Religion in Secular Modernity: Part 1 of 2

We’re still on our journey through Latour’s differential diagnosis of the Religion of secular modernity, or ‘the Religion of the Moderns’ as I call it (we’ve not yet got to what he thinks the proper rationality of religious discourse actually is). We’ve seen that the Religion of the Moderns takes place at the [DC:REL] crossing. In this post, I’d like to explore one of the ‘procedures’ in which this crossing is actualised in the contemporary public space. Or, to put it another way, how does Religion actually operate in the world around us? (there are in fact two ‘procedures’: the second will follow in the next post).

The first procedure, I’m going to call ‘rationalization’. Radically redefined within the nomenclature of AIME, rationalization must be understood as the procedure by which Religion, in attempting to make sense of an original event or ‘utterance’ from its own tradition, charts a referential informational path from past to present. Hello again our old friend [DC]! The purpose of rationalization is not to explain away the original utterance (as might be implied by the pejorative connotations of the phrase ‘to be rationalized away’ in contemporary English usage), but rather to connect the original utterance to its meaningful reception in present by means of the apparently secure ‘handrail’ or ‘support’ provided by [DC]. We might say that rationalization is a well-meaning gesture offered by (so-called) ‘friends’ of religion. But with friends like these ….

So what is the damage that rationalization is causing to religion – even if it is being committed unwittingly? Latour is clear: the ‘rationalization’ of religion introduces a logic of direct causation between an original utterance and its meaning in the present. The point will not be difficult to predict for those of us who are familiar with Latour’s work in general. That logic might be appropriate for [REF], one of the other modes, but certainly not for [REL].

(In fact, this gives us an intimation of one of the key themes that we will need to address when it comes to [REL] – if the rationality of religious discourse does not come through a logic of direct causation between an original utterance and its meaning in the present, then what does it come through? The answer is: it comes through a twisting, a morphology, a creative re-appropriation of the old into the new. Latour calls this ‘reprise’. Hence the title of this blog: ‘reprising the political theology of Bruno Latour’).

Latour provides a number of examples of rationalization in Rejoicing, or the Torments of Religious Speech (in my opinion, his most important book, and one that we will frequently have recourse to on this blog).


A representative and at first glance somewhat whimsical example is given by biblical Flood narrative. Latour parodies the Modern exegete for applying an informational framework to this story (and others like it), addressing it with questions such as ‘how big was the ark?’, ‘what kind of wood was it made of’, ‘how many animals?’, and so on (p.88, all references that follow to the English edition of Rejoicing). This would be to practise the strange science of diluvial geology. The text itself, of course, cannot sustain this framework of address and therefore collapses into irrationality.

It is important to register the tone of Latour’s parody here: contrary to what it might seem, the motivation of the Modern exegete in employing this [DC] operation is not to undermine the text’s credibility but, rather, to understand it, that is, to render its meaning present-to-himself. The spirit of rationalization is ultimately hermeneutical. But in employing a [DC] operation in order to do so, the rationalizing exegete ends up generating (what Latour calls) a category mistake in his/ her appropriation of the religious value incarnated in that text.

The resurrection accounts of the canonical Gospels furnish Latour with a second example. Here, the rationalization procedure is more complex because it pertains not only to the practice of the Modern exegete him or herself, but also to the various exegetes located in situ to the story itself. For Latour, the resurrection account begins with a simple proclamation: ‘he is risen’ (p.90). However, faced with the apparent absurdity of this claim, [DC] rationalization begins to intrude, attempting to construct an informational chain linking the original utterance by means of ‘connecting passages’ such that it can be rendered meaningful in the present. In this case, the informational chain stretches back to the spatio-temporal framework of the narrative itself, including the actors reported as performing within it. Thus, to the angel’s original message (‘he is risen’) is added the detail of the empty tomb; to the empty tomb is added the detail of the shroud on the floor; to the shroud on the floor is added the detail of the apostle’s public witness, and so on, each addition providing a posterior ‘layer’ of rationalization smoothing over the interruptive hiatus that came before. From there the procedure advances through the history of its reader reception right up to our own time where (just as was observed in the first example) the contemporary Modern exegete will see fit to add his/ her own rationalizations to the rest. This sets in motion a chain that has its own longitudinal forward momentum: Latour describes this as the ‘pruritus of rationalization’ (p.90), as if it were an itch that continually needs to be scratched by successive readers of the original utterance. And as this rationalization procedure advances a logic is retro-imposed upon the original utterance, such that what came first (the original utterance) is credited as being straightforwardly the ‘cause’ of what follows, in the same way as Nature is credited as being straightforwardly the ‘cause’ of matters of fact under the aegis of the Modern constitution.

The rationalization procedure applies [DC] logic at the [DC:REL] crossing. Thus, for Latour, it provides nothing but a bastardised, purified and ‘stage-managed’ (p.90) version of the associative logistics by which Religious veridiction actually functions. This is the recursive offence of any and every natural theology whose definition of ‘nature/ natural’ has not first been purged of its [DC] assumptions (this was precisely the theme of Latour’s 2013 Gifford Lectures by means of his penetrating study of Hume’s Dialogues).

However, the subtlety of Latour’s differential diagnosis is once again revealed at this point. Although they are counter-productive, ultimately obscuring its regime of truth, rationalization procedures are not generated by a motivation on the part of the Moderns to overcome, subsume or destroy religion (that is, to blast it out of the sky like the Death Star did to Alderaan). The methodology initiated by the Inquiry would suggest this to be a highly reductive, even primitive, understanding of the reception of religion within secular modernity. By contrast, rationalization procedures are (as the name suggests) attempts on behalf of the Moderns to render religion into a more, not a less, rational experience. Their aim is to restore a resonance to religion that is correctly identified as having been lost; thus, their intention can even be said to be ‘pious’ (p.90).

This subtle observation paves the way for the inversion of the Religion of the Moderns that is to be enacted in [REL]: although its specification has not yet been elaborated per se, it can now be seen that [REL] will take the form of a clarification of the rational basis of an original utterance, in contradistinction to the rationalization procedure that had previously been applied to it, in the form of an overlay, by the Religion of the Moderns:

If we need to attack such rationalization, this is not at all because it involves reason in domains where it has no business of being, but more because it claims to reserve the use of reason for conveying information alone (Latour, Rejoicing, 2013 [2001], p.88).

Second procedure to follow very soon!

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