In criticising Latour’s analyses of the diverse modes of existence we should not conflate the book with the project, and so not be too hasty to judge, as the digital platform permits counter-analyses and revisions. Equally, we should not be too hasty to indulge Latour on this point either as all we have for the moment is a vague promise. The assurance that anyone can criticise and correct Latour’s accounts if only they provide supporting documentation may be placing the bar too high, and so may be a way of preventing criticism. The worry is that Latour is working, at least in some cases such as the religious mode, with a double standard. Latour does not do the fieldwork that would be necessary to justify his analysis of the religious mode and yet pretends he has, as a way of making unrealistic demands on the sort of criticism that he is willing to attend to.
Latour’streatment of the religious mode is performative in the sense that its correlated experience exists only in his own description and re-activation of its mode of enunciation (by his own admission). The problem is that religious language is not limited to eliciting a conversion, as his analysis implies. The idea that beliefs play no role in religion is not empirically supported, it is the opposite of an ethnographic approach. Luhrmann’s WHEN GOD TALKS BACK is more useful from that point of view. Much of religion is concerned with what happens after conversion, which is something that Latour’s account not only neglects but actively expunges.
I would like Latour’s conception of conversion to be an ongoing process, but if you look carefully at the text it is not a continuous phenomenon and exists only sporadically, at certain intense moments, such as in Mass or during prayer. I personally see conversion as a continuing process and I would have “liked” to see that idea in Latour’s text, but it is not. The thought is too dichotomous: either you are not converted or you are. There is no place for faith as a lasting state, it is rather a series of reiterated acts of faith. But this description does not seem to be phenomenologically sound.
I see no reason for a priest full of faith needing to “convert” at each mass. Imagine if he says several masses a day, and hears confession too. It sounds exhausting. How long does the conversion in the mass last? Does he convert at the beginning and then, in the best case scenario, stay on a plateau of conversion for an hour? In which case why just an hour and not a life, or at least a few years? This may sound like nitpicking, but there is something wrong with the temporality implied by his description of this mode. This is why I do not accept Latour’s description of love either: true, it describes one facet of the experience but this is far from all. From a doctrinal point of view a doubting priest may administer a sacrament and its grace will be bestowed, otherwise Catholics (especially those receiving Extreme Unction) would do well to keep their priests strapped to lie detectors.