Rousseau On Civil Religion Essay Research Paper

Rousseau On Civil Religion Essay, Research Paper Religion is a component of almost every society. Knowing this, one might look at the function it serves. For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, religion, specifically

Rousseau On Civil Religion Essay, Research Paper

Religion is a component of almost every society. Knowing this, one might look

at the function it serves. For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, religion, specifically

a civil religion established by the Sovereign, is an instrument of politics

that serves a motivating function. In a new society people are unable to

understand the purpose of the law. Therefore, civil religion motivates people

to obey the law because they fear some divine being. For a developed

society, civil religion motivates people to maintain the habit of obedience

because they grow to understand and love the law.

First of all, it is necessary to clarify Rousseau?s ideas on religion.

In Chapter Eight of On the Social Contract, Rousseau distinguishes four types

of religion. The first of these is the ?religion of man.? According to

Rousseau, this type of religion is ?without temples, alters or rites.? It is

?limited to the purely internal cult of the supreme God and to the eternal

duties of morality–is the pure and simple religion of the Gospel, the true

theism, and what can be called natural divine law? (SC, Bk IV, Ch. 8) In

addition, he describes the ?religion of man? as Christianity. However, it is

different than the Christianity of today in that it is focused on the Gospels

and ?through this holy, sublime, true religion, men, in being the children of

the same God, all acknowledge one another as brothers, and the society that

united them is not dissolved even in death? (SC, Bk IV, Ch. 8). Rousseau

finds fault in this type of religion. True Christianity of this sort would

require every citizen to be an equally good Christian for peace and harmony to

be maintained. In addition, Rousseau argues that it would be unlikely for

every man to be concerned only with heavenly things. He anticipated that ?a

single ambitious man, a single hypocrite, a Cataline, for example, or a

Cromwell, he would quite undoubtedly gain an upper hand on his pious

compatriots? (SC, Bk IV. Ch. 8).

Rousseau defines the second type of religion as the ?religion of the

citizen.? He states, The other, inscribed in a single country, gives it its

gods, its own titulary patrons.

It has its dogmas, its rites its exterior cult prescribed by its

laws. Outside the nation that practices it, everything is

infidel, alien and barbarous to it. It extends the duties and

rights of man only as far as its alters(SC, Bk IV, Ch 8).

Rousseau believes this type of religion is good because it unites ?the divine

cult? with love of the laws. On the other hand, this type of religion has the

potential to make men superstitious and intolerant. When the boundary between

Church and state is clouded, men may begin to ?believe they are performing a

bold action in killing anyone who does not accept its gods? (SC, Bk IV, Ch 8).

Rousseau points out a third type of religion which in his own words is

?more bizarre.? He calls this ?religion of the priest? and states ?in giving

men two sets of legislation, two leaders, and two homelands, it subjects them

to contradictory duties and prevents them from being simultaneously devout men

and citizens.? An example of this type of religion is Roman Catholicism.

Roman Catholics are subject to the law of the Church as well as the law of the

state. They are subject to the authority of the pope as well as the authority

of the leader of the state. Also, they are commanded subject to the rule of

the Vatican as well as the rule of their homeland. For Rousseau, ?religion of

the priest? is ?so bad that it is a waste of time to amuse oneself by proving

it. Whatever breaks up social unity is worthless. All institutions that

place man in contradiction to himself are of no value? (SC, Bk IV, Ch 8).

Because Rousseau finds serious faults with the first three types, he

calls for people to adhere to a fourth kind of religion. He defines this as

?civil religion.? He asserts that it is the Sovereign?s duty to require a

?purely civil profession of faith? and to establish the dogmas of a civil

religion. Rousseau elaborates on this by stating,

The dogmas of the civil religion ought to be simple, few in

number, precisely worded, without explanations or commentaries.

The existence of a powerful, intelligent, beneficent divinity that

foresees and provides; the life to come; the happiness of the

just; the punishment of the wicked; the sanctity of the social

contract and of the laws. These are the positive dogmas. As for

the negative dogmas, I am limiting them to just one, namely

intolerance (SC, Bk IV, Ch 8).

Furthermore, the Sovereign can banish any man who does not believe these

tenets. However, one is not banished for being impious, but rather, for being


Keeping this in mind, one can address the reasons why Rousseau feels a

civil religion is necessary. For Rousseau, this type of religion motivates

people in two distinct ways. First of all, for people in emerging societies,

it creates fear and awe of a power larger than the state (Dent, 1988).

Rousseau characterizes people in these new societies as incapable of

understanding the real purpose and principles of law (SC, Bk II, Ch 6). In

turn, he fears that the ignorance of the masses will interfere with their

obedience of civil law. Recognizing the dilemmas associated with instituting

a system of laws in a new society, Rousseau places most of the burden on the

Legislator (Trachtenberg, 1993). It becomes the Legislator?s duty to guide

the people towards the common good. However, pointing the people in the

direction of the common good will not just come as a result of the the

Legislator?s high intellect nor his sound reasoning ability. Instead, the

Legislator will have to appeal to a higher force, that the people are more

comfortable with and trusting of (Rosenblatt, 1997). Rousseau states, ?Since,

therefore, the legislator is incapable of using either force or reasoning, he

must of necessity have recourse to an authority of a different order, which

can compel without violence and persuade without convincing? (SC, Bk II, Ch

7). In this passage Rousseau is referring in to the use of religion as an

instrument of politics. Religion becomes a means of motivating people to

subject themselves willingly to the law (Trachtenberg, 1993). It appeals to

the man?s primitive instinct of survival. Motivation arises out of the fear

and awe people have of divine power over them (Trachtenberg, 1993). They not

only see the potential of civil sanctions, but they also the fear heavenly

retribution. Likewise, they see compliance with the law as a means of

receiving the favor and blessing of God (Dent, 1988). According to one

author, ?religion remedies the effect of the cognitive deficit the Legislator

encounters with a new people? (Trachtenberg, 1993).

However, the function of civil religion evolves simultaneously with the

development of society. As a society changes and becomes more aware of the

direction of the common good, the purpose of civil religion shifts. Once the

laws have been implemented, citizens begin to learn through experience that it

is to their advantage to live under the law (Trachtenberg, 1993). They no

longer need to be manipulated into obedience. This is not to say that civil

religion loses its value and falls by the way side. Instead, it becomes a

different kind of motivator. It is not used as a mechanism to impose

obedience of the law, but rather, a means to maintain obedience to the law

(Dent, 1988).

Rousseau writes,

For it is of great importance to the state that each citizen have

a religion that causes him to love his duties. But the dogmas of

that religion are of no interest either to the state or its

members, except to the extent that these dogmas relate to morality

and to the duties which the one who professes them is bound to

fulfill toward others (SC, Bk IV, Ch 8).

This passage describes what Rousseau envisions society to be like. He

suggests that civil religion will create an invariable bond between people and

the law (Lemos, 1977). According to Rousseau, the law, by its very nature has

force, however when linked to religion this force is increased (Trachtenberg,

1993). It is evident that one will have duties in society regardless of the

presence of religion (Dent, 1988). Simply put, they are a requirements of

civil association. However, it is not required that citizens love these

duties. This is where civil religion fits in. It is a means of creating the

love people have for their duties and moral responsibilities. This love of

the law is unlike that created by the ?religion of the citizen? (Dent, 1988).

While both provide a strong link between the individual and the law, a civil

religion does not turn the state into the object of adoration. Nor does a

civil religion emphasize intolerance. In fact it emphasizes just the opposite

point of view. Rousseau states, ?tolerance should be shown to all those that

tolerate others, so long as their dogmas contain nothing contrary to the

duties of a citizen? (SC, Bk IV, Ch 8) In turn, the Sovereign is not

concerned with whether or not the dogmas of the civil religion are right or

wrong but instead with the moral, social, and political consequences it brings

forth (Trachtenberg, 1993).

Clearly, one can see that Rousseau takes seriously the function of

religion in society. He outlines four very different types of religions in

his texts but calls for adherence to only one, civil religion. He sees this

type of religion as a serving a motivating function. For people in emerging

societies who are unable to understand the purpose of law, civil religion

motivates them to obey out of fear. For those in developed societies, the

motivation to obey the laws comes from a love and devotion to the law.