanism through which society became united. Disorganised violence morphed into mob violence and eventually formed into a total collective hostility towards a single scapegoat whose death produced an ironic and satanic peace. This murder was thence periodically re-enacted as ritual sacrifice, and was accompanied by societal prohibitions to prevent future violence. These, then, are the two elements of religion: ritual and prohibition, the necessary foundation out of which a culture can emerge.
The arrival of Christianity, Girard claimed, broke this pattern of violence. Christ himself became the scapegoat that the mob turned against, and the power of the mob was forever broken by the knowledge that the victim was innocent — in Christ’s case, wholly innocent. Christians are called to imitate Christ, and thereby align with and even become the victim rather than join the mob.
But the appeal of new mob religions is ever present. Human beings are religious creatures, whatever they may say, and despite their best efforts they cannot avoid religion. Environmentalism, communism, postmodernism, wokeism – all of these increasingly take the form of intolerant, faith-based religion. All have their prohibitions that increasingly verge on the puritanical – you mustn’t say certain things or associate with certain people. All have their rituals – kneel, virtue signal, acknowledge your privilege.
And now we have yet another religion, characterised by social distancing, masks, lockdowns, isolation, government apps and economy-destroying authoritarianism. And opponents of this new religion are regarded as heretics whose dangerous teachings must be suppressed, lest they lead the faithful astray. The Great Barrington Declaration was written and signed by esteemed scientists from Harvard, Oxford, Stanford and other top universities around the world. Their credentials are not really surpassable, yet they’re dismissed as pseudoscientific on mainstream media and by government ministers. On what grounds are other scientists trusted and these experts ignored? What’s really happening, of course, is that the priests of the new religion are feeling threatened by the heresy of empirical science.
The Christian Church is as susceptible to these new religions as the rest of society. Bishops, not to mention popes, warn of the climate emergency, criticise capitalism and bend the knee to BLM with more fervour than that with which they proclaim the Gospel.
But, until recently, you could walk into most churches and still find the actual religion that the building exists to promote. Now, as the government permits the churches to be open again, you’ll be met with the new religion, which, sadly, we’ve already become accustomed to over the past year. The front door is covered with signs instructing you on the new prohibitions and hygiene rituals, and there’s usually a woman who greets you with hand sanitiser and a track and trace form to fill out. Or a QR code. She insists that you wear a mask. You follow the one-way system. Sit in certain rows. Keep your distance from others. You cannot shake hands, you cannot sing, you must receive communion in your hands (contrary to Catholic canon law). And no post-church fellowship whatsoever. It’s almost as if there’s a renewal of faith in these churches – it’s just the wrong faith.
This new religion is exposing a lack of true conviction in the Christian religion within the churches themselves. Why such enthusiasm for the new religion otherwise? The churches seemed positively eager to close as soon as the epidemic arrived back in March, and remained shut over Holy Week and Easter. It’s still hard to believe. And once the precedent was set a second lockdown wasn’t much of a shock. But true Christians don’t immediately buy into a new religion. They prefer the imitation of Christ.
One of the essential ways Christians imitate Christ is to demonstrate the Logos – to reason, to think critically in the unyielding search for the truth, reasoned or revealed. In the realm of science Christians rely on the cold, hard falsifiability of the scientific method. Real Christians and real scientists alike do not accept on faith the claims of politicised science and mob hysteria.
But there’s an epidemic, people will object. Yes, there was, but by any rational and scientific measure it ended back in June, and while the virus is still with us, the disease is currently no more dangerous than the dozens of other seasonal respiratory illnesses that we cope with every winter. That’s what the evidence suggests, for those minded to base their beliefs on the evidence. However, it’s not what the government and mainstream media are saying, for those who would rather obey, go along with what they think everyone else believes, and not question anything too deeply.
Jonathan Swift wisely said, ‘You cannot reason someone out of a position that he wasn’t reasoned into.’ I’d add that no one will change his mind once he’s made it up on any grounds other than evidence. Swift’s namesake, High Court Justice Jonathan Swift, demonstrated this recently as he rejected a legal challenge to the UK Government regulations, admitting, ‘I watch the news programmes and see what is reported and I would assume that that is accurate.’ No need to question what the BBC says. Even High Court judges take that on faith. Clearly, Swift wasn’t going to be reasoned out of what he’d already taken on faith.
He’s not alone. This is the attitude of most of us – judiciary, government, media, scientists, the public and the Church. All of these have a duty to the truth, but perhaps the Church most of all. If it is the one true religion, as it claims, then the truth is paramount in its Girardian task to mitigate the human susceptibility to mimetic collectivism. And it’s the imitation of Christ in all its ways that is necessary to pursue that end, including humility to see where one is wrong, courage to admit it, and the Logos to get ever nearer to the truth.
And never, ever capitulate to the mob.