"The Last Religion"—A few thoughts and a documentary about Auguste Comte's "Religion of Humanity" in Brazil

Mother & child—the primary icon of the Religion of Humanity
In my early twenties during the winter of 1988 I found myself asked to look after the empty house in Bildeston, Suffolk where the artist Elinor Bellingham-Smith had been living just before she died (the Wikipedia entry says it was Boxford but, trust me, Bildeston was the place). For various reasons I had had the opportunity to meet her a few times before she died and so I happened to be in the right place at the right time to be asked by her son (John Moynihan, the football writer) to act as caretaker, primarily making sure the place wasn't burgled especially since the house was full of very valuable paintings and drawings—not only Elinor's but also a few others by famous artists whom she had known during her life. As I was just starting my professional career as a jazz bassist this was an extraordinary piece of good fortune because in return for my care-taking I got a place to live in rent-free—something for which I remain hugely grateful.

In addition to the many wonderful paintings the house contained there were also many books, two of which for some reason particularly claimed my attention during that winter and the spring of 1989—The positive philosophy of Auguste Comte freely translated and condensed by Harriet Martineau (Vols 1 & 2). I found the general idea of a non-supernaturalist Religion of Humanity a particularly powerful one and ever since that winter and spring in Suffolk nearly thirty years ago I have continued to explore various versions of religious naturalism it in my own private studies and, of course, in a variety ways through my own ministry here in Cambridge.

Eduardo de Sá—“L'Humanité avec l’Avenir dans ses bras" (1900)
Although the Religion of Humanity had many interesting and influential supporters here in the UK—including a number of people closely connected with the Unitarian movement such as the aforementioned Harriet Martineau and also Philip Henry Wicksteed (about whom I've become particularly interested)—it never properly flourished and today none of its institutions survive. However, it did have a minor but very influential flourishing in Brazil where two churches continue to exist to this day, one in Rio de Jainero and Porto Alegre. The Religion of Humanity, or Positivism, even provided the country's flag with its motto Ordem e Progresso (Order and Progress).

Well, this morning, I was pleased to catch-up with a splendid and interesting old acquaintance from Manchester Metropolitan University, Mike Tyldesley, and at a certain point in our conversation the subject of Comte's Religion of Humanity came up. Mike told me about the existence of a recent hour-long documentary film about the Brazilian church of which I was not aware and which I watched this afternoon.

I found it both very informative and also a very moving experience, not least of all because of the interview that appears towards the end of the film with the current Temple Guardian in Porto Alegre, Erlon Jacques de Oliveira. His deep and passionate commitment to this struggling, secular religious project rang all kinds of bells as a minister working in an associated, struggling liberal religious movement in the UK. Will either of our communities survive? Perhaps, perhaps not, but the struggle remains honourable and worthwhile and, in the end, for people like de Oliveira and me, there really is no choice but to continue to give it our best. But I do worry for him and his small community. To lose such a witness in our world would be a truly sad thing.

For those sufficiently intrigued by all this here is a link to the film on YouTube.