Friday, November 25, 2011

Reading :: On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods

On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods
By Bruno Latour

I really enjoy most of Latour's work, but I strongly prefer his case study-based work, which seems more grounded and richly illustrative, to his more philosophical work. Alas, On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods is in the latter category. What's more, two of its three chapters represent extended but essentially warmed-over versions of work that Latour has already discussed in Pandora's Hope and Iconoclash. Latour has done some work to pull these chapters together, partly by overlaying religious references throughout (for instance, he says that his second chapter is about the Second Commandment and his third chapter is written as a sermon). But I wanted more out of the book.

One thing that Latour does do here, though, is to examine and defend religion in a more vigorous way. Specifically, he wants to stop seeing religion as contending with, or indeed even speaking about, the same things that science does. Here's a passage from his sermon in Chapter 3:
I have to note at the beginning that I am not trying to produce a critique of religion. That truth is in question in science and religion is not, for me, in question. Contrary to what some of you, who might know my work on science (mostly by hearsay), might be led to believe, I am interested mainly in the practical conditions of truth-telling and not in debunking religion, after having disputed the claims of science (so it is said). If it were already necessary to take science seriously, without giving it some sort of "social explanation," such a stand is even more necessary for religion: debunkers and iconoclasts simply would miss the point. Rather, my problem concerns how to become attuned to the right conditions of felicity of those different types of "truth-generators." (p.100)
That is, he wants to examine religion just as he has examined science: not in terms of how it reveals Reality but in terms of how it makes truth-claims. He attempts to do this not by talking about religion but rather by talking "religiously," that is, "by demonstrating it in vivo" through his sermonic argument (p.101). Unfortunately, although I am sympathetic to Latour's general argument, the sermon left me cold; it seemed quite similar to Latour's other arguments.

As a side note, I should note that Latour takes a few sideswipes at Durkheim throughout, most specifically leveling the same critique that I did in my recent review, the critique that Durkheim has overgeneralized the experiences of specific tribes as a developmental stage for all religion. This is vintage Latour.

If you're very interested in a Latourean take on religion, this book might be a good read for you, specifically because it draws together some of his previous work in a religious context. But although I find religion endlessly fascinating, I felt underwhelmed. See what you think.

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