Reading Rousseau’s “Social Contract”, Part 9 – civil and uncivil religions

As someone who knows almost nothing about Durkheim, I can say with absolutely no confidence that Rousseau’s view of religion is proto-Durkheimian, in that the objects of religious worship (‘gods’) are ultimately symbols of society and the social contract. Hence, he says, “a God was placed at the head of every political society…[and]…there were are many Gods as peoples….the provinces of the Gods were determined…by the frontiers of nations.” To put it another way, religion is naturally political, dealing with power, authority, and loyalty.

Consequently, there are roughly three dangers that Rousseau seems concerned to avoid.

  • One is the existence of multiple intolerant religions within society, each holding its own laws, and its own judgements about people’s relative worth, higher than any broader social laws. In such cases they form parasitic, or at unhealthy, ‘sub-societies’ within the larger society, dividing and thus weakening it by internal conflicts.
  • The second is the conquest of society by such a religious group, i.e. the domination of a group with its own interests and principles, that rivals or overrules the political authority. This again weaken society by giving people two conflicting authorities, and usurping the legitimate governmental forms.
  • Thirdly, though, Rousseau is hostile to even ‘un-worldly’ religions, those which reject no political rules or authority, precisely because they teach their followers to disdain worldly things and focus their attention on the afterlife, or personal enlightenment, or other such goals. Such a religion (which he identifies as the original Christianity of the Gospels) undermines people’s committment to, and enthusiasm to defend, their society and its laws.

What Rousseau advocates instead is the toleration of all religions which 1) tolerate other religions (in particular, not claiming that all infidels will burn), and 2) are consistent with ‘the civil profession of faith’: the existence of a providential God,  “the life to come, the happiness of the just, the punishment of sinners,” and “the sanctity of the social contract and the laws.”

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