For the Information Age, Bruno Latour writing about religion reads a little like Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. Latour’s own contribution, Rejoicing: Or the Torments of Religious Speech, joins a long list of European philosophers turning to religion in a post-critical key. Latour’s unique twist is to place religion inside the network, and to understand it as such. This turn to religion against its modern critics is all consistent, going back to We Have never Been Modern. Latour has always been techno-romantic.
Once we assume and accept with the critics of religion that religion has nothing to do with cognitive truth, that religion is a “man-made” artifice, the task then embraced by Latour is how to build “a machine” for “the manufacture of religious phrases” (120). As theorized in An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence, the truth of a religious phrase rests in meeting felicity conditions. A pragmatic criterion, it demands to know if the phrase is well-made or not.
The problem with religion, especially modern religion, is the prayer-form, not the prayer-object (p.14). In particular, it’s “reference,” control, direct access that ruin the religious phrase, the insistence that a religious phrase corresponds directly to a truth external to the phrase. In contrast, what makes for a felicitous religious phrase is that it be addressed in the language of the person(s) to whom it is addressed, in the present moment, without crossing over into information per se (e.g. about things like creation and the Big Bang); they must have a pragmatic effect in bringing people together (pp.54-7). Otherwise the phrase is false. Latour rejects that staple of modern religion, his point being that one should not translate a putatively false religious expression into some putatively true philosophical (or political) idiom.
For it to work, the techno-religious utterance has to be profoundly presentist in its claim on people. What matters then is getting the quality or tone of the utterance right (p.156). Without trying to translate, can you get right something like the Lord’s Prayer? With all the inevitable distortions, can you say it right in the present moment in such a way as to bring people together around its sense (p.118-19, Cf. 74-5, 111, 131)? Machine-like, the religious phrase is pure function. It has nothing to do with information, say about the risen Christ (or in Jewish prayer, any utterance about God and His people Israel).
Against iconoclasm both in ancient religion and in the critical philosophy of the moderns, there’s simply no way to scrub the religion-machine of impurities, by which Latour means images, dogmas, and things that modern critics write off too easily as superstitions, illusions, delusions, etc. Impurities, distortions, lies, falsehoods are integral parts of the system without which the system cannot do (pp.19, 83, 94ff, 60-1, 145ff). The religion network is not a smooth information machine like in science. Echoing a thought made by Vilem Flusser, Latour also is against the very idea of “naked truth.” He wants his truths padded in velvet (p.83).
What I find most unpersuasive are the disavowals, but they have a function. One such disavowal is to draw a line separating religion and art. The point here is primarily on the ground that religion’s function is to save people and draw them close, whereas art is more “spiritual.” Immediately after making this claim, Latour goes on for pages about Fra Angelica, as if to make his own point regarding the close proximity of art and religion (pp.103-11).
The more productive disavowal is the one against God and institutional religion, the rejection of which allows Latour to then double back in order to affirm them. To see the use function of the disavowal requires the reader to overlook how cute this can get, inter alia, the avowed disinterest in religious stuff at the beginning of the book, the constant run around God, the taunt that Latour is “scandalizing” believers (and also non-believers), the assertion that religion is disappointing. In the end those are the disavowals that allow Latour to then turn the deeply Christian phrasings that run throughout this book and that give it its particular disposition. Confessional and self-reflexive, there’s Latour in church, trying to get the phrase right.