The place: Brazil. The year: 2015. The action: the true, largely unknown story of Positivism in the South-American nation. Macau-based journalist Hugo Pinto has portrayed what’s left of the Religion of Humanity in the documentary The Last Religion (2015), and shared with mART what he has learned. 

By Sofia Jesus

It is a tale of profound beliefs — in science and reason, but also in love and selflessness. It is a tale of memories — true memories; kept alive by a few in Brazil. And it is a tale of a heritage — precious; endangered.

The Last Religion (2015), directed by Macau-based journalist Hugo Pinto, is a documentary about Positivism in Brazil. Positivism is a line of thought founded by French philosopher Auguste Comte in the 19th century.

“Auguste Comte believed humanity evolved in three phases,” Mr Pinto tells mART. The first is “a theological phase, in which societies are dominated by myths, by supernatural beliefs, like a deity, a superior being;” the second was “a speculative” phase, dominated by “a certain speculative philosophy,” marked by “a lot of questions, but few answers”; and the third was “the Positivist phase, in which all knowledge is acquired through science,” “demonstrable knowledge”.

As a voice tells us at the beginning of the documentary, “the problem of humans is fundamentally the religion”. But when Comte talks about religion, “he’s referring to the harmony among all people”. “There’s only one religion: the Religion of Humanity. Or Positivism. It’s the same thing,” the voice says.

Comte envisioned the building of Temples of Humanity around the world, but Mr Pinto argues the building of such temples from scratch only happened in Brazil, namely in Rio de Janeiro and Porto Alegre. It is the story of these temple and chapel, respectively, as well as the story of the people that still guard them today, that Mr Pinto and his team tell in the 50-minute long documentary.

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Members of the Religion of Humanity in Brazil guard valuable books

“Comte understood that throughout history there was no society without religion,” Mr Pinto tells mART. While rejecting the notion of a supernatural God, he thought that religion had “a very important role as a social substratum, as a social glue, a moral substratum”.

According to the director, Comte thought “the modern society that was emerging, the industrial society, was a society with a tendency to be dominated by selfishness, by capitalism, by competition, by an individual freedom that was being praised,” and he thought that would lead to “a world of atomisation,” with “each person in its bubble”. Religion, Comte thought, would be “the fundamental element to fight that problem,” he says. So, he founded what he called the Religion of Humanity, based on the principles of universal love and altruism, the latter being a word Comte himself invented. One of its mottos was “to live for others”. Comte, Mr Pinto points out, believed “reason makes us think,” but “it is emotion that makes us act”.

The Religion of Humanity “puts Humanity at the pedestal,” as “the common good”. “The only way to guarantee the future is by respecting the past, and hence the memorialist-like function of the Religion of Humanity,” Mr Pinto says, noting for instance the calendar under which Positivists pay a daily tribute to a personality from different eras and fields, “from theatre to biology”.

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A gathering at the Chapel of Humanity, in Porto Alegre

The chapel of Porto Alegre — which has a very valuable Positivist library — is still open every Sunday for a ritual that Mr Pinto describes as a kind of gathering in which people meet to discuss current issues in light of Comte’s line of thought. But the Temple of Humanity in Rio de Janeiro is currently in a state of degradation. It is closed since 2009, after termites ate part of the ceiling and the rain came in, destroying part of the temple, the director explains. Positivists that guard it are trying to gather funds to restore it, as well trying to list the building as a monument to be protected under law. But bureaucratic things in Brazil are “very complicated” and the pace is “very slow,” he says.

In addition to the building itself, Rio de Janeiro’s Temple of Humanity has valuable historical items such as statues and a large collection of books and leaflets Positivists kept printing, Mr Pinto notes. “All that is a bit threatened.”

The state of degradation of the Temple of Humanity was recently addressed in an article published last December in The New York Times. But the story of Positivism in Brazil appears to be largely unknown among Brazilians, Mr Pinto’s interviewees told him — even though Positivists played a very important role in the process that led to the Proclamation of the Brazilian Republic and their motto “Order and Progress” is inscribed in the country’s flag.

It was in part the fact this seemed to be a largely unknown story that drew Mr Pinto to tell it.

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Hugo Pinto, director of The Last Religion (2015). Image by Luísa Sequeira

Mr Pinto first came across Comte’s ideas in Sociology classes he attended in college. He was impressed by Comte’s “ambitious” line of thought. But the idea to make the documentary about Positivism in Brazil would only come much later, in 2015, after a series of readings he did following the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The Religion of Humanity “was seen as a possible answer to the question ‘What to do after God?’, ‘What to do after religion?’,” Mr Pinto explains, and that stroke him as “a very pertinent question nowadays”.

The 50-minute long documentary was produced by Hugo Pinto and Luísa Sequeira (who is also Director of Photography) and co-produced by Um Segundo Filmes (Portugal). “I couldn’t have done it without them,” he says.

The making of this documentary — which provides several testimonies by Positivists in Brazil — left marks in the director, who is a journalist at the Portuguese Channel of TDM — Radio Macau. He was impressed, for instance, with the optimism of people, even against all odds. But more than that: “It was important for me to contact people that showed great generosity, people that basically base their actions in concepts such as great compassion, great solidarity, kindness. That is always a lesson.” Hugo Pinto argues “we live in a world of many material appeals, many distractions,” a “market society” in which “everything is for sale,” even “our time,” and that may deviate us from certain values, “from a certain humanity”. Comte’s thoughts, he says, may offer some clues to some of the problems of modern societies, such as the lacking of “a sense of unity, of a path to follow” and fundamental issues related to globalization, such as inequality.