Try this thought experiment: can you believe and not believe simultaneously? Now notice your speech, your morphology, your interior monologue. How do your faithful and rational sides communicate? French sociologist Bruno Latour attempts exactly this, unpacking human religious motivation and linguistic intent, arriving at some unexpected conclusions. Though not everyone will embrace his dense, theoretical discursus, his conclusions are remarkably timely and revealing.
The Apostles commenced their missions when, on Pentecost, they spoke to everyone in their own language. Latour loves Pentecostal imagery, because it demonstrates an outward orientation: we speak to others, we don’t force them to conform to us. Supposedly. Too often, though, adherents and agnostics alike would freeze language in amber, compelling everyone to speak our language, never speaking theirs. We kill language by separating it from its audience. Then we act offended when others walk away.
Latour attempts to bestride the debate, seeking not any facile resolution, but to define the terms. He perceives the struggle between religious and secularized language as essentially contested: that is, the sides take definition from the debate, and therefore cannot win, since resolution robs them of meaning. To communicate with others, we must sacrifice certainty for context. All truth becomes a lie, Latour says, when we try to fix meanings decisively.
This approach requires all readers, believers and unbelievers alike, to sacrifice sacred cows. Latour uses important philosophical concepts in unconventional ways: his definition of “God” will make most theists squirm, and his definition of “belief” runs almost diametrically counter to Bentham and Locke’s usage. He thus implicitly rejects both anti-modernist beliefs in linguistic continuity, and Enlightenment belief in temporal triumphalism. Latour doesn’t let us consider any concept unquestionable or sacrosanct.
Apparently, Latour considers this conclusion subversive, to believers and skeptics alike. Maybe it is, to readers unfamiliar with contemporary philosophy. Latour conflates ideas familiar from authors like Foucault and Bonhoeffer, in a way that more highlights previously unrecognized concurrence than really adds anything new. Basically, he spotlights what seasoned readers didn’t realize they already knew. (Lacking either bibliography or index, it’s hard to say how deliberate Latour’s coevality is.)
Yet it explains contemporary American religious trends. While many Protestant and Evangelical churches embrace Enlightenment rationality, or some derivative thereof, several centuries late, many rank-and-file believers defect to Catholic and Orthodox worship, citing specifically the experiences’ antiquity. And though Latour’s approach treats “religion” and “Christianity” synonymously, it explains the Pagan resurgence, purporting as it does to restore humanity’s oldest, most undiluted worship practices.
Latour attempts to analyze religious discourse from a complete outside perspective, neither believer nor smug academic atheist. He pursues complete agnosticism, meaning he tries to avoid allying himself with any existing religious (or irreligious) doctrine. Thus, he describes attending Mass and following the liturgy without investing any belief in it. He purposes to discuss religion without recourse to God. He thinks this “shocking,” but I’ve read Émile Durkheim.
He achieves this putative agnosticism sometimes better than others. He treats religious credulity more fairly than, say, Freud. His approach invites comparison to Durkheim and Giambattista Vico, and more recent thinkers like John Polkinghorne and Stephen Jay Gould. But his mask periodically slips, permitting glimpses of a limp demi-Marxist undercarriage, laced with open distaste for anti-modernism. He avoids that annoying postgraduate password, lumpenproletariat, but only just.
This book sets new benchmarks for the expression “not meant for everyone.” Latour eschews such conventions as chapter breaks, and organizes his ideas in free-association panorama, meaning he runs 174 pages without letting readers pause to collect their thoughts. His dense école normal prose requires extreme dedication. Take copious notes; you’ll consult them often. Only truly resolute readers should undertake this book, and only with great forethought and caution.
Yet for Latour’s intended readers, this intriguing thought experiment will undoubtedly encourage spirited debate and much-needed introspection. It will force marked re-evaluations of dogmas and golden calfs, of both sacred and secular belief. Nobody will embrace Latour’s conclusions altogether, but most honest readers will recognize themselves in his polemics. Once we own our limitations, and only then, we become able to speak across the divide.