I recently (22 Nov 2017) found the text for Joel Harrison’s podcast “Facts v. Values: Can Religious Studies Be More Critical?”[i] when I wandered onto Facebook. I think my cursor inadvertently hovered over a small region of e-territory and the article jumped out at me.
I was glad I saw the text and would like to contribute some discussion. Harrison’s piece is a defence of an editorial written by Warren Goldstein, Rebekka King and Jonathan Boyarin published in Critical Research on Religion (April 2016). This defence is turned against ‘critical religion’. I already responded to the CRR editorial several months ago, and I don’t know whether or not Harrison or Lucas Scott Wright has seen that (see CRR, vol. 4, 3: pp. 307-313, 2016).
Harrison’s article is also a discussion and advocacy of an essay by Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” [Critical Inquiry 30, no. 2 (Winter 2004): 225-248. [https://doi.org/10.1086/421123]. Harrison thinks that ‘critical religion’ has valuable things to learn from Bruno Latour, and I think he is probably right. But I need to be clear what is being suggested.
To clarify Harrison’s meaning, I will sometimes need to ask what he thinks Latour means. I have never read Latour before – I admit I am not as widely read in the texts of the important critical theorists as many colleagues. How then did I come to formulate a critical methodology called ‘critical religion’? There is no space here to talk about my own background. I will, however, defend and hopefully elucidate what I have been calling critical religion, because what I mean by critical religion is about much more than ‘religion’ alone – as though this is a stand-alone category corresponding to a stable and empirically observable kind of institution or practice or experience (which, I think, it is not).
Since Harrison’s article is in part a reflection on critical religion, I thought it might be useful to spend a few paragraphs outlining some of the aspects of my own understanding of critical religion that seem relevant to the discussion, before directly addressing Harrison’s many excellent points.
One version of critical religion
My own view is that religious studies, and the putative object ‘religion’ that is its specialty, is a red-herring, a distraction from the more fundamental problem of our survival under liberal capitalism, and the destructive myth of secular liberal progress through science, markets and technology. The invention of generic religion, as a special class of practices and institutions centred on other vagaries like ‘faith in the supernatural,’ has been one significant element in our currently distorted view of what is ‘natural’ to human beings. Our concern with the study of religion and religions is a deflection from what (in my view) should be our object of concern if we want to survive. Religion and religions are unclear and often arbitrary intellectual constructs that isolate and render apart contingent chunks of data about ourselves – such as our intuitions of transcendence, our moral values of love and compassion, our expressions of erotic desire, our confrontations with death and bereavement, or our collective sentiments of beauty and justice – which need to be reintegrated into the totality of our lived experience. Without these values at the centre of our collective lives, our institutions will become exactly what they have become – soulless, authoritarian, cynical, uncaring, and an invitation for exploitation. The generic invention of the supernatural has the effect of clothing our supposedly natural selves in the language of objective scientific fact, such as the selfish gene, or its economic equivalent the possessive self-maximiser. Our belief that religion and religions are valuable objects of investigation in themselves has the effect of normalising the division in consciousness between subjective values and objective facts, while disguising the degree to which our selection of what counts as factual knowledge is already permeated by value judgements.
The invention of generic religion has enabled a much larger invention, the invention of liberal capitalism and its institutions. I include the invention of generic ‘science’ in this. The illusion of secular scientific progress only appears veridical when contrasted with the supposed backwardness of religious superstition, from which lost condition we imagine we are emerging into the light of reason and reality, itself a utopian soteriology. The belief that we can become secular experts on religion working in secular universities is to accept and even reproduce a distinction which is itself a non-empirical ideological construct. It is the total ideological construct that should be our object of concern, not an abstract fragment of its end-result.
This construct is rhetorically reproduced through a large number of either-or binary oppositions that operate through agencies that continually construct and reconstruct secular modernity – constitutions, courts of law, schools and universities, the media, the PR industry, and the rhetoric of politicians. The binary oscillations of religion/politics and religion/science are of obvious significance. It is either religion or it is politics, it cannot be both; it is either religion or it is science, it cannot be both; it is either Theism or Atheim; it is either God or the World; it is either faith in the ‘supernatural’ or knowledge of ‘nature’; it is either superstitious belief or it is empirical fact; it is either personal, subjective and voluntary or it is public, objective and compulsory. There is a complex history of the origin and development of these binary formations since the 17th century. One salient point is that the dominating configuration that emerged historically, which I will call liberal secular modernity, was driven by the interests of an elite class of male private property accumulators, many of them Nonconformist, demanding rights in a context of colonial opportunities for plunder and extortion. Liberal political economists have since developed the terminology of development and growth.
The political economists have represented liberal secular modernity as the natural outcome of evolutionary progress, as emergence from the superstitious ignorance of the past into the light of reason and reality, from mystified religious faith into real knowledge as the result of observation and inference, as the progress of nations from irrational barbarity to rational civility. What they have actually succeeded in doing is to construct an imaginary world of markets and nation states in which the most unscrupulous and narcissitic egoists are considered the most rational and deserving. This fiction of human nature was represented in John Locke’s influential version of ‘man in the state of nature’. It was developed by the likes of Turgot, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Ricardo, Bentham and Malthus before Darwin wrote about biological evolution, and has been reauthorised by the Neoliberal thought collective founded in Mont Pelerin in 1947.
These oscillating either-or binary formations, which are globally institutionalised in constitutions and law, cut across the data in the wrong places, essentialising putative differences and obliterating shared concerns and common needs. When I say ‘the wrong places’, I mean this from the point of view of general categories like ‘democracy’, ‘equality’ and ‘morality’, as well as the sheer survival of the species. In liberal and neoliberal capitalism, these three terms do not operate successfully or coherently. The fictions of liberal secular modernity (every one of these terms – liberal, secular, modern – is productively confused) conform to the interests of those who find the meaning of life in the endless accumulation of private wealth, and in the deliberate diversion of goods from others to themselves. This is not a concept of collective survival that I can pretend to be neutral and objective about. It is a meaningless and ugly concept of life, and the dedicated pursuit of ‘religions’ and ‘religiosity’ is contributing powerfully to its continuous domination.
Practices and institutions that tend to get classified as religious are rarely if ever only subjective and personal, and are typically and perhaps always concerned with enduring moral relations and aesthetic values, with correct order, status and power, with technical knowledge, and with survival as an ongoing community. My argument is that liberal secular ideology tears the heart from the human potential of our collective representations. Almost everything that does not conform to the liberal utilitarian calculus of self-maximising hedonism is packaged as ‘a religion’ or backward superstition, and preserved in refrigeration for analysis by heart specialists. But what is the heart, metaphorically -speaking, if there is no organism into which it is integrated? Collectively we need to reconstruct ourselves.
Religion and religions are modern inventions that, while seeming to stand for important segments of life, actually divide us from each other, distract us from what is most urgent, and allow the transfer of our most pressing concerns to hollowed out abstractions, decontextualised belief systems, confined private spaces, and celebrity narcissism. The science of economics, supported by constitutions, courts, governments, states, politicians, PR propaganda, and a mainly privately-owned media, assures us that the large-scale practices of grabbing and hoarding by billionaires and corporations in times of scarcity is natural, normal and inevitable. These practices are dressed up as the ascent of man, the inevitable growth of human awareness into adulthood. This is part of what is meant as progress, apparently without much sense of irony.
Critical religion has always been about networks or configurations of categories and their mutual interrelations. Religion, like politics or science, is nothing in itself but a powerful nodal switch-point in a signalling network. Thus the imagining of religion and religions simultaneously lights up the idea of government and politics separated from, indeed protected from, ‘religion’, and thus ‘non-religious’. This binary makes possible many others (for example, ‘faith’ and ‘knowledge’, as if those two words point to essentially different states of mind) that reinforce the ideological oscillation between religion and non-religious domains. ‘Science’ and its either-or oscillation with ‘religion’ will clearly have to be a major element in this story.
Categories like religion, politics or science operate at a very great level of generality, do not have clear definitional boundaries, and are not the kinds of things that can be pointed at or observed, or their existence confirmed as a result of experimentation. There is no such thing as ‘religion’, ‘science’ or ‘politics’ to observe. From where do these very general terms derive their power to organise our world and our institutions in such decisive ways? I just mentioned religion, politics and science as nodal points in a network of interconnected and mutually sustaining categories. These configurations of categories can be thought of as signs in an automatic signalling system, while appearing as terms that pick out some objective and independent reality. Their meaningfulness is internal to the signalling system, in a similar way that a sound only becomes a musical note in a score, and its value is determined by its contextual operation in relation to the melodies and harmonies of the total composition. To put it simply, though the very general categories that dominate our form of life have concrete historical origins, they come over time and through endless narration and repetition to act together a priori, automatically and largely unconsciously in well-established combinations, and construct a world more than describe one. They do this by marshalling and organising data down well-worn paths of habitual association; they constitute a contingent and ultimately arbitrary classification system that then appears as ‘in the nature of things’; they direct awareness in a number of typical directions, instil presuppositions about common sense reality and predispositions to look in a certain way, and thus divert our attention from other pressing factors that we might otherwise be able to see quite clearly. This representation of the system of representations as an automatic signalling system operating largely unconsciously may help us understand how such a destructive theory of the meaning of life as liberal and neoliberal capitalism, and the myth of secular scientific progress on which it feeds, could appear to be stubbornly and unavoidably ‘in the nature of things’.
“In our discipline’s terms”
Harrison says “But let’s put Latour’s concern in our discipline’s terms.” But what are the terms that define ‘our discipline’? I do not want to be over-zealous here. We have to use language and we cannot guard our backs every moment and all the time. We have to refer to religious studies, or political science, or international relations, or economics, or ‘the natural and social sciences’, as disciplines or subject areas with their own institutional demarcations. Yet, at the same time I want to raise the issue ‘what is our discipline or subject area?’ At a simple and straightforward level, we can say ‘religious studies’, as in Religious Studies Podcast. Okay, then what is ‘religious studies’? This was the starting point for critical religion. Are the studies ‘we’ do ‘religious’? Or are they non-religious secular studies of religion and religions? Or are they the study of the religious aspects of ‘society’? Or the religious aspects of ‘existence’? And then we come back to the starting problem, what is ‘religion’, what are ‘religions’, and what is not ‘religious’? Can we really make any convincing distinction between a religious and a non-religious ideology at the level of objective analysis? This opens the door to government, political economy, science, the nation state, and just about everything that is represented as non-religious secular and contrasted with ‘religion’. This includes the academic construction of ‘religion’ itself, and the secular university as the ground from which religious studies claims to be a neutral and objective science. So critical religion is concerned with the system of categories that generates our apprehensions of ourselves and our world, of which ‘religion’ is one. It requires us to stop searching for ‘religion’ and ‘religions’, and to look at the operations of the classification system that transforms a term into a reified externalised projection, a bit like Plato’s cave shadows perhaps. We need to turn round and look at the source that is generating the shadows.
‘religion’ as such
I would be glad of clarification concerning Harrison’s expression “Rather than assume religion is universal and innate, we have to analyse its construction as such”.
What does he mean by “its construction as such”? Some cognitive scientists have argued that ‘religion’ is universal and innate, but to make this sound plausible, they have helped themselves to just whatever they want ‘religion’ to mean, something like the psychological propensity of individuals to believe in things that are impossible, such as walking on the water, being in two places at once, or flying effortlessly through solid objects. This may well be a universally available state of mind for human beings. The problem arises from the arbitrary appropriation of this contested European term ‘religion’ and its deployment as a universal marker of human biology, without looking at how the term is used in countless texts and institutions across time and space, including for example Constitutions, or the courts and other state agencies that determine what can and what cannot be classified as a ‘religious charity’, or without looking at problems of translation into many non-European languages. And without noticing what the imaginary exclusion of something as unfocused as ‘religion’ makes possible –the supposedly non-religious secular practices and institutions, such as universities and the knowledge they claim to produce.
Harrison may have meant something different from this by the expression ‘religion as such’. I am not trying to put words into his mouth, but would be glad of some clarification!
Matters of fact and matters of concern
I need help aligning the distinction between facts and matters of concern that Harrison derives from Bruno Latour with my own terms. ‘Religion’ can be described as a matter of concern to me, not because I think that there is any such thing as religion, outside the operation of a term in an ideological formation, but because I am deeply interested in its reification as an object of observation in its own right, and the consequent loss of sight of the total formation of which it is a part. I am concerned with the historical and conceptual appropriation of this term from one ideological context, the post-Reformation Christian sacred monarchies and ancien regimes, and its relocation in another – liberal secular modern progress. I am interested in the way that the deployment of ‘religion’, and its generic multiplication as religions and world religions, has facilitated the invention of politics, science, political economy, ‘the economy’, market forces, patriotic nation states or ‘national security’.
I do not take ‘religion’ (or ‘politics’ or ‘science’) to refer to anything like independent facts, in the way that we could agree that it is a fact that there is a sofa and two rocking chairs in my room. We have conventions for classifying things as houses, tables or chairs that do not typically raise problems. There are shared possible observations that can confirm our agreement on what a house, a sofa and two rocking chairs refers to. We don’t always have problems identifying a building as a ‘church’ in our neighbourhood, though what constitutes a church is not always at all straightforward (it could be in the back of a laundrette). No one can see the Catholic Church, which is claimed to be centred in the Vatican. Seeing what anyone in an English neighbourhood would agree is a church is radically different from seeing ‘the Church of England’, and even more different from seeing ‘a religion’ or ‘the Christian religion’. Similarly Londoners do not usually have a problem in identifying the buildings known as the Houses of Parliament, even though it is quite problematic to know what is included in such a complex concept and what is not included. For example, a necessary part of the concept of Parliament in London is that it is opened by the Sovereign Monarch at special ritual moments of the calendar. Therefore to understand the concept of parliament, which we think of in terms of representative democracy, politicians, government, a cabinet, law and policy-making, we also have to understand monarchy, sovereignty, the Church of England, and much else. We also have to understand the sovereign nation state, which is supposedly governed from Parliament and which, like the ‘nation’, has the Queen as its ‘Head’. One thing that does seem certain is that we cannot see any ‘sovereign nation state’ nor can we see ‘politics’. There are no observation sightings for very general categories such as ‘religion’, ‘science’, ‘politics’ or ‘the state’. Nor can we get a sighting of ‘the economy’.
Nor has anyone observed a ‘free market’ or a ‘self-regulating market’. These are at best theoretical abstractions that might possibly have some use, in specific and limited circumstances; but these abstractions have been transformed into the obvious common sense of public policy. The supposed science of economics has been accorded a centrality to our collective lives by way of a history of liberal evangelicalism whose belief in markets is as dogmatic and doctrinaire as any fervent ‘religious extremist’.
Do these abstract, universalising categories count as complex objects, things in the richer and more extended sense indicated by Harrison and Bruno Latour? Perhaps Harrison can help me out here. One could say that the ideas and their origins and connections are things that are matters of concern to me. However, they are things more in the sense that any arbitrary system of signs are things. So I admit to needing some help here in understanding what can and what cannot stand as a ‘thing’.
The idea of ‘religion’ and the idea of ‘politics’ or the idea of the ‘non-religious secular’ do not seem to me to have any clearly definitive content, nor to pick out any objective part of an independent landscape. They are power categories that make things happen. ‘Religions’ are empty markers of the limits of our ability to think. Belief in ‘religions’ and their description distracts us from what is happening behind our backs. It is like flying kites to distract from the hunt. To understand the function of the flying kites we need to survey the whole spectacle.
These general ideas like religion, politics and science have such huge possible content that they operate at a more extreme level of abstraction than other general ideas like ‘houses’, ‘sofas’ and ‘rocking chairs’. This does not mean that disputes and contestations cannot occur over what constitutes a house or furniture. The act of power behind an assertion by a missionary in a subjugated place about what constitutes a real house or proper furniture or decent clothing can be blatant when placed in the context of the ‘civilizing’ mission of colonization. This kind of contestation about what constitutes a civilized household is not essentially different from the colonial imposition of the Westminster model of government (or the French, US or other equivalents).
I find it productive to imagine these abstract operators as signs in an automatic signalling system. They work largely unconsciously to direct and redirect our attention, to organise data in particular patterns through binary association and mutual opposition, to set agendas through smoothed-out paths of inclusion and exclusion, to organise our (largely unconscious and automatic) predispositions to think and speak in particular ways, to make possible, but also to limit, what can and what cannot be said, felt or thought.
Therefore I can accept that general categories such as these – ‘liberty’, ‘progress’ and ‘development’ for example – are complex things and matters of concern, provided that this does not confuse a sign in a system of signs with a disguised claim about what exists independently and objectively outside the internal relations of the signalling-system itself. My concern is with the question how such problematic categories achieved their role as virtually contentless signs, and how such signs control (or constitute) consciousness.
‘Religion’ appears to pick out something objective, something beyond the discourse itself, something that can be found in the world; this is an illusion generated by the operation of the system of signs and the processes of reification. As soon as we try to imagine ‘religion’, we are overwhelmed by so much possible data that we cannot even say what religion is not! This is why in ordinary language it is perfectly intelligible to say such things as ‘politics (or opera) is her religion’; or ‘he propagates the doctrine of biological evolution with a religious intensity’; or ‘market libertarians have a utopian soteriology, an intense belief that free markets will one day guarantee our salvation’. Here everything that is typically placed on the non-religious side of the binary has been subsumed in ordinary language by the other side.
Religion, or the putatively distinct emotion of ‘religiosity’ which academics also pursue, is only a fact in the sense that it is a reified idea attributed with factuality, and attributed as having a one-to-one relation to something, or some type of thing, objectively independent of the observer, and objectively different from other reifications such as ‘the state’ or ‘politics’. The term religion is a matter of concern to me in the sense that it is deployed as though it is a fact with an objective referent, a fact that determines policy. Its systematic operation as an ideologically loaded classification generates what appear as dangerously spurious facts. An example is the just-so story invented by academics, common in International Relations and echoed by the media, that ‘religion’ is a malevolent and irrational agent in bed with terrorists, and bent on mayhem and violent destruction; and that the liberal secular nation state is an innocent and only reluctantly violent actor, eager for peace and trade and other supposedly ‘secular’ felicities, which defends some ambiguous abstractions like ‘liberty’, ‘the national interest’ or ‘the freedoms of a market economy’.
What religion is, and what religion does
The distinction that Harrison makes between “what religion ‘is’ and what religion ‘does’” sounds familiar, and reminds me of ‘religioning’ by my former colleague at Stirling Malory Nye[ii]; but it is not clear to me as it stands in Harrison’s text. However, in case of any misunderstanding on this point, from the point of view of what I mean by critical religion, my concern is with what the category ‘religion’ does, along with a configuration of other categories in which ‘religion’ is imbricated, and not what some supposed referent does. The same point about ‘politics’ or ‘science’: can we equally ask what ‘science’ or ‘politics’ do, rather than what they are? Is this what Joel means? Why would we want to ask this about religion but not about politics or science?
For me, believing in ‘religion’ as an agent that has the power to order and disorder the world is blind belief based on a category mistake – the attribution of agency to an abstraction. I see ‘a religion’ not as a phenomenon with an essential nature (‘religion per se’), nor as a malevolent agent hiding his (or her?) true face behind a mask, and threatening the tolerant and peace-loving secular nations. I see religion as a contingent, rather arbitrary, blockbuster term of classification that has helped to put people globally in their place, or in the place that a parliament of property-owning individuals whose major goal in life is unfettered accumulation has determined. It operates effectively on the grand scale, along with superstition, spirituality, traditional knowledge, under-development and backward primitive society. It also operates in very general binary contrast with ‘politics’, ‘constitutional sovereign secular nation states’, ‘science’, ‘liberal progress’ and so on.
‘Religion’ has been globally deployed as a category to identify and remove those existing practices and institutions that impede private ownership of the earth. These can be handily referred to as ‘faiths’ or ‘superstitions’ or ‘beliefs in the supernatural’, while the unfettered extraction of surplus value from other people’s labour is ‘science’ and ‘nature’. Corralling complex ritual systems into an essentially empty category ‘religion’ unblocks the colonial flow of private property and the operation of markets and banks, and in this way has been an active factor in colonial propaganda. Religion has been useful, for instance, for justifying imperial intervention in the name of a higher calling, for removing the superstitious junk of the backward religious past in order to install modern, secular, scientific institutions like the Westminster model of government, free markets, a centralised banking system, constitutional rights, a privately-owned press, and a form of parliamentary democracy that represents the interests of private property. Religion is embedded ambiguously in an enlightenment discourse of superior reason: of progress and backwardness, of development and stunted growth. Other binaries step in to underwrite the circularity: blind faith and voluptuous fanaticism against the magisterial reasonableness and only reluctant violence of white male secular reason operating in proper politics.
This term of classification ‘religion’ has now become so deeply engrained into the way we think, speak, govern, form our institutions, deliver policy, and order the world that it operates automatically, more like a note in a score, or a sign in a system of signs. It plays off in binary contrast with ‘nonreligious secular’, which in turn is strongly associated with ‘science’, ‘politics’, ‘secular nation state’, ‘modern’, ‘progress’, ‘the economy’, ‘the market’, ‘liberty’ and ‘liberal’ and a repetoire of other notes, melodies and counter-harmonies – materialism, socialism, left-right-centre, democracy, equality, fact and value – like a mechanical piano.
In this sense can we ask not what ‘science’ is but what it does? Not what ‘politics’ is but what it does? Not what ‘liberty’ or ‘progress’ are, but what they do? I think we need to question all these categories that operate together automatically and largely unconsciously. There seems to be a legitimate sense in which they operate on us, rather than the other way round, and in which they make the world appear like a done deal, as though we are inevitably and permanently trapped by our own abstractions.
These categories, operating unconsciously as signs in an automatic signalling system, form either-or sub-systems of potentially endless and circular substitutions, so that the totalising series can be kept in play, and its emptiness of determinate content hidden from view.
From where, then, do these categories acquire their power to organise a world, to order our institutions, to establish legitimate government, to determine policy choices, and to direct our attention in one way rather than another, such that alternative resolutions appear as impossible or absurd? How have they been able to create the mass illusion of what we call ‘secular modern progress’?
If we want to change the world and to save it from its current self-destruction – and here I readily admit a deep part of my own concern – we have to divest ourselves of what seems most intimate and familiar and undeniable. The system operates largely unconsciously to organise our perceptions, our thinking, our rhetorical performances, our institutions and our policy making. We have to sacrifice religion in order to regain the wholeness of life. The operation of language gulls us into confusing the idea, which has become a sign in an automatic signalling system, with something that appears to lie outside it, as though ‘a religion’ or ‘a political system’, or what is really an ‘economic system’ disguised as a sacrificial ritual, are really types of things that can be observed, described, analysed and compared with other similar objects, for which we need scientific specialists.
The problems with critical religion
Harrison says “I want to bring us to Latour’s point which is a chastisement for certain deployments of critical theory that I think are exemplified in critical religion.”
I pause here because I detect a reification taking shape over the term ‘critical religion’, for which I must bear some responsibility, and which I take as a warning sign – I do not want my own arguments to be lumped uncritically into an undifferentiated ‘critical religion’ such that I lose my own voice (or anyone else loses theirs). When I began using the term ‘critical religion’ I meant something specific, a theory and a method exemplified in my (and others’) publications, a distinct line of argument[iii]. I indicated in my own response to the Editorial, which was written without awareness of Harrison’s blog, that ‘critical religion’ may have outworn its usefulness as a demarcator of anything distinctive, because it might get absorbed into another over-generalisation. After all, it is fundamental to my approach that, though I began with the category ‘religion’, it is the configuration or network of categories and the relations between them that are my focus. To revert to the previous metaphor, the notes are only significant in the context of the score as a whole. I am wary of the quick awakening of our propensity to uncritically transform deployments with quite specific historical contexts and purposes – in this case ‘critical religion’ – into undifferentiated theoretical positions that might lose distinctive nuances and bury possible contestations.
This propensity to attribute a clear identity to a sign like ‘critical religion’ is understandable when one is short of space and cannot make complex differentiations each time. I am partly responsible for this; it may be unavoidable and I do not want to sound over-defensive here. Let us instead turn our attention to categories that constitute much of what we refer to as ‘modern’ such as ‘politics’, ‘the secular’, ‘the markets’, ‘the nation state’, ‘the national interest’, ‘socio-economic forces’, ‘science’, ‘nature’, ‘matter’, ‘culture’, and many others. Each term has its own history of use, and yet – I argue this – they are all parasitic on each other, and operate as an automatic signalling system that directs and redirects our attention, and deflects us from alternative possible collective solutions. The chastisement that Harrison thinks ‘critical religion’ deserves becomes explicit in the following section.
Analogy between climate change denial and 9/11 denial
Harrison, referring to “contemporary criticism of climate change science”, says
“Even though most scientists agree that global warming is a human-caused phenomenon, a “Republican strategist” can counter this fact with an appeal to the incompleteness of the evidence rather than direct evidence to the contrary (which he knows does not exist.) In other words, he aims to establish a lack of scientific certainty. This is obviously a bit of a vexed analogy with critical religion, since so many in that branch of religious studies actually appeal to science.”
This is a vexed analogy, in my sense of critical religion at least, for several reasons. First, I cannot remember ever appealing to ‘science’ as the arbitrator of anything. For one thing, it is too much bound up with ‘objective factuality’, as contrasted with the supposed ‘subjectivity of values’, or the subjective ‘faith’ of something called ‘religion’. For me ‘science’, though an old word derived from Latin scientia, is a key sign – like ‘politics’ and the ‘non-religious secular’ – invented during the Enlightenment, and retrospectively projected back onto the historical moments before the term had clearly emerged in opposition to ‘religion’, or onto a historical moment proclaimed as the age of reason during which it was emerging; becoming disentangled from the earlier sign system of the ancien regime and Christian commonwealths; and being rhetorically relocated in the emergent signalling system that constructs what we take to be the modern world of ‘progress’ and ‘development’. ‘Science’ is one of these abstract generalisations that seem self-evidently meaningful. In the final analysis ‘science’ (like ‘nature’ and ‘matter’) gains a power to convince through constant binary contrast with other terms that also have so much possible content that they are virtually empty of specific meaning. After all, what cannot be given a scientific explanation, either now or when more research has been done and more data has been collected? Thus ‘science’ is widely and habitually put into a binary either-or contrast with ‘religion’; and this binary is fortified by an either-or contrast of ‘matter’ with ‘spirit’ and ‘nature’ or ‘natural’ with ‘supernatural’, ‘unnatural’ or ‘artificial’. Everything is material and everything has a natural cause. So matter and nature are completely ubiquitous and cannot be distinguished as anything in particular. This sounds similar to the theological problem of God. Yet it is difficult to see how a scientific theory of everything differs from a religious theory of everything. Harrison, with his knowledge of Latour, may help me with that.
The critique of science as a rhetorically deployed category is not obscurantism, or a denial of the power of specific modes of inquiry for which thick descriptions can be usefully and validly made. It is to claim that ‘science’ as a large-scale reification is an obscurantism. There is no denying the power of specific theories and technologies to produce results that radically change the conditions of our existence. But why are they being pursued? Who has control on powerful technologies? Whose interests are served by them? Who funds them?
I am reminded that Newton was not a scientist in the modern sense. As far as I know – and Harrison and Latour (who I suspect knows more about this than most of us) can correct me if I am wrong – Newton did not make a radical binary opposition between ‘science’ and ‘theology’, ‘physics’ and ‘alchemy’, or ‘astronomy’ and ‘astrology’. The term ‘science’, which can explain in principle everything, and which defines itself against the superstitions of religion or against ‘traditional knowledge’, was a newly emergent abstraction that has been retrospectively projected back onto the processes of its emergence. The general placeholder ‘science’ was required to clear a new conceptual space on which to establish an alternative to Biblical prophecy and medieval Catholic philosophical theology; it was a new foundation for rational knowledge.
There is a parallel here with the invention of ‘politics’, which was designed to clear a space on which to establish an alternative to divinely-ordained government. Historically, ‘politics’ had a specific meaning and context for its deployment, which was a new form of government separated from ‘religion’ and representing the private property rights of a class of men positioned to benefit from the enclosures, or from new colonial opportunities of plunder. Today the power attributes of ‘politics’ and its origin in 17th century discourse on ‘man in the state of nature’ have been elided, and it operates as though it is a neutral and universally valid term used to describe and compare objective systems. On the one hand, a colony must install politics (the Westminster model or the US Presidential model for example, or some member of a similar family) in order to become modern, civilized and democratic. On the other hand, politics is a universal characteristic of all human relations at all times and in all places, and the task of political science is to draw up typologies of ‘political systems’.
Once a specialist elite narrative on ‘politics’ or ‘science’ had been established and institutionalised, and internalised into wider and wider circles of discourse, its discursive characteristics get buried, and it takes on the appearance of inevitability, the achievement of enlightenment, of modern secular progress. It takes on the appearance of a neutral ‘language game’, just the way language is used, as though power determinants were not involved, and we are witnessing an inevitable progress into neutral, factual and objective enlightenment. This imaginary process and its ossifying results can easily be seen in the evangelical pronouncements of some official spokespersons for ‘science’, such as Richard Dawkins, who thinks that ‘God’ is a delusion. In his rhetoric, ‘science’ has taken a logic of use analogous to ‘God’, but he fails to notice this.
There are useful and valid thick descriptions of specific processes of discovery and invention, and of technological application, and there is no reason to deny this. Dawkins has written brilliant books on genetics and biological evolutionary theory, from which I have learnt valuable things. I do not deny the power of the theory of biological evolution and have respect for the generations of people who have collected evidence to support this paradigm. It is the move from focused observation and concrete description to the deployment of vast abstractions that have a different mode of logic with which I am concerned. It is this logical fallacy that has historically made it possible for a doctrine of Social Darwinism derived from someone such as Herbert Spencer to ride on the back of a detailed evidence-based system of theoretical postulates.
Anthropologists make thick descriptions of complex procedures of many different kinds in a range of human groups. The problem arises when they feel obliged under the compulsion of the modern system of signs to decide which of the categories these institutionalised procedures should be classified under: whether or not these are scientific procedures, religious rituals, or disguised modes of power (‘politics’). But how does this help us to understand the motives, purposes, values and allocation of resources in human communities that may have successfully survived for countless generations, before anthropologists trained in secular liberal universities arrived?
Do archaeologists (or stone cutters, or engineers, or architects) have to decide whether or not the Great Pyramids were religious or scientific or political constructions, due to the lack of these distinctions by the highly intelligent people who built them? Were their mathematical calculations and astronomical observations less precise because they saw transcendental power and beauty in the positions of the sun and planets? Do historians have to decide whether or not Newton was a genuine scientist on the grounds that he himself failed to distinguish between astrology and astronomy? Does the belief in the afterlife of ancient Egyptians, a belief around which they seem to have constructed these marvels of engineering and building, mean they fail as scientific achievements? Would it help us to approach the Great Pyramids (or Newton’s theory of gravity) in this way, by trying to view their construction in the either-or terms of ‘religious faith’ as distinct from ‘scientific knowledge’? My own suggestion is that these large scale oscillating binary abstractions serve contemporary ideological purposes that go well beyond the discovery of technologies useful for human flourishing and well-being.
Secondly, my own arguments have been quite explicit in their challenge to the fact-value distinction. For example, I have argued that a sure sign that the so-called science of economics is based on a fraudulent agenda, and is closer to the magical thinking often attributed to ‘religion’, is that they attribute the abstraction ‘the economy’ with a factual objectivity that renders ‘values’ as merely subjective feelings and opinions. However, this distinction itself is metaphysical. There are no observation statements that can provide us with a clear and uncontestable boundary between what is objective and what is subjective. Where are the limits of my supposed individual subjectivity, and at which precise point is the observer distinct from the object under observation? I therefore also question the existence of ‘the external world’, by asking what is ‘the world’ external to?
Economists, policy makers, academics, and journalists talk about ‘the economy’ as though it exists as an agent in the world, or ‘markets’ as though they are inherently stable forces of nature that return to equilibrium when they have been temporarily destabilised by ‘externalities’. Liberal historians of economics refer to the spontaneous origination of markets. Once the superstitious rubble of old religious superstitions has been cleared, then the forces that have really been driving human evolution and ‘the progress of nations’ can make themselves manifest. It has been the economic realities all along, but those backward religious people just didn’t know it. Yet nobody has ever seen a self-regulating market, or ‘an economy’ or the ‘national economy’. In this way liberal, neoliberal, classical and neoclassical constructions of ‘the economy’, ‘the national well-being’, or the rational consumer, which are abstract signs of the imagination, have been established as the really real – gods to which all governments and policy makers must demonstrate their devotion, and on behalf of which the propertyless, the unemployed and the destitute must tighten their belts and accept ‘austerity’ or the destruction of our/their habitats and neighbourhoods. This dogmatic adherence to abstractions authorised by ‘science’ is arguably part of our problem of global violence. It hides the actions of a small minority pursuing their own interests at the expense of the majority as though this is the inevitable reality. It disguises the devastation created by blind belief in an abstraction called ‘science’, which in turn operates to obfuscate the addiction to personal prestige and private property accumulation behind a curtain of neutral objectivity.
Thirdly, the analogy with climate change denial is unfortunate for both Harrison and, I think, Latour. This is because a further example of denial seems to be found in Latour’s very essay, the denial that 9/11 and the fall of the WTC was the result of anything other than what the official narrative says it was. Perhaps this is my misreading? This criticism may be ameliorated by the fact that Latour gave this lecture in 2003/4, before much of the expert analysis of architects, engineers, demolition experts, professional pilots, and physicists had emerged and rendered the official narrative obsolete. Perhaps I have misunderstood his position on this point. On 9/11 Latour says – and I quote him at length here, in the hope that Harrison can parse it for us:
“Remember the good old days when revisionism arrived very late, after the facts had been thoroughly established, decades after bodies of evidence had accumulated? Now we have the benefit of what can be called instant revisionism. The smoke of the event has not yet finished settling before dozens of conspiracy theories begin revising the official account, adding even more ruins to the ruins, adding even more smoke to the smoke. What has become of critique when my neighbor in the little Bourbonnais village where I live looks down on me as someone hopelessly naïve because I believe that the United States had been attacked by terrorists? Remember the good old days when university professors could look down on unsophisticated folks because those hillbillies naïvely believed in church, motherhood, and apple pie? Things have changed a lot, at least in my village. I am now the one who naïvely believes in some facts because I am educated, while the other guys are too unsophisticated to be gullible: “Where have you been? Don’t you know that the Mossad and the CIA did it?”
The problem here is that the village hillbillies, to use Latour’s terms, may well have been right in their scepticism all along. The so-called hillbillies and village peasants may always have been able to see clearer than the over-educated, having escaped the propaganda functions of schooling, universities, and so-called ‘education’.
Given that Harrison does not comment on this, I would ask: How can a writer of Latour’s critical acumen be seduced by the conspiracy theory attributed uncritically to ‘conspiracy theorists’? The evidences marshalled by experts of different kinds[iv] cannot be discounted on the grounds (like the analogous case of climate change deniers against climate scientists) that they have not conclusively proven that the Three Towers, including the Building 7 (and also the Pentagon) were not destroyed by ‘religious fanatics’ who, it has been claimed, hijacked airplanes and flew them into these targets. Apart from the dubious but widely deployed term ‘religious fanatics’, which makes the power fanatics and terrorists in Washington appear like reasonable and only reluctantly violent statesmen and stateswomen, the evidence of serious experts is now surely sufficient to make us deeply sceptical of the official state PR and its disingenuous propagators, who (in Harrison’s words for Republican deniers of climate change) aim “to establish a lack of scientific certainty”.
The return of values to social or cultural critique
“Perhaps an even better way of putting this is to say that Latour is returning a dimension of value to any social or cultural critique.”
From the perspective of ‘critical religion’, or at least my version of it, I am wary of “social or cultural critique”. How does a ‘social critique’ differ from a ‘cultural critique’? How does ‘culture’ get differentiated from ‘society’ or from ‘religion’? Can we really make a useful distinction between a religious culture and a secular culture? And how do ‘social studies’ and ‘cultural studies’ differ from ‘religious studies’ or ‘political studies’? What is the subject or the object that makes these meaningfully distinct and different? When does culture have a clear referent, and when is it an obfuscation that deflects from ‘political’ or ‘class’ relations of power? Or are the differences largely determined by administrative fictions?
I think the differences are largely empty abstractions, and that they are given a spurious appearance of solidity and meaningfulness by their institutionalisation. Yes, these supposedly distinct disciplines are different to the extent that their respective adherents work in different departments or faculties, attend different workshops and conferences, publish in different journals, and so on. On the other hand, they can also rub shoulders in Faculties of Arts and Humanities, join together in conference panels, and address similar issues in special inter-disciplinary journal issues. I believe that these divisions in the academy – cultural studies, religious studies, political studies, social studies – serve to divide and inhibit commonalities, shared concerns, and to make problematic differences.
There is an analogy here with the pervasive fiction of the right-centre-left spectrum of acceptable positions, a spectrum that provides the larger fiction of ‘politics’ with an illusion of form, substance and boundaries. These divisions serve to fragment our common vision of what is important in human life, what we hold most dear, our common solidarities. At the same time they facilitate the PR transformation of human-made global conflict into Rumsfeld’s shoulder shrugging “stuff happens”. “Stuff happens”, like ‘the shit hits the fan’, puts human-made conflict beyond anything we can do about it. Again, the blind and non-empirical belief of economists in ‘the tendency of markets to return to equilibrium’ deflects from the human-made catastrophes such as the Great Depression of the 1930’s or the policies of ‘austerity’ which have been deployed since the bank crash of 2008 – as though markets are objectively observable phenomena like winds, warm currents and ice-caps, and all we can do in the face of human destitution is to hold a wet finger up to the wind.
This addiction to a plethora of abstractions is paradoxically what constitutes ‘realism’, and it is a realism born from mystification and stupefaction. The invasion of Iraq was not like an earthquake; it was the result of human decision-making; and the people who made the decisions, and who imagine they are in touch with reality, are themselves deluded by a system of signs that alienates them from the organic network of human relations that constitute them and all the rest of us.
Turning again to Bruno Latour’s article:
“What’s the real difference between conspiracists and a popularized, that is a teachable version of social critique inspired by a too quick reading of, let’s say, a sociologist as eminent as Pierre Bourdieu…?”
The either-or being offered here seems to be between, either conspiracy theory, an unclear term that requires critical attention; or “a too quick reading” of an eminent sociologist such as Pierre Bourdieu, who does ‘social critique’.
“In both cases, you have to learn to become suspicious of everything people say because of course we all know that they live in the thralls of a complete illusio of their real motives. Then, after disbelief has struck and an explanation is requested for what is really going on, in both cases again it is the same appeal to powerful agents hidden in the dark acting always consistently, continuously, relentlessly.”
Here Latour points out, perhaps with irony, the commonalities between ‘conspiracy theory’ and ‘social critique’. “We all know that they live in the thralls of a complete illusio of their real motives”. Who is ‘we’ in ‘we all’? And who is ‘they’ here? My point in critical religion is that ‘I’ and ‘we’ are much the same as ‘they’, we are all in the thrall of a system of abstract terms that has formed our subjective apprehensions to a considerable extent, and the distinction that is made here in Latour’s text is itself a condition for the illusio, and a barrier to a unified vision and comprehension. I would like to go further, and suggest that the most mystified are often the most educated, or at least the most schooled, the ones whose subjective awareness has been most efficiently disciplined in the various ‘ideological state apparatuses’, where we receive our understandings through the operation of the signalling system that guides our attention, gives us our limited options, tells us what is and what is not possible, controls and limits our imagination and perceptions by placing certain thoughts outside the acceptable range, and places questions about our common purposes of life into abstractions, such that nothing can be done, and everything continues as before.
“Of course, we in the academy like to use more elevated causes—society, discourse, knowledge/power, fields of forces, empires, capitalism—while conspiracists like to portray a miserable bunch of greedy people with dark intents, but I find something troublingly similar in the structure of the explanation, in the first movement of disbelief and, then, in the wheeling of causal explanations coming out of the deep dark below. What if explanations resorting automatically to power, society, discourse had outlived their usefulness and deteriorated to the point of now feeding the most gullible sort of critique?”
I think this reference to the use of ‘elevated causes’ is exactly right as far as it goes. Explanations that resort to the empty abstractions that constitute what we call ‘modernity’ reflect the way these terms are institutionalised – for example in the faculties, departments and subject areas of the universities. I deploy ‘ideology’, ‘discourse’ and ‘empire’. I am caught in the circular system of signs like everyone else. I spend a great deal of time questioning abstractions such as ‘society’, ‘politics’, ‘religion’, ‘nation states’, socio-economic forces’, the ‘economy’, and increasingly ‘science’. These are also the sources of our gullibility.
On the other hand, this sentence is problematic: “Of course conspiracy theories are an absurd deformation of our own arguments…” But what is a ‘conspiracy theory’, other than a theory about conspiracy that is well or badly supported by evidence? This relates back to Latour’s own apparent gullibility in believing the official narrative, which is itself a ‘conspiracy theory’; the question about the identity of ‘us’ or ‘we’ implied in “our own arguments” as against the tacit ‘them’, presumably Latour’s village uneducated, who according to him adopt ‘conspiracy theories’ facilely, whereas he is too smart to fall for them, and instead falls for the official conspiracy theory. The uneducated village peasants turn out to be less gullible than the critical theorist. Perhaps this is a reason for thinking that more direct democratic involvement – more village peasants – might lead to a reduction in the degree of academic distortion and elevated rhetoric churned out by ‘think tanks’, politicians and news production editors. Latour says
“Maybe I am taking conspiracy theories too seriously, but it worries me to detect, in those mad mixtures of knee-jerk disbelief, punctilious demands for proofs, and free use of powerful explanation from the social neverland many of the weapons of social critique. Of course conspiracy theories are an absurd deformation of our own arguments, but, like weapons smuggled through a fuzzy border to the wrong party, these are our weapons nonetheless. In spite of all the deformations, it is easy to recognize, still burnt in the steel, our trademark: Made in Criticalland.”
The best part of this fine paragraph is the wonderful metaphor “like weapons smuggled through a fuzzy border to the wrong party”. I can see what is happening in Syria between the gunrunning CIA and the various militias into whose hands the guns fall. Unless it is merely a naïve illusion – a conspiracy theory – to think that the CIA is engaged in illegal gun and drug smuggling operations, and illegal destabilisation of sovereign governments? Or perhaps we know it, but are too smart and sophisticated to need to mention it?
This metaphor “like weapons smuggled through a fuzzy border to the wrong party” is not essentially different from poetry, and suggests that science is at its best when its practitioners think, not in abstractions like ‘science’, ‘economic forces’ or ‘national destiny’, but in concrete metaphors, and in thick description of those specific processes of empirical investigation and discovery. This appeal to the concrete as distinct from the abstract is also found in Latour’s illuminating references to Alfred North Whitehead and Alan Turing. It might be taken to support a radical re-direction in our critical uses of language.
I repeat my thanks to Joel Harrison for his short and provocative Religious Studies podcast text, and my apologies for a relatively long (and yet highly compressed) response. Harrison has raised some significant issues, and has done so in relation to Bruno Latour’s important work, and also the Editorial in CRR. I realise I may have over-determined their meanings in this response. So this piece is offered as a contribution from which I can also learn, and can get clearer about their – as well as my own – meanings. None of us can say exactly what we want in this complex discussion in such short exchanges. Let us hope that we can together and separately work on the development of more focused and specific thick descriptions, historical and ethnographic, of the way language, rhetoric and abstract terms like ‘religion’, ‘science’, ‘politics’ or ‘market economy’ operate our thinking, and what they do beyond our programmed awareness.
[i] Joel Harrison, “Facts v. Values: Can Religious Studies Be More Critical?” June 4, 2016, see http://www.tsrpodcast.com/?p=189 Joel is Ph.D candidate in Religious Studies at Northwestern. The blog was posted as a supplement to an episode of a podcast Joel hosted with another PhD student, Lucas Scott Wright (PhD student at UC Santa Barbara) titled “CriticalTheory of Religion v. Critical Religion” In “The Seminar Room.”
[ii] Malory Nye, “Religion is Religioning? Anthropology and the Cultural Study of Religion”, Scottish Journal of Religious Studies, 20(2): 193-234, (1999); published on Research Gate at
[iii] There is of course a long list of these now, and I do not need to produce another list of the outstanding contributors who opened up the critique of religion as a category. I would in particular like to draw attention to the many excellent 1000-word publications on the website Critical Religion Asssociation, sent in by academics (many of them by younger writers with exceptional skills) from many universities in different countries, and which I would like to be published as an edited book. See https://criticalreligion.org
[iv] See Engineers and Architects for 9/11 Truth [http://www.ae911truth.org/news/ae911truth-news.html]; David Ray Griffin, http://911truth.org/tag/david-ray-griffin/; Firefighters for 9/11 Truth, https://www.ff911truthandunity.org; Pilots for 9/11 Truth, http://pilotsfor911truth.org]; Veterans for 9/11 Truth, http://aneta.org/Veterans911Truth_com/; The Corbett Report on 9/11, [https://www.corbettreport.com/911-a-conspiracy-theory/]