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.”

(Note that Rousseau therefore implicitly places atheists and agnostics in the third of the above categories – “unable to sincerely love law and justice”, not because they are too concerned with the afterlife but because they deny it. I don’t know whether this opinion would persist into a time when atheism was more common.)

In essence, then, Rousseau says that any doctrine should be tolerated, as long as it will teach its members that 1) the claims of the nation are overriding, and 2) its own spiritual claims are not. Any body which has the kind of quasi-political authority that religions possess, may keep that authority only so long as directs it towards society, only so long as it is a support for, and not a rival to, loyalty to one’s society.

How plausible are Rousseau’s views? I think that they follow logically from the following three premises:

P1) Religion is, necessarily, a focus of political or quasi-political loyalty;

P2) Adherence to a particular religion is not, in fact, necessary for salvation, which is far more valuable than anything else;

P3) Society should tolerate no rival focus of loyalty.

P1. might be false – the defining essence of religion might be something that doesn’t involve this, or it might have no such essence at all. But let’s grant this premise for the sake of argument (after all, it seems to be true of at least some religions sometimes).

P2. also might be false – if everyone who’s not Zoroastrian will burn eternally, then who cares about political justice or the social contract, or indeed anything but maximising piety? But let us assume, for the sake of argument, that this is not the case.

Given these assumptions, Rousseau’s view rests on premise 3 – that, as he says, “Everything that destroys social unity is worthless.” Is this plausible?

We should quickly make a distinction: Rousseau is, as noted above, unhappy at three distinct prospects – fanatical sects that undermine the unity of society by their conflicts, sects which come to dominate society in conflict with the legitimate authorities, and ‘pacifistish’ groups who refuse to endorse and uphold ‘the sanctity of the laws’. Of these, I won’t dispute the undesirability of the second – who wants a bunch of priests in charge? And of course there are legitimate questions about how society deals with groups with a proven record of violence or abuse.

But one might certainly dispute that the law should banish or suppress any group that doesn’t tell its members that defending society and its laws is a sacred duty, whether it advances its own laws instead or not. What are Rousseau’s reasons for this view?

On the one hand, divisive religious groups, he says, lead to “intestine divisions” and “endless conflict”, and makes “any kind of good polity impossible.” On the other hand, if the laws are deprived of divine sanction, then the society’s armies will fight “without passion for victory”, and will swiftly “be beaten, crushed, destroyed” by any rival society “whose hearts are devoured by an ardent love of glory and their country.”

Is this a utilitarian argument, then? If so, it seems quite weak, for in both cases what it prescribes is barely distinguishable from what it fears. Religious persecutions as a method of securing peace? That sounds fun. Charitably, we might observe that Rousseau hadn’t seen the 20th century, in which secular-nationalistic persecution of religion loomed as large as religious conflict, but we have, so we lack that excuse.

And apparently from the fact that any society without religiously-supported patriotism will (supposedly) be defeated by one with it, is an argument *for* the set-up that led the latter to ‘beat, crush and destroy’ the other? Why is this not an argument that, since pluralistic societies are less likely to go out and ‘beat, crush, and destroy’ each other, we should prefer pluralism?

But if we decided not to be charitable with Rousseau, we might observe that his arguments don’t seem to be utilitarian – they don’t seem to be consistently anti-violence, anti-war, anti-conflict. They seem more to aim at the minimum of internal conflict with the maximum of (at least readiness for) external conflict.

To my mind, that suggests that the underlying motivation is will-to-power: make ‘the sovereign’ as big, strong, and badass as possible. Anyone who isn’t willing to “sacrifice, if need be, his life to his duty” weakens the collective-badass, and thus must be purged like a toxin from the ‘body politic’.

So I end up supporting freedom of religion. What a surprise. Only took me 1000 words…

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