Latour and religion: a quick overview

Over the last few months I’ve written a number of posts on Latour’s concept of ‘religion as a mode of existence’ and the political theology that ensues. We’ve only scratched the surface. I’ll continue to write more of course. But I thought it might be worth a moment to collate some of those posts, so that (if you’re interested) you can begin to trace a journey through it all in some kind of order. So, here is a list of some (not all) of the posts that you might like to follow for a quick overview of the topic:

  1. The Religion of the Moderns
  1. Making a transition
  1. Religion as a Mode of Existence


The World-Historical Institution of [REL], part 1 of 2

The presentation of ‘religion as a mode of existence’ that I’ve offered in various posts above remains close to the technical nomenclature of Latour’s own system. For some, this nomenclature is too technical, too self-referential, too meta-narratival… or maybe just too much. Are you fed up with [REL], [DC] and talk of ‘crossings’ yet? Perhaps you are. But the bigger problem is that such technical nomenclature runs the risk of abstraction.

Even to a casual observer, ‘abstraction’ is not a criticism to which Latour’s system should be vulnerable. It would be out of step with the very telos of a mode of existence which, as has been demonstrated above, is only meaningful insofar as it is constructed by agents operating within the pluralist ontological landscape of the common world.

So the question must be asked: what is the occurrence of [REL] in the world? Or, to put it another way, what is the world-historical institution of [REL]?

This is a very significant question. I’ll just lay out a few preliminary thoughts here and in a subsequent post.

With the question of the world-historical institution of [REL], a tension begins to play out within Latour’s account. For an initial response to this question would suggest that [REL] is found (virtually) nowhere in the world. The Religion of the Moderns, that is, the [DC:REL] crossing, has become ubiquitous. Or, to use the language of the Inquiry, the transmogrification of religion-as-subsistence into religion-as-substance has rendered [REL] almost impossible to detect and enunciate in the contemporary public space.

Latour frequently figures this situation in terms of the awkwardness of religious speech. Hence the title of his key work on [REL]: Rejoicing, or the Torments of Religious Speech. The emphasis on corrupted ‘speech’ should not be surprising to us: after all, both forms of religion have been characterised by their management of an original utterance (in the case of the Religion of the Moderns this management was enacted by the stale procedures of rationalization and derationalization; in the case of [REL] by the faithful innovation of reprise). The burden of Modernity, then, is that it has ‘turned the logos into a substance, one that moreover has the strange particularity of being endowed with speech to boot’ (Rejoicing, p.133). Latour has spoken of his own personal Catholic faith as being infected by this same burden. He finds that his prayers are ‘weighted with lead’ (Rejoicing, p.1). Although he regularly attends Mass, he finds himself incapable of describing ‘what I am doing there’ – even, he claims, to his own children (Latour, Thou Shallt Not Freeze-Frame, or How Not to Misunderstand the Science and Religion Debate, 2005, p.127). And when he does attempt to register his religious experience in words, the hegemony of the substance metaphysic within which he is required to operate renders his account quite literally ‘meaningless’ (Rejoicing, p.2). Latour’s own life bears witness to the drag exerted upon religious speech by Modernity.

In what space, then, might [REL] by articulated? It is at this point that the tension begins to arise. To begin with, Latour intimates that if [REL] is so dispersed, obscured or even absent in the world, then it will need to be intentionally activated in some way. And he categorises his own writing on religion as a vehicle of this activation. Thus, the stated aim of Rejoicing is that by its own textual activity it will achieve the ‘re-activation’ of reprise that is necessary in order to generate the value of presence (Rejoicing, p.128).[1] In addition, a number of his writings on religion unashamedly describe themselves as having sermonic form, in the sense that they metaphorically posit a congregation (readership) to whom, through the ministration of the Word (Latour’s own writing), an authentically religious experience is mediated. Thus, the value of being brought-into-presence is quite literally performed by the text, ‘today, as the hic et nunc, for you as listeners, composing now, because of my unusual manner speaking, a gathering of persons, those who receive the present of presence’ (Latour, Thou Shallt Not Take the Lord’s Name in Vain, 2001, p.226).

Claims like this expose Latour to the charge of pre-orientation. This would suggest that Latour’s achievement (whether he realises it or not) is in fact nothing more than the retrofitting of a religious experience that he himself has designated a priori as normative. As a consequence, in enunciating [REL], Latour is accused of merely providing a post-empirical and autobiographically delimited version of the religion of the Moderns, and not one that can be grounded world-historically. Terence Blake has articulated this point very clearly on his blog.

This charge of pre-orientation must be offset, however, by the increasingly tendency of Latour’s writing on [REL] to be framed in terms of the doctrines and traditions of the Christian religion. This tendency becomes particularly apparent in the Gifford Lectures which he delivered in 2013 and in his current book Face à Gaïa.


By means of this framing, Latour answers the accusation levelled above: rather than empirical abstraction (which opens him up to the charge of pre-orientation), his articulation of [REL] now begins to take the form of an apologetic for a specific world-historical institution.

However, at this point a new charge arises. This would proceed as follows. If [REL] is indeed a mode of existence, embodied in a universal experience (as shifted up from its empirical site) then it certainly must not correlate to a particular world-historical form. In closely identifying [REL] with a world-historical institution, is it not the case, then, that Latour has post-orientated it, delegating by means of a substance metaphysics (in this case, the doctrines and received forms of tradition given by Christianity), and not to as a process of subsistence?

Does Latour manage to navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of these accusations?

In the next post, I will try to sketch out a route by which we might answer this question with a ‘yes, mabye’.


[1] It is very interesting that Latour elsewhere describes Rejoicing – his book on religion – as his most ‘scientific’!

The Terrorist Attacks in Paris

This was a poignant series of tweets from Bruno Latour and the AIME team, posted a couple of days ago in response to events in Paris. For more context on Bruno’s diagnosis of (religious) fundamentalism and its misplaced (and pernicious) rationality, see the post below.

May the Lord have mercy.