For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

Theory of Religion

by Bataille, Georges (1989)


Theory of Religion brings to philosophy what Georges Bataille’s earlier book The Accursed Share brought to anthropology and history, namely, an analysis based on notions of excess and expenditure. No other work of Bataille’s, and perhaps no other work anywhere since Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, has managed to draw so incisively the links between man’s religious and economic activities. “Religion,” according to Bataille, “is the search for a lost intimacy.” In a brilliant and tightly reasoned argument, he proceeds to develop a “general economy” of man’s relation to this intimacy: from the seamless immanence of animality to the shattered world of objects and the partial, ritual recovery of the intimate order through the violence of the sacrifice. Bataille then reflects on the archaic festival, in which he sees not only the glorious affirmation of life through destructive consumption but also the seeds of another, more ominous order — war. Bataille then traces the rise of the modern military order, in which production ceases to be oriented toward the destruction of a surplus and violence is no longer deployed inwardly but is turned to the outside. In these twin developments one can see the origins of modern capitalism.

Key Passage

This is the meaning of "sacrificing to the deity," whose sacred essence is comparable to a fire. To sacrifice is to give as one gives coal to the furnace. But the furnace ordinarily has an undeniable utility, to which the coal is subordinated, whereas in sacrifice the offering is rescued from all utility. This is so clearly the precise meaning of sacrifice, that one sacrifices what is useful; one does not sacrifice luxurious objects. There could be no sacrifice if the offering were destroyed beforehand. Now, depriving the labor of The Consummation of Sacrifice The power that death generally has illuminates the meaning of sacrifice, which functions like death in that it restores a lost value through a relinquishment of that value. But death is not necessarily linked to it, and the most solemn sacrifice may not be bloody. To sacrifice is manufacture of its usefulness at the outset, luxury has already destroyed that labor; it has dissipated it in vain- glory; in the very moment, it has lost it for good. To sacrifice a luxury object would be to sacrifice the same object twice. But neither could one sacrifice that which was not first withdrawn from immanence, that which, never having belonged to immanence, would not have been secondarily subjugated, domesticated, and reduced to being a thing. Sacrifice is made of objects that could have been spirits, such as animals or plant substances, but that have become things and that need to be restored to the immanence whence they come, to the vague sphere of lost intimacy. (p.49)


Relgion, Bataille, French, Capitalism, Economics, Political Economics, Anthropology, History, Sacrifice


Theory of Religion, Bataille Citations

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