Thursday, May 16, 2013

Positivism and the Religion of Humanity.

In this post I will talk about the Religion of Humanity founded by positivists and their modern day equivalents.

Positivism is fairly well known so I will only summarize it's three main claims: Firstly, history is driven by science; technological advancements drive societies.  Secondly, science will allow mastery over nature; natural scarcity like famine and poverty will be defeated.  Thirdly, science and ethics progress together as human societies become systematically organized and knowledge spreads.

The founder of Positivism was Count Henri deSaint-Simon (1760 - 1825) who foreshadowed positive psychology by instructing his servant to wake him every morning with the words "Remember, monsieur le comte, that you have great things to do."

Among these great deeds envisaged by Saint-Simon was a new religion focused on Newton and the law of gravity because he was convinced that the law of gravity held all of the answers to the Universe and that it would eventually replace God as the “sole cause of all physical and moral phenomena”, an  position he described as “physicism”.  The new religion would be controlled by the "twenty-one elect of humanity" member Council of Newton for the purpose of governing humanity by the power of rationality and science.

The council was never formed but the Saint-Simonian cult continued after his death and soon acquired all the paraphernalia of the Church - hymns, altars, priests in their vestments and it's own calendar with the months named after Archimedes, Descartes and other rationalists saints.

It was his protege, and former secretary, Auguste Comte who completed the transformation into the religious cult known as the 'Religion of Humanity'.  Comte much admired and therefore emulated the structure of the Roman Catholic Church.  He devised a system of daily observances that a pious Positivist should follow:

He was to cross himself by tapping his head with his finger three times at points where according to the science of phrenology - the impulses of benevolence, order and progress were situation. There was nine Positivist sacraments, beginning with Presentation, an equivalent to baptism in which the infant was to be given two patron stains, and ending with the sacrament of Incorporation.*

Order and Progress.
This new religion became strangely successful with Temples of Humanity founded Paris and London and throughout Latin America where some remain active today.  Comte's slogan 'Order and Progress' become part of the Brazilian national flag.

Positivism and the ideas of Comte and Saint-Simon were hugely influential.  It was through a long correspondence with John Stuart Mill that liberalism became identified with secular humanism*.   It was Comte who founded and named the discipline of sociology to study and transform human societies based upon scientific knowledge.


I was reminded of the Religion of Humanity when I found a website called - a  "community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality".   It's an interesting site and worth reading.

You will find for example that whereas the positivist was to ritualistically tap his head with his finger three times according to the science of phrenology, the contributors of will draw upon behavioral psychology to recommend similar rituals to apply the science of  behavioral psychology on yourself :

Applied Intermittent Reinforcement
For a while, there was a time-consuming chore that I was required to do every evening.  I would often put it off until 2-3 AM and work while sleepy as a result. To solve this problem, I started eating a gummy worm with 50% probability each time I did the chore at a pre-determined time early in the evening.  (I gave myself the first two gummy worms with 100% probability to start things off.)  My success rate with this method was very high. [link]

Elsewhere, readers can find 'the science of winning at life' or advice on 'how to beat procrastination'.  The underlying assumption is that humans using science and rationality can defeat and liberate ourselves from our natural condition.  And that is thoroughly positivist.
* John Gray, The original Modernizers.
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