The religion of Humanity

November 6 2013

In all the instances of idolization which we have examined […] so far, the idol on to which the adulation of an ephemeral self has been projected has been fashioned out of some fraction of Mankind: a camarilla or a community or a race. We have still to consider the case in which the self is idolized in the shape of Humanity at large with a capital “H”.

This idolatrous worship of Leviathan has been advocated in all seriousness by one of our modern Western philosophers, [footnote: The Hellenic philosopher-king Alexander’s gospel of “the Brotherhood of Man” (ὁμόνοια) [homonoia] appears to have been grounded on a worship, not of Humanity, but of a God who is the common father of all men] Auguste Comte (vivebat A.D. 1798-1857).

“The whole of Positive conceptions [is condensed in] [bracket in Toynbee] the one single idea of an immense and eternal Being, Humanity. … Around this real Great Being, the prime mover of each existence, individual or collective, our affections centre by as spontaneous an impulse as do our thoughts and our actions. … The growing struggle of Humanity against the sum of the necessities under which it exists offers the heart no less than the intellect a better object of contemplation than the necessarily capricious omnipotence of its theological predecessor. … Humanity definitely substitutes Herself for God, without ever forgetting his provisional services. … We adore Her not as the older god, to compliment Her, but in order to serve Her better by bettering ourselves.”

The sentences, according to footnotes, are from

The Catechism of Positive Religion, English translation, second edition (London 1883, Trübner) […].

Pages 45-6, 294 and 61 in the Trübner edition.

Another footnote:

[…] Comte frankly admits that his corporate human object of worship is not an absolute or omnipotent godhead (see Caird, E.The Social Philosophy and Religion of Comte (Glasgow 1885, MacLehose), p. 31). Comte maintained that the new science of Sociology had made it plain that this limited object of worship was a satisfactory one (Caird, op. cit., pp. 28-9). But he might not have found it easy to meet his Scottish critic’s objection that “a relative religion is not a religion at all” (Caird, op. cit., p. 165). […].


See further eundem: Système de Politique, vol. i (Paris 1851, Matties, Carilian, Goeury et Delmont), Discours Préliminaire, Conclusion Générale: “Religion de l’Humanité”; vol ii (1852), chap. 1: “Théorie Générale de la Religion, ou Théorie Positive de l’Unité Humaine”; vol iv (1854), “Conclusion Générale du Tome ivme”, p. 524, on the emancipation of the Vrai Grand Être from a fictitious God.

Returning to the main thread:

Comte dreamed of embodying his “Religion of Humanity” in the institution of a universal church; but this dream has not yet come true “in real life”. Though the atheist French philosopher did his best to animate a lay-figure by dressing it out in garments – at once venerable and familiar – which he ostentatiously plucked from the living body of the Catholic Church, he has not gained the advantage that he expected from his cold-bloodedly pedantic resort to the strategy of Archaism; and in our day, when nearly a hundred years have passed since the floruit of the Positivist Prophet, Positivism nowhere survives as a church with a corporate life and a regular order of public worship, except in England, where it has merely added one more to an already long muster-roll of insular sects, and in Brazil. It is true that a far wider, as well as more rapid, success has been achieved in our time by a younger and grimmer worship of Humanity which is part and parcel of the creed of Communism. The Communist dogmatically and fanatically rules out a belief in the existence of God which the Positivist merely discards as superfluous. Yet while there is no doubt at all about the sincerity of the Communist’s rejection of the worship of anything superhuman or divine, there is a distinct and increasing doubt about the constancy of his allegiance to an all-embracing Humanity. At any rate in the Soviet Union, where Communism is to-day the established idéologie d’état, there has been showing itself, under the Stalinian régime, a strongly pronounced tendency to withdraw allegiance from Humanity at large in order to concentrate it upon that fraction of the living generation of Mankind that is at present penned within the frontiers of the U.S.S.R. In other words, Soviet Communism seems at this moment to be changing under our eyes from a worship of Humanity into the worship of a tribal divinity of the type of Athene Polias or the Lion of Saint Mark or Kathleen na Hoolihan or Britannia. And this change suggests that Russian Communism, like British Positivism, may be destined to contract to the dimensions of a parochial sect instead of realizing the dream of its founder by growing into a universal church.

This is the transition from Lenin to Stalin. First footnote to that paragraph:

After Comte’s death his followers in England parted company with those in France over the question whether the apostles of the Positivist Church should, or should not, wait till they had convinced the intellect before they appealed to the emotions. The English Positivists were in favour of going our into the highways and hedges and seeking to convert the women and the proletarians en masse; and, in support of this policy of giving the claims of the heart a priority over those of the head, they cited the precedent of the Primitive Christian Church as well as the authority of their own Master, Comte, himself. An account of this controversy in the bosom of the Positivist Church in its Apostolic Age will be found in Caird, E.: The Social Philosophy and Religion of Comte (Glasgow 1885, MacLehose), pp. 171-6.


On the vexed question of whether Communism is to be reckoned as a religion or as a philosophy or merely as a political programme, it will be sufficient – for our present purpose – to point out that Communism at any rate answers to the definition of what constitutes a religion according to Comte. In Comte’s view a religion is a comprehensive coherent conception of the Universe which gives us an object upon which we can fix all our affections and an aim to which we can devote all our energies (Caird, op. cit., pp. 24-7; cf. p. 159). […]

Returning to the main thread:

Do these apparently unpromising prospects of both Russian Communism and British Positivism portend in their turn a setback to the worship of the Self in the shape of Humanity at large? This does not necessarily follow; for, while Comte’s dream may not yet have been translated into reality, it is nevertheless still in the air.

“II existe, par-dessus les classes et les nations, une volonté de l’espèce de se rendre maîtresse des choses et, quand un être humain s’envole en quelques heures d’un bout de la terre à l’autre, c’est toute la race humaine qui frémit d’orgueil et s’adore comme distincte parmi la création. … On peut penser parfois qu’un tel mouvement s’affirmera de plus en plus et que c’est de cette voie que s’eteindront les guerres interhumaines; on arrivera ainsi à une ‘fraternité universelle’, mais qui, loin d’être l’abolition de l’esprit de nation avec ses appétits et ses orgueils, en sera au contraire la forme suprême, la nation s’appelant l’Homme et l’ennemi s’appelant Dieu.” [Footnote: Benda, J.: La trahison des clercs (Paris 1927, Grasset), pp. 246-7.]

What do other nations call themselves?

When a worship of the Self is thus projected on to a human hive or columbarium that has room in it for every human being dead, living, and unborn – and leaves none but God out in the cold, does the Self cease to be ephemeral and the worship cease to be idolatrous? This question will be answered in the affirmative not only by Communists and Positivists but also by the more numerous adherents of a vaguer, yet perhaps just on that account more representative, school of humanist thinkers and humanitarian men of action whose outlook has become the dominant Weltanschauung of our Western Society in its Modern Age.

Is this answer the last word? The self-worshipper who has given expression to his heart’s desire by substituting an image of Humanity for the presence of a Living God in his panorama of the Universe, can no doubt proclaim

I am monarch of all I survey;
My right there is none to dispute.

But is there no bitterness in the boast which Cowper has placed in the mouth of Alexander Selkirk? Is not this monarch a castaway? And must he not pay for his undisputed dominion by living in a spiritual solitude which is an abomination of desolation?

“Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools and changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible Man … because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful, but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” [Footnote: Romans i. 22-3 and 21.]

Isn’t Toynbee a castaway, having rejected nation, which isn’t always a destructive allegiance, expecting humanity to form an allegiance to “world government”, and having, despite religious sympathies, refused in a Symmachan spirit allegiance to any religion?

Templo positivista

Capela Positivista, Avenida João Pessoa 1058, Porto Alegre, Brazil

A Study of History, Vol IV, OUP, 1939; the reference to Brazil was added in either the fourth (1948) or fifth (1951) impression

One Response to “The religion of Humanity”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Is Comte more than a proto-fascist?

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