Rousseau on Civil Religion

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Rousseau on Civil Religion

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 its gods, its own

tutelary patrons. It has its dogmas, its rites, and 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...

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...n 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, 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.


Rousseau: An Introduction to His Psychological, Social, and Political Theory By: N.J.H. Dent 1998

Making Citizens: Rousseau’s Political Theory of Culture By: Zev Trachtenberg July 1993

Rousseau’s Political Philosophy: An Exposition and Interpretation By: Ramon M. Lemos 1977

Rousseau & Geneva: From the First Discourse to the Social Contract By: Helena Rosenblatt June 1997

On The Social Contract By: Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Textbook)
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