Wednesday 8 October 2014

The common ground between secular and religious -- some belated reflections on the religious mode of existence and how it can improve (as)sociology

One of the more challenging chapters in Bruno Latour's An Inquiry into Modes of Existence is that on religion. I initially found this section to be very frustrating but have come to appreciate it more with time. If I am reading it adequately, and this post should establish whether or not that's the case, it is a line of thought with considerable political importance but also with some major problems in its existing iterations.

Latour's theology must be read, I think, by taking very seriously the claim that his whole project is an exercise in diplomacy -- that is, in building a middle ground between hitherto ontologically irreconcilable groups (in this case those hitherto known as the secular and the religious).

The need for such a mediation exercise is obvious. Many religionists stereotype secularists as cold, uncaring, self-interested, amoral or even actively immoral, interested only in their own pleasure and short-term well-being (this being a relatively mild version). Likewise, for many secularists (particularly of the atheist-humanist variety), the religious are figured as babbling lunatics seething in an ear- and reason-clogging soup of their own violently self-certain and irrational existential dogma (this is a fairly common version).

As a way out of this collective impasse, Latour proposes to transform the concept of religion. His theology is based upon the argument, I think it can be said, that the secular are religious and the religious are secular. That is, it is based upon two argumentative moves that cut across each other.

First, the larger part of his theological writings are dedicated to divesting religion of its vulgar or 'abusive' transcendence; that is, of its claim to 'another world' above or behind the merely manifest one. To the religious Latour says: 'you are also secular'; secular in the sense of the Latin saecularis "worldly, pertaining to a generation or age." The religious are secular because they are of this world; they have no transcendent realm to appeal to as though it were some kind of cosmic supreme court, nor another, higher world to escape to as though this grubby, fallen sphere were not good enough for them (here his Christianity is strikingly and ironically Nietzschean). The only world is this sublunar world; however, crucially, religious experience is found to be reconcilable with this statement; indeed, Latour seems to argue, it is only by reconciling the religious and the worldly that religion-proper can be rediscovered. Transcendence, far from enshrining religious experience, crushes it.

Second, an equally important though less extensively developed portion of his argument follows on from Michel Serres' return of 'religion' to its etymological roots, the word deriving from relegare (to go through again, reprise), religare (to attach) or religiens (careful, opposite of negligens). Serres suggests that religion inherits particularly from the latter: "Whoever has no religion should not be called an atheist or unbeliever, but negligent" (The Natural Contract, p.47-8). To the secular Latour says: 'you are also religious'; religious in the sense of being care-imbued and loving creatures of intimacy and mutual personification. In his Gifford Lectures on natural theology (the Facing Gaia lectures), Latour suggests that coexistence and civilisational persistence on this earthern orb will only be achieved by taking up religion once again, urgently radicalising a radically reconstructed religiosity.

The price that the religious have to pay for this accommodation is relinquishing their other-worldly transcendence. The price that the secular have to pay is losing their (insufficiently) secularised theological concept, Nature. Both must concede the easy, knock-down arguments that they habitually aim at their Other. The mutual gain is a common ground where neither Nature nor God can serve as a unilaterally imposed court of appeal and disputes must be worked out and alliances must be forged in a common manner (or in a manner of becoming-common while remaining plural); that is to say, diplomatically.

This, I think, is a profoundly important argument. However, my initial frustrations haven't entirely dissipated. To put it simply, in reading this ground-building exercise between the secular and the religious I, as one of the godless, get the feeling of reading a letter that is addressed to someone else. I see elements of relevance to my life's experience within it but this seems almost coincidental. In other words, one side of Latour's middle ground seems a smoothly paved plaza while the other is, at best, a dusty, bumpy track.

The way that the theological ideas are presented in AIME seem largely directed towards only one of the groups that are being brought together: the hitherto 'religious.' That is, the text seems overwhelmingly preoccupied with convincing the religious that they are secular and gives short shrift to the equally necessary argument that the secular are also religious. This second element becomes almost subtextual.

The key conceptual and imagistic meeting point that Latour gives the two sides is the equation of love-talk and the religious experience. He explains it thus: When one lover says to their partner 'do you love me?' and the other replies 'of course I do' their relationship is rebuilt anew; if, however, the latter replies 'why are you asking me this? I told you so on the third of November!' they mistake the opening to relational reinforcement for a request for information. This category mistake, for Latour, typifies the misunderstanding of religion. Thus one can say (and this is not an uncommon posit in general) that the religious experience is love.

In his book Rejoicing: Or the Torments of Religious Speech, Latour refers to the lovers' affirmations as a "scale model" of the religious experience (p.118). In this phrase a middle ground is affirmed but, at the same time, also rendered rather uneven. It would be interesting to know on what scale this relationship functions on; 10:1, 20:1, 1000:1? The argument that Latour seems to be furthering here is that formalised religion, when properly enacted, institutionalises, intensifies, extends, links, joins and safeguards the world-, bond- and person-forming experience of love. However, the suggestion of this is therefore that those who play no part in organised religion are somehow less taken by the religious love, less caught up in its mode of existence; which, if the dual move is followed through fully in both directions, should not be the case.

The Inquiry is silent on non-traditional forms of love-instituting, which seems to imply the religionists' prejudice as detailed above -- specifically, that the secular are somehow less loving, caring or interested in those around them. This is, in my opinion, the Inquiry's biggest diplomatic failing. However, it is far from unameliorable.

Latour regularly (and often polemically) quotes Margaret Thatcher's infamous declaration that 'society does not exist.' Of course, the meaning that he takes from the phrase differs somewhat from that of its originator. While for Thatcher this meant that, as she went on to say in the second and less quoted half of that sentence, 'there are only individuals and their families' -- i.e. that any sense of social solidarity between communities or classes is an irrational illusion that must be (and was) crushed --, for Latour the absence of society as an ontologically sui generis form of reality means that sociality must be continually constructed, assembled, composed by materially and modally heterogeneous means (not by 'social bonds' which is, for him, a semantic vacuity).

Society is not a 'there' that can be leaned on, presupposed; it is fragile. It can be (and has been) devastated by the machinations of Thatcherian, neoliberal politics. Thus we would do well to better understand it.

The family, for Latour, is, therefore, not necessarily any more or less sociologically real than the neighbourhood, the nation, the race, the class, and so on. In order to understand what is real in any given scenario we must 'follow the mediators'; that is, abandon nomothetic theorising (searching for abstract laws) and embrace idiographic or casuistic analysis (examining concrete cases).

However, if we understand sociology not only as the study of how the world is held together through heterogeneous associations but, in addition, as the study of how bonds of communal solidarity are achieved then we must surely bring the concept of religion into the picture. I previously wrote about conceiving solidarity as kinship but it could equally, on the basis of the above arguments, be termed religiosity.

A study of social, secular religiosity -- of the loving bonds that hold together not just lovers and churches but communities of all sorts (bonds that are inextricable from but also irreducible to political interest) -- would go a long way towards answering the charge of conservatism that is often levelled at the actor-network version of sociology. It would also complete the second move required to fully reconcile the secular and the religious.