Is religion always synonymous with belief in the supernatural?

Did Comte’s religion of “Positivism” break this link?

Before discussing the thoughts of Auguste Comte (1798–1857), it is useful to define the terms “religion” and “supernatural” and then consider the philosopher’s approach within these boundaries. The Oxford English Dictionary defines religion as ‘Action or conduct indicating belief in, obedience to, and reverence for a god, gods, or similar superhuman power; the performance of religious rites or observances’ and defines supernatural in terms of divinity, metaphysics and the extraordinary. However, it could be argued that belief or faith can be exclusive of a deity, in short – a worship or following of some being (human or otherwise) greater than the individual.

Supernatural identity aside, with religions there is commonality of features; there is dogma through following a set of rituals, ceremonies, and acting out beliefs, together with some form of community or gathering. And there is often commonality of purpose, that is to say high moral or ethical principles are generally pursued. When examining religion and its origins, the philosophy may vary from the etymology (Latin: obligation, bond, reverence) and the term can be thought of as a Western or European concept, particularly with the three main monotheistic strands relating to the god of the old testament, and the historic writings associated with it.

French philosopher Isidore Marie Auguste François Xavier Comte (1798 – 1857), better known as Auguste Comte, was the father of Positivism and inventor of the term sociology. Comte believed religion played an important role in the individual’s and society’s well-being through establishing a common, positive set of principles and practices around the belief that a pursuit of altruism and helping others precipitated a collective improvement of morals and ethics.

Comte moved away from the traditional western deistic view, instead putting the celebration of humanity at his new religion’s core. Comte’s religion of Positivism took an humanist approach with a celebration of, and a belief in, man’s scientific and rational endeavours and achievements. Comte defined “positivism” in terms of demarcating scientific knowledge through the gaining of scientific empirical evidence, Due to his belief that working with science, reason and rationality were male traits, he also wanted to celebrate and promote his view of female virtues – which he saw as being caring, loving, nurturing and empathetic, and as such his symbolic representation of a human “deity” was a mother nurturing her son,

However, Comte did recognise the role of the supernatural and metaphysical in human development and he outlined this in his “law of three stages” where the metaphysical stage is the link between the theological and the positive. Comte’s religion was intended to be invasive in many aspects of society, with a new 13 month calendar with notable worship events centring on historical and contemporary figures from the arts, sciences, philosophy and prophets, coupled with a new cannon of literature supporting these fields (although he recognised this had it’s limitations as it was centred too heavily on western civilisation).

From a contemporary perspective Comte’s vision and timing for his religion was to find a path forward and away from the French Revolution by revering the achievements of all that is great in humanity, with a spirit of altruism at it’s core. Comte’s religion replaced the reverence to supernatural iconography (such as angels) and prayers directed to a formless god, with representations of great human figures to whom they can relate, and to a humanity he referred to as the “Great Being” to which they can be a part of, and contribute to. An intention of his religion was to reflect the backdrop of Europe’s move towards a scientific, industrial and technological new age, and in political terms he favoured a sociocracy, which can really be thought of a meritocracy, as he favoured the sovereignty to be in the hands of scientists, industrialists and enlightened thinkers.

Kees de Groot has introduced the concept of “liquid religion”, simply put, fluid and dynamic forms of religion which embrace the secular and non-classical and non-institutional theistic beliefs. This marks a shift from the traditional dogmatic doctrinal church to anything from the purely philosophical, social or fantasy beliefs sets – which could even be “pop-up” in nature. Since Comte’s time many religions have sprung up which are not deity based and the closest “religion” to that of Positivism is the secular movement of humanism.

In summary, in today’s multicultural society many religions live harmoniously alongside each other. Comte proposed a new religion that was not supernatural deity based, instead promoting a belief in, and celebration of, the “Great Being” of humanity.

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