Tuesday, 21 May 2013

More on Religion and Reference

A commenter, Alonzo, pokes some valid holes in my last post:
In Latourian fashion let me propose a symmetry: 1)Latour's ideas about science are not shared by most scientists; 2)Latour's ideas about religion are not shared by most religious people. Both of these are true enough. I assume you have no problem with 1. You are not a Sokalist. So why is 2 any different? Why is it a defect in Latour's thinking about religion that his ideas are not commonplace? 
People, religious or not, do often think about religion as essentially concerned with subjective beliefs about objective realities. This is quite antithetical to Latour's philosophy. It is not that he does not know that people speak of themselves as holding "fairly straightforwardly literal beliefs" but that there is no place for that sort of thing in his own thinking. Where others see literal beliefs he sees things far richer, more complicated, tangled, active; not to be confined to subjectivity. He finds a simplicity at the heart of religion, but it is not something to be found in belief.
It's not that the rarity or non-descriptive character of Latour's version of religion is a defect as such -- at least not so simply.  My objection is more complicated than that.  I take your point though; I've given the impression of a double standard.  I'll try to restate my argument differently.

Latour attempts to describe both science and religion (and law, etc.) as they are practiced -- as practical complexes of gradual, fragile, incremental network building with their own, specific modes of existence, extension, connection, relation, endurance, etc.  His findings lead him to substantially contradict the abstract, generalised, conventional self-understandings of both scientists and the religious.  And this, of course, is exactly the right way to work.  Far from invalidating his arguments, the rarity and unexpectedness of what he describes is what makes his work worth reading.

What I find implausible, however, is the claim that references to God as an actually, necessarily existing, powerful deity and references to religious dogma as items of guaranteed existential fact are extrinsic to religious practice.  Of course, Latour does not and cannot claim that the nominally religious never engage in such acts of reference; clearly they do.  His claim is, instead, that when the apparently religious are doing so they are not being religious -- that the 'religious' are not acting religiously.

I take the view, on the contrary, that acts of reference to God's existence or to religious dogma are intrinsic to religion as practised.

Imagine a Christian leader standing proudly before his congregation, one arm raised upwards, finger thrusting towards the heavens, the other hand tensed into a fist, crashing down on an altar, eyes aflame, lips snarling, tongue proclaiming 'God has willed it, thus it is so' -- to Latour this kind of thing, regardless of how often it occurs under the guise of religion, is not truly religious; to me this caricature is the religious act par excellence.

We both agree that science and religion should be described as they are practised, not as they are commonly thought to be practised  where we disagree is in our interpretations of what makes religion tick, what stokes its fires and puts fuel in its belly.  Latour thinks that religion is nourished by kindly, liberal, pacific proselytisation and that acts of 'religious reference' are at best irrelevant and at worst poisonous to truly religious modes of action.  Contrariwise, I take the view that both the apoplectic preacher, screaming about fire and brimstone, and the velvet-voiced vicar, kindly extending the hand of kinship through the tale of Good News, are both equally religious; that both do the work of extending and translating religious networks and both do so religiously.

So, the problem is not that Latour's description of religion doesn't resemble other religious peoples' descriptions of religion, it's that he cordons off and partitions the majority of religious life in order to retain a purified, pacified inner kernel of religiosity that he finds agreeable.  I don't accept that this inner kernel really exists in isolation from the rest and am therefore compelled to view religious practice more holistically.

To demonstrate the point let's go back to the article I linked to before, which claims that millions of Americans think that tackling climate change is futile because the world will only end with God's Apocalypse, which humans are powerless to prevent -- either climate change predictions are a sham or they're the will of God; either way, human intervention is pointless.  For Latour, these only nominally 'religious' climate sceptics (or climate apologists, perhaps more accurately) have confused the modes of Religion and Reference -- they have taken religious dogma to be a fixed mono-semantic truth that must be obeyed rather than a dynamic spiritual heritage that must be translated.  What they should do, instead, is interpret religious texts more flexibly, interpretively, religiously; they should translate religious texts instead of taking them to be literal-minded guidebooks telling us what was, what is and what will be; they shouldn't take religion to be in competition with science but should "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's" and put each mode in its place, avoiding category errors, by taking scientific, referential truths as seriously as religious, communal ones and making the two programmatically and politically compatible, even complimentary.

I think we can all agree that it would be overwhelmingly preferable if more religious people followed this particular mode of religion -- but it is, in my view, a mode of religion, not religion per se; it is a kind of religion, not religion itself as a kind of existence.  And it's quite a weak and rarely observed kind of religion at that -- and this is what presents the greatest problem for Latour's Religion: If pacified, translational proselytisation , shorn of claims to eternal truths, is what feeds religion and makes it strong why are so many actually existing religious practices so deeply and unapologetically referential?  If claims to reference don't feed but instead poison proper religious practice then shouldn't religion-without-reference be more easily observed than it is?  Indeed, why would anyone follow religious dogma if they didn't believe that it referred to something 'beyond'?  What is the point of (Christian) religion without transcendence?  What's the point of a god who is so weak that he requires his followers to construct incarnation for him?

Though raised in a Christian family I am not religious, so it isn't really for me to answer these questions; however I really can't see why anyone would practice a religion that was completely removed from any kind of reference to a reality beyond human existence.  Indeed, without these things why even call it 'religion' at all?  Perhaps my incomprehension speaks to the limitations of my imagination -- but, then again, given that people flock to harshly and unquestioningly 'referential' religions in their millions maybe it's not just me.

In my view religion is a human cultural practice -- that is, a practice that cultivates human existence -- like any other.  Of course it has its own dynamics, its own history, its own specificities -- but I don't think it has its own mode of existence.  And this is all coming from an atheist who sees no need to grant religion ontological foundations or to make it sui generis, abstracted from other similar practices.  I just think that although religious groups are wildly different in scale, intensity and temperament from, say, pop culture fan clubs they're not different in kind.

Followers of Jesus and fans of Doctor Who certainly realise their passions in different ways but both are passionately, textually and ritualistically devoted to their cherished cultural artefacts and to the cultivation of life that their practices incarnate.  That may seem offensive to those who believe religion to be inequivalent to any other institution but that isn't my problem.  Religious pretensions offend the irreligious too.  Life is full of offence.  Agreement is nice, it isn't necessary; disagreement needn't and ultimately can't be avoided.

What we must avoid is a situation where our modes of existence and/or our cultural practices put us at each others throats when there are far, far bigger fish to fry.  What we must avoid is becoming unnecessary enemies when we are, together, facing far greater dangers than mere theological disagreement.

And this brings me, by an oddly circular route, back to wanting to endorse Latour's religious mode -- and the political mode it adjoins -- as an ideal.  It would be wonderful if his model of spirituality were more widely realised instead of the stubborn, jealous and reactionary forms we so commonly encounter.  It'd also be fine with me if more people gave up on god entirely and found other ways of cultivating life.  But, either way, the priority has to be forming alliances to tackle larger problems, not pettily feuding over who's right and who's wrong in some grand, theological sense.

However the assemblage is to be constituted it must be constituted.  Latour imagines a religion that is at once more religious and more secular than religion as it commonly exists -- a religion that could stand not ahead or behind but alongside science and other institutional forms in facing common enemies: violence, poverty, inequality, injustice, pollution, climate catastrophe, etc.  He thus imagines a way to constitute the political assemblages, or the 'collectives,' that we so desperately need.  This is all good stuff.

So, if you'll permit me the contorted, over-extended and somewhat tortured chain of reasoning, I think Latour's Religion is descriptively misleading but prescriptively honourable.  I do not believe that religion has a sui generis essence -- a particular mode of existence -- in the manner Latour describes.  However, the world would be a much better place if his version of religion came to prosper over what religion has existed historically; it doesn't really exist, but the world would be better off if it did.  Then again, given the unanswered questions I raised above I fail to see much growth potential in it.

The epic stories, grounded certainties and grand, terrifying, godly power of referential religion are intoxicating in a way that is hard to give up.  Humans are hooked -- and, imbibing from this teat, they become stubbornly insensitive to the inconvenient facts that are generated by irreverent institutions.  And the deeper this opiate dream, the closer we all come to suffocation.

Atheists such as myself should celebrate any mutation within religion that makes it more readily assemblable with science and politics as this will be to the betterment of the world.  However, we should be neither shy or embarrassed in suggesting that religion is not a mode that must endure but a phase that can be superseded -- that it is just one kind of culture, one form practice that cultivates human existence and, consequently, that it is dispensible and can be improved upon.


  1. After the most relevant texts, "Rejoiced" and "An Inquiry", come out in English this summer I hope to be more competent to talk about Latour's ideas about religion. At present there does not seem quite enough for Anglophones to go on (although I think his ideas about anti-fetishism and belief in belief are pretty clear, and very useful in thinking about religion). Nonetheless...

    I think it is helpful to think about "the religious" as being something like "the poetic" or "the musical" -- though the analogy will have to break down at some point. What makes some string of words poetic? It cannot be said to be a matter of reference. It cannot be instruction. It cannot be the presentation of facts or argument or indoctrination or the sincere expression of feelings. These things don't make language poetic but poetic language can do all those things. If you are concerned with the poetic you will want to be sure not to confuse the poetry with these other aspects of language, but that doesn't mean they must be eliminated, or that some sign must be given to say "I don't mean this, just being poetic."

    So it is, I think, with Latour's "speaking religiously". It allows for all kinds of content and tone, just as long as the result is the religious realization. I don't think it is right to say that your fellow proclaiming "God has willed it, thus it is so" is being ruled out by Latour. Indeed, with the addition of the flaming eyes and snarling lips you have painted the portrait of a powerfully phatic enunciation, which is the sort of thing he is looking for. Surely this preacher is not much to Latour's own taste. But just as someone may admit that, as much as he dislikes Ezra Pound, he could at times be truly poetic, one can say that even a disagreeable preacher can speak religiously, if he re-presents Presence for his congregation. (And just as much love-talk will sound gross or insipid to the outsider, yet still succeed for the lovers.)

    Certainly he does think that, say, the medieval Church did manage to keep re-presenting Presence. Yet "kindly, liberal, pacific proselytization" does not seem like the best description of the Church's activities. But that is not what defines religion for Latour, it is not what he is getting at, as kindly, liberal, and pacific as he himself may be.

    Some people are deeply unpoetic, some are tone-deaf, and some have no sense for religion. You appear to be one of the latter. (I can hear some of the music, I think, but do not play -- religiously interested but not religious.) You are only interested in it only from the outside, as it encounters what you do care about, mostly politically and mostly negatively. That stuff is real, but so is the inside. Religious experience is real. Latour can certainly discuss Religion, which is not made of religious stuff, which includes many institutions and practices richly entangled in Science, Law, Politics, and everything else. But he also wants to understand what he calls its mode of existence, the inside, the essence, whatever it is that keeps it distinct in the lives of the Moderns (as it is, though given enough people like you it will no longer be constructed, the distinction will disappear, and the mode of existence will be no more.) The merits of his efforts are debatable, but I don't think they can fully be engaged with from the outside.

    But it is all a very tricky business, and I am looking forward to learning more from the new books.

  2. Hi again Alonzo.

    I've not read Latour's new book yet either (also waiting for it to come out in English) so all my pronouncements are subject to revision. However, he spent quite a bit of his Gifford lectures talking about the religious mode and he painted a pretty clear picture of it, to my mind. My descriptions in this post were largely based on that. Also, he has published a few different essays on the subject in the past (e.g. 'Will non‐humans be saved? An argument in ecotheology'). Maybe I'm unfairly representing his argument. We'll have to wait and see!

    You're right that I am only interested in religion from the outside - that I'm closed and insensitive to it. I make no apologies for that. Going back to my previous example, Christians who don't 'get' Doctor Who are equally callous and oblivious to the specific kinds of experiences and practices of cultivation that that cultural artefact engenders.

    There are more Christians than Whovians and they are usually more evangelical and political (although both crowds can be deeply enthusiastic and dedicated) - however, I don't accept that they are fundamentally different kinds of people; different groups, different forms of social life.

    Moreover, the religious are often quite closed and insensitive to secular life, so it goes both ways. Religious experience is real but then so is non-religious experience.

    I refuse the argument that I must grant religion its own mode of existence purely because others lay claim to it. I'll happily thumb my nose at that kind of arrogance all day long! I won't necessarily wage war on those who think that religion is special and separate - I'll only go out of my way to put my views in conflict with opposing ones if there's some reason for it; I'm not Dick Dawkins; I'm no crusader - but I won't simply acquiesce just because that's what other people think.

    I'd be quite happy if religion gradually disappeared and was replaced with cultural institutions more grounded in science, worldly being and the wisdom of all literary, textual traditions. I don't expect that to happen but I see nothing to apologise for in the aspiration.