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The Religion of Science and Its High Priest


It took a jolt to bring Mill to his senses. Comte never anticipated that, of all things, it would be his fairly conventional views about women that would repel his friend. He marshaled scientific evidence about female mental deficiency in his letters to Mill, expecting him to come around on what he took to be a basic point; but Mill refused to be shaken from his conviction that women were fundamentally equal to men. His companion, Harriet Taylor, urged Mill to counter “this dry root of a man” with a book on the subject. The Subjection of Women (1869) borrowed its title from one of Comte’s letters and included arguments Mill had sharpened in his correspondence with him.

In his 1866 book Auguste Comte and Positivism, Mill whitewashed the traces of his earlier sympathy and condemned nearly every aspect of the positivist enterprise. He no longer accepted that progress would advance as smoothly as Comte believed: he argued that citizens should not be subordinated to anyone but their chosen representatives—certainly not to scientists and technocrats. When Comte published his second large work, Système de politique positive (1851–1854), Mill denounced it as “the completest system of spiritual and temporal despotism which ever yet emanated from a human brain.” But by then Comte’s thought had already taken a radical turn.


Comte’s “Religion of Humanity” is not something we might have expected from the same man who denounced incarnations of secular religion like Robespierre’s Cult of the Supreme Being and Saint-Simon’s New Christianity. Pickering’s main claim is that Comte’s turn to religion was not the result of one of his manic episodes, as is commonly believed, but rather followed naturally from his attempt to provide society with a new intellectual mooring. The immediate inspiration for Comte’s “religion,” however, grew out of intensely personal circumstances.

In 1845 he met a young married woman named Clotilde de Vaux and promptly fell in love. A vain, impoverished aristocrat with literary pretensions, Clotilde was more interested in Comte’s intellectual reputation than his physical advances. Their letters to each other read like heated exchanges from Les Liaisons dangereuses, with Comte making sexual demands and Clotilde rapturously rebuffing them. When she died only a year after they met, Comte was devastated and spent the rest of his life in mourning. He wore a black frock that became his trademark, set up a shrine to Clotilde in his apartment, and devoted one of the feast days of the Religion of Humanity to her memory.

For someone who had never made much of the women in his life, Comte now saw women as a critical resource for binding a fractured society together through the social bonds of love. By elevating the central place of the emotions in his system, Comte believed he had advanced beyond all earlier social theories and found the perfect complement to his rigorously scientific program. “One tires of thinking and even of acting,” he wrote, “but one never tires of loving.” Selfless devotion to others, or “altruism,” as Comte called it, would fill the place of the belief in God left void by the triumph of scientific positivism. In a world where nothing was transcendent, humankind would worship its own unity.

For Comte, altruism was not simply an idea or a value—it could actually be located in the human brain. Based on his extensive study of Franz Gall’s phrenology, Comte drew up a Tableau cérébral, where he mapped out all the major human instincts. The organs that produced altruism were situated in the far back of the skull, in the occipital lobe, just above the regions responsible for egotism. Comte believed that these weak altruistic organs could overcome their egotistic superiors with the correct social training. He went so far as to design special waistcoats that could only be put on with the aid of another person, giving an added boost to altruism with every button.

It was this aspect of Comte’s thought that strangely enough most appealed to fellow travelers of the Religion of Humanity such as George Eliot. While Middlemarch registers Eliot’s strong distaste for grand systems, Dorothea Brooke’s struggle in the novel to serve altruistic instinct over the intellect was an instance of Comte’s theory in action. The English adherents of positivism—who, along with Eliot, included her companion George Lewes, Richard Congreve, and Harriet Martineau, whose abridged translation of the Cours made Comte widely read—drew from Comte the belief that true ethics could be grounded in natural human emotions, which could be confirmed through scientific study rather than Christian justification. The sense of themselves as pioneers of a new sect attracted English positivists who sometimes fancied themselves the new scientific clergy. The “Great Being of Humanity” invoked by Comte consisted less in reverence toward the grand total of all human beings past and present than toward those “capable of assimilation, in virtue of a real cooperation…in furthering the common good.” Loyal pets would become members of the Positivist Elect before “human manure.”

Comte’s formal “Church of Humanity” turned out to be a satire of the Catholicism it was meant to replace. The pious positivist was to pray three times daily, once to each of his household goddesses: his mother, his daughter, and his wife. Women were to strive for Virgin-Mother status, which Comte hoped could soon be accomplished with vials of an artificial fertility stimulant that they could use whenever they chose. With their “vivifying fluid” rendered socially useless, he expected the sexual appetite of men to diminish to the point that their genitalia would wither away through evolution.

Comte instructed disciples to tap themselves each day three times on the back of the head, where the impulses of “Good Will,” “Order,” and “Progress” were stored. The positivist calendar dedicated a month of worship to each of the thirteen great men of humanity—Moses, Homer, Aristotle, Archimedes, Julius Caesar, Saint Paul, Charlemagne, Dante, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Descartes, Frederick the Great, and the French anatomist Bichat. There were nine positivist sacraments, beginning with Presentation, in which, as in Baptism, the infant was given two positivist saints drawn from the hundreds of historical figures Comte had selected to preside over each day of the year.

When he died, a positivist’s remains were to be interred in a sacred grove surrounding each positivist temple (Notre-Dame was to be requisitioned as the first of these). All dead positivists were to be worshiped by the living on special feast days determined by the Grand Pontiff of Humanity—Comte himself, not surprisingly. “Humanity is made up of more dead than living,” he wrote, “and the dead govern the living more and more.”

The positivist church never numbered more than a few thousand members.1 Comte spent his last years busying himself with administrative formalities, such as marriage counseling for young positivists (there could not have been a worse man for the job) and obsessing over whether sacraments were being performed correctly (including one positivist baptism in Long Island). After his death in 1857, Comte’s admirers Jules Ferry and Léon Gambetta carried on his thinking in a watered-down form as leaders of the Third Republic. Like most other members of the second generation, they were positivists mostly in the sense that they advocated uniform moral education for French schoolchildren and ritualized the observance of the country’s dead intellectual heroes. Only a dwindling number of Comte’s disciples kept the faith by the time of the Paris Commune. On January 1, 1881, the religion’s remaining members in London, Le Havre, Rouen, Rio de Janeiro, Stockholm, and New York all made a synchronized bow in the direction of Paris, where Pierre Laffitte, the successor of the Grand Pontiff, was conducting the ceremony of the Feast of Humanity out of Comte’s apartment.

Comte’s influence today is at once profound and hard to pinpoint. In the social sciences, “positivist” is a term of abuse; we are now said to live in a “post-positivist” world. Part of the confusion stems from the fact that the meaning of positivism dramatically narrowed after Comte’s death. In Vienna, Ernst Mach and his followers stripped Comte’s legacy of its social reformist and theoretical components and focused exclusively on its empiricism. “Logical positivism,” as this strand became known, reached its height in the 1930s, with the publication of works by Rudolf Carnap and A.J. Ayer. In legal theory, positivism was championed by Hans Kelsen, while the young Milton Friedman made a case for “positive economics.” These latter-day positivists were determined to pass off their methods as value-free, but they came under attack for their refusal to acknowledge their dependence on the dominant assumptions of their age. Comte never made that mistake.

In the US recently, a more socially minded, neo-Comtean current of positivism runs through the thought of some leading scientists. The zeal with which neuroscientists such as Steven Pinker and Sam Harris assert that we can derive guiding moral precepts from the scientific study of the human brain echoes the confidence of Comte and his first disciples. To think that a more sophisticated understanding of brain waves or biological evolution could provide the right blueprint for society, once and for all, seems as implausible now as it did in the nineteenth century.

If anything, Comte was more subtle than some of today’s positivists by refusing to reduce human nature to any one science in particular. Comte’s most vocal follower today is perhaps the French writer Michel Houellebecq, who decorates his novels with Comtean epigrams. At a conference on positivism, he argued with a straight face that when humankind finds a systematic way to satisfy its sexual urges, we will need Comte again to help us think about fulfilling our residual spiritual desires.


Certainly, the works of Auguste Comte are not poised for any imminent revival. The salient lessons of his thought for scientific theorizing found more persuasive expression in Durkheim, who established sociology as an academic field, while his philosophy of history was quickly swept away by the Continental enthusiasm for Marx. Nevertheless, Pickering’s study offers two important suggestions. The first is that science alone has nearly always proven to be an inadequate source for our social values. The idea that our common morality ought to have scientific foundations is a holdover from the Enlightenment, which never entirely freed itself from the religious need to have human projects backed by an all-knowing authority.

By making a religion of science and inducting scientists into his priestly class, Comte can be seen to have highlighted the folly of this line of thought. His technocratic pretensions illustrate the hubris of any system that thinks it can do away with politics. Indeed, the reason Comte never really elaborated any political prescriptions is that he was convinced that when all men and women finally converted to positivism—and cleansed their minds of all theological and metaphysical residue—the result would automatically lead to the just organization of society and the state.

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    The Church of Humanity fared much better abroad. Comte’s books were the first European works translated into Japanese for the Meiji Emperor and reached as far as the court of Tsar Nicholas I. His ideas were well-known among Bengali intellectuals at the turn of the twentieth century. Positivism’s greatest direct political impact was in Brazil, where a group of republicans—Benjamin Constant Botelho Magalhães, Miguel Lemos, and Raimundo Teixeira Mendes—used Comte as a guide to the modernization of the nation while keeping its Catholicism intact. The temple of humanity in Rio de Janeiro continues to hold services to this day. In 1903, Brazilian positivists erected the only Temple of Humanity still operational in Europe at 5, rue Payenne in Paris, two doors down from where Clotilde lived. 

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