Rousseau and Religion


1. Introduction: 

Rousseau concludes his Social Contract with a chapter on
religion. His view on the subject is subtle and
interesting; and moreover, I maintain that it provides us
with one of the keys to Rousseau's thought. Rousseau's
near-deification of the General Will has led many analysts
to argue that Rousseau's state is merely secularized
Christianity. A careful examination of this chapter may
well help us understand to what extent this thesis is

2. Rousseau's Typology of Religion:
Strangely, Rousseau begins by telling us that there are two
types of religion, but winds up giving us three. "Religion,
considered in connection with societies, whether general or
particular, can be divided into two categories, the
religion of the man and the religion of the citizen."
(p.181) The religion of the man is informal and
unorganized, centering on morality and the worship of God.
The Christianity of the Gospels is Rousseau's example. In
contrast, the religion of the citizen is what has been
called "civil religion." This is the religion of a single
country, a national religion. Such a religion is organized
and hierarchical, with formal dogmas. It teaches love of
country, obedience to the state, and martial virtues.
The religions of ancient peoples like the Romans fit this
mold. To this list Rousseau adds a third religion. Unlike
the religion of the man, it is organized and hierarchical,
with precise dogmas.
Unlike civil religion, it is independent of the state, in
the sense that it is international and has its own agenda.
It may counsel patriotism, but only in a limited fashion,
because it is the religion of many nations rather than one.
A religion of this kind is a competitor to the state for
the allegiance of citizens, and it produces internal
division as a consequence. Catholicism is Rousseau's
favorite example of this kind of religion. 

3. Rousseau's Critique of the Three Types: 

Rousseau is clearly not hostile to religion as such: "no
state has ever been founded without religion at its base."
(p.180) But he does have serious complaints about each of
the three types of religion. Let us examine his complaints,
then see what Rousseau judges to be the least defective of
the three. To begin with, Rousseau will have no truck with
the third kind of religion - organized yet separate from
the state. As Rousseau tells us, "The third kind is so
manifestly bad that the pleasure of demonstrating its
badness would be a waste of time. Everything that destroys
social unity is worthless; and all institutions that set
man at odds with himself are worthless." (p.181) The
problem, in short, is that this kind of religion competes
with the state for the total allegiance of the people; in
consequence, society is divided.
Individuals might think that conscience demands
disobedience to the state, and they would have an organized
hierarchy to back them up and marshall resistance. To a
convinced corporativist like Rousseau, this is intolerable.
Let us turn now to the first type of religion, exemplified
by the Christianity of the Gospels. At the outset, Rousseau
tells us that this form of religion is not only holy and
sublime but true.
While that would appear to settle the matter, it doesn't
for Rousseau. Instead, he moves on to complain that simple
Christianity is bad for the state. Christianity is
other-worldly, and therefore takes away from citizens' love
for life on earth as exemplified by the state. As Rousseau
explains, "Christianity is a wholely spiritual religion,
concerned solely with the things of heaven; the Christian's
homeland is not of this world." (p.183) In consequence,
Christians are too detached from the real world to fight
against domestic tyranny. Moreover, Christians make bad
soldiers, again because they are other-worldly. They won't
fight with the passion and patriotism that a deadly army
requires. Why any of this should count against Christianity
after its truth has already been conceded is hard to
understand. We then turn to civil religion. It has much to
recommend it: "The second kind of religion is good in that
it joins divine worship to a love of the law, and that in
making the homeland the object of a citizens' adoration, it
teaches them that the service of the state is the service
of the tutelary God." (pp.181-182) If the sole purpose of
religion is to butress the state, then a civil religion is
the one to pick: it inspires obedience and service, but
could never become an independent standpoint from which the
state might be criticized or called to task for misdeeds.
Religion is necessary to provide the state with moral
underpinnings; but if religion is separate from the state,
then there is always the danger that the decrees of
religion will fail to match those of the state, and instead
positively mandate disobedience. Yet Rousseau cannot give a
whole-hearted endorsement to civil religion either. For one
thing, "it is based on error and lies, it deceives men, and
makes them credulous and superstitious." (p.182)
Again, this would appear to be a fatal blow; but for
Rousseau, it is just one bad point to keep in mind. Civil
religion also makes the people "bloodthirsty and
intolerant" and Rousseau doesn't like that either. 4.
Rousseau's Compromise and the General Will After
considering the advantages and drawbacks of different sorts
of religion, Rousseau figures out a compromise. Tolerance
should be granted to all religions that will grant it to
Apparently, Rousseau believes to some extent in religious
tolerance; at the very least, uniformity is no longer
achievable in the modern world. In this sense, religion
becomes a matter for private conscience. But that is not
the end of the story. Rousseau wants to have a public
religion in another sense. Namely, he wants all people on
pain of banishment to accept some religious doctrines, "not
strictly speaking as religious dogmas, but as expressions
of social conscience." (p.186) The state should not
establish one religion, but it should use the law to weed
out any religions which are socially harmful. All legal
religions must accept: "The existence of an omnipotent,
intelligent, benevolent divinity that foresees and
provides; the life to come; the happiness of the just; the
punishment of sinners; the sanctity of the social contract
and the law." (p.186)
In addition, they must forswear intolerance; not only
"civil" intolerance (The state must crush unbelievers) but
also "theological" intolerance (There is no salvation
outside the church). Rousseau makes an important exception
to the last point mandating tolerance: "unless the state is
the church and the prince is the pontiff. Such a dogma is
only good in a theocratic government; in any other, it is
pernicious." (p.187, emphasis added) In principle, then,
the state may be as intolerant as it likes, so long as it
is theocratic.
This exception is particularly interesting in light of the
remainder of Rousseau's political theory. For suppose that
the General Will (in practical terms, the majority)
believes that there is no salvation outside of their
church? Would it be wrong for them to vote to establish
their own view and crush all dissent? On Rousseau's terms I
can see no objection. It appears to be another legitimate
exercise of the General Will; and if the minority
disagrees, it is merely mistaken about what it wills and
must be forced to free. Rousseau's principles do not imply
a theocratic state; but so long as a majority of the people
want it, it is not only morally permissible but morally
required. The charge that Rousseau's system is just a
secular version of Christianity is not exactly correct; as
a matter of fact, Rousseau's system gives a secular
justification for any form of popular intolerance, both
secular and religious. 


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