The Volokh Conspiracy

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Why Rationalist Religions Failed

Reviewing "The Church of Saint Thomas Paine"


Positivism seems to be having a bit of a moment. To give just one example, last month, COMPACT ran a very interesting essay on Comte's "Religion of Humanity," a nineteenth-century version of a post-Christian faith, complete with priests, a calendar, and rituals, that substituted science for God. The Religion of Humanity failed to take off, but plenty of people seem to think that a new version, a Silicon Valley inspired techno-utopianism of the "brights," may be the civil religion of the American future.

I'm skeptical. One reason is the nineteenth-century experience. Comtean rationalism failed to overcome a basic incoherence: if organized religion is bunk, why start a new one? Also, rationalism fails to respond to a longing for the transcendent that is inherent in the human condition and that has been especially powerful in America, ever since the Puritans.

At First Things today, I review a new book, The Church of Saint Thomas Paine by historian Leigh Eric Schmidt, that explores the failure of nineteenth-century American positivism. It's an interesting book–especially for me, because it recounts the story of my great-granduncle, M.M. Mangasarian, an Armenian immigrant who came to America in the 1870s, went to Princeton, and ultimately founded his own rationalist religion in Chicago. (These things happen in the best of families). Here's an excerpt:

Inspired by the French positivist Auguste Comte and the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, and taking the eighteenth-century freethinker Thomas Paine as a kind of patron saint, a small group of Americans attempted to found a rationalist "religion" with science as its highest authority. They started congregations in cities like New York, Chicago, and Portland; they held meetings on Sunday mornings to compete with Christian rivals; they even wrote catechisms and ran Sunday Schools to indoctrinate new members. All confidently believed they were the vanguard of a new, secular religion that would displace Christianity and promote human progress.

But the new religion failed. The congregations attracted few followers; typically, as one British humorist wrote, these were churches "of three persons, but no God." Most fizzled out or merged with larger groups like the Unitarians. Other than cranks who seemed as credulous as the believers they mocked, Americans had little interest in Comte's wedding and funeral ceremonies or the relics of secular saints. (In 1905, after a long quest, a small group of freethinkers placed something they claimed to be a piece of Thomas Paine's brain, sold to them for five pounds by an obscure London bookseller, in a monument in New Rochelle.)

Schmidt shows that rationalist congregations failed because organizers never resolved basic inconsistencies. Rationalism valued science and rejected metaphysics. Why, then, collect relics and meet weekly for thinly disguised worship services? Moreover, rationalism "made intellectual independence and the displacement of all religious authorities foundational to its platform." Paine himself had railed against organized religion, famously declaring, "my own mind is my own church." Similarly, although Emerson had prophesied a new religion with "science" for its "symbol," he insisted on individual spiritual autonomy: "I go for Churches of one." What, then, was the point of joining a new religion, even a rationalist one? People who share only a commitment to radical individualism and an opposition to religious orthodoxy are unlikely to form an enduring community.

You can read the review here.