Throughout his work On the Social Contract, Rousseau attempts to describe a societal system in which sovereign rule is found within the collective will of the people. Within this system, he argues, freedom is linked to morality and essentially humanity. This freedom exists as a civil freedom in that an individual can only be free if he is bound to the social contract and the general will. In Book 4, Chapter 8 of this work, Rousseau addresses the topic of religion in his ideal society. It is in this section that Rousseau seeks to provide a type of civil religion that adheres to the extensive framework that has been established in the previous books. While Rousseau is successful in explicating the deficiencies of several religious systems and theologies, he ultimately falls short of determining anything more than an obscure standard by which an acceptable civil religious system should be judged.
In order to discuss the extent to which Rousseau altogether falls short of providing a reasonable standard for civil religion, we must first understand how religion fits (if at all) within his social construction. By having even a simple understanding of his social contract theory, it should be quite easy to see why a multitude of religious factions within a single nation-state would prove disastrous (assuming, of course, that at least one of these factions affects the social behaviors of its followers), or at the very least, ineffective as a sovereignty.
[...] Rousseau further states that is therefore important that there should be no partial society in the state.” (156) A multitude of religious “societies” within the state would result in a variety of private opinions, all of which would likely be in opposition of the general interest of the state By understanding the limitations by which a civil religion must adhere we can clearly see the difficulty in establishing such an entity. In Chapter 8 of Book Rousseau begins by describing the various religious factions that functioned within historical societies. [...]
[...] Diane Fourney describes this violent cycle, stating, “Rousseau's civil religion reveals itself the political ‘solution' to deal with division, violence and social order. It is a solution that resorts to the use or reciprocation of violence and has been given legal and sacred justifications. It is purified of the blood it will forcibly shed.” (494) Ultimately, as readers, we are left to accept the bitterly destitute version of civil religion that Rousseau presents us with. After rejecting Christianity as anything more than a personal religion and failing to find paganism as an appropriate replacement as Machiavelli did, Rousseau is forced to invent a religion that would appear to be forward and very reminiscent of the Enlightenment, but also extremely limiting and violent. [...]
[...] These dogmas are quite simple—each religion must hold to: 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.” (226) We are also given the negative dogma of intolerance. Some have categorized Rousseau's society as a “secularized distortion of the Christian church” (Willhoite, 514) but Rousseau gives us a justification of any form of popular intolerance, be it secular or religious. [...]
[...] In that sense, it is Rousseau's Christian morality that prompts him to back away from the full-bodied civil religion offered by Machiavelli.” (635) This brings up an interesting complexity within The Social Contract that Rousseau is perhaps not all to ready to reconcile in his consideration of civil religion. His moral tendencies, which prompt him to view Christianity as “true theism” also prevent him from establishing a civil religion in direct opposition to Christianity—which is perhaps why his qualifications for such a religion are so watered down. [...]
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