Borrowed robe of sacred

With Jean­-Pierre Dupuy on religion, violence, and envy

We asked the French philosopher and politologist Jean­-Pierre Dupuy how religion shapes rationality; how the economy became sacred; why is it useful to have prophets, and whether religion in today’s world incites violence or helps to tame it instead.

Sociologist Emile Durkheim in his work The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) stated that „the fundamental categories of thought, and therefore of science, have religious origins. As a result it can be said that nearly all great social institutions are derived from religion.“ You believe that Durkheim was right and you personally invested tremendous effort in analyzing aspects of the Sacred as the somewhat hidden agent that constitutes the human universe, so to say. Why do you think this notion of sacred is useful today?

There are two parts to your question. The first one is of an anthropological nature. I do belong to the Durkheimian tradition in that I believe that all the great social institutions that humankind invented, from power to money, from law to war, were born in the sacred. If that is the case, it is likely that the institutions brought about by the process of secularization, which is the major feature of what we call modernity, keep trace of their origin in the sacred, including the rationality that they claim is their exclusive foundation. That’s what I have endeavored to systematically show in my work.

I believe it is essential to drive a wedge between the sacred and religion. Here I completely follow French anthropologist René Girard in his account of the origin of the sacred (Violence and the Sacred, 1971.) Girard posits the existence of a universal mechanism by which violence, due to its imitative (contagious) properties, is capable of transcending itself and create stable institutions, which we call “the sacred.” The sacred is the violence of men, expelled, exteriorized, hypostatized. At the paroxysm of a violent crisis, when a murderous frenzy has shattered the system of differences that makes up the social order and sparked a war of all against all, violent contagion produces a catastrophic convergence of every enmity upon an arbitrary member of the collectivity: a scapegoat. Putting that member to death is what abruptly restores peace. The result is the sacred in its three component parts: rituals, prohibitions, and myths. The sacred keeps violence in check but it does it through violent means. The primordial one is sacrificial ritual which reproduces the originary crisis and its resolution. Sacrifice is a collective assassination that takes on the form of a ritual.

I also completely follow Max Weber when he explains that Judeo-Christianity is responsible for the Entzauberung der Welt, which can be translated as the desacralization of the world. This thesis couldn’t make any sense if one didn’t radically separate religion from the sacred. According to Girard, the Passion of the Christ has revealed to us the innocence of the victim. This knowledge has clogged up the works of the machine for making the sacred, damaging it irreparably. As it sacralizes less and less well, it produces more and more violence, but a violence that has lost the power to impose order on itself.

We are witnessing today attempts at returning to the sacred and they are all synonymous with barbarity. I suppose that we are going to broach this subject when we talk about terrorism.


In your latest two books The Mark of the Sacred and The Economy and the Future you mention how economists and the economy play a role of the sacred that was previously reserved first for the church and then for politics. What are the implications of this shift?

In a society in crisis, torn by wars and civil wars, no longer finding an external regulating authority in religion, there was a time – essentially the 17th and 18th centuries – when the economy appeared to be the only force capable of restraining the passions, controlling individual behavior and preventing collective disintegration. The unidimensionalization of beings reduced to making economic calculations, people’s isolation and the impoverishment of relationships, the predictability of human behaviors, in a word all that is described nowadays as the alienation of individuals in capitalist society, was conceived as a way of ending the pathetic and murderous struggle for greatness, power and recognition.  Mutual indifference and egotistical retreat into the private domain, such were the remedies dreamed up for the contagion of violent passions.

This account of the emergence of the hegemony of the economy due to thinkers like Montesquieu and Hume does not contradict the obvious observation that the economy is violent. Starting with Marx, many are the schools of thought that have theorized the violence of the economy. Bringing these two statements together leads one to the conclusion that the economy is in relation to violence what the sacred was: it keeps violence in check through violent means. It contains violence in the two senses of the verb “to contain:” to have within oneself and to bar, to obstruct. That doesn’t mean that the economy is sacred: it grows in the rubble of the sacred. Between the economy and the sacred there is a structural equivalence which makes of the economy the most important mark or trace of the sacred.

Today, for reasons I analyze in the books you cite, the economy doesn’t play this role any more. It tends toward pure violence.


An important term in your work is so-called enlightened doomsaying –position of a prophet - a technical term for someone who represents the middle position of the triad: an expert; a prophet; a visionary. An expert is overtly focused on fact analysis and a visionary is overtly optimistic regarding the number of alternative scenarios of the future there are. A prophet plays a balanced role – able to warn and inspire to undertake an action to prevent the anticipated negative future. Do you think Pope Francis with his current focus on the climate change is such a prophet in this technical sense of the word?

The pope is indeed a prophet, in the sense that he announces what the kingdom of love might look like. This is much less manifest in his recent Encyclical Laudato Si, which is courageous and well informed but, I’m afraid, won’t alter much our race to a climatic catastrophe, than in some of his reactions to the events of the world. I see it much more in the way he responded to the assassination of Father Hamel who was stabbed to death by two young islamist terrorists while he was celebrating a mass in a church in Normandy last (this past?) July, shortly after the Nice tragedy. Many in the Church and elsewhere claimed that the old priest was a martyr and that he had given his life for his faith. The implications were momentous: since the terrorists had proclaimed their Islamic faith, it meant that we were witnessing the first act of a war of religions. What did Pope Francis say? (That this was….?) This was a meaningless, pointless act, an absurdity, driven by sheer hatred. This deflationary statement shocked, no less than when Hannah Arendt said of Eichmann that he was “thoughtless.” These kids were sheer fools? That’s all that the Pope had to say?

Confronting the terrorist acts regularly committed in the name of Islam on its territory, the debate in Europe has been polarized between two extreme positions that stand on each side of the fuzzy notion of Islamophobia. On the left of the left, all kinds of causes, mainly sociological and political, but also psychological and even psychiatric, have been sought that might explain those extraordinary acts. Explaining is not vindicating but the line between the two is at times very thin. On the other side, coming mainly from the Catholic right, we hear the contention that there is something intrinsically violent in the belief system of Islam as well as in its practices. From its sacrificial theology to its refusal to separate politics from religion to its ambition to establish a universal caliphate over the world, Islam would be fundamentally alien to our democracies.

Irreconcilable though these two positions seem to be, it is possible to bring them together. We are dealing with abominable crimes to be sure but, added to them, there is something like the self-sacrifice of the criminals that evokes a sacrifice in the anthropological sense of the word. This categorical confusion is obviously an effect of the workings of the Christian revelation. Sacrifice is confused with self-sacrifice and the essential difference between the Passion of the Christ on the Cross and its monstrous reflection in the self-inflicted deaths of the terrorists is blurred.

The abject mise-en-scène of many of these terrorist acts is a sham, a counterfeit. In order to justify itself violence needs to don borrowed clothes, those of an established religion, in the present case Islam, to offer the appearance of the sacred. In a world in the process of secularization or, better, desacralization, that is the best violence can hope to achieve: to mimic the sacred. Sacred terror is simply a simulacrum.

"They hated me without reason" says the Gospel of John. The usual version reads "without a cause." But the Greek original (dôron) refers to the gratuitousness of God’s gift to the world. Isn’t it astounding that the violence of which Christ is a victim should be referred to by the very word that serves to designate the absence of reason that presides over God’s love for us? The terrorists’ violence certainly has a million causes that have been analyzed by as many scholarly articles. But as far as reason is concerned, this violence doesn’t go beyond murderous imbecility. This is I believe the very deep point the Pope wanted to make.


One of your influences is sociologist Max Weber who elaborates on the Calvinist paradox of predestination and effort. How is this paradox at the core of capitalism?

Max Weber’s thesis, that there is a vital link between what he called the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, has never been more controversial than it is today. It is to be sure highly paradoxical.  But a paradox is not an inconsistency; it has a distinctive and stable identity of its own. I have shown that the form of Weber’s paradox is the mark of the sacred. Weber’s account has been unfairly discarded for want of seeing this.

How could the Calvinists’ belief in predestination lead not to fatalism but to its opposite, that is a life of labor aimed at accumulating wealth construed as the signs of their election, as if the puritans, taking the signs for the thing, saw themselves capable of choosing their predestination? And how could this magical reasoning have been the matrix of economic rationality?

The temporality of myths of origin has distinctive features. One of them is the reversal of time. An intruder is punished for having stolen the totems of a certain society. It is this punishment that is believed to be the foundation of the society - including its totems. The consequence precedes the cause, the future loops back onto the past, in the same way that Rousseau’s social contract presupposes that it has always already been signed. This is the paradox of self-grounding, a paradox that appears to be common to the mythical foundations of the social order and the basis of economic reason.


You link the Calvinist paradox to the need for a meta-rational choice as you explained through an experiment – so called Newcomb’s paradox. The participant sees two boxes, one is transparent and there is 1000 dollars in it and another box is black and there either is or isn’t a million dollars. If the participant chooses only the black box, there is a Predictor who sees this in advance and will put the million dollars there. Do you see some similarity to the Abraham and Isaac story? Can it be done through some meta-rational thinking similar to the Calvinist choice?

This is a very deep question, which belongs to the metaphysics of free will confronting God’s omniscience. Yes, I believe that the Abraham and Isaac story is amenable to this kind of meta-rational thinking. The point has been made by C.S. Lewis in his book The Problem of Pain.

In the Newcomb problem – which is a more abstract version of the Calvinist paradox - once I have chosen to take either the black box – in which case I get the one million dollars that the Predictor (please note: not the oracle, because the oracle speaks. This predictor doesn’t, and that makes a huge difference!) has put in it – or the two boxes, in which case I get the one thousand dollars in the transparent box plus zero in the black box – it turns out that I could not have chosen otherwise. My action creates a retroactive necessity since once it has taken place the Predictor (that is, God) knows that I would act like I did. In acting the way I do, I discover something about myself that God had known for all eternity.

C. S. Lewis makes a similar point. Even though God knew that Abraham was capable of sacrificing his son in order to obey Him, Abraham didn't know that about himself; and it's idle to talk about what he might have done. The reality of his obedience was the act itself. In other terms, it was not a matter for God to test Abraham but to allow him to become the one who decides to put obedience to God prior to attachment to one’s son.

There is of course a simpler rendering, in anthropological terms. Isaac’s non-sacrifice obviously represents an exceptional moment in the history of sacrificial substitutions. It is the moment when animal sacrifice is substituted for human sacrifice The religious history of humankind is the endogenous evolution of sacrificial systems. Civilization leaps forward at each significant substitution of victims, when animals are substituted for humans, then plants, then puppets or shibboleths, then abstract entities. The history of civilization is one with the history of symbolization.


What is the role of religion in taming envy? Slavoj Žižek often echoes your focus on Friedrich Hayek regarding envy and in opposition to Rawlsian just worlds. You both say that the world according to John Rawls would be a nightmare because people would know that their misfortune is only due to their incompetence and this would make them depressed. Isn’t envy a different emotion? How can religion today, or some more secular tools that help to create communities, tackle the problem of envy as one of the signs of rising social inequality and formation of humiliation?

This argument is part of my internal critique of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. It is because Rawls defines envy the way he does that I conclude that his “good and just” society would maximize envy instead, as he claims, of taming it. The good Rawlsian society is a society that all publicly agree to recognize as just, and which goes to the greatest lengths to secure the conditions of a true equality of opportunity. It is also an unegalitarian society, in which inequalities are correlated with, and thereby reveal, differences in aptitudes, talents, abilities and efforts. How can those who are on the bottom of the ladder blame anyone but themselves for their inferiority?

In such an unequal society envy has free reign. In order to forestall its effects, Rawls must eliminate merit, that is, the differences in individual worth. For it is the thought that the other deserves his good fortune which opens the door to the sufferings of envy, and not the contrary, which is the only one to express itself openly. Hence Rawls’ insistence, so paradoxical in his own ideological context, on the “arbitrariness,” that is, contingency, not only of the initial conditions of birth, but also the contingency of efforts and the absence of merit or demerit attached to them—an anti-meritocratic position for which he has not been forgiven by his colleagues on the right, like Robert Nozick and Hayek.

 We see here again the role that exteriority plays in the management of violence. The sacred provided this exteriority and, as we saw before, the desacralization of the world operated by Christianity destroys it. There remains the contingency of chance. But the Rawlsian solution can work only if the members of a society can themselves be persuaded that merit plays no role and that all is a matter of contingency. Unfortunately, plunged as he is into a competitive world, the modern individual, in his voracity, will not accept that part of his being is to be taken away from him: his gifts, his talents, his efforts—in short, his “merit.”

Envy is not depression, it can be its opposite: emulation, keeping up with the Joneses, etc. Our societies find their dynamism in the unfettering of envy. My conclusion is that there is no theoretical solution to the problem of social justice in a society driven by competition and rivalry. That obviously doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t aim at justice. But that requires a society that gives top priority to the third term of the motto of the French Revolution: much more than liberty and equality: “fraternité”.


Your strong influence is your personal friend and mentor Ivan Illich who came with the notion of counter productivity. He was very critical of the church but at the same time he saw the important role Christianity plays. Together with G. K. Chesterton and Slavoj Žižek you stress (all of you from different perspectives and narratives) the importance of Christianity and the progress that it brought and contract it with other religions. By going back to roots of Christian egalitarian communities, has Christianity lost its emancipatory potential, and who do you think today develops Illich´s notion of counter productivity?

Both Ivan Illich and, before him, G. K. Chesterton believed that the modern world has been shaped by a corrupt version of the Gospel. Illich saw the major manifestation of this corruption in the boundlessness and the hubris that have become our guiding principles. He located the source of this in a major misunderstanding of the parable of the Good Samaritan. To the question “Who is my neighbor?” the latter seems to respond, anyone can be my neighbor, independently of divisions of races, nations, or what have you. This universal benevolence is the perfect ground for the limitless expansion of capitalism.

Christianity, or at least what modernity made of it, is the main factor in the progressive elimination of all taboos, sacred prohibitions or limits. It fell to science itself to pursue this desacralization of the world set in motion by the religions of the Bible, by stripping nature of any prescriptive or normative value. It is therefore utterly futile to try to paint science as being at odds with the Judeo-Christian tradition on this point. Where then is the ethical problem located, if there is one here? It is clearly not in the transgression of who knows what taboo or limit guaranteed by Nature or the sacred, since the joint evolution of religion and science has done away with any heteronomous foundation for the very concept of a moral limit, and hence of a transgression. But that is precisely the problem. For no free and autonomous human society exists which does not rest on a principle of self-limitation.

I am writing this from Cuernavaca, Mexico, where Illich settled in the late 1960’s and set up there the CIDOC, his conference center. We are celebrating what would have been his 90th anniversary. There are many of his old friends but also lots of young people. All are convinced, to cite Illich in his provocative definition of counter productivity, that beyond certain thresholds of development, the more widespread our major institutions designed to produce the good become, the more they become an obstacle to the realization of the very purposes that they are supposed to serve.  Thus medicine ruins health, education stupefies, transport immobilizes, communication makes us deaf and dumb, information destroys meaning, and fossil fuels, which reactualize the dynamism of a vanished world, threaten to extinguish the possibility of life in the future. 


You observed, that the rise of religious fundamentalism in both the USA and Europe have poked the left in both continents with its anti-religious secular crusade. You suggest that it would be a great mistake to conclude that they have same base. I´m very curious to learn from you – what is your take on the role of the left, in the terms of recognition, or to be more precise – reconciliation with the religion?

I fully agree with you: at least in Europe the left is sick from not embracing the issue of religion. This is especially true in my country where secularization has taken on the extreme form that we call “laïcité”. This is the legacy of the French Revolution. Secularism in the French sense does not signify the neutrality of the state, as it does in America.  The doctrine of the neutrality of the state, due to classical liberalism, holds that the state is incompetent to decide what constitutes the good life, and therefore cannot take sides between competing conceptions.  In France, by contrast, secularism is understood to be a fundamentally anti-liberal and “perfectionist” concept.  In this view, the state has both the authority to say of what the good life consists and also the right to command obedience to its will in the public sphere.  It is here that the problem of religion makes itself felt most acutely.  The republican tradition in France makes conformity to reason the sole qualification for taking part in public life. Rationality is the highest public virtue.

Now, to the French secular mind, religious faith of every kind seems profoundly irrational.  Religion and its visible signs therefore have no legitimate place in the public sphere in France, where education is obligatory and free of charge for all.  The thought of a president of the republic taking the oath of office on a Bible is unimaginable.  Were he to conclude his inaugural address with the words “God save France,” there would be rioting in the streets.  When the nation’s currency was the French franc, the idea that banknotes might bear the legend “In God We Trust” would have been simply inconceivable.  These commonplaces of American political culture are deeply shocking to my fellow citizens, no less shocking than the recent French laws and decrees - prohibiting the display of emblems of religious affiliation in schools, whether the Islamic veil, the Jewish skullcap, or Christian crucifixes greater than a certain size - seem to many of my American friends. 

In the aftermath of the recent terrorist attacks committed in the name of Islam the socialist government in France seems to have lost all reason. The ridiculous prohibition of the “burkini” on the beaches of a few municipalities, especially near Nice, in the name of decency is the latest symptom of this moral panic.


Could we perceive contemporary rationality and its aspects as result of secularism and failed attempt to create neutral space, free from interference of religion and the sacred?

Let me repeat what my position is. Secularism may be the result of an attempt to create a world deprived of religion, but it was driven by religion. As for the sacred, it remains present in the form of traces at the very heart of some of the most advanced achievements of what we proudly call rationality, for better or for worse. For worse: the case of nuclear deterrence, which I have been studying for many years. If there exists a domain in which Satan is supposedly capable of expelling Satan, to cite the Bible, it is nuclear deterrence. Having the bomb, the strategists tell us, has only one purpose: preventing that the others use it. Thirty-odd times during the Cold War we were “that close” to a nuclear self-annihilation of humankind. Does that mean that deterrence was ineffective? Quite to the contrary it was that constant playing with fire that kept us permanently on our guard. Those “near-misses” were the condition of possibility of the efficiency of nuclear deterrence. For deterrence to be effective at all, we must be at the right distance from the black hole of the self-destruction of humankind: not too close, lest we should be burnt to death; not too far, lest we should forget the existence of the threat. That structure is exactly that of the sacred as brought out by René Girard. We must not be too close to the sacred, because it would release the violence that it keeps in check, like a Pandora jar; we must not be too far from the sacred, because it protects us from our own violence.

Translated by Dáša Frančíková.

Jean-Pierre Dupuy (b. 1941) is Professor Emeritus of Social and Political Philosophy at the École Polytechnique, Paris, and Professor of Political Science at Stanford University. He is a member of the French academy of sciences and chairs the Ethics Committee of the French High Authority on Nuclear Safety and Security. His latest work focuses on the topic of catastrophe. Dupuy has published numerous books that deal with the dismal state of the world and its relation to the sacred, including Petite métaphysique des tsunamis (2005), L’Avenir de l’économie (2012), and La Marque du sacré (2013).