Eloquent, amusing and fabulously well-informed, Bruno Latour is one of the superstars of French intellectual life. He was trained as a philosopher, but in the early 1970s he moved into social anthropology, doing fieldwork on tribal myths and rituals in Ivory Coast, West Africa. Then he decided to turn his ethnographic gaze on modern western societies, and spent the best part of two years observing the myths and rituals of a tribe of neuro-endocrinologists at the Salk Institute in California. The conclusion of his inquiry – published in 1979 as Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, co-authored with the British sociologist Steve Woolgar – was that there are large discrepancies between official images of science and the realities of life in a community of professional researchers. Scientists are not guileless observers, patiently recording the facts that nature places before them, but crafty cultural operators, manipulating vast technical resources to precipitate artificial new phenomena, and then networking like mad, through the production, distribution and exchange of masses of words, diagrams and statistics. They negotiate, in short, not with the objective world but with each other.Bruno Latour
Philosophical superstar Bruno Latour

Laboratory Life was exceedingly controversial. The idea that scientific facts are socially constructed was a red rag to the self-appointed guardians of enlightenment, who took it on themselves to explain that questions like whether it’s raining or whether there’s a dog in the basket are settled by simple observation rather than discursive bargaining. But such attacks fell well short of their target. Scientific objects like genomes, bosons and neurones are rather more elusive, epistemologically speaking, than dogs and rain, and if they could be discovered by simple observation, then scientists and big laboratories would never have been invented.

On top of that, the norms of science, like those of morality or politics, are ideals rather than realities, and pointing out that we do not always live up to them is not the same as telling us to stop trying. In some respects, however, the critics may have had a point, and some of us have always suspected that Latour was a bit too quick to generalise from the particular scientific communities he happens to have studied, and apt to forget about the kinds of scientists – Faraday, Mendel and Darwin, for example, or Frege, Saussure and Turing – who work largely on their own. Also, he sometimes seemed to be having it both ways: winning bankable notoriety by denouncing scientists as hypocrites who like to market their social constructions as absolute truths; but transforming himself, when challenged, into an unassuming inquirer, doing his humble best to apply the scientific method to science itself.

Orthodox philosophers of science may have been alienated beyond recall, but Latour managed to retain the goodwill of many practising scientists, who were happy to have him working amongst them, noticing patterns of behaviour of which they were unconscious, and providing them with new ways of reflecting on their daily routines. But if Latour had no interest in debunking science or scientists, he was nothing if not critical when it came to the scientific self-image. In an ambitious exercise in “symmetrical anthropology”, published in 1991 as We Have Never Been Modern, he laid into the whole idea of a division between enlightened scientific modernity and benighted pre-modern primitivism. Our sense of ourselves as educated, rational and thoroughly up-to-date rests, he argued, on an array of distinctions – between objectivity and subjectivity, nature and society, reason and emotion, and knowledge and opinion – that everyone knows to be full of holes.

Those who liked to mock him as a post-modernist (he would be one of the principal suspects in the alarmist tract Intellectual Impostures by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont) were wrong-footed in advance: how could post-modern perversity be attributed to someone who denies that modernity ever took place? Latour has never ceased to reinvent himself, and in 2003 he gave a scintillating lecture called “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?” His idea was that the model of the intellectual as a cutting-edge iconoclast, offering radical resistance to the idols of reactionary complacency, had itself become – after the fall of communism, after 9/11 – an alibi for lazy conformism. Of course he could not keep his own name off the charge-sheet: as an old-school provocateur he was, he admitted, coming to resemble “one of those mechanical toys that endlessly make the same gesture when everything else has changed around them”.

Maybe the whole project of critical studies in science had been a mistake, and maybe the claim that there is no such thing as “unbiased access to truth” was not the liberation that he and his friends had taken it for, but a home-made prison or a ship of fools. We progressives always used to think we were the ones in the know, while the vast mass of people were media-manipulated buffoons who mistook their self-flattering dreams for reality. But perhaps the boot had always been on the other foot. If we wanted to take a good look at a naïve believer, a fetishist or an obsessive conspiracy theorist, there was no need to go and mingle with the ignorant masses: we could simply stay at home and gaze in the mirror. Perhaps the good old days are over, Latour said – “the good old days when university professors could look down on ordinary folks because those old hillbillies naively believed in church, motherhood and apple pie”.

Jacket of On The Modern Cult of the Factish GodsHis recent book On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods shows that Latour remains a great star, even if he has been through some kind of midlife crisis about the work that made him famous: so much of a star, indeed, that he can perpetrate repetitions, self-indulgences and virtuosic obscurities on a scale that no one but a star could get away with. But he also grapples for the first time with a problem that has always haunted the philosophy of science: the question of religious belief. “Any change in the way science is considered,” he observes, “will have some consequences on the many ways to talk about religion.”

There is of course a hoary orthodoxy which maintains that the rise of science annihilates religion just as the dawning of the day dispels the darkness of night. Think, for example, of those passages in which Bertrand Russell compared believing in God to believing in a china teapot orbiting the sun, somewhere between Mars and Earth. The teapot argument was welcomed by some atheist militants as a useful addition to their arsenal; but anyone who has ever spoken to a believer will know that it rests on a ludicrous underestimate of the intellectual resources of religious thought and experience.

Latour was never going to fall into the same trap: he has spent the last four decades arguing that what scientists actually do when they are being scientific is very different from what simple-minded philosophers suppose, and considerably more interesting; and it is not a big step to recognise that the same may apply to what believers actually do when they are being religious. Hence there is something wrong, as Latour puts it in his new book, with “belief in belief”. The phrase may cause some confusion, since it has also been used by various atheist philosophers (notably Daniel Dennett) to refer to the fond idea that it’s always better to believe in something, or indeed in anything, rather than never to believe at all.

In Latour’s sense, however, the original “believers in belief” are not gullible theists but mainstream atheists – like Russell and Dennett, for instance – who consider themselves to be blessed with critical knowledge based on solid facts, while other people, blinded by superstition, cling to beliefs that have no support outside the misty realms of make-believe. But who in this great brawl is really believing naively? Not the religious believers, according to Latour, but the modern atheists, afflicted as they are by the “naïve belief … that ignorant people believe naively”. Indeed the much-loved contrast between the so-called “facts” that provide a foundation for enlightened knowledge and the “fetishes” that animate the beliefs of fools is itself a superstition – a delusion which Latour proposes to commemorate with his new hybrid word “factish” (or faitiche in French, where his wordplay works better). A factish, in short, is what happens when our own “facts” turn out to be fetishes, and the “fetishes” of others turn out to be facts.

Moving on to the logic of iconoclasm, Latour stumbles on another double-bind. Iconoclasts, as everyone knows, are truth-loving people who wish to banish error from the world by destroying false gods, or rather by destroying the images that, as they see it, are worshipped by others as if they were divine. But who is the image-worshipper at this table? Not the believers, surely, because however much they treasure their icons, they know very well (most of the time at least) that they are human artefacts. If superstition is at work here, it seems to be on the side of the idol-smashers, however modern they may be and proud of their dispassionate rationality; otherwise how could they get excited about destroying something that is after all no more than an image? Icons are thus the idols of the iconoclasts, making a cult of their anti-cultism.

Readers with a limited appetite for paradox may quickly tire of Latour; but they should not close the book without looking at the final pages. On The Modern Cult of the Factish Gods concludes with a brief and brilliant essay entitled “How Not to Misunderstand the Science and Religion Debate”, featuring a notable act of self-outing. There is, Latour confesses, a simple crass label for the kind of thinker he has always been: “I have been raised a Catholic,” he says, and it seems his faith has never wavered, even though – “in my tradition, in my corner of the world,” as he puts it – he could never mention it without embarrassment. “I cannot even speak to my children,” Latour says, “of what I am doing at church on Sunday.”

Abjuring facetiousness for a while, Latour offers a moving comparison between religious words and words of love: their truth, he says, is a truth of transformation rather than a truth of information. Uncomprehending outsiders will assume that the transformative truths of religion are about getting yourself teleported to some other, better world, but for insiders the opposite will be the case: religious truths serve to remove distractions, enabling us to focus on what is taking place in our space and in our time – to attend to incarnation, to the flesh, to a face, a stone, a child, a fly, a tomato or a piece of wood – and to find them replete with significance, and calling for no response except gratitude, reverence and love.

Religious language can be risky (“it requires great care,” Latour says – “it might save those who utter it”) but it is never mysterious: it contains “nothing hidden, nothing encrypted, nothing esoteric, nothing odd”. It has its own robust wisdom, and does not need to beg for “tolerance”, or to plead with tough-minded sceptics to concede that the facts of science are too dry for some tastes, and that a spoonful of “wonder” or “quaint religious feelings” might make them much more palatable. Contrary to what we have been brought up to think, the daring heroes of intellectual escapology are not the religious believers but the practising scientists, going boldly into the unfathomable mysteries of eternity; while religion, properly speaking, is a set of exercises in “breaking the will to go away, ignore, be indifferent, blasé, or bored”, and focusing our minds on the intimate textures of what lies close.

Religion, it seems, is far more intelligent than most philosophers give it credit for, and there is nothing in it that need offend or alarm the intelligent scientist, the intelligent humanist or the intelligent atheist. Or so Latour would have us believe.

But perhaps he has allowed himself to be misled, not for the first time, by an unbalanced choice of examples. Some believers are intelligent – no doubt about it – but many are not, and those who wallow in notions about chosen peoples, revealed truths, inspired scriptures, disembodied souls, exorcisms, heavenly rewards and eternal damnation are at least as stupid as the most dim-witted scientists, humanists and atheists, and even more dangerously fanatical. And for all his starry brilliance, Bruno Latour may never be able to redeem them.