CONVERSION vs FAITH: Latour’s inadequate grammar of the religious

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.

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8 Responses to CONVERSION vs FAITH: Latour’s inadequate grammar of the religious

  1. Bill Benzon says:

    Back when AIME was first announced I was interested and figured I’d read it. But now, not so much. For one thing, once I’d worked through my own somewhat idiosyncratic engagement with pluralism my philosophical impulse has subsided … at least for the moment. Anyhow, I did read much of On the Modern Cult of Factish Gods and found it interesting, but also a bit thin. So I’ve been reading around in your remarks and am sympathetic.

    Here’s a blog post in which I report on a service I attended two years ago in a local church. I went out of deep curiosity, but not with any intention of joining. It’s clear that what actually happened in that service was very important. But I’d hesitate to separate that from belief. That’s tricky. And who knows what the pastor himself actually believes.

    The week after hurricane Sandy blew through Jersey City (almost a year ago) I attended service at the church down the block from me. There’s some brief notes about that service at the end of this post.

    Here’s a note about a Buddhist ceremony (for the Autumn Equinox) I recently attended. It opened with prayers by a Sufi, a Roman Catholic, and a Hindu.

    Here’s a paper, Constructing Spirits: An Exercise in Pluralist Composition, in which I talk about the social and psychological construction of “spirits” in the kind of detail I don’t find in Latour, and that, I suppose, is one reason why I’m not particularly interested in reading AIME.

    Abstract: It is well known that music can engender altered states of consciousness that are difficult to interpret scientifically except its odd malfunctions in the nervous system. In this paper I report on a phenomenon known among some musicians as “the magic of the bell,” the apparent emergence of spirits while a groups is playing bells with passion and precision. I argue those sounds arise through interpersonal coupling among the musicans and that those twittering “spirits” should be considered as embodiments of non-mysterious and physically coherent group consciousness.

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  2. Philip says:

    And Latour is publishing all this religion stuff (in English at least) at the precise point where ‘atheist churches’ are taking off!:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21319945
    http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/atheologies/7356/uk_atheist_church_invasion/
    http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-10/20/sunday-assembly-expansion

    It’d be fascinating to ethnograph these ceremonies from the perspective of conversion. ‘Ah, I never grasped that theorem before! Now I feel more in tune with the universe – and with my friends!’

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  3. Philip says:

    “Creating a platform for international expansion suddenly makes Sunday Assembly sound a little bit organised — perhaps too much like religion? But Jones is quick to counter: “Things which are organised are not necessarily bad. A lot of people mistake the organisational aspects of something [Religion] with the bad things that have happened because of it. Lots of organisations are great: Girl Guides, Boy Scouts, Brownies. A lot of bad done in the name of religion has been done by the folk who are more organised.” He highlighted the absurdity of the argument by relating it to cars. “Imagine saying you don’t want a car from one of those organised manufacturers. Organisations can do wonderful things.””

    The man’s a born Latourian!

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  4. terenceblake says:

    This is why Latour’s conversionist account of religion is inadequate. Conversion occurs in science and mathematics, and also in philosophy where you are expected to undergo multiple conversions in a lifetime. Latour has no place for philosophy in his modes, so he can pass over in silence the tradition of philosophy as a spiritual practice as described by Hadot, and practiced by Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, etc.

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    • dmfant says:

      not sure that faith (love, etc) are ever one thing/mode but perhaps we can find some loose analogy/prototype in Kuhn’s sense of the normal/everyday and than those events/experiences of paradigm-shifts?

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    • camo says:

      Latour’s account hinges on the access to our neighbors that is opened up through encountering the beings of religion. REL is distinct from the conversion experiences in science and mathematics (which could possibly be regarded in Latour’s system via REL-REF associations), because the beings of religion produce distinct assemblages when combined with other prepositions and netwoks. He doesn’t go into enough detail about the relation between religion and morality, for example, i.e. forgiveness, perhaps because in his sequencing of chapters, morality is introduced later. But it seems important to provide a space where we can relate to other people as neighbors in a religious sense, in the very same agora in which we debate the future of the planet. Latour is attempting to generate new venues of association. The religious conversion (Christian, modern) is said to provide unique access to our neighbors, and we can see from Latour’s book as a whole (even though he doesn’t elaborate in the chapter on religion) that this conversion offers distinct connections to the other modes that may be quite useful/important for composing a common world. I don’t see how the existence of conversion experience in science and math is somehow a means of declaring Latour’s approach inadequate — perhaps his “account” in AIME is inadequate, as you say, but please, we can do a little work on our own and think about the utility of assigning REL a distinct mode that connects uniquely with other modes. If you are criticizing his book, you should also (eventually) reconstruct the inquiry by providing your own account of the modes, comparing and contrasting yours with his. But this is what he’s calling forth — Damn him to hell for turning critics into allies!

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  5. terenceblake says:

    The problem with the concept of “conversion” is that Latour, as with other concepts, oscillates between a common sense acception and a technical one. Turning towards what is “nearby” is something that both philosophy and science allow us to do. Identifying the nearby with the “neighbor” is tantamount to importing connotations from the doxic domain of religion into the definition of a mode of existence. There is no reason to accord religious utterance primacy in the attention to the nearby. The atoms composing my body are not “remote” in any non-question-begging sense. There is no reason to believe that attending to God, attending to angels, attending to neighbours can be lumped together in a single homogeneous grammar, that constitutes us as unified persons to boot.

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