Religion in Secular Modernity: Part 2 of 2

In the last post, we looked at one of the two ‘procedures’ by which the [DC:REL] crossing is actualised in the contemporary public space. What we’re doing here, then, is something like the following:

  • First of all, we’re acknowledging that the religious sensibility of the world around us—our world, the world of secular modernity, whatever our personal faith position might or might not be—is normatively subject to the grubby fingerprints of Modernity;
  • Next, we’re trying to understand how that operates in practice—to use the technical nomenclature of AIME, we’ve already seen that it functions via the [DC:REL] crossing;
  • Finally, and ideally, we’re then preparing ourselves for a moment in the future (or is it now?) when we will be able to dis-amalgamate this confusion in order to access the rationality of religion as it really is, the beatific vision of [REL] itself in all its glory.

The first procedure, as we mentioned before, was rationalization. The second, it turns out, is … ‘derationalization’.[1]

But hang on a minute: ‘derationalization’ sounds rather more promising: could this be in fact the promised land, the beginnings of a deconstruction of the false rationality that Modernity has sought to impose upon religion, a vista onto [REL] itself?

Alas no. Although (as their names suggest) these procedures move in different directions, they are in fact complementary expressions of the ‘category mistakes’ imposed upon religion by Modernity. They’re both crimes of [DC:REL].

So what on earth is this second procedure, then? Derationalization takes over wherever the informational trail described before, the one that characterises rationalization, begins to break down. Latour suggests that this is bound to happen sooner or later, for wherever rationalization has been attempted by the Moderns it has carried in its wake the niggling awareness that ‘in striving to make [religion] clearer, more reasonable, more ductile, more logical, it has only heaped up the false problems; [it has] multiplied the artefacts, without quite taking the paths of reference through to their conclusion, even so’ (Latour, Rejoicing, 2013 [2001], p.95; all page references to that book in what follows, unless otherwise stated). Where this break-down occurs, however, we don’t yet find [REL]. What we find instead is a substitute procedure in which [DC] intervenes in a new way. Here, then, is the phenomenon that we might call derationalization.

With this procedure, the Moderns sweep away with an Aegean gesture the rationalizations they had so carefully constructed before, disavow the idea that there can be any rational link between the original utterance and its meaningfulness in the present, and restrict religion instead to the realms of either the ‘inner soul’ or the ‘supernatural’. As Latour puts it, ‘suddenly, in mid course, faced with the scepticism provoked by all these whoppers in reasoners whose inclinations we’ve played to, we change our tune once more and admit that we’re dealing here with mysteries too deep for human understanding’ (Latour, Will Nonhumans be Saved?, 2009, p.470). Where the [DC] rationalization procedure entailed addition, the [DC] derationalization procedure entails by contrast elimination.

At first glance it might seem strange for Latour to describe religion’s appeal to the ‘inner soul’ or to the ‘supernatural’ as functions of [DC:REL]. After all, he has already defined [DC] operations as those which, aping the (putative) referential correspondence achieved by Science with a world-out-there, provide access to information. Surely these two realms, the ‘inner soul’ and the ‘supernatural’, are epistemological zones that have the most tenuous or problematic connections with the idea of referential informational correspondence?

But Latour does indeed make this connection. And once again this can be attributed to his subtle diagnostic apparatus. For whether the trajectory is towards interior quietism (where the veridiction of religion is located in a realm ‘within’) or towards metaphysical dogmatism (where the veridiction of religion is located in ‘another world beyond this one’, Rejoicing, p.30), access to religion’s regime of truth is asserted apart from the logistical operations that render such access possible, that is, apart from [NET:PRE]. Both cases ‘proceed as though religion were something like a ladder that allows access—but it is a ladder without rungs or rails’ (Latour, An Inquiry into the Modes of Existence, 2013, p.320). As a result, both derationalization procedures resort to [DC] operations.

Of course, this doesn’t exclude the possibility of a ‘pious’ intention behind these procedures: faced with the apparently reduced space for religion in the public space granted by secular modernity, it is easy to appreciate how it would have been deemed more rational to pursue retrenchment in realms that are supposedly secure from amalgamation or usurpation by the institutions of Modernity, in particular by the institution of Science. Indeed, Latour has frequently attempted a characterization of the so-called science versus religion debate as the amalgamation of two different mode-specific logistical operations, taking place at the crossing [REF:REL], from which religion itself has come off the worst, receding wherever the magisterial demarcations of science intrude. His diagnosis here follows Whitehead, who attributed the historical ‘decay’ of Christianity in the Western world to its confused and futile attempt to appropriate the ‘dialectical acuteness’ of science (Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 1926, p.129).

However, Religion’s resort to the realm of the ‘inner soul’ or the ‘supernatural’ should not be taken as implying that it has secured for itself a safe epistemological zone that can be considered to be non-overlapping with science and self-coincident with theology’s descriptive competences. Rather, for Latour, these movements equate to a Religion that has squandered its regime of truth entirely. Hence his description of them as ‘de-rationalization’ procedures.

[1]  I should acknowledge here that these two terms aren’t quite synchronous with the terms that Latour himself uses in Rejoicing, where the argument is more subtle, breaking down into categories such as ‘symbolization’ and ‘mythologization’. I think, however, these two will do for now, for simplicity’s sake. Goodness knows we should grab at that life-raft wherever it is to be found.