Girard’s Mimetic Theory and Its Relevance Today 

Girard’s Mimetic Theory and Its Relevance Today  May 19, 2024

Rene Girard 

Rene Girard, born in 1923 and died in 2015 was a French polymath, historian, literary critic, and philosopher of social science. He would write nearly thirty books which covered many academic domains. Girard was most known for his intellectual work on desire.  

In this essay, I want to comment on two well-known components of Girard’s work, desire, and his work on the Scapegoat mechanism.  

Mimetic Desire and the Imaginary Audience 

Girard was most known for his work on mimetic desire. “Ever since Plato, students of human nature have highlighted the great mimetic capacity of human beings; that is, we are the species most apt at imitation” (IEP). Imitation is a basic mechanism of learning. In human development, we often talk about mirror neurons. These mirror neurons are essential to the interaction between parent and child at the earliest stages and are essential to learning. A child who has poor or nonexistent parental interaction becomes set up for failures in learning and social development later when they become school aged.  

In middle school, mimetic desire is on full display in a concept known as the imaginary audience. (See this post where I commented on this concept: ). According to Girard, most “thinking devoted to imitation pays little attention to the fact that we also imitate other people’s desires, and depending on how this happens, it may lead to conflicts and rivalries” (IEP).  

Conflict arises when in imitation, people find that they are desiring the same things. One of the questions I have been asking my students this semester in the philosophy class I am teaching, is “what is wrong with people these days?” Here, we see mimetic desire and a politically manipulative system exploiting people’s need for control and fear of scarcity.  

It is important to distinguish Girard’s ‘imitation’ from ‘mimesis’. “The former is usually understood as the positive aspect of reproducing someone else’s behavior, whereas the latter usually implies the negative aspect of rivalry. It should also be mentioned that because the former usually is understood to refer to mimicry, Girard proposes the latter term to refer to the deeper, instinctive response that humans have to each other” (IEP). 

Scapegoat Mechanism and the Implications for Atonement Theory 

I am not a fan of traditional atonement theories, and I am particularly allergic to the theory known as penal substitutionary atonement theory.  

As a summary, penal substitutionary atonement posits that ( 

Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners. God imputed the guilt of our sins to Christ, and he, in our place, bore the punishment that we deserve. This was a full payment for sins, which satisfied both the wrath and the righteousness of God, so that He could forgive sinners without compromising His own holy standard. 

I feel that this particular theory of atonement has contributed to widespread violence at the hands of Christians. I also feel that it makes Jesus a MacGuffin (see ). As other public theologians have called for, I echo the call for a more nonviolent atonement. Rene Girard gives us one through his scapegoat theory.  

Girard’s Scapegoat Theory 

When mimetic desire creates feelings of lack, fear of scarcity or and blaming say in the case of our current American situation, violence can ensue. For Girard, “the sacrificial victim, the scapegoat, serves as a symbolic vessel for the exorcism of collective tension and conflict. By placing the blame on this chosen entity, the community achieves a temporary sense of unity and relief. The act of scapegoating allows the community to externalize its internal conflicts onto a single target” (Deian, 2023). In America, the scapegoat is whoever either political party blames for society’s problems.  

It has been proposed that as a reason for Jesus’ death, who was an innocent Jewish man, that he went to the cross as the “last scapegoat.” In Jesus going to the cross, he put on full display the lengths the Jewish religious officials, and the Roman government would go to control the population. In his death, people’s minds were changed, and this change would begin the gradual downfall of the Roman empire, the destruction of the temple, all which Jesus predicted. In a more practical sense, Jesus as the last scapegoat demonstrated God’s solidarity with all peoples that society pushed to the margins. Those who are blamed for society’s ills. Christ’s love on the cross is a statement that there are no more scapegoats. “There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:28-29) 

Consider this very thorough Patheos article:  

Practical Applications – Mimetic Desire and a Christ Intentional Life 

I talk to so many people who do not have an intentional faith system. Too many have been turned away from Christianity because of the hypocrisy, the toxic theology and self-righteousness. All these attitudes create the opposite of mimetic desire.  

If we genuinely want people to “desire” to be part of the movement that Jesus started before his death, we must begin to embody the Christ nature that Jesus fully actualized. One of the many experiences I have found universal among my clients is the need for love. Too often, I ask, “when was the last time you were told you were loved?” Never or not recently is the common answer. When I talk about the universal love of Christ and its availability to all, many of my clients are shocked and usually ask me why this is not offered in church. The other answer I sometimes get is that I would go to your church if this were preached.  

Bonhoeffer offered that cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” Notice what is emphasized in Bonhoeffer’s definition of cheap grace and what is de-emphasized. The emphasis is on the benefits of Christianity without the costs involved; hence, the adjective cheap to describe it. I would add that while many churches have many of these qualities, they are led by an ignorant and often toxic theology. We must create a mimetic desire for costly grace and a theology that takes in mind the notion of the last scapegoat.  


Deian (2023, December 8). Unraveling the Threads of Human Desire: René Girard’s Mimetic Desire. Medium. Retrieved May 19, 2024, from  

(n.d.). Penal Substitutionary Atonement. Penal Substitutionary Atonement. Retrieved May 19, 2024, from 

(n.d.). Rene Girard. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A Peer Reviewed Academic Resource. Retrieved May 19, 2024, from 

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