Category Archives: religion

Meillassoux ‘on religion’

Putting together my paper on Meillassoux and Latour for the upcoming Varieties of Continental Thought and Religion conference in Toronto, I’ve been thinking a lot about the way Meillassoux characterizes religion – that is, I’ve spent a lot of time frustrated by the way Meillassoux mischaracterizes religion. It has occurred to me, though (and maybe this is just obvious? at any rate, it seems important to note), that Meillassoux would have a very hard time making his philosophical case concerning the divine inexistence if he didn’t (mis)characterize religion the way he does.

First of all, there seem to be a number of interrelated assumptions that he makes (some of them aren’t even stated explicitly, while others are stated but not well argued for). There’s the overall assumption at the core of his project that in all cases immanence is preferable to transcendence – i.e., reference to any transcendent being or concept is philosophically unacceptable. OK, this more or less follows from the argument in After Finitude, and it has become generally accepted for a number of reasons anyway. But then the more particular assumptions regarding religion come, including:

  • religion necessarily involves reference to transcendence
  • religion involves, specifically, the conception of a necessary Supreme Being
  • religion involves belief in an account of the creation of the world by such a Supreme Being
  • religion conceives of its Supreme Being as by nature unthinkable by humans
  • religion is essentially irrational
  • religion is to be avoided at all costs

Yet, since Meillassoux’s concept of God, the hope for a coming world of justice, and the figure of a divine mediator bear so much in common with common (Abrahamic) religious themes – as has been pointed out elsewhere – he actually has to do some work to distinguish his position from that of what he calls religion. In order to bring his own position is sharper relief, he needs this caricature of religion. It seems that his idea of hope for the world of justice is a purely immanent, philosophical hope only because religious hope is necessarily hope for that which we cannot think, faith in a God who is necessarily an inscrutable, authoritative Supreme Being; the immortality that religion desires is the immortality of an other life, not this life. If it turns out, though, that religion isn’t what Meillassoux thinks it is, his position collapses into a fairly traditional theological one (or, if not traditional, at least not novel and not irreligious). In other words, here’s something that’s ripe for deconstruction.

(Who knows, though; the revised and completed version of The Divine Inexistence might fix all of this…)

appealing to eco-theology

Spurred by a post by Peter Gratton and its ensuing interchange (see here), I’ve been preoccupied today by questions about Derrida’s relationship to (mostly Christian) theology, to atheism, and to science… and at the same time, about the relationships between religion, science, and especially (thanks to Tim Morton’s comments) ecology. I won’t repeat here what I already said on Gratton’s blog about my take on Derrida, theology, and especially those who want to save Derrida from theology (e.g., Martin Hägglund, whose reading of Derrida I will say again is right on except to the extent that Hägglund seems to want to disqualify any religious appropriation of him).

The relationship between theology and ecological thought, however, I think can be (indeed, already is) particularly fruitful within the context of a thinking of radical finitude. While I do think that there are many resources in Derrida for pursuing this line of thought, what came to my mind on this point is a paper by Latour from a couple of years ago (and I of course continue to insist that Derrida’s and Latour’s positions have several significant commonalities). In the paper, “Will Non-Humans Be Saved?” (available on his website), Latour argues for an ecological theology that would articulate a relation not between religion (again, confining ourselves to Christianity for the moment) and the “nature” of modernity but rather between religion and the entities (objects, actants) that relate to and interconnect with one another in order to endure and persist as real (or not). The punchline of his argument is that what best allows religion to productively interweave itself among the “creativity” and “reproduction” of entities – in other words to concern itself with immanence, although thinking about immanence changes much of its resonance if we abandon transcendence in the traditional sense – turns out to be Darwinian theory! So, if we follow Latour here, we might be able to read Darwin and St. Paul (and perhaps some early Greek theology) together after all.

for and against secularism

I find myself in a strange sort of ambivalence when confronted with the word “secular.” On the one hand, there’s a variety of respectable criticisms that can be and have been made of the ways in which the concepts of the secular, of secularization, and particularly of secularism – being constructions of modern Europe – are limited in scope and efficacy and are actually of diminishing value even in the societies from which they were born… not to mention those to which they have been imported. The main source I would point to here is the work of Talal Asad, though I recently read a particularly forceful argument by Ashis Nandy (in his Time Warps), who has been an ardent critic of secularism for at least a quarter of a century.

On the other hand, any time I come across a use of the word “secular” by, usually, some form of reactionary conservative (think Pat Robertson, or perhaps this gentleman) as a descriptor of the evil against which “everyday Americans,” “good Christians,” etc. must be vigilant, I bristle with the urge to defend the merits of a secular and secularized society. I don’t think that it’s a matter of these particular detractors using the word in a different sense than that of secularism’s more erudite critics. I also don’t think that it’s a matter of finding a middle point between the kind of ideological secularism denounced by Asad and Nandy, in which religion has no place, and the intolerant (I hesitate to use the word theocratic) aspirations of ostensibly religious reactionaries – though of course neither extreme is acceptable.

Although Nandy relies on a concept of “tolerance” as the preferable alternative to “secularism” – I find neither bit of terminology very acceptable, but Nandy does qualify and explain his use of “tolerance,” acknowledging that many will disagree with it – he puts this opposition to use together with another that I found very helpful in thinking through my different reactions to different uses of “secular”: religion-as-faith (understood not as belief but as way of life) vs. religion-as-ideology. Both of these are intrinsic to the present state of religious life as he sees it in India and across South Asia, such that one does not represent the “essence” or “truth” of religion while the other is foreign to it. In addition, the two are rarely if ever found in pure forms, instead being “two axes along which the state of contemporary religions can be plotted.” Nandy goes on to identify both contemporary secularizing politics and anti-secular reactions in terms of religion-as-ideology, the latter concept having come to increasing prominence both inside and outside of contemporary religions at the expense of religion-as-faith. It is in the latter that what he sees as the promise of (a recovery of) “religious tolerance” resides, insofar as religion-as-faith is “definitionally non-monolithic and operationally plural.”

It seems to me that both the secularism defended by those Nandy or Asad criticizes and the anti-secularism of the religio-political right offer examples of religion-as-ideology – to be shunned in the first case and to be embraced in the second. But this naturally underplays the plurality and vitality of religion-as-faith that remains a possibility and in many cases an actuality for religious ways of life. So, I suppose it’s the attempt to shut out these other ways of thinking about religion and its relationship to politics and to society that irks me in both cases.

differential religion

About a week ago, Graham Harman posted a couple of severe disagreements with my previous post – ones which I consider serious, enticing, and complimentary in their severity. I’d like to respond, but I’m putting it off since my attention has been elsewhere lately and a good response would require some significant effort on my part.

Instead, what I have been working on recently is reading through Danièle Hervieu-Léger’s Religion as a Chain of Memory. In it, she argues that a good sociological working definition of “religion” is that it is a way of believing that appeals and/or is committed to the authority of a tradition, around the (continually reconstructed) memory of which meaning is generated for the individual and community. There are a number of aspects of her approach that I find very helpful, not the least of which is her insistence that her definition of religion (or the religious) is provisional and entirely dependent on concrete sociological analyses (to which she often refers). More interesting to me right now, though, is a related point she makes drawing on Jean Séguy’s reading of Weber. In following a sociological impetus to eschew substantial or ontological definitions of religion, she argues that a more appropriate goal should be

to comprehend changes in the sphere of religion, considered by way of its tangible socio-historical manifestations. … Hence attention needs to be drawn to the process of change itself. Definition (if the term can still be used unambiguously) is a dynamic concept, whose aim is not that of fixing the subject matter but of pointing to the lines of transformation around which it reconstructs itself. [69]

Hervieu-Léger underplays, I think, the potential of this “dynamic” approach to understanding religions. She articulates it in the context of an examination of the problem of finding the place of religion in “modern” societies, as this is indeed the overall object of her book. And this is one of the things I find wanting in this work (there are a couple more, which I might bring up in a later post) – viz., an ongoing assumption of a phenomenon or complex of phenomena called “modernity” whose distinction from the “pre-modern” goes more or less unquestioned (even when she aims to show how both the religious and what is not religious, and their relation, have not undergone any essential transformation with the advent of modernity). I would argue that understanding religion primarily in terms of change and dynamism would be productive in general, and not just within modern Western milieux. This would be so not because what we usually call religions are, with regard to their content or to the practices associated with them, committed in any special way to social or historical change (it should be obvious that this is not always – even usually not – the case). It is because religions do in fact operate as ways of believing, of orienting individuals and groups in the world, with reference specifically to the past and to the future in a particular way for which tradition is a good enough word.

So, primarily there’s a diachronic element to this approach (I want to call it a “differential definition of religion”), consisting of identifying a religion as such according to the way it relates to its past and to its future, as well as the way it changes over time. But there’s also a synchronic element that would have to do with a religion’s present, yet it would be no less differential. This comes out repeatedly, in fact, in Hervieu-Léger’s account (though not all that explicitly) as she deals with the relationship between religions or the religious (and here she includes “traditional religions” – Christianity, Islam, etc. – as well as newer religious movements or sects) and other spheres of modern society. A provisional, differential definition of religion in its synchronic aspect would take into account the network of internal and external relationships by way of which a religion is continually reconstituting itself in the present among an irreducible religious plurality. Such a re-constitutions way be affirmative or negative, productive or destructive, but they are inevitable. At no particular time or place, though – and this is the payoff of this approach – can any one manifestation, understanding, abstraction, or negotiation become the definition of what it is to be a religion, because religions are as such constantly being renegotiated.

taking apart religion, and putting it back together

It’s been a long time since I last posted anything here; in that hiatus one thing I’ve been working on is a critique of the concept of religion. Such critique has been offered in various ways in the past few decades within anthropology, sociology, and even religious studies itself, but it’s rare that this work has spilled over into philosophical discussions of religion. Too often, philosophers still take “religion” as something unified – frequently, as I’ve mentioned before, in order to dismiss it out of hand as something that “we” have put “behind us” in one way or another, but perhaps just as frequently in order ostensibly to analyze it or take hold of it in a positive way. But the types of things – phenomena, customs, practices, beliefs – that we normally designate “religious” are in fact so varied that it’s extremely difficult (perhaps impossible) to include them all under one conceptual category without doing serious disservice to much of this content.

One of the most urgent problems with the use of the category “religion” is that this term’s history has been closely intertwined practically since its inception with the history of the rise of Christianity within Europe and of European political and cultural influence in the world. One of the most incisive (and strongly-put) analyses of this conceptual history in recent scholarship is Daniel Dubuisson’s The Western Construction of Religion. Emphasizing the Christian theological determination of thought about religion in general, Dubuisson makes his point in an imaginative way:

[A]sk, for example, what the Christian theology of the Trinity would look like if translated into the Algonquin, Quechua, or Buryat languages. To think of the symbols of the papacy or the function of the exorcist on the sole basis of voodoo categories would be a no less instructive or invigorating exercise. (92)

In the tradition of European philosophy (as well as other social-scientific disciplines, ultimately), we are used to talking about Nanai “beliefs” or the “faith” of Buddhist monks. We almost never give a second thought to the fact that these terms are alien to the traditions begin discussed, but native to the tradition(s) dominant in the Western cultural milieu.

Now, Dubuisson ultimately argues for dropping the term “religion” and associated language in favor of what he calls “cosmographic complexes”  – any system of thought and action that serves to place everyday life within a horizon of meaning. I can’t agree with him that religion-language needs to be left behind entirely, but I do think it needs to continue to be criticized and reformulated. I think there is actually some productive work being done as well to revamp our understanding and use of religion-language. One example is the work of Danièle Hervieu-Léger, which has been on my shelf, so to speak, for a couple of years and which I’m only recently at long last beginning to turn my attention to. I also have a hunch – though I may get proven wrong on this point because I haven’t really been able to explore it at all yet – that some of Latour’s recent work would be a fecund basis on which to build a more adequate understanding of all (or at least some of) that which we’re used to calling “religion.”