Although today language seems to us more natural and certainly more essential than religion, which all but a few of its practitioners confine to a limited set of practices while we use language constantly, if we take the originary hypothesis as our model of emergent human behavior, the sacred clearly dominates over the significant, to the point that we cannot answer the question as to what exactly is the “referent” of the originary sign. Is it the hypothesized food-source in the center of the circle? Or is it what I have called the “sacred will” that we experience as compelling us to refrain from completing our act of appropriation? Even if we are pointing at the central object, are we truly referring to it, or to its sacred, interdicted status?
Clearly at this point there is no need for such a distinction; given the absence of a prior notion of referring, all we can affirm is that the sign draws attention both to the central object and to the presumed source of its own incompleteness as a worldly act. My sign shows my neighbors both that I am “interested in” the object and at the same time that I have renounced any attempt to possess it. If we assume that this gesture is repeated as a reciprocal communication among the group, as a result all the members will have convinced each other of the same.
Given that the group considers the dead animal as a food-source and has either purposely killed it or come upon it as scavengers, it would find itself in this situation only if it had been forced to abandon the previous Alpha-Beta method of distribution, in which the members approach the food-source in serial order. By mutually communicating their renunciation of the attempt to “play the Alpha,” the members of the group constitute themselves as a self-conscious community, mediated by the sign that reciprocally reassures them of this deferral, which, unlike the reflexive inhibitions of the lower-ranked animals in the serial system, is a conscious interdiction—if not at first, then certainly once the sign has become associated with it.
Once all are participating in this exchange of signs, it is plausible to assume that they will all gradually approach the animal and (on the example of Robertson Smith’s camel sacrifice) at some point decide that they can each tear off their portion, being careful not to come into conflict with their neighbors. As I have often noted, the final result is not so different from the way humans share food today, although in ceremonial functions there is usually an officiant who divides up the meat—in principle in “equal” portions.
How should we conceive the communal understanding of the pointing gesture after this inaugural human distribution? Since the gesture was presumably successful in avoiding conflict, its sign-function will be retained, not merely as the residue of an aborted act but as an intentional gesture—which it will already have become in the course of its first, repeated, use. That the gesture designates something appetitively attractive but for the moment interdicted allows us to take it as the inaugural expression of desire, in contrast with mere animal appetite. This corresponds to Girard’s intuition that desire is always conceived in a mimetic context; although I do not need my neighbor to tell me that I am hungry, to speak of my desire for food implies that its eating is (communally) meaningful as well as physically satisfying.
Given that the sign derives from an aborted gesture of appropriation, its originary imputation of significance to its referent would be indistinguishable from its imputation of sacrality. At this point, the significant—worthy of signing rather than simply acting on—and the sacred—worthy of common attention/concern but for that very reason interdicted to individual possession—would not require different signifiers, for the combination of appetitive cum mimetic interest and deferral of possession are the same in both cases. And to think of language historically, the attribution of a word to some new object may be understood as the recognition of a new nuance of sacrality; the object worthy of its own word is something that not just I personally but the human community to which I belong considers worthy of conceiving, mentally setting on a scene, as opposed to immediately taking.
But at the same time, the attendant “lowering of the threshold of signification,” as I called it in TOOL, implies an emerging separation between an indefinitely multipliable set of signs and significant objects and the unitary sense of the sacred that has led Western civilization to define itself by the One God, while Eastern religion, as exemplified by Buddhism, focuses rather on the purification of our understanding of the empty—hence fully potential—scene of representation itself.
On the example of what we call our “conscience,” the originary experience of the sacred is that of an alien will that compels us from within ourselves—much like what Freud called the Superego. No doubt, from an external perspective, one can explain my aborted gesture of appropriation by fear of the potential violence of my fellows. But the unanimous recognition of this interdiction, communicated within the group by the reciprocally exchanged sign, acknowledges within each of us the recognition not just of this fear, but of a will that by interdicting individual possession transcendently oversees the human community and protects it… from itself.
This “Girardian” truth of the danger of mimetic violence as the source of humanity is never recognized by the social scientists who speculate on the origin of language. Yet the sacred will that protects the human community from itself is the constitutive agency of this community, the justification for Durkheim’s description of the sacred as embodying the “solidary” values of the community as a whole as opposed to those of its members.
This agency can have no worldly embodiment. The idols that Abraham smashed, though they may have been objects of idolatry, were never—in contrast with the paradoxical figure of the incarnate Christ—understood as truly embodying the sacred. Their physical particularity, their perishability, made them only sacred representations. And at a certain point, knowledge of their variety across different cultural groups permitted the intuition that even the multiplicity of gods was a mere accident of history. Once the Hebrews understood God to be always the same under different names and figurations, they rejected idolatry and forbade “graven images.” Their conception of the One God expressed an intuition whose firstness the world has yet to forgive.
Conceptually, God is no more “supernatural” than a Saussurian sign. Where in the real world is a signifiant? Both the signifier and idea of God (as the Orthodox Jewish reference to God as Hashem, “the name,” makes clear) are means humans have of sharing thoughts about sacred/significant elements of their common experience.
Whether or not we “believe in God,” we cannot deny the omnipresence of the sacred in all human societies, defined as the will behind the tacit rules that regulate our interactions. Any affirmation of significance partakes of the sacred; to utter a word is to presume that its listener will attend to it in preference to his current activity, that is, that he will defer this activity to the advantage of our utterance. We take for granted such customs without thinking that they all derive from the communal configuration of the originary scene.
Just as the cosmopolitan nature of today’s Western culture raises questions about the universality of specific cultural rules, on the highest level, the mixing of diverse peoples should convince us, as it did the nomadic Hebrews, of the universality of the sacred will as such as the providential basis for the cultural mediations that defer the reflexive expression of our appetites.
Whether we claim this universality as a demonstration of the “existence” of God as opposed to the conceptual necessity of the sacred may best be understood in a pragmatic light: is it enough to merely conceive this conceptual necessity, or does our survival as a species depend on faith that this providential force is generated not by the interactions of the human community but outside it and prior to it, as a foundational component of the universe? And even if the possibility be admitted that humans created the idea of God, since there is no conceivable proof of the contrary, can this creation be successful unless we conceive malgré tout, by an act of faith, that God, through the mediation of the physical universe, created us? The very nature of faith is such as to make a logical response to this question impossible.
It is difficult for us today to realize the degree to which even in the West everyday life remained saturated by the sacred well into the twentieth century. A religious believer has no difficulty understanding the control of divine providence over the totality of his activities, including sleeping and eating, understood as means to make oneself capable of doing one’s sacred duty to carry out actions of value to the community. The non-believer is likely to view this attitude as “superstitious” in the etymological sense of a holdover from more God-centered eras. But we must understand that this modern view is not more enlightened than the old one; it simply takes for granted, as the conveniences of modernity in advanced countries in peacetime have allowed us to do, the satisfactory functioning of the social order, forgetting that this order always remains dependent on our shared sense of the sacred in the form of our social conscience or Superego.
Secularization in its most basic sense is best defined as a forgetting of the originary scenic configuration that religious rites commemorate—taking the harmonious functioning of the social order for granted so long as one is able to function within it. The similarity between this state and that of a child in a protective family—a condition that our current social order often tends to prolong well beyond the limits of adolescence—is no coincidence. The self-indulgent softness of modern Western life after 75+ years of general peace is no doubt an inevitable consequence of what amounts to a forgetting of “human nature.” Religions have traditionally functioned to remind us of what Christianity refers to as our “original sin”—our propensity to mimetic rivalry—which is the reason why, in order to protect ourselves from each other, we became human in the first place.
The notion of original sin as posterior to the emergence of humanity is grounded on a solid anthropological intuition that we reject at our peril. Because animals, however intraspecifically violent, do not under normal circumstances endanger their species’ existence, they can remain “innocent”; humans, who required a new layer of protection, had to develop deferral, conscience… and our felix culpa, sin, a product of the non-reflexive, voluntary nature of deferral, the curse that accompanies the blessing of free will.
The postwar spread of secularization has appeared to many as a liberation from the persistence of obsolete cultural modes. But the utter incomprehension of the place of the sacred in human society that one finds, for example, in Michael Tomasello’s throwaway explanation of religion in A Natural History of Human Morality (Harvard, 2016; discussed in Chronicle 519) fails to recognize the persistence of the sense of the sacred in the absence of traditional explicit references. We should realize that this sense pervades all communal human values, those that we evoke tacitly or explicitly to justify our actions in society.
Whether these values are expressed in a legal charter such as the Bill of Rights or the Déclaration des droits de l’homme, all such attempts at codification have their roots in a moral intuition that takes for granted that all members of the community are subject to the same sacred imperatives. Even the current tendency toward anarchy that removes penalties for “minor” crimes is based on an alternative sense of the sacred, rooted in the epistemology of resentment, a transcendental faith that, although no more grounded in objective truth than traditional religious beliefs, pretends to provide humanity with “social justice” by denying the equivalent of original sin—despite the many times such efforts have led to disaster.
Yet in this era of growing secularism, we cannot ignore that traditionally religious people—in Europe, mostly Muslims—are quite a bit more likely than the irreligious to reproduce themselves. It is hard to make a clearer argument for religion than this correlation. Western nations, now including the US, have all fallen below replacement level, and in Europe the birth rate among the nominally Christian population is far below this level. This correlation is not written in stone, but among Western-style nations, Israel alone, whose population remains consciously animated by a desire to replace the Jews murdered by the Nazis (and even there, the religious population has a far higher birth rate), has no demographic problem.
The simplest demonstration a contrario of the functionality of the sacred in maintaining the welfare of the human species can indeed be found in the tendency of those who have become disconnected from the originary scene of humanity to privilege their own individual flourishing over ensuring the future of the human community. Let us hope that this reminder of the undiminished relevance of the sacred to human life may remind us as well of the undiminished relevance to our own lives of the West’s Abrahamic religious culture.