Islam and the Mother Lode of Bad Ideas: The Bill Maher, Sam Harris, and Ben Affleck Debate

Bill Maher (left) and Ben Affleck. s_buckley /

Rene Girard has a prophetic warning in his book Battling to the End about the West’s fight against Islamic jihadists:

The West is going to exhaust itself in its fight against Islamic terrorism, which Western arrogance has undeniably kindled.

That Western arrogance was on display last weekend on Real Time with Bill Maher. The tense debate about Islam between Bill Maher, Sam Harris, and Ben Affleck has been shared multiple times over social media and provides a case study in Girard’s mimetic theory.

One element that mimetic theory illuminates in this discussion of Islam is the scapegoat mechanism. Scapegoating is a non-conscious way of reinforcing a group’s relationship by blaming another group of people for our problems. The scapegoating mechanism is non-conscious because we always think that we are innocent and that our scapegoats are guilty. The video below shows a great example of the scapegoating mechanism when it comes to Islam. (Warning: It's an HBO show — there is some foul language.)

The Bible is Not A Myth: God’s Patience with a Tone Deaf People

Bible, Sabphoto/

Bible, Sabphoto/

I don’t know where God gets the patience. We are absolutely the most difficult people to communicate with! As the Letter to the Hebrews begins, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets.” Many and various ways – thank you, God, for trying everything you could think of to get through to us. And then, as Hebrews continues, “in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.” And not just any, run-of-the-mill offspring. No! This Son was “appointed heir of all things,” by God, “through whom he also created the worlds.” Sending such a magnificent messenger means nothing less than a passionate desire to be heard: I AM SENDING YOU MY SON, THE ONE THROUGH WHOM I DO MY GREATEST WORK TO SHOW YOU WHO I AM! IS ANYONE LISTENING??

That was two thousand years ago and still God has not abandoned hope. At least I think God hasn’t! Which is so like God. But what is so not like us is that finally, tentatively, it appears that we are beginning to get the message. At least a part of the message that has not gotten through to us before. A Spirit of renewal has been moving through Christianity. New meanings are being discovered in Scripture, meanings that are so strange and unnatural to us that they could only have come from God. Or should I say, that they could only have been coming from God for a long, long time until we finally developed ears to hear.

Defeating Satan at Harvard

Dunster House White Tower and Red Dome at Harvard, Jorge Salcedo / Shutterstock.

Dunster House White Tower and Red Dome at Harvard, Jorge Salcedo /

How do you defeat Satan?

That was the question the University of Harvard had to answer last week when the Harvard Extension School’s Cultural Studies Club planned a satanic “Black Mass” at the university.

The Harvard community, led by Harvard president Drew Faust, was outraged by the Black Mass. Faust addressed the situation by stating, “The ‘black mass’ had its historical origins as a means of denigrating the Catholic Church; it mocks a deeply sacred event in Catholicism, and is highly offensive to many in the church and beyond.” Although Faust was offended by the planned event, she defended the right of the Cultural Studies Club to proceed with the black mass. “Nevertheless, consistent with the University’s commitment to free expression, including expression that may deeply offend us, the decision to proceed is and will remain theirs.”

The Archdiocese of Boston also responded with outraged offense. Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley claimed, “Why people would want to do something that is so offensive to so many people in the community, whether they’re Catholic or not, it’s very repugnant.”

As a Christian, I understand the outrage. After all, the black mass mocks the Eucharist, one of the most holy events in Christianity. But, before we fester in our animosity toward the Satanists, I want to encourage us to take a step back and analyze this event from the angle of mimetic theory.

Philip Seymour Hoffman's Invaluable Gift: Revealing Our Humanity

Philip Seymour Hoffman at a football game in 2011, Debby Wong /

Philip Seymour Hoffman at a football game in 2011, Debby Wong /

Tom Junod of Esquire wrote an insightful piece about the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman titled “ Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Final Secret: The cost of holding up a mirror to those who could barely stand to look at themselves .” The whole article is worth reading, but these words are especially important:

"There was no actor, in our time, who more ably suggested that each of us is the sum of our secrets … no actor who better let us know what he knew, which is that when each of us returns alone to our room, all bets are off. He used his approachability to play people who are unacceptable, especially to themselves; indeed, his whole career might be construed as a pre-emptive plea for forgiveness to those with the unfortunate job of cleaning up what he — and we — might leave behind."

In his roles, Hoffman played unacceptable, despicable, and broken characters. In other words, he played our cultural scapegoats. But the beauty of Hoffman’s work is that he humanized our scapegoats. Of course, his characters were unacceptable because they were guilty of being repellent jerks, underserving of love or sympathy, which is exactly why they made good scapegoats. The function of a scapegoat is to unite us in hatred against them, so the scapegoat who seems to us to be completely guilty, like a cartoon villain, the better sense of unity we can form against them. The best scapegoat is one who even agrees with us about just how terrible he is. As Junod writes, Hoffman “used his approachability to play people who are unacceptable, especially to themselves.”

Surviving Chiberea: On Scapegoating the Weather


Snow provides a common enemy Littleny/Shutterstock

Last Thursday, as I carefully navigated my way home from work on the slippery streets of a few Chicago suburbs, I was listening to a talk radio program. The host reminded his listeners that he broadcasts from sunny Arizona, and then he said, “I know that many of you have had large amounts of snowfall. I recommend that you sit back and enjoy the beauty of the snow.”

At which point I yelled some expletives about what he could do with his recommendation and promptly changed the station.

It’s been a brutal winter. Indeed, we’ve already had “large amounts of snowfall.” Yesterday in Chiberea (that’s an amalgamation of Chicago and Siberia, for those keeping score), the high was negative 13 and today the high will be positive 3. Yay for staying positive, Chicago.

Staying positive about the weather is becoming more difficult. The snow, while pretty, will be here from late November to early March. It. Gets. OId. And schools have been canceled for two days in a row. Listen, I love my kids, but they’ve been stuck inside for the past five days. We are all experiencing cabin fever.

But there’s one thing about Chicago winters that I can appreciate. The relentless snow and the extreme cold provide an opportunity to build a sense of community. Neighbors suffer through this weather together. We check in on one another to make sure people are surviving and staying warm. And, of course, we create a sense of community by uniting against the weather. The snow and the cold become our common enemy. Or, as René Girard’s mimetic theory puts it, the weather has become our scapegoat.

In Search of the Real Alec Baldwin

Photo courtesy of TMZ

Alec Baldwin chases down a photographer. Photo courtesy of TMZ

Alec Baldwin was caught on video venting his rage against a photographer and using a homophobic slur. I actually don’t follow Alec on Twitter or keep up with celebrity news on TMZ, but apparently he’s put similar slurs in writing. In this case, however, he denies using a homophobic slur, saying he is being misquoted. And as proof that he is not homophobic, in fact just the opposite, he points to his work on behalf of marriage equality with GLAAD. In defense of his actions in the video, he insists he was only defending his family’s privacy — in the video we can clearly hear him shouting at the photographer to stay away from his wife and his baby. Here’s a brief excerpt from his blog post in which Baldwin expresses his desire to protect his family and neighbors from media harassment:

I am concerned for my family. In Bloomberg's New York, forty or fifty paparazzi are allowed to block streets, inconvenience homeowners, workers and shoppers, and make life miserable for my neighbors. Photographers have tripped and fallen on babies in strollers on my block. They have nearly struck my wife in the face with microphones. They provoke me, daily, by getting dangerously close to me with their cameras as weapons, hoping I will react. When I do, the weapon doubles as a device to record my reaction. And then, apparently, I lose every time. 

And here’s what the prominent blogger Andrew Sullivan had to say. He is among many who called for accountability from Baldwin, GLAAD and his current employer MSNBC. (At this writing MSNBC has suspended Baldwin’s show for two weeks.) Here’s what Sullivan said:

Look: Baldwin’s anger… was thoroughly merited. But he continually resorts to this kind of homophobic poison when he’s angry. Just as Mel Gibson revealed his true feelings about Jews in his drunken rant, so Baldwin keeps revealing his own anti-gay bigotry. These outbursts reveal who he actually is. (Emphasis in original)

So which is it? Is Baldwin a raging (literally) homophobe or is he a decent guy protecting his family and neighbors? Whenever I encounter an either/ or choice like this, I know I am in the presence of a possible scapegoating incident for three reasons.

Drones and Terrorism: Is the U.S. Scapegoating Al Qaeda?

U.S. Drone, Paul Drabot /

U.S. Drone, Paul Drabot /

Is the U.S. scapegoating Al Qaeda? It’s an odd question, I know, but it reared its ugly head as I read about the new reports from Amnesty International and Humans Rights Watch on U.S. drone strikes. The scapegoating mechanism is a very precise instrument that accrues enormous benefits to the scapegoater. By accusing their scapegoat of wrongdoing, a scapegoater ingeniously hides from the reality of their own guilt. Now here’s the weird thing: a scapegoat does not have to be innocent to function as a scapegoat. Scapegoats can be evil, nasty, ruthless, amoral sons-of-bitches and still function perfectly well as a scapegoat. Which is why I ask the question: Is the U.S. scapegoating Al Qaeda to hide from its own guilt?

With that in mind, I invite you to read these few excerpts that raised the question for me, with key phrases in boldface:

[continued at jump]

Another Way for Jews to Atone This Yom Kippur: The eScapegoat

The eScapegoat, an online creation of a San-Francisco non-profit to help people

The eScapegoat, an online creation of a San-Francisco non-profit to help people get ready for Yom Kippur. Image via G-dcast.

The weeks leading up to the Jewish High Holy Days are supposed to be marked by self-questioning: What failings must I atone for, and to whom must I apologize?

A group of artists, writers and animators are hoping a cartoon goat may help.

They call it the eScapegoat, and it’s supposed to approximate the original scapegoat, described in Leviticus as an important player in the atonement ritual of the ancient Israelites, who symbolically placed their sins upon the animal and sent it into the wilderness.