Not the Messiah

20100720_2010+28critics_lead1_wAlain de Botton on Auguste Comte in New Statesman:

One of the most fruitless questions that can be asked of religions is whether or not they are “true”. For the sake of argument and the flow of this article, let us simply assume from the start that they aren't true in the supernatural sense. For a certain kind of atheist, this is the end of the story; but for those of a more ethnographic bent, it is clearly only a beginning. If we made up our gods to serve psychological needs, a study of these deities will tell us a crucial amount about what we require to preserve our sanity and balance, and will raise intriguing questions about how we are fulfilling the needs to which religions once catered.

Although we tend to think of atheists as not only unbelieving but also hostile to religion, there is a minor tradition of atheistic thinkers who have attempted to reconcile suspicion of religion with a sympathy for its ritualistic aspects. The most important and inspirational of these investigations was by the visionary, eccentric and only intermittently sane French 19th-century sociologist Auguste Comte.

Comte's thinking on religion had as its starting point a characteristically blunt observation that, in the modern world, thanks to the discoveries of science, it would no longer be possible for anyone intelligent or robust to believe in God. Faith would henceforth be limited to the uneducated, the fanatical, women, children and those in the final months of incurable diseases. At the same time Comte recognised, as many of his more rational contemporaries did not, that a secular society devoted solely to financial accumulation and romantic love and devoid of any sources of consolation, transcendent awe or solidarity would be prey to untenable social and emotional ills.

Comte's solution was neither to cling blindly to sacred traditions, nor to cast them collectively and belligerently aside, but rather to pick out their more relevant and secular aspects and fuse them with certain insights drawn from philosophy, art and science. The result, the outcome of decades of thought and the summit of Comte's intellectual achievement, was a new religion: a religion for atheists, or, as he termed it, a religion of humanity.