Category Archives: Ideas

Science and Political Uncertainty from Auguste Comte to Dominic Cummings

By Dr Paul-François Tremlett

Isidore Auguste Marie François Xavier Comte (1798-1857) was writing in the aftermath of the French Revolution. To him it seemed that a new, rational, and modern, industrial-scientific order was emergent. The old, feudal formation of aristocracy, Church, and monarchy, with its arbitrary privileges, had been eclipsed in the violent energies of the revolution of 1789. Comte saw an opportunity to bring an end to the uncertainties of the times by establishing a new society on rational-secular principles that would be led by scientists, artists and industrialists. Comte described post-revolutionary France as a “social system which is dying” but it was simultaneously one that contained the seeds of a “new system whose time has come and which is in the process of taking definitive shape” (Comte 1998, p. 49).

Comte believed that a new science was needed to reorganize society by raising “politics to the rank of the sciences of observation” (1998, p. 81). Initially he called the new science “social physics” (Comte 1998, p. 158), and he drew methodological inspiration for it from physiology. Comte was so convinced of the new direction post-revolutionary French society needed to take he invented a new religion – a Church of Positivism – to embed the new values into the culture. For Comte, the uncertainties of the post-revolutionary period could only decisively be resolved by the elevation of a new elite to the reins of power armed with the new scientific methods and values he had pioneered, for the solution of political problems.

It is no secret that the agenda of the current government includes a radical overhaul of Whitehall (for example, see Abby Innes’ blog post analysing Michael Gove’s recent Ditchley Annual Lecture on civil service reform: At the heart of this agenda stands the figure of Dominic Cummings and his blog. Cummings’ blog juxtaposes breathless discussion of some domains of contemporary scientific research with political questions. The post ‘On the referendum #33’ interests me because of the distinction it establishes between on the one hand “stories” and “authority”, and on the other, “evidence/experiment” and “quantitative models”. Cummings links “stories” to myth (“Icarus”) and authority to irrationality (“witch doctor”) while “evidence/experiment” and “quantitative models” are linked to “physics, wind tunnels” and the “design of modern aircraft”. Later, as part of a discussion of Bret Victor’s work, this becomes a contrast between “words and stories” and “interactive models”. Words, according to Cummings, are unreliable: “even the most modern writing tools” he claims, “are designed around typing in words, not facts. These tools are suitable for promoting preconceived ideas, but provide no help in ensuring that words reflect reality, or any plausible model of reality”. Models are better than stories because their “assumptions are clearly visible”. Cummings asks the reader to imagine a new kind of writing tool “designed for arguing from evidence”:

I don’t mean merely juxtaposing a document and reference material, but literally ‘autocompleting’ sourced facts directly into the document. Perhaps the tool would have built-in connections to fact databases and model repositories, not unlike the built-in spelling dictionary. What if it were as easy to insert facts, data, and models as it is to insert emoji and cat photos?

In common with Comte, Cummings assumes that a new kind of government is required which, once armed with the requisite new writing tools and skills in data analysis and modelling, can completely re-frame the political as a field of decision-making practices. This new kind of government will be data-savvy and will make extensive use of new technologies. But facts change: at the heart of science is not the establishment of facts which are then fixed and true for all time, but a tentative and reflexive process of research and debate. Science may promise the certainty of facts, data and models but it is a certainty that never arrives and which is forever deferred, such that all we are always left with is interpretation (Derrida 1997).

Comte and Cummings are of course not the only utopian revolutionaries to have asked, “what is to be done?” but what other such figures may more clearly have recognised – or just been more up-front about – is the connection between brute power and political change. Comte invented a religion, a social science and coined the terms altruism, sociology and positivism, but his work is rarely read or acknowledged today. It remains to be seen what Dominic Cummings leaves us with.



Comte, A. 1998. Early Political Writings, edited and translated by H. S. Jones. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cummings, D. 2019. ‘On the referendum #33: High performance government, ‘cognitive technologies’, Michael Nielsen, Bret Victor, & ‘Seeing Rooms’’. . Accessed 12/08/2020.

Derrida, J. 1997. Of Grammatology, translated by G. C. Spivak. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Exploring Immortality [Audio]

To mark the new BA (Hons) qualification in Religion, Philosophy and Ethics (R45), Suzanne Newcombe and Carolyn Price discuss how researchers in Religious Studies and Philosophy investigate immortality.

Research into physical immortality is big business. Just try searching Google for the CEO of Apple Computers and biotech firm Genentech founded Calico (est. 2013). It’s a company backed by a billion dollars of investment which aims to ‘devise interventions that slow aging and counteract age‑related diseases.’ However, the potential of immortality raises significant ethical concerns.

Find out more – listen to their discussion (which includes a full transcription). And find out more about the Religion, Philosophy and Ethics degree here.

Ancient Material Religion

By Jessica Hughes, Senior Lecturer in Classical Studies

This Spring sees the launch of a new research centre at The Open University, which involves some exciting collaborations between the Departments of Classical Studies and Religious Studies. The Baron Thyssen Centre for the Study of Ancient Material Religion builds on a long tradition of OU research in the areas of material religion and lived religion, as well as sensory approaches to sacred spaces and rituals. The Centre is based in the Department of Classical Studies, so its main focus will be ancient Greek, Roman and Etruscan material religion: nevertheless, one of our primary aims is to bring this ancient Mediterranean evidence into a productive dialogue with work on religious material culture in other periods and places, so we’ll be working closely with colleagues in Religious Studies and Art History, in order to gain a deeper understanding of the ways in which religion happens though material things – including objects, bodies and places.

Left to right: Professor James Robson (Head of School of Arts & Cultures, and member of the new Centre steering committee); Dr Jessica Hughes (Centre director); Professor Maureen Carroll (our guest speaker for the inaugural seminar of the Baron Thyssen Centre for the Study of Ancient Material Religion).

The Centre’s inaugural seminar last month was a fantastic start to our activities, and already showed how valuable such cross-disciplinary dialogue can be. Professor Maureen Carroll from the University of Sheffield joined us in Milton Keynes to give a talk on ‘Mater Matuta and her Sisters: Exploring Fertility Cults and Associated Votives in Early Roman Religion’. This seminar presented some of the results of Professor Carroll’s recent fellowship at the British School at Rome, including a new interpretation of the famous tufa statues from the sanctuary at Capua in Southern Italy. Afterwards, we recorded a panel discussion about votive offerings related to fertility and early infancy, featuring Dr Emma-Jayne Graham from Classical Studies (who talked about anatomical votives from sites in ancient Italy), Dr Marion Bowman from Religious Studies (who shared her research on the cult of St Gerard Majella in Newfoundland), and the artist Tabitha Moses, whose work has drawn powerfully on the imagery and concept of votive offerings. As well as sharing material from our own research or artistic practice, we explored how votives related to the broader themes of relationality and materiality, and how these objects help(ed) people to forge relationships – both with divine beings, and with each other – during the often anxious times of pregnancy and childbirth.

The recording of this discussion is available on the Centre website and embedded below, and we will be sharing more resources like this over the coming months. The Centre website also lists our upcoming events, including our official launch celebration, which will take place in Senate House in London on the evening of Monday 25th March. The programme for the evening features a keynote talk by Professor Esther Eidinow entitled “Magic: mind, material, metaphor”, and a joint presentation about the Centre’s work by members of the steering committee. Like all our events, this one is free to attend, and open to everyone, and we really hope that some readers of this blog will be able to join us! Also this month we will host a seminar in Milton Keynes by Dr Jody Cundy of Oxford University, who will be talking about votive offerings in Greek literary texts and inscriptions (21st March), and a ‘networking day’ in Camden Town, London (3rd April), which has a packed programme of talks and round table discussions, including a session led by Professor Graham Harvey and Dr Ailsa Hunt entitled ‘Ancient Trees, Contemporary Rivers: what does animism have to do with our environmental crisis?’.

We are very grateful to Baron Lorne Thyssen-Bornemisza for his generous support of the Centre, and we look forward to sharing more news of our research activities with you all in the future. Please do come and join any of our seminars or workshops, or tune into the website and Twitter account (@OpenMatRel) to follow our progress and discover our latest multimedia resources.

"Quarantine". Copyright BBC 2018

Morris Dance as Ritual Dance, or, English Folk Dance and The Doctrine of Survivals

By Chloe Middleton-Metcalfe, University of Roehampton

The BBC’s featured online animation for December 2018, Quarantine, is described as: ‘A post-Brexit pagan dance fantasy about a troupe of Morris-dancing badgers’ (BBC online). Quarantine builds upon a culturally pervasive idea that has been widely discredited by researchers – that folk dance has its origins in pre-Christian ritual. However documentary research has failed to provided an easily digestible alternative, tentatively suggesting some connection with the end of the Muslim-Christian wars in the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century (Forrest 1999). With a raft of publications dating back to 1912 espousing the ritual theory, it is easy for interested individuals to be led down the pre-Christian garden path. Indeed, the ancient origins explanation probably does provide a more palatable alternative for many liberally inclined folk dance supporters than much of the historical documentation. For example, the practice of applying black face paint for ‘border’ morris was linked to anonymity and ritual, but research points to stronger links with stage minstrelsy (Metcalfe 2013). But where did the idea of ancient ritual come from in the first place?

In 1871 anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917) published Primitive Culture, in which he laid out his theory of cultural survivals. Tylor posited that folklore or superstitions were ‘survivals’ of an earlier culture which had evolved leaving traces of itself behind in customs which could be seen as being cultural fossils (Hodgen 1931, Tremlett 2017). Tylor’s ideas were influenced by cultural evolutionism and drew parallels between the folklore of western civilised Europe and the culture of contemporary so-called ‘primitive’ societies, which were both inaccurate and racist (Kuper 1991, Bennett 1994). Tylor’s work was very influential as his ideas shaped James Frazer’s (1851-1941) publication The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion (1890). Frazer pieced together diverse accounts of cultural practices from around the world to argue for a universal primeval religion, of which contemporary folklore practices were the surviving fragments (Hutton 2001: 112-131). The Doctrine of Survivals became the standard explanation for most folklore, including dance (Cawte 1993).

Frazer’s theories were picked up and promoted by Cecil Sharp (1859-1924), founder of the English Folk Dance Society. As dance historian Buckland has noted (1982), between the first and second editions of the The Morris Book Sharp changed his theoretical positioning on the origins of the dance form from one which postulated the arrival of the dance in England during the reign of Edward III (1312-1377), to a theory which considered morris dancing to be ‘one of the seasonal pagan observances prevalent amongst primitive communities’ (1912: 11). Sharp had gone Frazarian. Even country dancing was linked back to ancient ritual practice with maypoles providing an imaginative link between the older form of the dance and its modern manifestations (Sharp and Oppé 1924: 6, Judge 1979 [2000]: 85).

Theories on the origins of dance more generally were also influenced by the Doctrine of Survivals. In 1895 Lilly Grove published Dancing an early history on the subject in which even the most secular forms of dance are characterised as having their roots in ‘a form of worship, or at least a form of magic’ (Grove 1895:7). Grove was perhaps unduly influenced by the Golden Bough as she later married James Frazer, but even without the family connection, many early twentieth century theories of dance were linked to the Doctrine of Survivals and an associated evolutionary-based approach to the study of culture (Buckland 2014). Influential dance historian Curt Sachs, whose ideas like Tylor’s and Frazer’s were to receive heavy criticism (Youngermann 1974), postulated that: ‘The dances of man are never mere pastimes, or artistic performances without significance; they are magic actions and in consequence constructed in such a manner as to achieve a magic purpose.’ (Sachs 1931: 30). Theories and definitions of dance emphasised the non-verbal and so dance was particularly vulnerable to discussion of animalistic instinct and primitive ritual. Indeed, popular dance histories often supplied a problematic evolutionary-based framework for the reader, who would pass through chapters of tribal and western folk dance to reach the acme of developed western theatrical dance culture – ballet (Grau 1993/4).

Whilst the contemporary dance world has successfully distanced itself from such ritualistic narratives by emphasising the role of the individual creative genius, the same cannot be said for English folk dancers. The Doctrine of Survivals and The Golden Bough continue to circulate under a number of guises (Buckland 2001/2). The 1973 cult film The Wicker Man, which drew upon The Golden Bough for inspiration did much to indirectly bring Frazer’s work to new audiences (Koven 2007, Trubshaw 2002, Scovell 2017). Arguably the most fruitful investigation of the link between morris and ritual dance would be in its current usages and understandings. Indeed, the link between folklore and non-Christian faith is a reality for some contemporary Pagans, for whom appreciation of, or engagement in, folk music and dance is a part of their religiosity (Chase 2006, Letcher 2014).

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Why looking through the lens of religion can help us to understand the popularity of conspiracy theories like Pizzagate

David G. Robertson has a new piece out over at the LSE’s blog on United States Policy and Politics blog, discussing his work on the intersections of religion and conspiracy theories. Read the whole thing here.

Conspiracy theories rarely lead to violence; with the main exception being 2016’s Pizzagate which culminated in a gunman threatening a pizza restaurant which he believed was a front for a satanic paedophile ring. David G. Robertson and Asbjorn Dyrendal unpack some of the reasons why conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate can gain ground so rapidly, citing links to the “satanic panic” of the 1990s. They also point to links with wider apocalyptic narratives of right-wing conspiracist groups, narratives which are often also reflected in religion. 

FASS Chats | Christmas

FASS Chats are a light-hearted look at the world through the eyes of OU Arts and Social Science academics. With no script, experts from wide-ranging fields of study and research chat about a topic, bringing their different perspectives to the discussion.

Paul Francois Tremlett took part in the latest FASS Chat, to talk about Christmas with Lynda Prescott and Jonquil Lowe. Our seasonal traditions might be more recent, complex and darker than you realised!

The Rag-Tree

By Kate Smith, University of Hull

The water we meet in the landscape carves out many meanings: it is sustenance, beauty, leisure, boundary, edge, life, death, rebirth. In my own landscape, it is a thing of contradictions. In my landscape there is only one river, yet we are surrounded by water; the valleys are dry, yet green and abundant; stubborn, marshy carr is locked in perpetual battle with just as stubborn, drain-building men; great chunks of old land fall away and new land emerges from the silt. It is a place where the difficulty of watering cattle and crops is given painful counterpoint by the frequency of flooding. All of this, these meanings, battles and paradoxes are ruled by the complex relationship between rocks, soil, water and people.

The meaning I am most drawn to, that resonates the most as the seasons around me change and the soil hardens with frost, is ‘rebirth’.

I spent a painful decade after getting my PhD, wandering around looking for something else to do: my doctoral research was intimately linked to the landscapes of my childhood, but after seven years of research, a major relocation and two babies, that connection had been lost. I hadn’t realised the extent to which the landscapes of my imagination fed my research until I was in a landscape with which I had no connection at all. My folklorist-research brain hibernated: I tried and tried to find a way to engage with the hills and plains that I was now living in but the spark would not reignite. And so I carried on with the rest of life, busy with small people and all that they demand. I almost forgot that once I had imagined, created and thought so intensely that it felt as though my head was full of dancing fireflies.

And then one day, a New Year’s day, we went for a walk. Just a couple of hours, but I wanted to go somewhere away from our usual paths so we headed off a few miles away to explore a circular route which included a bit of the old railway that once connected York and Beverley. And there, alongside the trackbed, looking somewhat out of place among the wintry trees and dark mud was a large, heavily decorated Rag Tree.

My folklorist-researcher brain woke up.

Next to the tree was a noticeboard, explaining the history of the site. Behind the noticeboard, off to the right were a series of steps and terraces, and a large, coffin-shaped tank into which flowed the clear, bright water of St Helen’s Well.

My folklorist-researcher brain *really* woke up.

Although it was cold, and although my dear, patient husband was somewhat bemused by my sudden excitement, we stayed by that well and its rag tree for nearly an hour as I wandered about, trying to photograph everything, trying to count and categorise all the rags in the tree, trying to photograph all the panels in the noticeboard, trying to swallow all of the context in one giant gulp.

I had found my way in. I had found meaning in a landscape that had, until now, been alien and disinterested.

My work in this place had to be about the water. This landscape is all about the water, and the way that people live with it. The folklorist-researcher brain that had slept and slept for so long finally had something to stay awake for. That walk was the start of an exploration that continues: I now have a visiting research position within the Energy and Environment Institute at the University of Hull, working alongside geographers and geologists who are concerned with the physical effects of water and flooding. They know an awful lot about how water has affected the physical landscape of this area, but they know very little about how water has affected the emotional, cultural, and spiritual landscape of this area.

I think now that perhaps the prolonged hibernation of my thinking brain was a way of coping with the mundane relentlessness that parenting brings us. Getting back into academic work hasn’t been without its challenges, and I’m at the very start of my formal research into water in this landscape. But I have already learnt this much: it is never too late to have another go, and that sometimes a period of intellectual stillness can be a good thing. And I am grateful that my thinking, imagining, creating brain was reborn by an encounter with water in my landscape.

3 Minute Theories | Imagined Communities, with Stefanie Sinclair

We’re back! In bang-on three minutes, Stefanie Sinclair tells us about Benedict Anderson’s theory of Imagined Communities, in which groups gather around ideas and identities even when separated geographically. Originally coined for nationalism studies, the concept has great significance for other fields, including Religious Studies.

What Imagined COmmunities are you part of? Let us know in the comments!

Friedrich A. Hayek, Max Weber and the Anthropocene

By Paul-François Tremlett

In a 2007 essay titled ‘Prophecy and the Near Future’, Jane Guyer developed a series of observations about how evangelical Christians and neoliberals conceive of time. She concluded that for both, the near future has disappeared. Action for the future is postponed indefinitely, premised upon an overwhelming sense of individual fallibility in the face of an inscrutable even unknowable world. In this short post, I bring Hayek and Weber together again to think about time but with regard to climate change, capitalism, individualism and Protestantism.

Friedrich A. Hayek’s concerns are not merely those of an economist: he is a social theorist and a philosopher, seeking to establish “true” individualism as a theory of society (1949: 6). He contrasts a fallible individual against the state. For Hayek, it is better for individuals to pursue their albeit narrow, private interests – the things that they can know – than surrender those interests and that knowledge to the plans of some seemingly beneficent, all-knowing state. Order and freedom are secured, according to Hayek, when individuals are free to pursue their interests and not when some arrogant collective body decides what it cannot know namely, the best interests of all. The scope of individual action described by Hayek is ultimately circumscribed by the occult forces of the market that allegedly translates every small decision-action into a larger and more perfect social formation, towards which “humility” (1949: 32) is, for Hayek, the most appropriate attitude.

Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism concerns the psychological effects of ‘salvation anxiety’ on action. The Protestant belief in predestination generates a sense of human fallibility and powerlessness as to what can be known about God’s will but also about the wider world, precipitating psychological stress and a narrowing of attention to proximate material interests as proxies for private, spiritual ones. Weber concludes with a pessimistic warning as to the sustainability of the Protestant-capitalist formation his book describes: it will last “until the last ton of fossilised fuel is burnt” (2002: 123) he suggests, starkly.

The trouble with climate change – putting aside its potential for our extinction – is that it precisely requires individuals to cease only being concerned with their own private interests and to recognize that, at least when it comes to climate, there really is something beyond the fallible human individual – something that might be called science or the scientific community – that, galvanised by national and international institutions, really does have the necessary knowledge to compel us to act not selfishly but sociologically. I wager that, if humans do survive the impending climate crisis, Protestantism, individualism and capitalism won’t survive with them.

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