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Reassembling the Sacred: Bruno Latours Philosophy of Religion Surely one of the most important issues facing the

philosophy of religion in the twenty-first century is that of religions relationship to science. This is not only because of ethical and epistemological concerns; as Derrida argued nearly twenty years ago in his landmark essay Faith and Knowledge, 1 religion (if one can speak of it in the singular) is today constituted both together with and over against science. Thus, no contemporary philosophical approach to religion is adequate that does not directly address this relationship. One of the most compelling Continental perspectives on issues both religious and scientific to emerge recently is that of Bruno Latour. This paper will examine three aspects of Latours philosophy in order to propose an approach to religion that is not restrained by the terms of what Latour calls the modernist settlement 2 but can instead let religion speak for itself. The first of these aspects is Latours analysis of the work of purification that is part and parcel of modernity. The second, closely related to the first, is his rejection of nave belief in nave belief i.e., the idea that so-called primitive or superstitious religious ideas are held by their adherents in ways that modern social sciences take to be unreflective or simply backward. Lastly, we will explore the possibility of conceiving religion in ways that make use of what Latour calls factishes, compositions that exist and thrive as links in chains of reference. Understanding religion in this way constructively rather than critically will allow us to compose a prospective future for the philosophy of religion in which religious life may by accounted for in all its multiform reality. Purifying the Modern World Latour argues that modernity is characterized by two sets of practices, which can only be effective if they are kept separate. The first, which he calls translation, generates new connections

Jacques Derrida, Acts of Religion, ed. Gil Anidjar (New York: Routledge, 2002), 42-101. According to Latour, the modernist settlement is that characteristic perspective of modern thought which has sealed off into incommensurable problems questions that cannot be solved separately and have to be tackled all at once questions concerning the out there, in there, down there, and up there of nature, mind, politics, and morality (Bruno Latour, Pandoras Hope [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999], 310).
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between and mixtures of different types of beings beings both natural and cultural. The second set of practices, designated purification, creates two entirely distinct ontological zones: that of human beings on the one hand; that of nonhumans on the other. These two different sets of practices rely on each other in order to make sense and be efficacious, but it has been the task of modernization increasingly to focus on purification and obscure the work of translation. Yet Latour maintains that, paradoxically, the more modernity has emphasized purification at the expense of translation, the more fecund translation has in practice actually become. An immense proliferation of hybrid beings has occurred at the expense of our being unable (or unwilling) properly to accept their existence as such. 3 Religion comes into view within the horizon of the work of purification in at least two ways. First, the beings that make up the content of religious belief and practice gods, relics, buildings, clothing, etc. are subjected like any other beings to a division between nature and culture. Either something belongs in the human ontological sphere, as a human being or as the product of human activity, or it belongs in the natural sphere and is subject to the rule of natural forces. The contents of both of these separate spheres, however, remain subject to the same modernist critique that gives rise to the division between nature and culture in the first place. Thus, the strictly critical approaches to monotheism in the West put forward by, for example, Feuerbach, Marx, Durkheim, or Freud aim to conquer it by dividing its contents between the tightly controlled spheres of nature and culture. Thus arises what Latour calls a very strange type of pluralism, in which the whole world is divided between a single natural world and a variety of cultural worlds religion being counted among the latter. 4 Religious belief may be retained alongside the operation of this bifurcation, but only if God is kept at a distance; religious beliefs and practices must be relegated to a specially designated private

Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 10ff. Latour, Thou Shalt Not Take the Lord's Name in Vain Being a Sort of Sermon on the Hesitations of Religious Speech, Res 39, 217.
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sphere posited over against the public sphere of modern politics on the one hand and the impersonal world of nature on the other. God remains available as a final authority in cases that elude easy explanation according to the work of purification, but otherwise He withdraws from view except in the privacy of ones own home and ones own heart, which is still allowed to have its own reasons. 5 A second way in which religious beliefs and practices are connected to the modernist work of purification is perhaps less readily apparent: certain religious traditions have from the outset provided motivating forces in the process of modernization. Thus, modernity has never been a phenomenon wholly separated from religious impulses. Anthropologist Webb Keane argues that the desire for religious reform found in Protestant Christianity may account for at least part of the moral impetus that lies behind the modern project, envisioning the work of purification as part of the salvific mission of European Christianity. As Keane observes, Latour tends to organize his discussions of purification around scientific practice or political philosophy, but he does not give a strong explanation of what drives the purification or of what organizes the various different domains of action such that they fall into an overarching tendency with a single direction and lend it the sense of moral progress. 6 Part of the force behind this progressive tendency, which enables modernity to create the sense of an absolute break with its past, is the drive toward reform found in a wide variety of religious traditions and Protestant Christianity in particular. For our purposes, Keanes argument on this issue can be taken in three parts: first, that the progressive character of modernity is at least partially constituted by a moral impetus toward reform; second, that this drive to reform is characteristic of Christianity generally, and a fortiori of Protestant Christianity; third, that this Christian drive to reform and its connection to the modernist work of purification can be seen

Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, 33. Webb Keane, Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007), 77.
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most clearly in the work of missionaries outside the West. Christian missionaries often took it as their purpose to cure the attachments to superstitions and fetishes that they found among the peoples with whom they came into contact. Thus, the missionary denunciation of fetishism leveled against (currently or recently) non-Christian peoples can be seen as part of the work of purification, as it finds in what it takes to be fetishistic beliefs and practices unacceptable admixtures of the natural and the cultural, or of inert matter and free will, as well as of the immanent and the transcendent. 7 Yet, the idea of fetishism relies on what Latour calls the nave belief in nave belief that is, the belief that the purified standpoint of modernity, in which natural facts are cleanly separated from human constructs, reveals an objectively verifiable reality against which the ostensibly pre-modern reality of the fetishist can easily be shown to be mere illusion. 8 Objects of Belief Latour characterizes the modernist critique of the fetish as a kind of iconoclasm. The modern iconoclast sees in the fetish an object that holds no meaning or potency in itself; it is only something onto which we have projected, erroneously, our fancies, our labor, our hopes and passions. 9 It is thus the iconoclasts mission to shed light on the facts of the case, to show those who believe in the fetish that it is nothing more than a powerless artifact. Yet, this iconoclastic critique does not fundamentally contend with superstition or credulity concerning mere objects, natural forces, or social structures; instead, Latour maintains, the anti-fetishism of modernity aims to destroy certain modes of discourse and activity that hamper the work of purification. Information talk is one thing, he writes, transformation talk is another; 10 the iconoclasm of the modernist critique tends to reduce all talk to information talk, thus not recognizing that the aim of the

Keane, 54, 77. Latour, Pandoras Hope, 274. 9 Latour, Pandoras Hope, 270. 10 Latour, Thou Shall Not Freeze-Frame, or, How Not to Misunderstand the Science and Religion Debate, in J. D. Proctor (ed.), Science, Religion, and the Human Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 29.
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belief that it attributes to the fetishist is not to articulate and communicate irrational dogma but rather to enact a particular form of life. Likening religious talk to language used between lovers, Latour argues that in both discourses the aim is the transformation of the speakers rather than the communication of a message; thus, elements like tone and bearing are sometimes more important than the words used. 11 It is this emphasis on transforming the agents of discourse rather than communicating its content that the modernist project overlooks in charging persons, communities, and traditions with fetishistic attitudes and nave belief. Fetishism, as it is understood by the iconoclast, is always an accusation. It is attributed to others who are taken to be, at best, mistaken in their beliefs, and it always carries with it moral overtones. Latour explains: Some person, or some people, are accused of being taken inor worse, of cynically manipulating credulous believersby someone who is sure of escaping from this illusion and wants to free others as well [the modern iconoclast]: either from nave belief or from being manipulative. But if anti-fetishism is clearly an accusation, it is not a description of what happens with those who believe or are manipulated. 12 Rather than describing the discourse and action of believers in ways that remain faithful to the contours of these phenomena, the iconoclast projects an idea of nave belief onto those who thus stand accused. It is only under the shadow of this accusation that the accused become nave, credulous, or irrational; such categories are imposed by the modernist critique on that which resists the work of purification. It is thus the iconoclast, rather than those accused of fetishism or nave belief, who holds onto a belief against the testimony of the world. The iconoclast believes in something called belief. However, this conception of nave belief itself testifies to the struggle between the work of purification and that which resists it. 13 Ultimately, what iconoclasm fails to recognize is that the objective truth it champions is no less constructed than that which it critiques.

Latour, Thou Shall Not Freeze-Frame, 31. Latour, Pandoras Hope, 270. 13 Latour, Pandoras Hope, 271f.
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Regardless of the work of purification that places them on opposite sides of a deep divide, facts and fetishes are both fabricated. 14 As Latour explains in the brochure for Iconoclash, an art exhibit he co-curated in 2002, it is often held that the more the human hand can be seen as having worked on an image, the weaker is the images claim to truth. Thus, the work of the modern iconoclast has been basically to reveal the human hand at work in the construction of religious beliefs and practices. However, the halo surrounding that which is not constructed has been both retained and defended with regard to the facts that form the basis for scientific inquiry. If you show the hand at work in the human fabric of science, you are accused of sullying the sanctity of objectivity, of ruining its transcendence, of forbidding any claim to truth, of putting to the torch the only source of enlightenment we may have. 15 Latours aim is not to show that we do in fact have no access to truth, or that all truth is merely relative or subjective, but just the opposite: to show that we have many kinds of access to truth, and that to say that something is constructed or fabricated is not to say that it is not real. In the modernist settlement, facts are taken to be objectively certain precisely because they are supposedly not constructed; fetishes, on the other hand, are just those things which are not real (or whose meaning or power is not real) because they have been revealed to be products of human construction. If we concede, however, that both the fact and the fetish are fabricated in some way or other by interactions between humans and objects, then we open up the possibility of recombining these categories across the divide established by the work of purification. What we are left with is what Latour calls the factish.

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Latour, Pandoras Hope, 272. Latour, What is Iconoclash? in Latour and Weibel (eds.), Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion, and Art (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 18.

Michael Barnes Norton The Composition of Religion

Reassembling the Sacred

Factishes exist on both sides of the divide set up by the work of purification, because they need not be conceived as inert matter subject to objective physical laws nor as supernatural beings possessing agency in a modern sense. The more a factish is connected to a complex network of fabrications, the stronger its claim to truth; likewise, the more efficacious a factish is in transforming those who interact with it, the stronger its moral demand. The autonomy and power of a factish comes because of, not despite, its being constructed. 16 As in the example of the discourse of lovers cited above, the reality of a factish is to be determined only as part of a chain of references that also involves the behaviors and commitments of those who relate to it. Picking up Latours argument, Isabelle Stengers proposes that the consideration of factishes makes room for a renewed understanding of the sacred, as something which calls forth a certain obligation. 17 This obligation would not be one of an immutable established authority, but rather one of an interdependency in which different element of a network must rely on the strength of each other to retain their own strength. Neither sacredness nor the belief that commits itself to it causes the other; instead, the truth and reality of one depends on that of the other. On this point, I believe it is helpful to turn briefly to Webb Keanes analysis of the role of what he calls the creedal paradigm in modern Christian practice. On the one hand, the emphasis on creedal formulation that is particularly characteristic of Christianity (and which has taken on new levels of importance since the Reformation) has enabled and abetted the work of purification, isolating propositional content over against material forms and focusing on the former while attempting to minimize the influence of the latter. On the other hand, the role that creeds play in the religious practices of those who learn and speak them is clearly as much a performative and
16 Latour, Pandoras Hope, 275. It is worth noting that Latour makes this argument against any claims that what we call real is nothing but construction or illusion. Latours aim is not to reduce or unmask reality, but on the contrary to bolster it by rethinking the role of construction. 17 Isabelle Stengers, Cosmopolitics I, trans. Robert Bononno (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 80.

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transformative one as it is an informative one. Indeed, the efficacy of the creedal paradigm in furthering the aims of modernity depends precisely on its ability to engage subjects in its particular network of practices for example, the congregational recitation of the Nicene Creed during the liturgies of many Christian denominations. The recitation of a creedal formula that begins with I believe or we believe is a ritual performance that places the speakers belief within the context of a public world of words, at once imposing an established articulation of acceptable beliefs and enjoining the speakers to take responsibility for these beliefs (either individually or collectively). 18 The formation, articulation, and imposition of beliefs that are central to the creedal paradigm work in tandem with the modern formation of subjects who are responsible and autonomous moral agents. 19 Yet, the performative aspect of this paradigm, whence comes its practical efficacy, betrays its fundamentally hybrid nature. Following Latours lead, then, we may perhaps ask how creeds interact with both those who recite them and that of which they speak. Instead of treating articles of a religious creed as propositions about facts, which can be either true or false, and instead of treating the creed itself as a fetish that the religious person automatically (even obsessively) invokes on felicitous occasions, it would instead behoove us to inquire into the ways in which a religious practice like the formulation and repetition of a creed composes a religious tradition and transforms the actants incorporating it. Compositionism is the word Latour has recently adopted to designate his approach, which aims to avoid the distinctions put in place by the work of purification, especially that between objective facts and social constructions. Even though the word composition is a bit too long and windy, Latour writes, what is nice is that it underlines that things have to be put together (Latin componere) while retaining their heterogeneity. Latour explains that composing involves making

Keane, 71f. Thus, it should not be surprising that Keane recognizes instances of the creedal paradigm outside the realm religion, primarily in the sphere of the political yet perhaps even in the Boy Scouts oath (Keane, 76).
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connections, creating harmonies, and putting appearances in order; it also, and importantly, always involves the possibility of decomposition the breaking of ties or the collapse of a system. Any composition that can succeed can also fail. The issue thus cannot be whether or not a given object of inquiry is constructed freed from the false choices laid down by the modernist settlement, we can recognize that everything is constructed. Focusing on the work of composition thus draws attention away from the irrelevant difference between what is constructed and what is not constructed, toward the crucial difference between what is well or badly constructed, well or badly composed. What compositionism is concerned with, then, is articulating strongly constructed assemblages and brokering firm negotiations.20 As opposed to the iconoclastic stance of modernity, Latour is adamant that it is his position that is concerned solely with immanence. With critique, you may debunk, reveal, unveil, but only as long as you establish, through this process of creative destruction, a privileged access to the world of reality behind the veils of appearances. The single world of natural facts is just such a real world access to which is strictly controlled. It is a commonly held, modern view that science deals with the immanent while religion deals with the transcendent. However, it is actually the case that science busies itself reaching farther and farther away from what is close to common experience toward both the submicroscopic world of elementary particles and the vast expanses of galaxies. Furthermore, the practice of science can only make these realms present to us by way of long chains of mediations. 21 Science, just like anything else, deals with factishes it involves the creation of stronger and stronger compositions, in order to bring the distant within our grasp. Religion, on the other hand, is from the start directly concerned with what is nearest to us. Again disputing common conceptions, Latour argues that the main concern of religion is to redirect its participants attention to the living present a present that emerges as part of the transformation
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Latour, An Attempt at a Compositionist Manifesto, New Literary History 41, 474. Latour, Thou Shall Not Freeze-Frame, 36.

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of the religious person. Using as examples both the Christian story of Jesus empty tomb and various pictorial representations of this scene, Latour maintains that the quintessential religious transformation is the one that directs the attention of the adherent not away to another world or another life, but back to her immediate surroundings i.e., not to the dead but to the living. 22 We may be able to recognize similar redirections in Muslims daily prayers, meditations on Zen kons, or in the various devotions to objects condescendingly designated as fetishes. In each case, the power of the object of religious belief does not come from the information it imparts any more than it comes from any scientifically measurable (or supernatural) force actually inherent in a text, ritual, or object. What makes a religious tradition true to its adherents is the strength of its composition i.e., its ability to maintain the difficult work of redirection toward that which concerns us most immediately and to engage us in an obligations toward that which thereby emerges as sacred. In Reassembling the Social, Latour decries the hypostatization of society that has occurred over the history of social science, arguing that the adjective social is used as if it referred to some substance from which phenomena are constituted. 23 Much like the separation of a world of objective facts, the hypostatization of society is a result of the work of purification and remains a key element in various critical projects. Things like economics, politics, law, and even science itself become reduced to this or that collection of social factors. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the study of religion, for at least since Durkheim there has been a widespread tendency to understand religion solely with reference to human society. Yet, this obscures the fact that there is after all no independently existing thing called society, no singular social structure on top of which science, law, or religion is then constructed. As Latour maintains, Religion does not have to be accounted for by social forces because in its very definitionindeed, in its very nameit links

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Latour, Thou Shall Not Freeze-Frame, 40. Latour, Reassembling the Social: an Introduction to Actor-Network Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 43.

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together entities which are not part of the social order; 24 these non-social entities include both natural facts isolated by the work of purification and things made sacred through religious transformations. Practicing religion is always a matter of composition, of establishing ties that either work to transform those involved or begin to decompose. The purifying work of modern critique may be able to disassemble religious constructions that have grown weak, but its retrospective nature is characteristically ill-fitted to those religious compositions that continue to give place to living presents and as-yet-unseen futures. It is these compositions, and their complex relationships with the world and each other, to which the philosophy of religion must turn its attention today.

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Latour, Reassembling the Social, 7.

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