By Woody Evans
If it was just a phase, it would be Comte’s last. He died in 1857 — but his influential ideas about the application of reason to cultural and religious matters would soon lead to “Temples of Humanity” built in France and Brazil.
It was all founded on Science and Progress and Liberty — but to manage our humanism, this new religion did indeed install priests, prayers, saints (including Isaac Newton), and even a manner of “crossing” oneself that stimulated the phrenological points for Good Works (see John Gray’s Al Qaeda and What It Means to be Modern, Faber & Faber, 2003, for much more — and details on how the very many flavors of fundamentalism issue directly from idealistic moderns).
The Church of Virus (apparently still active at least as late as May, 2011) dresses up similar notions in religious trappings – but does so in blatantly and unapologetically transhuman style. How many cults (we could name a few: Raelism, Scientology, Heaven’s Gate) take it as their mandate to re-educate people in the name of some sloppy imagining of “scientific progress”? The trend has worked down deep into many mainstream religious groups as well. The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, in “reaching the world for Christ,” is still pushing a modernist agenda to convert the pagan and prepare the world for unity under their own “rational theology” and systematic doctrines of salvation.
But the “social physics” of Comte’s Positivist religion sits somehow simultaneously in two opposing camps. On the one hand, it is clearly a religion (rites, churches, an eye toward “progress” through the spread of values). But on the other, it is anti-religious, or at least atheistic. The principles were that Humanity itself, not gods, would develop and push rational moral systems across the earth to all peoples — and all of it would be based on science, order, and reason rather than inherited beliefs, myths, or superstitions.
In a different time and place, and under different economic pressures, Positivism could have become something a lot more like Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
The New Atheists are fond of citing religion (crusades, jihad) as a cause for blood and terror; their critics are fond of citing the terrors atheists brought down on millions under Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot. Both sides miss the point. The point is that violent ideology causes blood and terror, and that violent ideology can be religious, anti-religious, or psuedo-religious.
The eschatology of transhumanism, past militant statements, by transhumanists, and the overly simplistic dismissal of history (dull, dirty, dumb) in favor of a cartoonishly idealized future (fun, sexy, smart — hey, no war & no worries!) should give us all pause. It sounds familiar.
It sounds like crows calling.