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Auguste Comte's Religion of Humanity

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Auguste Comte's Religion of Humanity is an interesting and obscure oddity in the history of freethought. It was invented by the French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857, also at philosophyprofessor.com).

Auguste Comte had invented the word "sociology" for the study of human society, and he had proposed that ideas and theories develop through three stages:

  1. Theological - explanation by supernatural sentient entities: gods, ghosts, spirits, demons, etc.
  2. Metaphysical - explanation by abstractions.
  3. Positive - explanation by empirically-derived regularities; rigorous science.

Historians and philosophers of science will likely dismiss it as ludicrously oversimplified, but that's another story.

But later in life he turned to his "Religion of Humanity", and there is not much online about it. However, Corliss Lamont's The Philosophy of Humanism (a free download from his memorial site) had this nice description of it:

For example, Auguste Comte, French thinker of the middle nineteenth century, made a stimulating if somewhat erratic approach to a consistent Humanism. Taking the facts and methods of science as his starting point, Comte worked out a far-reaching system, which he called Positivism. He used the word positive, not as the opposite of negative, but as meaning scientifically certain or assured.

During his late forties Comte reacted against his earlier intellectualism following a deep emotional crisis associated with his passionate, though Platonic, love for a beautiful and intelligent woman, Clotilde de Vaux, and her untimely death at thirty-one after he had known her for only a year. Comte mourned at her tomb once a week and invoked her memory in prayer three times a day. He referred to her as his angel of inspiration and as a second Beatrice. Finally, he formally ensconced her in his system as a virtual saint and as the personification of the Ideal Female symbolizing the Great Being (humanity).

All this accompanied Comte's unfortunate transformation of Positivism into a complex Religion of Humanity, replete with rituals, sacraments, priests, and temples. For the worship of God he substituted the worship of humankind and for the calendar of Christian saints a select list of the heroes of human progress. Positivism, patterning its liturgy closely after that of the Roman Catholic Church, assumed some of the objectionable features of a religious cult, and was soon dubbed "Catholicism minus Christianity." It was, moreover, a cult overpersonalized in the image of its egotistic founder, who in effect became the high priest of the new religion and whose statue was prominently displayed in all the Positivist temples.

Comte had a considerable vogue throughout the Western world, but his thought took deeper root in Latin America than in the United States. His followers have been particularly active in Brazil, where in 1881 they established a Positivist Church. Its headquarters in Rio de Janeiro still functions on a regular basis. Comte's lasting influence on Brazil is seen in the fact that inscribed on the national flag is his maxim, "Order and Progress." This is the only national emblem in the world that perpetuates the words of a philosopher.

(pp. 47-48)

That church has its own site, Igreja Positivista do Brasil (Positivist Church of Brazil).

Comte also proposed a positivist calendar of 13 months with 28 days each:

  1. Moses
  2. Homer
  3. Aristotle
  4. Archimedes
  5. Caesar
  6. Saint Paul
  7. Charlemagne
  8. Dante
  9. Gutenberg
  10. Shakespeare
  11. Descartes
  12. Frederic
  13. Bichat

The days were named after various lesser heroes. The weeks are still 7 days long, and every month starts on a Monday. Outside of the week cycle are these special days:

  • A festival celebrating the dead
  • On leap years, a festival celebrating holy women

This article was originally at the Beacon Library (now defunct).

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