How Scientists Became the Priests of Our Brave New World

New Atheists as Altar Boys.

How Scientists Became the Priests of Our Brave New World Glen Edelson

Glen Edelson

Religious belief is not wrong so much as infantile, according to Auguste Comte, the founder of the positivist school of philosophy. His nearly two-centuries old idea has become a leitmotif in the chorus of today’s “new atheists” — to the detriment, not of religious belief, but of the scientific enterprise. As Marx said, history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.

Comte, who also founded the discipline of sociology, was among the first to study human knowledge as the product of historical — that is to say, social and cultural — forces.

In its initial stage, Comte thought the human mind is drawn to occult explanations of sensory observations: personified forces and supernatural causes. Whence traditional theological belief. As human knowledge progresses it enters a distinct, “metaphysical” stage, at which point the mind recasts its search for causes in rational, if still supernatural, terms.

These two stages are eventually superseded by a third and final stage. Here knowledge becomes properly mundane for the first time, rooted in the positive data of the senses and the demonstrations derived from them. This is the birth of modern, positive, science — the apotheosis of human reason.

The new atheists also see religion as an expression of cognitive immaturity. Richard Dawkins, eschewing Comte’s learned (if unconvincing) history for dubious armchair psychology, writes in The God Delusion: “[t]here is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point,” which he contrasts with the “truly adult view.” 

The Comtean idea that traditional philosophy has been outmoded by the march of science has also grown popular of late. Though once productive, such reasoning goes, metaphysical inquiry has become sterile at best, a distraction at worst. A distraction from what? The incontrovertible evidence of our senses, on which scientific knowledge is allegedly built. “All we know about is what we observe with our senses and instruments […] we haven’t the faintest idea what is ‘really’ out there,” writes Victor Stenger in a Comtean turn of phrase.

But there is another way in which the new atheists and their ideological allies evince a vulgarized Comteanism. Comte not only sought to displace theological and metaphysical modes of knowing, he wanted to replace them with the new positive science — what he came to call the religion of humanity.

Religion must have doctrine; accordingly, Comte held that the findings of “positive philosophy,” the invariable laws of nature, could replace religious dogma. This would require evangelization. Hence Comte held that scientific findings ought to be systematized and expounded by a “special class of men,” who were neither practitioners of the special sciences, nor scientifically illiterate. These “positive philosophers” would be the guardians of a new dogma.

Comte was not naïve about the epistemic status of scientific knowledge, however. Despite his emphasis on the indubitability of scientific findings, he conceded that they could only ever be human approximations. Natural laws, he wrote, “the true object of [scientific] investigation, could not remain rigorously compatible with too detailed an investigation.”

The problem? If scientific laws are only approximate, the laity might lose faith in them. Thus, Comte believed, boundaries must be set for scientific research. The “special class of men” would discourage those lines or methods of inquiry which could undercut the certainty of scientific knowledge. Comte went so far as to condemn the emerging calculus of probabilities, which he believed might encourage the idea that scientific knowledge is only “probable.”

The positive philosophers were thus the gatekeepers of a hidden truth, recapitulating the medieval notion that the truth revealed by the light of natural reason must remain hidden from the masses, whose faith was grounded on scripture.