The Characteristics of [REL], 2 of 3

The second consequence of [REL], which evidently follows from the first, is that it will display strong inclusivist tendencies. That is to say, if it functions via reprise, [REL] will be alert to the arrival of new and unexpected entities by which that reprise might be furthered.

Once again this contrasts with the Religion of the Moderns which, as has been demonstrated, is resistant to such admission.[1] [REL] is characterised by its readiness to incorporate any entity whatsoever—whether ‘large’ or ‘small’, ‘real’ or ‘abstract’, ‘material’ or ‘immaterial’, or indeed ‘human’ or ‘divine’—so long as the entity in question justifies itself as an agent of reprise that generates the value that is specific to religious experience.[2] This procedure would apply to an entity provisionally called ‘God’, just as much as it would apply to an entity such as a rosary-bead, an angel or a doctrine. Indeed, it is quite appropriate that the adjectives by which those entities were marked above (‘large’, ‘small’, ‘real’, ‘abstract’, and so on) should be contained within inverted commas because to begin with such descriptions would be to assume that the qualities and attributes of the agents that actually comprise religious experience can be known in advance. This is precisely the interpretative hegemony that is disclaimed throughout Latour’s work: ‘the fact is, we do not know in advance what the world is made of’ (Latour, The Pasteurisation of France, p.10). [REL] might be composed by anything, even though not everything will configure an experience of [REL]. The only condition is that the analyst should act as a diplomat with regard to the empirical situation presented to him/ her:

The analyst […] should not try to be reasonable and impose some predetermined sociology on the sometimes bizarre inter-definition offered by [the actors] studied. The only task of the analyst is to follow the transformations that the actors convened in the stories are undergoing. (Latour, The Pasteurisation of France, p.10)

This is the great innovation that comes from understanding religion as a mode of existence. Religious experience is opened up to a scenography of production that was foreclosed by the premature unification enacted by the Modern constitution. The There is no limit whatsoever to the type or proliferation of beings that can populate this scenography: they might range, for instance, from the regular experience of liturgical worship at a Sunday Mass in a small French village[3] to the ecstatic visions of the Virgin claimed by crowds of pilgrims at the shrine of Medjugorje in Croatia.[4] The entities associated with these experiences might be very different (in the first case, the entities involved are material, habituated and mundane; in the second case, they are immaterial, extraordinary and supernatural). But both are allowed to exert their agency in the common world first in order to ascertain whether or not their agency mediates the value that is specific to [REL]. This criterion was made clear by Latour in private interview to me last year:

What is it that ensures the existence of a reality that you believe in, whether it be God, the Virgin Mary, a Saint, or whatever? Does it not follow a trajectory, does it not perform a movement, just like I have demonstrated above? (transcribed)

What Latour gives us, then, is the apparent paradox of an empirical methodology that liberates the phenomenon of religion for extraordinary metaphysical adventures.


[1]  It is in this sense that Latour describes the Religion of the Moderns as ‘reductionist’: not because it seeks to abolish religion by means of critique (after all, the intentions of the Moderns towards religion are pious), but because it submits it to purification, thereby foreclosing religion’s ability to express itself as a rational experience.

[2]  At many places in Latour’s later work, in particular in the Inquiry, these entities are called simply ‘beings’. Thus, each mode of existence will function by means of ‘beings’ that mediate the logistical configuration that is specific to that mode: for example, ‘the beings of [POL]’, ‘the beings of [ORG]’, ‘the beings of REL’, etc. However, the nomenclature is not always consistent. Other descriptions include ‘words that bear beings’; ‘a species of existent’; and ‘angels’. The idea that the reprise of religion comes through ‘beings’, rather than merely ‘words’, is not difficult to grasp: it would find an echo, for example, in the idea that a love relationship might be activated or reinforced as much through the impartation of a gift as by a spoken declaration per se.

[3]   Cf. Piette, Albert, (1999), La religion de près: l’activité religieuse en train de se faire (Paris: Métailié). 

[4]   Cf. Claverie, Elizabeth, (2003), Les guerres de la vierge: une anthropologie des apparitions (Paris: Éditions Gallimard).


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