An argument in ecotheology.” pp 459-475, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 2009.
What I mean by taking religion ‘seriously’ is to take it religiously.
To be an anthroplogist of the moderns requires the ability to speak in tongues, that is, to be sensitive to each of the original ways of speaking truthfully which have been developed and nurtured: scientific, yes, to be sure; legal, political, yes, yes, but also religious.
.. it remains extremely difficult to apply to religion the same principles that has been applied to the other contrasts, that is, to treat it on its own ground so as not to speak ‘of’ religion but instead to speak ‘in’ a religious tone, or, using the adverbial form, religiously. Speaking scientifically is not a problem … Speaking legally is taught very efficiently at law schools. … But enunciating something religiously is terribly difficult because of the ease with which it is explained or accounted for by other types of explanation, especially social explanations. The precise truth conditions (or felicity conditions) that allow someone to speak religiously (and not ‘about’ religion in another tone of voice) have almost vanished (the same is true, by the way, of political enunciation).
It would be interesting and possibly quite useful to discern what those precise felicity conditions are – and to consider some examples in context, then to attempt an application …
The range of attitudes, prescriptions, warnings, restrictions, summons, sermons, and threats that go with ecology seem to be strangely out of sync with the magnitude of the changes expected from all of us, the demands that appear to impinge upon every detail of our material existence. It is as if the rather apocalyptic injunction “your entire way of life must be modified or else you will disappear as a civilisation” has overwhelmed the narrow set of passions and calculations that go under the name of “ecological consciousnes”.
In addition to this lack of fit between the implied threats and the proposed solutions, there is something deeply troubling in many ecological demands suddenly to restrict ourselves and try to leave no more footprints on a planet we have nevertheless already modified through and through. It appears totally implausible to ask the heirs of the emancipatory tradition to convert suddenly to an attitude of abstinence, caution, and asceticism – especially when billions of other people still aspire to a minimum of decent existence and comfort.
These are all good points, that I would have extreme difficulty explaining to the “deep green” activists in my circles – I wonder what further extrapolations upon this theme will be required to move it into the realm of “things to consider”, of relevance and influence to those who practice eco-activism in its many guises. The expressed memetic structure of the “ecological” consciousness is currently heavily biased by unconscious self-flagellatory justifications and cynical rhetoric, and lacks insight (imo).
Not only does religion demand a level of radical transformation compared to which the ecological gospel looks like a timid appeal to buy new garbage cans, but it also has – and this will be even more important for the future – a very assured confidence in the ‘artificial’ remaking of earthly goods.
Whereas ecologocal consciousness has been unable to move us, the religious drive to renew the face of the earth just might.
It is painfully clear that this ever-shrinking religious ethos will do nothing for ecologising our world, … Yet perhaps we can postpone this seemingly inevitable Apocalypse: religion could become a powerful alternative to modernising and a powerful help for ecologising, provided that a connection can be established (or rather re-established) between religion and Creation, instead of religion and nature.
I think what is being suggested here, is that a deeply reverent attitude toward caring for and cultivating the living planet might arise as a kind of ethical framework invested with the passionate drive of devotional service – somehow … (which would be kinda cool!)
… science, or, rather, to use my technical terms, reference chains are what allow access to the far away, while religion, or, rather, presence, to use again my terminology, is what allows access to the near … This distinction … has the advantage of quickly dissolving a lot of the nonesense that accrues as soon as one opposes ‘knowledge’ and ‘belief’.
It becomes clearer and clearer as anthropology moves on, spurred both by my own field (science studies) and by ecological crises and globalisation more generally, that nature has never been the unified material medium in which modernism has unfolded.
Remember that the key question is how to allow religion to encounter something other than ‘nature’. That this is possible (if not easy) becomes clearer when one begins to realise that what is called ‘nature’ – or what has been taken for the same thing, “the material world”, the world of ‘matter’ – is made of at least two entirely different layers of meaning: one consists of the ways in which reference chains need to be arrayed so as to work, by giving us knowledge of far-away entities and processes of all kinds; but the other is provided by a completely different type of mode, and that is the way in which the entities themselves manage to remain in existence.
[describing two primary modes of existence, Reference and Reproduction which when combined define Latour's notion of 'nature']
Neither neo-Darwinians nor creationists have digested the radical news that organisms themselves make up their own meanings.
… where do we get this prejudice that religion is defined by a transcendence that can save us from a world which otherwise would stifle us into immanence? (or according to its mirror image, the alternative secular narrative that the stark immanence of the natural world will save us from an escapist adherence to the transcendent world of beyond?) Here resides the root of all spite against non-humans and, by consequence, the complete implausibility of any form of ecological spirituality.
Good question, with an imperative to find it’s answer built in.
The hiatus of Reproduction, the risk taken by each individual organism in its own Umwelt to last a little longer, has to be defined on its own terms, with its own felicity conditions, without imposing upon it a narrative borrowed from somewhere else. … By asking for reproduction to stand alone as a mature mode of existence, is a plea not to “overcome the limits of a mechanistic or reductionistic view of the material world”, but, on the contrary, to stop adding to it dimensions that have always been superfluous to its pursuit of its own peculiar goals. … Let us at least secularise the world of reproduction.
If moderns are guilty of a sin, it is that of portraying one of their main achievements namely the discovery that nothing was out of reach of reference chains, by morphing it into the lazy contemplation of a “natural world” made visible to rational minds without work, without instruments, without history. They failed to do justice to their own inventive genius and thus have kidnapped science … into a rather drab and entirely mythical drama of Light overcoming Darkness. Reference deserves greater respect than the hypocritical (I take the word etymologically) adherence to a “scientific worldview”. Through its complex, cascading reference chains, science can produce an objective grasp of everything, but no “scientific worldview” of anything – and especially not by covering up evolution.
… what if religion is allowed to weave its highly specific from of transcendence into the fabric of the other two modes of existence, Reproduction and Reference? … I am well aware that such an encounter has never taken place. … Can we help prepare the occasion for an encounter that has never taken place?
‘Creation’ could be the word to designate what we get when Reproduction and Reference are seized by the religious urge radically to transform that which is given into that which has to be fully renewed. … The term ‘creativity’ also designates Reproduction quite well – and it is also a fitting way to capture the immense productivity of science.
Like many of us mere mortals (I assume) I am still having some difficulty getting to the pith of Latour’s arguments. I like many of the points he raises. He is quite abstruse at times as well as seeming to have a tendency to circumnambulate the issues he is discussing , and part of me just wants him to summarise his thinking and lay out the essence of his position in a more direct manner (which probably reveals more about me than it does about his writing style I admit).