The Last Religion | An interview with Hugo Pinto

Olaf Simons: You have made a beautiful film on Positivism in Brazil.

"The Last Religion" (Documentary about Positivism in Brazil, 2015) from Hugo Pinto on Vimeo.

What gave you the idea to work on such a – shall I say strange – topic?

Hugo Pinto: Thank you very much, I’m glad you enjoyed the film.

It was in college that I first first heard of Auguste Comte and positivism. At that time, I was impressed by his ambitions, the enormous scope of his project, his work. Many years later, at the beginning of 2015, because of the attack in Paris against the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper, a series of articles led me to the Religion of Humanity in Brazil. I was surprised to learn that positivism had such an impact in Brazil, and that there was still a cult of the Religion of Humanity. I was immediately focused on that story and the idea of a documentary unfolded right away.

Olaf Simons: You give insight into the temples of Rio de Janeiro and, later in the film, of Porto Alegre. We can use this interview to offer some of the photos Paul Marett has sent us of the Temple in Rio, so that readers get an impression. Was it difficult for you to get access to these places?
The Positivist Temple in Rio de Janeiro (c) Paul Marret
The Positivist Temple in Rio de Janeiro (c) Paul Marret
Hugo Pinto: Not at all. Early on I contacted the Positivist Church of Brazil, who are responsible for the Temple in Rio de Janeiro, and they were very open to the idea of a documentary. The same with people in Porto Alegre. Everybody showed a great generosity. The Temple in Rio is in a bad shape since 2009 – there’s a big crack in the roof. For safety reasons, it has been closed to the public, but we managed – me and Luísa Sequeira, the director of photography who also was a producer – to go inside and see the damages. It’s heartbreaking.
Olaf Simons: It is most certainly something like a world heritage. Europe had such temples in the 19th and early 20th centuries – in France, Great Britain and Romania. They are almost all lost. Did you sense a broader awareness that this is something of national importance that needs protection and that will find protection in Brazil?
Saints waiting, Positivist Temple Rio de Janeiro (c) Paul Marret
Saints waiting, Positivist Temple Rio de Janeiro (c) Paul Marret
Hugo Pinto: The Temple in Rio de Janeiro was the first that was built from the scratch. It was completed in 1897. I believe that a growing number of people in Brazil is aware of it’s importance, but there is still a great struggle to protect it – to reconstruct and restore its dignity. At the end of 2015, UNESCO recognized the value of its collection (various publications by the early positivists). That’s important, but more needs to be done so that the Temple can have a life – like it once had. It should be more than a mere curiosity of a long lost past or a relic. It should be a living force. This is what I found in Porto Alegre, where the Chapel of Humanity is open to the public on all Sundays.
Olaf Simons: Your film creates a strange – and wonderful – tension between something that is very much alive; the people you are interviewing introduce themselves as “positivists”, as people who have found to positivism on an almost religious quest, whose lives have been saved by positivism, and who have family backgrounds in the Religion and a personal mission…. Even they are at the very same moment ready to speak of positivism as something that failed. Was this something sensitive to address in these – extremely personal – encounters?
Hugo Pinto: Yes, it was obvious that this was a personal matter – for the people I talked to, positivism was some kind of a heritage – a familial heritage. Almost everybody I interviewed in Rio was related – there are two brothers and two cousins. And they all were positivists because they were born into positivist families. There were these emotional bonds, but emotion also stemmed from the fact that the positivist dream was just that – a dream. Reality had taken a different road, a long time ago. But you could also sense optimism. People in Brazil are generally upbeat, and that was also the case amongst the positivists I knew.
Scaffolds, Positivist Temple Rio de Janeiro (c) Paul Marret
Scaffolds, Positivist Temple Rio de Janeiro (c) Paul Marret
Olaf Simons: It is apparent that positivism – the sort of positivism you have found in Brazil – was or became a deeply national affair. As you say, it spread in family networks in a very specific process of nation building. Would the religion you have portrayed be imaginable anywhere else?
Hugo Pinto: We can only speculate, but it’s a fact that Brazil has been, historically, a fertile ground for religions. You can find all sorts of cults across the country. Religion is something ubiquitous. Compared to other parts of the world, positivism had a great impact in South America, the New World. But it was in Brazil that it thrived the most. It was the right place at the right time. A revolution was going on, people craved for reforms. Positivism had much of the answers, it was modern, it was the vanguard. And Brazil needed to go through some deep transformations.

With regarding to the family networks – if we can say that they helped positivism to spread at the beginning, I think that they also might explain the decay, since there was a tendency for positivism to stay indoors.

Olaf Simons: This “staying indoors” is a peculiar thing – compared to Marxism and the idea of a World revolution that wanted to be instigated by an intellectual internationalist avantgarde…
Hugo Pinto: Well, of course that is one of the many factors that explain positivism’s decay – Marxism -, but I think that in Brazil, at some point, positivism was just something that carried on from fathers to sons, something that belonged only to some families. But again, that’s just a fraction of what happened. To understand positivism’s decay, we must acknowledge other factors, including the division between those who were supposed to continue Comte’s work, those who adhered to the Religion of Humanity, and those who ridiculed it as the product of a mad man. In Brazil’s case, it’s also important to consider the influence of the Catholic Church, which was (and still is) great.
Olaf Simons: The Comtean positivism you are portraying is on the one hand extremely dogmatic, endowed with a strong sense of traditions to be preserved against all the odds of change. It is on the other hand a strangely eclectic thing – ready to work in a multicultural context. How convincing is this? You are portraying something that wants to be a state ideology. I have never quite understood the economics of positivism – the construct is highly idealistic but at the same moment aiming at a fixed organization of all fields of life. The positivist individual will give away all his (or her) privacy in order to be a servant to humanity – in a system of what? Free market liberalism?
Humanity, Positivist Temple Rio de Janeiro (c) Paul Marret
Humanity, Positivist Temple Rio de Janeiro (c) Paul Marret
Hugo Pinto: The positivism I am portraying is just trying to stay alive. Positivists in Brazil, I think, aren’t organized to take over, to set up plans for the economy or to reform the education system. They know they had a place in history and they feel that maybe people nowadays can learn a thing or two from that past. I don’t know if we can characterize a positivist market as a free and liberal one – don’t think so.
Olaf Simons: Neither do I. I am rather perplexed when I read Comte, perplexed about this mixture of precise planning, this insistence on personal freedom, and this idea to regulate life in its most private niches…
Hugo Pinto: In the Religion of Humanity, one of the things that alienated people was the fact that there were too many rules, too many rituals and things that you could and couldn’t do. It was impractical, in many ways. Besides, Comte’s work is really dense and difficult to read.
Olaf Simons: Your film’s title is – a provocation – or an act of nostalgic humor?This is what Comte planned: to establish the last religion….
Hugo Pinto: You can take it both ways, I guess. You have what Comte thought would be the last religion, because all the others would be obsolete, wouldn’t make sense in a world dominated by science. And on the other hand this is what remains of the religion Comte created to be the ultimate one.
Olaf Simons: And yet, the contrary seems to be the case – we seem to see a rise of conventional religions. Evangelical Christianity is prospering in Catholic Brazil. Those you have been interviewing complain about the “rise of obscurantism”. Did you encounter any debate of a positivism that might engage in a global mission again – and what would that look like?
Hugo Pinto: I don’t think that there’s this sense of being part of a global organized movement. People worry about Brazil and about what is going on with Evangelicals taking a greater control of politics and the government at various levels. Almost everyday there’s an attack against secularism, something that positivists fought for in Brazil. But the problems that Brazil is facing and that worry the positivists – religious fundamentalism, crime, violence, corruption, consumerism, materialism, inequality, climate change – are in fact universal.
Olaf Simons: You have moved on, where are you now, what is your present project?
Hugo Pinto: I am a journalist based in Macau, China, which is a place that has been fascinating me since the day I arrived here, in 2005. I have a project with a friend, a weekly radio show about Macau’s history (Falar de Memória). Everyday I am trying to learn something new about this place’s history, which, like positivism in Brazil, also has an universal appeal. Maybe one day I will develop a long form project about Macau. Hope so.
Olaf Simons: A wider movement, something to replace Comte’s idea does not seem to be out there. The Atheist movement does not seem to be developing into a broader global alliance. The “Humanist” movement seems to be equally handicapped – and Communism? Yet we both seem to regret that there is nothing out there ready to develop into a broader secular and civil movement…
Hugo Pinto: I am not a positivist. But there are many things that I find interesting and pertinent. One is that Comte was able to understand that religion is a very important part of people’s lives. I don’t think that religion will ever disappear. According to Pew Research Center, the number of religiously unaffiliated people is increasing in places such as the United States and Europe. But at the same time, the number of muslims is growing. The Muslim population is expected to increase from 1.6 billion people (23% of the world’s population as of 2010) to 2.76 billion people (30% of all people in 2050). At mid-century, Muslims will nearly equal Christians – the world’s largest religious group – in size.
Olaf Simons: If they will still be Muslims in the present sense propagated by Muslim clerics. If we assume that this growth will be a growth into modern societies as we have seen it in Europe, then Islam will encounter pretty much what Christianity has encountered over the last 50 years. I liked Hans Rosling’s outlook on these developments.
Hugo Pinto: I think that religion is more about culture, identity, than about faith, per se. In that sense, its presence will always be felt. At the same time, we can find many elements in reality that seem to point us to a future envisioned by Houellebecq in his The Elementary Particles. Maybe science will make us obsolete.
Olaf Simons: It is part of the mystery of Comte – and your film – that he was not euphoric about science and a world of new technologies.
Hugo Pinto: Indeed. Comte is almost always portrayed as this cold scientistic thinker and positivism this abstract and distant philosophy, always trying to quantify things. But that is not the case. Comte was very aware of emotion’s role as a trigger for action. He also placed love – not the romantic kind – in a central place. He was critical of empiricism, of professional specialization and of pure rationalism. His biographer, Mary Pickering, debunked a lot of myths about Comte in her monumental Auguste Comte, An Intellectual Biography.
Olaf Simons: I thank you for your film and the interview.
Hugo Pinto: Thank you very much, Olaf.


The Version without the subtitles

A Última Religião (Documentário, 2015) from Hugo Pinto on Vimeo.

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