In the discussion of the cognitive status of religion I find I have a difficult position to maintain. I am, I suppose, an atheist; I am in matters of knowledge an anti-positivist and a pluralist; I am fascinated by religious language and feel that sometimes it is the best way to express what I think or feel. This underlies , for example, my favorable reaction to Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly’s Heideggerian treatment of both polytheism and monotheism as useful contemporary ways of understanding the world and ourselves ( in ALL THINGS SHINING, which revitalises the polytheistic understanding, and in their promised sequel, which will talk more about the monotheistic understanding, via discussions of Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Dostoyevsky). Their account is « existential » and so situates religion as having a cognitive function but as incommensurable with the type of referential cognitive function which characterises natural science, as incarnating a type of understanding of the world radically incommensurate with, and so unable to contradict or be contradicted by or even enter into conflict with the natural sciences. It is at this price of the referential neutralisation of religion that they can employ it to fulfil their program: lure back the shining things, lure back the gods, « to find meaning in a secular age ».
i think that both Bruno Latour and Paul Feyerabend give accounts of religion that, in related but different ways, remove it from its customary opposition with secularism. For Latour religion is one “régime of enunciation” or “mode of existence” among others, with its own “conditions of felicity”, aimed at transformation rather than information. Feyerabend is perhaps closer to Adam Kotsko’s wish “for religious traditions to represent a mass of raw materials … that have no more tendency to “poison everything” and no more guarantee of an unconditionally redemptive element than any other tradition”. Feyerabend extends Latour’s view of religious traditions as different in kind from secular traditions, by nevertheless insisting that as “raw materials” they can be of use in secular traditions such as the sciences or even to correct (or at least relativise positively) these traditions.
I think that this is where Feyerabend goes further than Latour. Latour “protects” religion from the accusation of , for example, scientific insufficiency (or Kotsko’s example of the accusation of « intrinsic violence »). These sorts of accusations amount to criteria of the demarcation of religion from and its subordination to some other instance (very often science). Latour makes this impossible by claiming that religion is so different that it is “not even incommensurable” with referential régimes such as science:
Feyerabend recognises a possible qualitative difference between religion and straight referential traditions in that it includes a performative aspect, but not, he argues to the detriment of a referential cognitive aspect. So the difference in kind is that religious traditions are more complete than (most) secular traditions. He is willing to add that in fact, but unbeknownst to them and so in truncated form, secular traditions have this performative aspect too.
So Feyerabend is classically deconstructive here, accepting initially a binary demarcation (science/religion) to go on to re-valorise the weaker term (in rationalist discussions this is often religion), to then efface the demarcation and leave a more complex and more ambiguous situation (complexity and ambiguity being terms that Feyerabend uses to describe his own “deconstructive” strategy – Feyerabend explicitly compares his arguments to deconstruction, though he declares that he prefers “Nestroy, who was a great, popular and funny deconstructeur, while Derrida, for all his good intentions, can’t even tell a good story”).
(PS: Gary Williams at MINDS AND BRAINS gives a summary of a new book by Herman Philipse called GOD IN THE AGE OF SCIENCE?, which presents a new refutation of theistic religious belief. The argument looks quite interesting but seems to be based on a positivistic view of religion, which makes it good as a critique of creationist and intelligent design types of belief. It also seems to take a positivist view of the contemporary world, calling it « the age of science », and so runs afoul of the pluralist idea that this is not a desirable state of affairs, nor even an accurate description of the situation today. It seems to me incapable of taking on more performative views of religion).