Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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 A term associated with the work of French social theorists and prophets of the post-Revolutionary era. Saint-Simon's (1760-1825) shifting theories criticized the religious, political, and legal hierarchy of the old regime in the name of a technocratic rule by the "producers" (i.e., industrialists, scientists, engineers). His emphasis on the role of knowledge elites did not prevent him from later envisioning a "New Christianity" that would replace the parasitic Roman hierarchy with a moral-religious community based on brotherly love. A brilliant, but poorly organized thinker, unfamiliar with scientific and technical matters, Saint-Simon enlisted the Polytechnic-trained Auguste Comte as his secretary, but disagreements over authorship and Comte's desire for intellectual autonomy led to a rupture in their relationship. The Saint-Simonian movement was influential in France and elsewhere.

Auguste Comte (1798-1857) made the word positivism central to his theoretical and practical aims. The Cours de Philosophie Positive developed his "law of the three stages," which saw human culture passing through theological, metaphysical, and positive phases. The theological stage involved spiritual explanations of reality and is further divided into fetishism, polytheism, and monotheism. The metaphysical stage is transitional and replaces the gods of the higher theological phase with philosophical abstractions, such as Being, Substance, and so forth. Positive thought includes all the sciences, which emerge in determinate order from their prescientific forms (i.e., mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and sociology). Sociology (Comte's original coinage), the most synthetic form of knowledge, occupies the role of "queen of the sciences" once played by medieval theology. Sociology synthesizes the knowledge needed for proper social planning. In Comte's words, knowledge leads to prediction, which in turn leads to control.

An idealistic love affair with Clothilde de Vaux, her death, and his subsequent mental collapse led Comte, upon recovery, to supplement his rationalist faith with the idea that human community can be achieved only through altruism (another Comtean linguistic invention), love, and their practical offspring, the Religion of Humanity. This cult worships the Great Being through the best examples of humanity, those "saints" from all over the globe who contributed most to morality, the sciences, and the arts. It included a revised calendar, with days and rites devoted to such individuals, and featured Comte himself as high priest. The grand sweep of Comte's historical law holds little appeal today and its roots in European history seem provincial, yet his thought has been influential. Echoes can be heard in the Durkheim school, LÚvi-Strauss, Teillard de Chardin, and others. His positivist religion succeeded most in Roman Catholic countries, where a new form of religious integration was desired, yet traditional rites and beliefs seemed incongruent with modernity. The Brazilian flag still carries the Comtean motto, "Order and Progress." Although Comte's Religion of Humanity may now seem a fanciful "cult," its calendar for the worship of humanity's "heroes" is strikingly contemporary and appears as the harbinger of an "international civil religion" yet to be created.

In the twentieth century, positivism has been elaborated in various forms and become widely influential in the social sciences. It also has been the subject of extensive criticism and played an important role in debates over the study of religion. Critical engagement with the early phase of positivism already appeared in the work of Dilthey, Simmel, Weber, Troeltsch, and even Durkheim and was continued in various ways by later figures such as Mannheim, Schutz, and Parsons. The new phase of positivism in early-twentieth-century philosophy emphasized language clarification, falsification of empirical statements, precise measurement, the unity of the sciences, and distinction between theoretical-factual and axiological systems. It led to suspicion of all linguistically "meaningless" and "unverifiable" concepts, including those of metaphysics and theology, as well as some of the methods used in the investigation of religion and culture.

In turn, such positivistic assumptions were criticized as unduly restrictive by proponents of historical-cultural sociology, phenomenology, interpretive theories of social action, and critical theory. Examples include the encounter between George Lundberg and Paul Hanly Furfey over positivism in the study of religion, and the conflict over method between Karl Popper and various critical social theorists. Concurrently, however, positivism has become a rather omnibus term, with its meaning inflated by its opponents to include those committed in any way to the development of analytical and systematic perspectives in the study of culture and society. This has given the discussion considerable indeterminacy. In this way, for example, positivist residues have been discovered in Marx's theories, and thinkers such as Weber and Parsons have been labeled positivists. The debate over the meaning of "science" in the social sciences has been especially acute and wide ranging once again since the 1960s. More recently, feminists, representatives of multiculturalist perspectives, and postmodernist thinkers all have subjected positivism, in the term's most general sense, to new critiques from their own special standpoints. While the tenacious grip of positivism within the social sciences has loosened considerably as a result of these discussions, analytical theory, quantitative evidence, and a general posture of "methodological agnosticism" toward the claims of believers continue to play a central role in the scientific study of religion.

Donald A. Nielsen


T. W. Adorno et al., The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology (New York: Harper, 1976)

P. H. Furfey, The Scope and Method of Sociology (New York: Harper, 1953)

G. Lenzer (ed.), Auguste Comte and Positivism (New York: Harper, 1975)

G. A. Lundberg, "The Natural Science Trend in Sociology," American Journal of Sociology 61(1955):191-202

G. A. Lundberg, Foundations of Sociology , 2nd ed. (New York: McKay, 1964 [1939])

G. A. Lundberg and P. H. Furfey, "Letters and Rejoinders," American Catholic Sociological Review 7(1946):203-204, 8(1947):47-48

F. E. Manuel, The Prophets of Paris (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962)

F. M. H. Markham (ed.), Saint-Simon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952).

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