What is it that ensures the objective 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? Is this not the basis of its rationality?
The first aspect to consider is Latour’s claim that religion is mediated. To be more precise, religion is a materially and historically embedded phenomenon. What does this mean?
Latour is not making a soft claim here about the praxiological forms in which religion is manifest in the world, of the sort that might be amenable to analysis by sociology or anthropology of religion, or of the sort that might be categorisable within a ‘world religions’ paradigm. Rather, what is in view here is the highly idiosyncratic claim that there is no essence of religion that is prior to or detachable from its mediation by material and historical actors in the space and time of this world. As he puts it: ‘religion—again in the tradition which is mine—does not speak of things, but from things’ (Latour, 2005, ‘Thou Shallt Not Freeze-Frame’, p.28). Hence, for Latour, religion is not a ‘substance’, that is, it does not consist of a content that can be brought to bear upon the world, ‘as if there existed some universal domain, topic, or problem called religion that could allow one to compare divinities, rituals, and beliefs from Papua New Guinea to Mecca, from Easter Island to Vatican City’ (ibid, p.28). To think in these terms would be to posit religion as a Durkheimian ‘social fact’ that exists independently of the ‘social’ performances of actors in the world. It would contravene his definition of rationality as given by ontological pluralism. And it would render religion vulnerable to annexation by Modernity.
Instead of religion as a ‘substance’, Latour proposes a definition of religion as ‘subsistence’. He advances this word as a means of describing how religion is instituted and sustained by the movements of actors within the space and time of this world, in such a way that it makes no movement of deferral to transcendence: ‘there is nothing beneath, nothing behind or above; no transcendence’, as he puts it (Latour, 2013, Inquiry, p.102). What Latour’s work facilitates, then, is a flattening of the epistemological categories of Modernity that have previously circumscribed an understanding of what religion is and must be, and the opening-out of an entirely new, wholly immanent scenography by which religion can be analysed as a mediated phenomenon.
This definition of religion shifts attention away from the ontological status of the actors themselves. What is of interest to Latour is not whether a particular actor is ‘religious’ or not. ‘Sacred’ or ‘profane’, ‘visible’ or ‘invisible’, ‘material’ or ‘immaterial’, even ‘natural’ or ‘supernatural’—ontological categories such as these are all prescribed before the actors who are tagged in this way are allowed to perform. These ontological categories can now be redeemed. Latour is agnostic as to the type of actors that might mediate religion. Sometimes, he refers to them generically as ‘the beings of religion’. At other times, he refers to them as ‘angels’—although it must be borne in mind that his use of this word draws upon a particular heritage it has accrued within recent Continental philosophy, especially in the work of Michel Serres, who adopted it is a trope to describe the priority of circulating reference and mobility (‘angels’) over the postulate of a singular, transcendent being (‘God’). The only question to be asked is whether that actor does indeed mediate the value that is proper to religion when it enters into trials with other actors. ‘Even God has no special privilege’, writes Latour, ‘and is not located in addition to or beyond other beings’ (Latour, Inquiry, p.315). When an actor does function as a mediator in this way, the ‘felicity condition’ of religion is activated.