Noam Chomsky thinks the U.S. is “one of the most fundamentalist countries in the world.” René Girard replies.


Curmudgeonly? (Photo: Duncan Rawlinson/Creative Commons)

The Académie Française memorial service for René Girard in Saint-Germain-des-Prés will take place this weekend. The Book Haven has written much about the French theorist, who died on November 4 (see here). I will not be in Paris, alas, except in spirit. So René was much in my mind when I read the latest headline from Noam Chomsky. According to The Wirethe controversial public intellectual thinks America is “one of the most fundamentalist countries in the world.” Really? He’s including Pakistan, Libya, Saudi Arabia in the competition? I wondered.

In fairness, his comment is much is much more nuanced than that … well, not much more. According to the article: “There are not too many countries in the world where two-thirds of the population awaits The Second Coming, Chomsky said, adding that half of them think it is going to be in their lifetimes. ‘And maybe a third of the population believes the world was created 10,000 years ago, exactly the way it is now. Things like that are pretty weird, but that is true in the United States and has been for a long time.’” Guess I haven’t been hanging out in the right circles. How quick we are, however, to distance ourselves from those people. That should be a tip-off.

I returned to what René had to say on the subject in a short (about 100 page), very readable Q&A book, When These Things Begin: Conversations with Michel Treguertranslated by Trevor Cribben-Merrill and published by Michigan State University Press in 2014. An excerpt:

MT: What do you think of the “creationists” who take the Bible literally?

RG: They’re wrong, of course, but I don’t want to speak ill of them because today they are the scapegoats of American culture. The media distorts everything they say and treats them like the lowest of the low.

MT: But if they’re wrong, why not? You speak of scapegoats, but, as far as I know, nobody’s putting the creationists to death, are they?


I’m with René. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

RG: They’re ostracized from society. It’s said that Americans can’t resist peer pressure, and it’s generally true. Just look at academia, that vast herd of sheep-like individualists: they think they’re persecuted, but they’re not. The creationists are. They’re resisting peer pressure. I take my hat off to them.

MT: But what if they’re absolutely wrong? For someone who places such emphasis on the truth, whatever the cost, I suddenly find you very indulgent.

RG: And what do you do with freedom of religion? In America, as elsewhere, fundamentalism results from the breakdown of an age-old compromise between religion and anti-religious humanism. And it’s anti-religious humanism that is responsible for the breakdown. It espouses doctrines that start with abortion, that continue with genetic manipulation, and that tomorrow will undoubtedly lead to hyperefficient forms of euthanasia. In at most a few decades we’ll have transformed man into a repugnant little pleasure-machine, forever liberated from pain and even from death, which is to say from everything that, paradoxically, encourages us to pursue any sort of noble human aim, and not only religious transcendence.

treguerMT: So there’s nothing worse than trying to avert real dangers by means of false beliefs?

RG: Mankind has never done anything else.

MT: That’s no reason to continue.

RG: The fundamentalists often defend ideas that I deplore, but a remnant of spiritual health makes them foresee the horror of the warm and fuzzy concentration camp that our benevolent bureaucracies are preparing for us, and their revolt looks more respectable to me than our somnolence. In an era where everyone boasts of being a marginal dissident even as they display a stupefying mimetic docility, the fundamentalists are authentic dissidents. I recently refused to participate in a supposedly scientific study that treats them like guinea pigs, without the researchers ever asking themselves about the role of their own academic ideology in a phenomenon that they think they’re studying objectively, with complete and utter detachment.

What can I say? He will be missed. No one like him. And I wish I were in Paris this weekend.

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11 Responses to “Noam Chomsky thinks the U.S. is “one of the most fundamentalist countries in the world.” René Girard replies.”

  1. George Says:

    By whom are the creationists ostracized? I suspect that the Stanford faculty, down to the adjuncts, could fit without crowding into any one of several megachurches that are fundamentalist. They must know that many people who consider themselves their betters think poorly of them; yet their votes and their dollars are much solicited. It is true that there are quantities of people who scorn creationists and would be hard put to tell a trilobite were it handed to them.

  2. Frank Wilson Says:

    It is imprecise to conflate Fundamentalism and New Earth Creationism. Fundamentalism is grounded in an insistence on five Christian doctrines thought to be fundamental to the faith. New Earth Creationism, with its notion of literal interpretation of Scripture, is a much later and quite small subset of Protestantism. Few of the people in those megachurches believe that Earth is only 10,000 years old. They certainly aren’t obligated to. As for that small, who cares? Surely our society is big enough to tolerate cheerfully the harmless oddball conviction. I think Girard was right. Fundamentalists are treated with disdain by those who have not taken the time or trouble to verify what Fundamentalists actually believe and instead identify their beliefs with those of a fringe group.

  3. Nicholas Pantelopoulos Says:

    The history of Western Christianity is full of excesses and crimes “for the greater good”. To believe speaking falseness for the sake to defend what is considered sacred is the reason why Western Christianity has been left on the fringes of modern society.
    As an Orthodox Christian, I find that fundamentalist understanding of the Bible is purely idolatrous. In the US, fundamentalism is a protestant reaction towards Modernity, and has taken various violent and dangerous forms, and should be restrained through proper education.

  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Frank, It’s often conflated with evangelicals, too – anyone one wishes to scapegoat, really. In fact, the tenets of the Apostle’s Creed, which in my own childhood was pretty basic to all Christianity, is considered a way-out fundamentalist tract today. But thanks, Frank, for your clarification. Yes, I agree that our society ought to be big enough to “tolerate cheerfully the harmless oddball conviction.”

  5. elizabeth powers Says:

    Great posting, Cynthia. The interviewer sure was persistent!

  6. Hanna Mäkelä Says:

    Trust Girard to take the unpopular way! While I applaud his integrity and the kindness he extends to a group that risks being dehumanized, I am a bit disappointed that he did not elaborate the very real dangers of fundamentalist ideology (perhaps he felt he could add nothing new to the debate, but still). The ideas of hell fire consuming people who do not believe the Bible to be a literal word of God, the complete disregard for scientific truth (not just transcending it but actually refuting it) and publishing quotes from Exodus that prompt the tearing apart at the limbs of trans-people as a healthy sex education guide to worried parents. My favourite fundamentalist episode is when one was asked what it meant for him to be a Christian and when he replied: “It means I neither give or ask for help.” How someone otherwise so neurotic in getting the Scripture right word for word could extrapolate that from anywhere in the Bible is a mystery.

    So my point is that is Girard really that opposed to left-wing social liberals that not only can they do no right but their “enemies” can do no wrong. And here was me hoping to open his thought for the post-post-structuralist left-leaning humanists.

    That said, I love Girard’s thought and am criticizing it because I love it. Rest in peace, dear wise man.

  7. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Hanna, It’s a subject I never discussed with him. My guess, and it’s only that, is that he didn’t view the fundamentalists/creationists as important or threatening enough to merit the hatred unleashed upon them. Or perhaps, being based in an academic community, he was inviting his probable readers to take a good look at their own prejudices and animosities. In the end, the only attitudes we can correct are our own.

  8. Hanna Mäkelä Says:

    Than you, Cynthia. I agree that polemicizing that particular demographic (and the popular data varies on how big a percentage they actually represent; I am completely at a loss about the Christian demographics of the US after the 1970’s when things apparently started to escalate to the extremes and the mainline took a nose dive – or did it?). I am mainly worried that when G is bashing social liberals he is juxtaposing things as different as genetic manipulation and euthanasia / abortion on demand (I really hope he is not opposing abortion wholesale, though of course he has every freedom) on the one hand and LGBT rights on the other. The latter have nothing to do with being a selfish pleasure machine, and I think that there are cases of genetic manipulation (i.e. improving third world crops), euthanasia (when a person is suffering and would die in any case) and abortion (medical and even some social reasons; also, a miscarriage is in some countries viewed as an abortion and the woman faces real jail time). And what about death penalty and opposition to gun control? Does the Christian Right not figure big in those “sacrificial” statistics? Could G have been so frustrated with his peers in the academia that he romanticized the Bible Belt? Not that I want to psychologize.

  9. Cynthia Haven Says:

    I think people vastly underestimated his sense of humor.

  10. Hanna Mäkelä Says:

    That could very well be the case. Also, like so many exceptionally smart people, he overestimated the faculties of the rest of us mortals (after all, he is officially immortal, courtesy of the French Academy) and did not bother to explain himself.

    So, when can we expect the biography to come out? 🙂

  11. Cynthia Haven Says:

    That’s up to my publisher, Hanna, and he’s waiting on the production people. Later this year, I hope.