in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: July 19, 2023

Podcast #910: Thick Desires, Political Atheism, and Living an Anti-Mimetic Life

The last time we had entrepreneur, professor, and author Luke Burgis on the show, he discussed the concept of mimetic desire, which says that we want the things we want because other people want them. Since that time, Luke has continued to explore the idea of mimesis, and how to resist its negative consequences, in his Substack: Anti-Mimetic. Today on the show, Luke and I dig into these ideas and discuss ways we can step outside the tempo, cadences, and priorities that the world would foist upon us and establish our own rhythms for our lives. Luke unpacks what it means to have “thick desires” and become a “political atheist” and how these concepts can help you live a more anti-mimetic life.

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. The last time we had entrepreneur, professor, and author Luke Burgis on the show, he discussed the concept of mimetic desire, which says that we want the things we want because other people want them. Since that time, Luke has continued to explore this idea of mimesis, and how to resist its negative consequences in the Substack, “Anti-Mimetic”. Today in the show, Luke and I dig into these ideas, discuss ways we can step outside the tempo, cadences and priorities that the world would voice upon us and establish our own rhythms for our lives. Luke unpacks what it means to have thick desires to become a political atheist, and how these concepts can help you live a more anti-mimetic life. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

All right. Luke Burgis, welcome back to the show.

Luke Burgis: Hey, Brett. Good to be back.

Brett McKay: So we had you on the podcast a few years ago to talk about your book “Wanting”, which introduces readers to a theory of why we want the things we want, and this theory is called mimetic desire. And the reason I wanted to bring you back on the show is because since you’ve published your book, you’ve gone on to explore different ideas that seem to… They’re offshoots of you grappling with this idea of mimetic desire. So, I think before we start our conversation today, so we can explore these offshoots, I think it’d be helpful for people who aren’t familiar with mimetic desire, and I’d encourage people to go listen to our podcast that we did on that, I’ll put the link in the show notes, but just for those who aren’t familiar, can you give us a brief thumbnail sketch of what mimetic desire is?

Luke Burgis: Sure. Well, the thinker that really inspired my book and is responsible for coining that phrase, mimetic desire, is René Girard, a French thinker, and he said, “Man is the creature who doesn’t know what to want, so he looks to other people to help him decide.” And when you really wrap your mind around that statement, it’s pretty mind-blowing. We don’t know what we want, and we assume usually. We take our desires for granted and assume that we know. But Girard is saying that in fact, we’re social creatures and we rely on other people to help us know what it is that we should want, and he calls these other people models of desire, who are constantly mediating desires to us, usually without us even knowing it. So this phrase, mimetic desire, just means imitative desire, we’re imitative creatures. Mimetic is a word that comes from the Greek word that simply means to imitate. So mimetic desire means that we are assimilating, almost by contagion, the desires of other people around us. Now, we normally think of imitation as being something that’s limited to relatively surface level things, we know that we learn language by imitation, mannerisms, things like that, cultural things. Girard’s insight was that our powers of imitation go way deeper than skin deep.

They go down to the level of desire, so somebody near us, somebody who’s important to us, who deeply desires something, is pretty much inevitably going to influence us at the level of desire, not just intellectually. But there’s something much deeper here. So if I have an older brother who really wants a career in the military, his desire, whether I pursue that path or not, is going to affect me and shape the way that I think about myself, my own identity, and what it is that I should want. And this happens all of the time, and it happens from a very, very young age. And a quintessential example would be turning a bunch of toddlers loose in a room full of toys, more than enough toys for all of them, one of them, a little girl, picks up a fancy red fire truck, for whatever reason, maybe her dad’s a firefighter or something, she’s fascinated with it, and it doesn’t take long for another child to come over and be fascinated with that toy because she is, because she desires that one, it sort of imbues it with this almost like mystical value. And then once there’s two of them, well, it’s even more powerful, so it’s all the easier for the third and the fourth and the fifth kid to come over, and before you know what, they’re fighting over the same toy, and there’s 100 toys in the room.

So this gets at what mimetic desire is. We choose sometimes what to pay attention to based on what other people pay attention to and what they want. And Girard’s insight is that mimetic desire actually leads to conflict and rivalry, like we see with the toddlers, all of a sudden they’re fighting over the same truck and there’s 100 toys in the room, and he says, “This is the way that human beings are.” Mimesis attracts us to each other and eventually leads to rivalry. And we see that in the first pages of the Bible with Canaan and Abel. [chuckle] They want the same thing, they wanna be recognized for a sacrifice that they make, it’s actually them wanting the same thing that’s the cause of their conflict, not their differences. And that’s a really counter-intuitive point that Girard makes, and he sees this power of mimesis and mimetic desire at the very root of culture and what it means to be human.

Brett McKay: And one of the issues with mimetic desire, once you think about it, is it explains why you sometimes want things that you don’t particularly like. You want this thing, and then once you pursue it and get it, you’re like, “Boy, I really don’t like this. This is actually not that great.” And it doesn’t satisfy. It doesn’t feel good. That’s one of the downsides. Mimetic desire could be good. There’s people who could influence you for the good, help you… You see someone pursue the good in their life, and you see that and like, “Oh, well, I want that too,” and it can be a good thing, but oftentimes we see things, especially on social media, we’re like, “Well, this guy is doing this. And it seems like it’s making them have a great life,” and then you pursue and you’re like, “Man, this really sucks. I don’t actually like this.”

Luke Burgis: 100%. And I was walking on the street of New York City just a couple of months ago, and I was hit with this case of positive mimetic desire. On my phone, probably tweeting or something like that, head in the clouds, thinking about all the things that I have to do affected by negative mimesis really, like seeing people commenting on the news cycle and just got caught up in it. And walking down the street, and I saw somebody walk out of a store and bend down and attend to a homeless person on the street, and actually bring them out to lunch and ask them how they like their coffee. Now, I witnessed this happen and it immediately drew me out of myself and I was like, “I want what that person wants. I wanna be positively affected by that level of concern, ’cause I feel very just preoccupied and somewhat selfish right now with these things.”

And these things happen all the time, they draw us out of ourselves in positive ways too. So you make a really important point that, mimetic desire just is. It’s just kind of what it means to be human, and it’s why the models that we allow ourselves to be affected by, the people that we surround ourselves by are really important, ’cause mimetic desire can go in negative rivalrous ways that can make us pretty miserable, pursuing careers that you really, really don’t care about to keep up with somebody else or something like that. But they can also be tremendously positive and we can be inspired by people in their lives that want things that we want to want, but might not currently want, if that makes sense.

Brett McKay: That makes sense. So you have a newsletter called “Anti-mimetic”, that I subscribe to and I’ve really enjoyed, and it’s where you explore how people can maybe mitigate the downsides of mimetic desire and get some of those good things, sort of the positive aspect of mimetic desire in the lives. And one way you propose people can do this is by cultivating what you called thick desires. So walk us through, what’s the difference between a thick desire and a thin desire.

Luke Burgis: You could think of a thin desire as this fleeting, temporary ephemeral, relatively superficial kind of desire that is here today and gone tomorrow. Like something that I want really strongly today, some new thing that I see in the store, and by next week I will have totally forgot about it. That’s the sign of a thin desire, there’s nothing real and solid there, there’s no continuity to that desire whatsoever. A thick desire on the other hand, I think more of layers of rock. If you’ve ever been to a beautiful national park like Zion in Utah or something, I’m always amazed when I look at the rock formations, I see how these things have been built up over millions of years. And I think in life, you think of thick desires as forming in a way that there’s continuity to them, they’re solid, and we don’t have to worry about them disappearing with the slightest gust of wind. And by slightest gust of wind, I mean a new mimetic model enters the scene that we become caught up with and we sort of forget, we forget our desires. And the memory plays an important role here, I think we’re all born with a thick desire to move our bodies, for instance.

It’s kind of like our bodies are designed to move. It’s joyful when you’re moving the way that you’re designed to move. And how many people get caught up with the thin desires, hunched over their computer, checking their emails for 12 hours a day, and they start to have back problems? And if this continues, it starts a really negative cycle of desire, where before they know it, they don’t even desire to move, they don’t want to run. Maybe they did five years ago, but it’s like the thin desires have completely taken over and dominated to the point where we start to want different things. So just understanding the difference between the desires and thick desires, you begin to have some pattern recognition, and you’ll know, “Well, Luke, maybe you just sort of want to buy a van and drive around the country because you’ve been looking at Instagram a lot and seeing these van life people, and it looks really sexy from the outside, but is that really what you wanna do?” [chuckle] And my wife will laugh at me, and I can recognize it as a relatively thin desire. And in just knowing where these influences come from, we just… Most of us live our lives taking all of our desires for granted, and we just assume that they’re all thick and they’re not.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I think when you’re talking about thick desire, thin desire, one that came to mind is socializing with people in-person, having a really great conversation with your friends, where just the conversation just goes different places, and you just feel great after it happens. But oftentimes I think we substitute that thick desire for the thin desire of just, “Okay, We’ll do a quick text, I’ll interact via social media with the like button,” that’s a thin desire and it doesn’t sustain you as much, but that thick desire… The problem with thick desires and thin desires is that thick desires are hard to cultivate. Thin desires are easy, usually if it’s a thin desire, it’s easy to do and to satisfy, but a thick desire that takes works, it takes work to get people in-person, it takes work to plan an in-person event, so you’re just like, “Well, I don’t wanna do that.” But whenever I’m in that position where I’m thinking, “Well, maybe we should get together with people and plan the dinner, I’m like, “Oh man, now it’s just a lot of work and I don’t wanna do that.” And then my wife has to remind, “Well, whenever we do these things, you always say that was a great time, I’m glad we did that.” So yeah, I think that’s another example of a thick desire.

Luke Burgis: I think thick desires need to be cultivated and they’re always more work, 100%. And just one of my thick desires, one of the things I like to do the most is to cook and be a host. Hospitality is really important for me, it brings me a lot of joy, it always has. And there’s a difference between things that are meant to be supplements that become substitutes. So social media is a supplement, and it can be useful for keeping up with my friends that live in different parts of the world, different parts of the country. So that’s okay, but when it becomes a substitute for the real, then it’s basically an instance of thin desires completely subsuming and taking over the thick desires.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Another, I guess, an example, I have thick desires in my life, I really enjoy reading a good long-form article online, or it could be in a magazine or newspaper, but the thin desire is just going through a tweet thread. It’s easy, but it’s not as satisfying. I don’t think about those three threads that I read the next day, but there’s articles that I’ve read that I still think about.

Luke Burgis: I’m the same way, man. And people tell me all the time like, “Hey, you really need to write shorter form, basically thinking real short form, thinking 10 to 30 seconds,” and I don’t find that much satisfaction in writing those things. But there’s this tremendous pressure to do that, and I have thick desires to make it through really challenging novels. I’ve always liked to do that, and I’ve actually found it’s becoming harder and harder for me to do that. So it’s a reminder for me, there is so many distractions, it’s a reminder for me that, “Yes, Luke, that is a thick desire that you have, to be able to make it through a book that’s as challenging as “The Brothers Karamazov”.” But sometimes my thin desires pull me in so many directions and I barely make it 10 pages without feeling a tug to go check my Twitter thread or something like that.

Brett McKay: And you mentioned, I think in that Substack article that you have this hunch that a lot of people, they have a craving for these thick desires, the good, the beautiful, great music, classical music, reading the really challenging but satisfying novel, but I think a lot of these people just don’t know how to get started with that, or it’s so much work that they just won’t even start. So what’s your advice? How do you start cultivating these thick desires in a world that is awash in making thin desires easy to satisfy? What have you found that’s useful?

Luke Burgis: And thin desires are very profitable when people satisfy them, so there’s a misalignment of incentives. It’s true, I do believe that everybody has these thick desires inside and they just need to be woken up, they need to be activated. That’s why I like my job as a teacher. I’m a professor in a college, it’s just one of the hats that I wear, and I love activating the thick desires of my students, they just almost need to be reminded. It just goes back to something that Plato said, “All learning is memory.” We just need to be reminded of our thick sometimes. I don’t think there’s any substitute for the real. I think good technology and good education always points people to the real. So spending 10,000 hours doing something offline, really sinking deeply into it, cultivating relationships with friends and family, all of these things that are real, I think is very difficult to do it online, because the very nature of our online world right now, and especially social media, is just dominated by thin desires. And we need each other to awaken these thick desires in one another, because desire is social, it’s important that I have friends that can remind me, “Hey, Luke, man, we used to love to golf,” or, “We used to like to spend time together doing these things or fishing.”

I live on a lake during the summers, and it’s like, “We haven’t been to the beach in two weeks, what the hell are we doing here? We live five minutes away.” And it’s like I need those people to help awaken those things inside of me and remind me to try to do it alone is really folly. And I think we live in this very individualistic world, people are lonely, and I just found it to be of tremendous value to cultivate a network of good friends and good people that are all pursuing the real and trying at least to activate and live out these thick desires because it’s far more fulfilling.

Brett McKay: Okay. So find a community, so maybe start a book club where you’re gonna read the great books with some friends. And you might have some problems with that, it could be hard finding people who wanna read Plato’s dialogues. There’s not too many people who are just like, “Yeah. That sounds like something I’d like to do for fun.” But it’s worth the effort to find those people, ’cause it’ll help you, ’cause you’re creating that positive mimesis in your life.

Luke Burgis: The fact that it is a hard, could be a sign that it’s not a thin desire and that it’s something that we should look seriously at. So it’s not that everything that’s difficult is necessarily better, but in the world that we live in, dominated by thin desires, most of the things that are going to lead to fulfillment right now, do involve swimming against the current a little bit. It’s one of the definitions of anti-mimetic, dead fish float downstream, live fish are able to swim against the current or even to swim up stream.

Brett McKay: So if something feels hard, then it’s probably anti-mimetic and it’s a thick desire. And then another thing, if it seems useless, that might be another sign that it’s a thick desire. I think CS Lewis said, “The useless things are the most valuable things.” That’s counter to our very materialistic utilitarian world where, “Well, I’m only gonna do this thing if it provides some sort of productivity gain in my life.” And Aristotle and CS Lewis will be like, “Actually that’s probably not the most valuable thing. If it feels not useful, then it’s probably leading you towards the good, the true, the beautiful.”

Luke Burgis: Yeah. And the word that Aristotle would use is contemplation, that contemplation is one of the highest goods of life. And one of my favorite books is by a guy named Josef Pieper, it’s called “Leisure: The Basis of Culture”, and it’s just a reminder that some of the best things in life, especially today, involve feeling like you’re not being useful. Just think of spending time with a loved one holding their hand. My dad has dementia, I spend a lot of time with him, and sometimes we sit there where I’m listening for an hour to the guy that comes in once a month and plays Elvis and The Beach Boys on this little amp in the dining room, and I just do that for an hour. And I’m busy, I have a lot of demands on my time, but I know that I am cultivating a thick desire to be with my father, it ends up being in the most satisfying part of my entire month. And I feel guilty because I actually still have those thoughts of, “What am I doing here? Do I really need to be here for the whole hour? Am I wasting my time?” Now that’s human, that’s normal to think that, but I’ve come to see that as me investing in a thick desire.

Brett McKay: Something you’ve also written about is curating your media consumption so that it cultivates those thick desires. So what are some ideas that people can find to fill their book list, their to-watch movie list, their podcast, their music list, with things that cultivate thick desire and are anti-mimetic?

Luke Burgis: First, we really have to step back and think about what we value and what our hierarchy of value is, what’s really a priority for us? And then align our media consumption around that. It’s not that much different than food. We’re consuming these things and we commune in a sense, in a deep sense, with the content that we take in. So if somebody told me they want to be healthy and they want to eat fast food everyday, well, there’s some kind of a misalignment there. But we’re talking about thick desires. Let’s take the example of patience. If patience is a value for you in your relationships or in your marriage and you say that’s a goal, well, it’s really hard to be patient when all you do is consume ten to thirty second YouTube video clips or TikToks all day. So if you’re saying that that’s the goal, you’ve got to be able to make it through a long novel. You’ve got to be able to sit still for an hour, however you want to do that. You could be in nature, you could look at a tree, you could meditate, you could pray.

So the way that we consume things and spend our time has simply got to be aligned with those values. I think there’s tremendous value in removing ourselves from the algorithm, “I try my best. It’s not easy.” I’m pretty online, but I can tell when I’m being caught up in the algorithm. And I still find tremendous joy in walking in a used bookstore and the spontaneity of stumbling on a book that just happens to catch my eye. There’s nothing algorithmic about that. There’s something deeply incarnational about that. There’s something real that I just place more value on, or it’s not something that has been tailored to me by some company that’s designed to make me follow a certain track. So one of the things, quite simply, is looking at older material that is not really subject to the trends, that’s not fashionable. So one of my friends just watches old classic movies that are really good, but that nobody ever talks about anymore. He actually publishes a newsletter on this. So I follow that one because I find it to be… I get really anti-mimetic recommendations. And nine times out of ten, these things turn out to be way better than the latest movies that are top ten on Rotten Tomatoes or something like that.

And same thing with book recommendations. One of my favorite bookstores in DC, you fill out a form, you tell them something about yourself, and the staff literally makes you a mystery box of ten books based on what you’ve said. And I love that, [chuckle] it just… ‘Cause it’s totally outside of the algorithm. So I tend to just look for little opportunities like that. It’s not that I never find things online, but I’m really, really intentional about the sources of my recommendations.

Brett McKay: All right, so look for things outside of the algorithm, or look outside of the internet. That’s something my wife and I have done over the years with The Art of Manliness. We’ve done some content ideas based off of things that we found in an old book that we found in an antique store in some town in Vermont. We saw this etiquette book from the 1800s, pulled it out, “Man, there’s like a cool article here.” Or another one is buying old men’s magazines from the 1940s and ’50s. And it’s interesting to see. It’s fun to see what people were talking about, what it meant to be a man in the ’40s and ’50s. Occasionally there’s something like, “That’s actually really good. It was written in 1945, but it’s still relevant today. It still resonates.” And so we might write an article based off of that. So I think that’s a really great way to cultivate an anti-mimetic media consumption, used bookstores, antique stores. If you have a college nearby, go to the archival stacks and just walk through it and pull off a book that just catches your attention and thumb through it, and you’ll probably find something that you otherwise wouldn’t have found that could cultivate that thick desire.

Luke Burgis: Absolutely. And even little things. Like whenever I can, I take phone calls while I’m on a walk outside rather than both of us huddled in front of our laptops looking at the screen. And there’s even something about that that’s anti-mimetic, because the movement while we’re talking, the things that we see, all of these things spur things. Any amount of time that I can spend, I just try to structure my day where I’m exposed to more of the real.

Brett McKay: This actually, this idea of taking control, as you’re taking control of your desire… Of mimesis in your life. And it actually reminds me, I’ve been reading Kierkegaard’s “Postscript”, which is this long book he wrote, and it’s… Kierkegaard is hard to read, he’s a weird guy, but he has this idea that he pulls out, that you need to become subjective. And what Kierkegaard meant by subjective was you need to become an individual that doesn’t just let life happen to you. It’s about taking control of all the weird stuff that’s going on in your life and fashioning yourself into an individual that, in his case, could stand before God. And that requires you to guide your desires so that you desire the good.

Luke Burgis: I love that idea. I love Kierkegaard, and that idea of the subjective makes me think of agency. And I have this theory that in our world, people are feeling a loss of personal agency, whether it’s AI, the algorithms. I see this especially in my students. They just seem to lack a sense that they have agency. And Kierkegaard seems to be saying the opposite like, “Well, we need to realize that we actually do have the power to take intentional action and not just respond to the things, not just react to the things that happen to us or the things that are served to us in ads.”

Brett McKay: Matthew Crawford, we’ve had him on the podcast, he’s the guy that wrote “Shop Class as Soulcraft”. He made a distinction between agency and autonomy. And he says a lot of time in modern life, we confuse autonomy for agency. But he says autonomy is just basically the freedom to choose, but oftentimes you can have autonomy, but your choices are limited. It’s like when you have a kid and you’re like, “Well, do you want to wear this thing or this thing?” Well, you’re helping your kid be autonomous, but they don’t really have agency because they didn’t get to construct the choices. And a lot of modern life is, we feel autonomous ’cause we get to make all these choices between what we watch on Netflix and the newsletters we subscribe to and yada yada, but often it strips us of our agency because we’re just given these choices. Like a parent gives choices of what color of cup you’re going to use.

Luke Burgis: Absolutely. Yeah. It’s the difference between freedom from and freedom for. Freedom for means that you can construct the choices. Most people just like to order off the menu, literally the options that are served to them. But we can order off menu. Maybe the options are more than what shows up on Google Eats, maybe there are some amazing restaurants, and we just take those things for granted. So maybe as an anti-mimetic exercise, try ordering off the menu the next time you go out to eat and just see what happens. Because it’s literally… And I know it sounds silly, but it’s a small example of exercising some creative control and agency. And these kind of things spill over into other aspects of life.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.

And now back to the show. Something else you’ve been writing about lately that I’ve enjoyed thinking about is how we think about time and organize our lives can be driven by mimetic desires. So what does the rhythm of life look like when it’s driven by mimesis?

Luke Burgis: I think of worldly time, the time in the world as a metronome, the device that’s used to keep track of time on a piano. And it’s just ticking really, really fast. It seems to be ticking faster and faster. And we can either accept that or we can choose to model our life on different forms of time. The mimesis on social media, on Twitter, is just moving at a breakneck speed, and no wonder people are exhausted and depressed. The desires are being pulled in a billion different directions on social media, and time moves very fast. Almost everybody I talk to, maybe some of it is due to the pandemic, everybody feels like time is speeding up. I know I have, over the last few years. And we just take these things for granted, “Oh, there’s an election coming up. I have to participate in the news cycle for that election if I’m a good citizen.” Well, that’s bullshit. No, you don’t. You can choose how you want to engage in the consumption of that.

This comes back to the question of agency. Same thing with emails. I get 500 plus a day, and I can be on that time of when those things flow into my inbox, but I’m not, I’m sort of moving to a system where I don’t even see most of the emails that I get and I talk to my assistant once a week, and we go over all of them, we go over what’s important and we organize them. So making those intentional choices about pulling back. And one of the things in my life that’s been tremendous good for me, it’s not for everybody, but I’m Catholic, and what I learned later in life about this ancient tradition in the church called the Liturgy of the Hours, where typically monks, in the monastic tradition, they would pray what’s called basically morning prayer, afternoon prayer, evening prayer, and night prayer. And there’s a couple of more hardcore monks who actually wake up in the middle of the night, like at 03:00 AM and they have another one. But this is available to anybody, and I bought myself this beautiful breviary where it’s got psalms and prayers in it. And I don’t do it every day, I don’t do it four times a day, but there’s a rhythm of life to that, regardless, same thing with feast days. And these things do not map on to the holidays that we have in the US. It’s almost like operating outside of time a little bit.

So for me, that’s been one way of me living my faith and my particular tradition, that I found that as a tremendous tool. I think other people can find their own way. Nature operates at a different rhythm than technology does. And simple things like, I’m here at the lake house for the summer, and time moves completely different for me here than it does when I’m in DC, where I live for a part of the year. And when I lived in Italy for three years, my concept of time totally changed. I learned what it was like to have a two-and-a-half hour lunch, and I would have told you that was crazy before I lived there. We can immerse ourselves in different rhythms of time and not just accept the ones that are presented to us.

Brett McKay: I guess maybe observing of Sabbath, even if you’re not religious, you could observe a Sabbath. A day where you just, you’re not online, you just take it off and it’s completely useless. This is again… Doing a Sabbath is the most useless thing in the world, you’re not getting any productive work done. But as Aristotle and CS Lewis said, “The useless things are the most valuable things.”

Luke Burgis: Absolutely.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And then also, I think you can think on the bigger picture scale of, you talked about the liturgical hours of prayer that you do, that goes throughout the year, there’s different feast days and fast days, and maybe you find a schedule there that you can sync your life up to that gives a rhythm to your life, that’s outside of the frenzic, social media, hypercapitalist, individualistic, memetic, time cycle.

Luke Burgis: Yeah. Intermittent fasting is a great example of that. It’s something that I’ve just started relatively recently, and it’s not according to any kind of external model, there’s a rhythm to that. So all of these things help me build something that makes me feel like I have more intentionality about how I’m spending my time. And even intermittent fasting, even just… I don’t even have to… Who said I have to eat on this specific schedule? Or that I need to work nine to five Monday through Friday? Where did that come from? And we’ve just internalized some of these ideas so deeply about this kind of worldly time. When I started my first company, it took me years to break out of that mentality and realize that, “Hey, if I want to go golfing at 01:00 p.m on a Wednesday afternoon or go to the grocery store or something like that, I can do that and I can actually do it without feeling guilty about it.” [chuckle] It was shocking to me how deeply ingrained those concepts of time actually were.

Brett McKay: So something else you’ve written about that piqued my interest in your newsletter, is you mentioned that René Girard, the guy who came up with this whole idea of mimetic desire in theory, he once used the phrase political atheist in passing. And he didn’t really explain too much what it meant. So you’ve been grappling like, “What did he mean by this? What is a political atheist?” You’ve never… I’ve never heard those two words together. So based on your sort of thinking about this and writing about it and also talking about it with other people, what’s your hunch about what Girard meant by this, political atheism?

Luke Burgis: He coined that term in his very first book, which is called “Deceit, Desire and the Novel”. And he said that the great French writer Stendhal seems to be a political atheist. And Stendhal, his famous book is called “The Red and the Black”, it took place during the French Restoration, after the French Revolution, where there was this big battle playing out between monarchy and liberalism, it’s an undercurrent through the whole book. And it’s a funny book, the protagonist is this young guy named Julien, from the peasant stock, but he wants to rise up the ranks and he’s trying to figure out the fastest way to do that. And in the book, Stendhal shows that this opposition between these two political parties is really flimsy, [chuckle] and characters switch between the two of them all the time. And he helps the reader see different dynamics that are operating under the surface, where the temptation is to believe in all the promises that any character makes when they just flip parties the next month. So he said Stendhal sees something deeper under the surface, he’s trying to call our attention to.

He called Shakespeare a political atheist, Alexis de Tocqueville. And he said, perhaps in private conversation, Girard said maybe Christ was also a political atheist. Super provocative statement. And I think what he means by that, and he would… Girard would say that Christ specifically desacralized worldly politics, desacralized it. In the Roman Empire, the emperor started to become associated with the Son of God and all these things, and the veil was torn back and we started to see that we can’t invest sacred authority in any kind of worldly leader. And by political atheists, I think Girard meant that, “I reject the call and the demand for me to believe in any one political leader that tries to set themselves up as a savior, even any one political party that tries to set itself up as a savior and says that they can solve all of our problems.” And he would probably say, “I reject that demand to believe or to idolize, even a whole political system, and to step back and have some spiritual distance from that, to not be caught up in the riptides that are so easy to be caught up in in modern day politics.”

So I would say that it’s a desacralization of worldly politics. And in my opinion, American politics have become incredibly sacralized, there’s almost a religious aspect to them. Maybe it’s because there’s been a decline in religion and people are putting their faith in politics more. I don’t know. I’ve got all kinds of ideas about what might be happening there. But the political atheist intrigues me so much, because I think if Girard were alive today, he passed away in 2015, he’d probably say it’s more important to be a political atheist than ever before. And that doesn’t mean disengaging with the world, burying our head in the sand and acting like there’s no problems. We’re all political animals, I am too. But perhaps being a political atheist, we can reject this total immersion in the political promises that Stendhal in that book sort of exposed to be relatively empty, we might even say often driven by manipulating the thin desires of people.

So perhaps one way of being a political atheist is we rediscover some thick desires that we have. Some of the political machinations that are happening just become a little less serious, I guess [chuckle] would be one way to say it. Or we can at least have some perspective and some critical distance from them.

Brett McKay: This idea that Americans really sacralize politics, Tocqueville noticed that even in the 1800s, he was just amazed about how much the Americans he talked to, all they do is they talk politics and they talk about, “I’m going to this meeting and I’m going to go to do this. I’m going to join this campaign.” Something about America, our founding set in place this idea that where politics becomes infused with everything like our… It’s always been connected with religion in away, but also you see it today confused with even what we consume, like the media we consume, the clothes we wear, the brands we decide, politics is there, and so being a political atheist is trying to separate those or maybe see behind what’s going on there.

Luke Burgis: Yeah. One friend of mine said there’s a bull market in politics, and it’s literally true in the sense that I think if you look at the last 10 to 20 years, the amount of money that’s been poured into politics and campaigns is just… There’s been exponential growth in it. So it’s like, “What’s going on there? Is that bubble going to burst.” So the people that are political fierce, that maybe have invested too much of themselves and their lives into politics, or into one particular candidate or something like that, may be in for a rude awakening or some kind of real disillusionment when that bubble burst, like the stock market.

Brett McKay: We had a podcast guest on the show last year, Robert Talisse, he is a professor of political philosophy, and he wrote a book called “Overdoing Democracy”. And he made this case that by infusing politics in everything we do, the sports we watch, etcetera, we actually hurt democracy in the process. It makes democracy not possible because it just mucks everything up. So one case you can make, becoming a political atheist can also allow you to allow politics to thrive in a more productive way.

Luke Burgis: Exactly. And I would agree with that. Sports serve a really important function in our society, in my opinion, a ritual function, a cathartic function, joy to play, both professional and amateur. And once politics takes over absolutely everything, those things can no longer serve their function, in fact, they can become miserable. It’s just… It’s too much. We can only handle so much. And politics is part of life, we are political animals, but it’s not all of life. And when it starts to take over all of life, it seems to me that some political atheism is a very healthy thing.

Brett McKay: What do you say to the people… Sometimes when you tell people, “I just… I’m trying to… I want to be a political atheist?” You say it in some sort of way. Well, I’m not trying to be political about this but someone will say, “Well, you know what? You’re actually taking a political stance by not being political and it’s privileged to do that, to say that you’re above it all.” What’s your response to that sort of talk?

Luke Burgis: Yeah. I would say it doesn’t mean that I’m not going to vote. It doesn’t mean that I’m not going to engage. But it means that I’m going to vote and then I’m going to go home and give my wife and my daughter a hug and then I’m going to go to bed and I’m going to get up and I’m going to do my job with excellence the next day. It’s eyes up, rise up, and we can’t get sucked into the centripetal force that politics wants to pull us into so that it consumes our whole life. So it would just be wrong to interpret political atheism as total disengagement. The word atheism is in there for a reason, it’s a rejection of a certain kind of belief in politics as trying to be something more than it can be, that maybe only God can fill that role. So it’s a rejection of a belief. And I think we live in a world right now where people are trying to make really stark dividing lines; you’re either for us or you’re against us, put people into camps. And that’s really dangerous.

And there’s kind of a Manichean undercurrent to all of this. The world is divided up into good and evil, people are, parties are. I reject that. So that’s part of being a political atheist, is rejecting some of these premises that we just take for granted and we can very easily get sucked into them and saying, “No, no, no. I can be engaged, but I’m not going to be engaged in that way, in that way that you are demanding, which would make me sort of lose myself.”

Brett McKay: So we got a presidential election coming up here in a year, and as you talked about, that’s one of those mimetic time cycles we can get sucked in, where just everything that’s going on on the internet, in the news, in the newspaper, it all is driven by this presidential cycle. So any advice on being a political atheist during a time when it seems like so much of society is aflame with political passion?

Luke Burgis: I know what I’ll do. I’ll regulate my consumption of media very carefully. I will not get caught up and guilted into… You have to watch every debate. I know what I need to know to make an informed vote. And that doesn’t mean I need to consume the amount of information, in the 24 hours news cycle, that they want me to believe that I do. I will put it in perspective. People have been saying that every single election for the last 150 years is apocalyptic. I’m not kidding, if you go back and read the New York Times in 1900, it will say that if this person gets elected, it’s the end of the world, “This is the most important election in our lifetime.” You can do like an Ngram tracking of Google on that, that’s been used for well over 100 years in print. So which one is it? [chuckle] So, and I make an intentional effort. One thing that I do, that I think helps me mentally, it helps with my mental and spiritual health, is I’m intentional about cultivating relationships with just a diverse array of people.

I don’t want to live in a place or interact with people that agree with me. And I will likely, and I’ve done this before, try to host a dinner with nine people, for instance, and it’ll be three Republicans, three Democrats, and three Independents. And I have seen in my life that it’s… What I see in my home when I do things like that is completely different than what you would believe would happen. If you believe and you trust in the news, it’s not possible to have a wonderful, wonderful evening and conversation with that mix of people. Well, it is, and I’ve seen it, and I bet I could think of three or four groups of nine people that I could do that with. Maybe I’m lucky, but I’ve really made an intentional effort to do that kind of thing. And because I’ve seen that and experienced those things, it really makes some of the things that we’ll hear during this coming presidential election seem a little bit silly.

And I can sort of see them for… I see it for the untruth that it is, when we’re sort of told that we need to invest things, or that people are a certain way, or that these people are not reasonable, it simply does not do justice to the complexity of the human person and their ability to engage when they’re actually spoken to and loved and treated like a person whose opinions actually matter.

Brett McKay: I like that. So host a political atheist, anti-mimetic dinner this presidential election cycle.

Luke Burgis: There you go. Let me know how it goes. [chuckle]

Brett McKay: All right. We’ll see how that goes, maybe other people will let us know how it goes. Well, Luke, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your work?

Luke Burgis: Thanks, Brett, I really enjoyed it. is my website, I think all my stuff is there, and I write a Substack, usually weekly called “Anti-Mimetic”. You can find that on Substack and it’s also at

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Luke Burgis, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.

Luke Burgis: Thanks, Brett. It’s all my pleasure.

Brett McKay: My guest today is Luke Burgis. He’s the author of the book “Wanting”. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, Also check out his Substack, “Anti-Mimetic” at Also check out our show notes at, where you’ll find the links to resources where we delved deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at where you’ll find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you think of. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you’d take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. And until next time this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to AOM Podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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