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The Politics of Agnosticism: Latour and the Post-Secular

The following paper was presented at the Seventh Annual Telos Conference, held on February 15–17, 2013, in New York City.

Despite the modern investment in the secularization of the political realm, religious discourse and concepts continue to inhabit it both explicitly and implicitly. Indeed, it should perhaps by now go without saying that the very idea of secularization or secularity has itself never been free of certain religious or theological determinations. This fact continues to present one of the most striking challenges to the very project of secularization, but alongside this, and of a piece with it, there have recently emerged with ever greater frequency and visibility examples of what we can understand as a breakdown in the basic functionality of religious discourse itself. On the one hand, those of us who wish to remain “tolerant” often experience nearly paralyzing reservations about speaking religiously in public contexts; on the other hand, there are those who exhibit a rash willingness to bring religious vocabulary into any discussion and even to oppose speech that does not employ such vocabulary solely based on this lack.

Bruno Latour points out that the increasing difficulty of speaking reasonably or effectively about religion perpetuates an ongoing tension between religious and non-religious positions. A result of this trend is that much religious rhetoric is growing simultaneously more forceful and more radical, while the rhetoric that stands opposed to its extremism seems by contrast decreasingly effective. These difficulties and divisions ultimately rest on the untenability of, first, the reduction of religions to sets of propositional beliefs and, second, the attempted eradication of religious speech from the public sphere. This paper will argue that, in order to extricate ourselves from the impasses to which modern secularism had led us, it is necessary that we rethink religion—and its relationship to politics—without recourse to “belief,” adopting the perspective of what Latour calls le véritable agnostique.[1]

Latour has consistently opposed what he calls the “naïve belief in naïve belief”[2]—that is, the idea that certain attitudes about the world or things in it are held uncritically only because those who hold them have not yet encountered the correct explanation (whether it be scientific, sociological, etc.). Once these people are enlightened regarding the proper critical perspective, so this attitude professes, such persons will recognize their earlier folly and give thanks for their intellectual liberation. It is on the basis of this idea that the distinction has been made between beliefs and facts, or between belief and knowledge: the prior terms in these pairs refer to opinions held either privately or in common, but in either case uncritically, while the latter terms refer to that which is revealed by the light of critical inquiry and (in one sense or another) “proven.” The project of secularizing the public sphere, insofar as it adopts this distinction and values knowledge of facts while attempting to purge or silence discourse concerning beliefs, thus engages in what we may be initially inclined to call agnosticism. This variety of agnosticism, in Latour’s words, “consists of a selective refusal to believe in the content of belief—usually God, more generally fetishisms . . . ; more recently popular culture; and eventually scientific facts themselves”[3]—the last case being the point at which the specter of relativism slips across campus from the humanities seminar rooms and begins to haunt the laboratories. Ultimately, in all these examples of what we might call critical agnosticisms, the point is that we not be fooled, that we always be on our guard against conceptual illusions.

There is, however, a more radical form of agnosticism, that which Latour argues more properly deserves the name: the abandonment of the idea of “belief” itself. In his words:

I will define agnosticism, not as the doubting of values, powers, ideas, truths, distinctions, or constructions, but as the doubt exerted against this doubt itself, against the notion that belief could in any way be what holds any of these forms of life together. If we do away with belief (in beliefs) then we can explore the other models of action and mastery.[4]

The adoption of such a position would, I argue, have wide-ranging and diverse consequences for our understanding of the place of religious commitments and public discourse—not the least of which is that it would promote a radical democratization of political discourse. No privileged position could be assumed for any “critical” or “enlightened” perspective, as each position would be faced with the same task of demonstrating (and never once and for all) its own consistency, soundness, and sustainability. Perhaps first, though, we should note that Latour’s argument compels us to understand religion in a different way than it has traditionally been understood by the mainstream of modern and contemporary philosophy. As long as we understand religious traditions as primarily consisting of “beliefs” (that is, assent to propositions concerning, e.g., supernatural matters, codes for behavior, etc.), we will necessarily be led toward the idea that there will arise intractable disagreements over such beliefs, disagreements that can by themselves lead to ruinous consequences for the otherwise well-ordered public sphere. On the contrary, Latour’s account suggests that, if people do in fact have these types of beliefs, they are not in themselves a necessary part of religious life. Rather, they become such only as the product of the modern project of secularization, which has demanded that religion play according to a set of rules that it had no say in writing.

Latour distinguishes between what he calls “in-formation talk” and “trans-formation talk.”[5] In-formation talk is the mode of discourse within which are used to operating in public, in areas such as politics and science, where the goal is to communicate from one point to another with the smoothest possible transportation of content. This mode of discourse functions very well in those areas to which it belongs; however, modernity has done it (at least) two serious injustices. The first is that it has distorted the model itself, so that its ideal is no longer understood to be successful translation of content from one environment to another due to the effort of a chain of intermediaries.[6] Instead, the discursive ideal of modern reason is the unimpeded conveyance of parcels of information without any translation, so that the intermediaries involved become to the greatest degree possible invisible—Latour euphemistically calls this model “double-click communication.”[7] The second injustice levied by modernity, though, is that this flattened out discursive ideal gets extended beyond its scope and applied not only to science or politics but also to areas such as religion, which are not properly constituted by in-formation talk at all but rather by trans-formation talk.

The difference between in-formation and trans-formation talk does not have to do so much with what is said; still less does it map evenly onto the secularist distinction between public reason and private feeling. Trans-formation talk, as its name implies, is concerned chiefly with change: specifically, with the transformation of the speaker. It is not focused on communicating particular content so much as on successfully effecting a particular attunement. Latour’s example is that of one person saying “I love you” to another: in most if not all cases, this utterance is not meant to convey information but to make the speaker present to the addressee in a certain way.[8] Religious discourse, Latour argues, functions this way as well, and to impose on it not only the idea that it consists primarily of “beliefs” but also that such beliefs are articulated according to the model of double-click communication is entirely to misunderstand it.[9]

This mischaracterization of religious discourse is part and parcel of the secularizing drive to purify the public sphere from irrational influences. For if religious discourse is understood simply as a type of double-click communication concerned with beliefs about supernatural beings or other sorts of mysteries, then it quickly appears at odds with (scientific) public reason. As far as religion and science are both understood as offering descriptions of the world, their descriptions seem to compete against each other; as far as religion and politics are understood as offering separate prescriptions for the proper organization and conduct of human lives, their prescriptions seem to be ill suited to each other. Thus, as long as such an understanding of the constitution and operation of religious discourse holds sway, it remains a very reasonable conclusion to consign religion to its own private sphere away from political discourse and power—i.e., religion belongs in mosques, synagogues, and churches (and mostly on weekends); in families’ living rooms; or simply and quietly within the heart of the individual.

However, it is obvious that religious discourse has never been content to resign itself to these places, and this is largely because the distinctions on which the modern project of secularization rests have not, and cannot, obtain in fact. Both in-formation and trans-formation talk cut across any divisions between public and private spheres, because, again, it is their function and not their content that differentiates them. What the project of secularization asks us to do is to divide our commitments, associations, arrangements, or ideas (what Latour fairly idiosyncratically calls “propositions”) into two halves, even before we have the chance to understand them properly.[10] It puts the cart before the horse, insofar as it demands that we know what kind of talk we will engage in—and that we position ourselves accordingly—before we begin to speak.

In Politics of Nature, Latour advocates leaving behind us the sharp distinction between the natural and political spheres so that we may, among other things, better integrate the demands of non-human beings into our common world. A similar (re-)integration of religious discourse into public discourse could and should be achieved through application of Latour’s radical agnosticism to our understanding of both religion and politics. To be clear, this would not be a simple inclusion of religious speech in the political arena as they both now stand; without a drastic change in how we understand both political and religious discourse, we would only be confirming the very fears in response to which secularization operates. If, however, we are finally able to abandon the belief in belief, to deploy in-formation talk effectively (and without reducing it to double-click communication), and to give closer attention to the operation and effects of religions’ trans-formation talk, then the sharp divisions between public and private spheres would no longer be necessary. Not that there would no longer be contention, but the agonistics of a post-secular politics would necessarily include religious commitments and discourses alongside non-religious ones. Without recourse to or contention over the veracity or falsity “beliefs,” though, such discourse would be able to more adequately reflect the multiplicity of relationships (alliances as well as contestations) always at work in the world. Such a politics of agnosticism would thus be one in which contention is politic, that is, civil, constructive, pluralist, and democratic.

If beliefs are no longer what is in question when we consider the place or function of religious discourse, then certainly such discourse can more easily find a place within a broader discursive sphere. It would, at the same time, have to be the case that what we have come to think of as strictly political values are no longer determined according to positions on an ideological map the topology of which is laid out in advance. In much the same way that the metaphysics Latour advocates is “experimental”[11]—that is, open to new ways of forming connections, and subject to constant revision—the constitution of a common discursive space in which religious, political, and even scientific talk can operate would also have to be experimental. Experimentalism concerning the conditions and forms of discourse and radical agnosticism concerning the content of discourse mutually facilitate one another in the project of constructing an ever more viable and democratic commons.


1. On the contemporary difficulties attendant to religious discourse, as well as the form of agnosticism that Latour upholds, see Bruno Latour, Jubiler—ou les tourments de la parole religieuse (Paris: Les empêcheurs de penser en rond, 2002); “‘Thou Shall Not Freeze-Frame,’ or How Not to Misunderstand the Science and Religion Debate,” On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 99–123.

2. Cf. Latour, Pandora’s Hope (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 276ff.; “On the Cult of the Factish Gods,” trans. Catherine Porter and Heather MacLean, On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods, 1–66.

3. Latour, Pandora’s Hope, 275.

4. Ibid., 276.

5. Latour, “‘Thou Shall Not Freeze-Frame,'” 102.

6. On Latour’s argument concerning the translation of information and the role of intermediaries, see Pandora’s Hope, 24–79.

7. Latour, “‘Thou Shall Not Freeze-Frame,'” 106.

8. Ibid., 102–4.

9. Ibid., 108.

10. Latour, Politics of Nature, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 215.

11. Ibid., 57–62, 242.

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