Latour and Voegelin’s Political Religion, Part 1

Latour’s concept of the ‘crossed-out God’, ‘le Dieu barré, hors jeu’, describes the way in which religion has become illegitimately instrumentalized within the Modern polis. This immediately differentiates his work from attempts at political theory recently developed elsewhere in Continental philosophy, since these are predicated on the attempt to develop a politics based on a very pure form of atheism. This point has been well-developed by Christopher Watkin in his excellent study of the work of Badiou, Nancy and Meillassoux, Difficult Atheism.

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Instead, it is more appropriate to propose kinship between Latour’s work and an alternative formulation of the relationship of contemporary politics with religion, namely, Eric Voegelin’s ‘political religion’.

Although it supplies the title of his 1938 book, Die politischen Religionen, published in Vienna in the immediate aftermath of the Nazi annexation of Austria, this concept has often been relegated to the status of footnote in studies of Voegelin’s political theory, first on the basis of its supposed contextual specificity vis-à-vis the totalitarian regimes of the 1930s, and second on the basis of the author’s subsequent tendency to question its explanatory value in later writing and to prefer alternative formulations for his analysis of the contemporary political situation. For a survey of its use by Voegelin and its reception history in later Voegelin scholarship, a useful article is Gontier (2011), ‘Totalitarisme, religions politiques et modernité chez Eric Voegelin’. For a history of its use before Voegelin, there is another useful article by the same author, that is, Gontier (2013), ‘From Political Theology to Political Religion: Eric Voegelin and Carl Schmitt’, p.25, fn.2.

However, recent critical re-evaluation of the place and function of this concept within Voegelin’s thought as a whole enables us to reconsider it now in relation to Latour. This re-evaluation is well represented by the essays in Hughes, McKnight & Price (eds.) (2001), Politics, Order and History: Essays on the Work of Eric Voegelin. Of particular interest is the contribution by Peter Optiz in this volume, which argues that the structural outline of Voegelin’s entire political theory is found in this early book, which is thus of greater importance than has often been acknowledged in Voegelin scholarship up to now.

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