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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: January 2010

Introduction

Summary

Three things at the birth of the New Age bear weighty testimony to an increased and increasing interest in human deeds: the Novel, the Trust, and the Expansion of Europe; the study of individual life and motive, the machine-like organizing of human economic effort, and the extension of all organization to the ends of the earth. Is there a fairer field than this for the Scientist? Did not the Master Comte do well to crown his scheme of knowledge with Knowledge of Men?

W. E. B. Du Bois

In the second half of the nineteenth century, criticisms of religion proliferated, threatening the foundation of Western thought and society. Historians of ideas usually highlight the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species in 1859 as the watershed moment in the erosion of the Bible's authority. However, five years before this important date, another major nineteenth-century thinker, Auguste Comte, had completed his four-volume Système de politique positive, which not only more aggressively attacked traditional religions as irrational and obsolete but offered a creative secular alternative, the Religion of Humanity. As James Livingston remarks, “While other philosophers of the period – the Hegelians, Neo-Kantians, and British idealists – attempted philosophical reconceptions, or various forms of ‘demythologisation’ of the Jewish and Christian historical revelation, Comte sought a more thoroughgoing religious revolution by rejecting any appeal to either historical revelation or metaphysical theism.”

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