Rousseau On Civil Religion Essay

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).

We will write a custom essay sample on
Rousseau On Civil Religion Essay
or any similar topic only for you
Order now

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 unsociable. 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.


Hi there, would you like to get such a paper? How about receiving a customized one? Check it out