Friday, 17 May 2013

Of Religion and Reference

Levi's latest diatribes against religion reminded me of this: "Belief in the Second Coming means many Americans see efforts to tackle climate change as futile"

I'm not sure I agree with him entirely but the above would seem to bear out the general point Levi is making.  Indeed, I had a similar reaction when reading through Latour's Gifford lectures.  He insists that the religious mode has nothing to do with the mode of reference -- he says that religion is only really about spreading 'Good News' and thus converting strangers to kin within a religious community.  But that simply isn't true for the vast majority of Christians that I've ever met (friends, family, acquaintances, etc.).  Many and perhaps even most of them really and truly believe that God exists ‘out there’ and that various items of religious dogma are literally and straightforwardly true -- creation, the apocalypse, morality, etc.  Their faith may waver -- they may harbour uncertainties -- but that is more of a quantitative distinction than a qualitative one.  (In other words, I may be uncertain whether I have any milk left in the fridge but my uncertainty doesn't change the referential character of the truth; likewise, just because someone isn't sure whether or not God exists doesn't necessarily change what they mean by 'exists.')

Of course, Latour is arguing against mainstream Christianity as much as he is against scientism or atheism but the fact remains that his ‘religious mode’ doesn’t describe religious practice as it exists, it rather identifies an essence to Christian religion that is allegedly obscured by the intrusion of other modes, chiefly reference.

But the simple fact is that most Believers don’t hold intellectualised, philosophised, hermeneuticised religious beliefs but fairly straightforwardly literal beliefs about the actual structure of the world.  In my experience, most people operate within a single mode for the most part; the multiple modes idea is more of a partially realised ideal than an accurate description.

An objection that any atheist always runs up against when arguing positively for atheism (and thus against religion) is: 'oh but that's just a caricature of religion, we don't really believe that'.  And to an extent that's a valid objection because religion is an enormously varied and complex phenomenon.  But at the same time it gives non-atheists unlimited leeway to shift the goalposts -- they can never be pinned down to any particular position; they can always shift the ground of conversation; from existence to meaning to belief, and so on.

So, yes I think Levi is probably arguing against a caricature but (a) that's unavoidable and (b) that caricature does apply quite well to an awful lot of people, as the above article concerning climate change demonstrates.

1 comment:

  1. 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.