According to Rousseau Civil Society is where man lives with a certain amount of morality, right values and inherent justice in his conduct. He weighs his actions, principles and controls his impulsive actions. In the process he denies himself many gratifications and advantages so that he could live as a noble human being in the society. To be part of this social contract, he loses his nature given freedom, his abandonment and lives under the rule of justice.
Here Rousseau goes with Hobbes’ theory of Social Contract, which he critically admired. For the State, it is important that each citizen has some kind of religion or devotion as a regularizing rod for his behavior. It does not matter to the State if the religion is uplifting the citizen in any way or not. Its requirement is that it controls and shapes his behavior in the right way, so that he is not a nuisance in the society and remains a law-abiding citizen. “At first men had no kings but the Gods, and their only Government was theocratic….
A prolonged debasement of feelings and ideas was needed before man could make up his mind to accept one of his own kind as master, and to persuade himself that in doing so he had done well,” says Rousseau (Cranston, 1968, p. 176). He is not surprised that God has been made the figurehead of every political society. As he aptly puts: ‘two armies going into battle could not obey the same commander’, people and societies alien and unfriendly to each other, created polytheism and became victims of religious hatred and intolerance.
He questions the Greek belief that they invented their own God and puts it down to the self-importance in Greek way of thinking. He argues that under paganism, people did not have religious wars, mainly due to the fact that people hardly distinguished between God and laws, because ‘Political war was just as much theological war,’ and God ruled inside the particular territory, as he had right over his own people, and no right over the people of another territory, belonging to another God. He insists that Gods of pagan days were not jealous Gods and had their own territories, without eyeing onto another’s.
People had no intolerance for other religion or deities. They divided the entire world between their Gods amicably. The Hebrew people were supposed to have spoken to the God of Israel. He cites the only example (before the advent of Christianity) of persecution of Jews when they obstinately refused to acknowledge or worship the conquering Gods of Babylon and later, Syria. Rousseau feels people were attached to religion and hence, to the state and were in no mood for conversion in pagan days and got converted only when they were defeated in a war, and theoretically speaking, the rulers were the first missionaries who spread their own religion.
The victorious king would stop all the religious practices of the downtrodden lot and arbitrarily would impose his own religion on them. In those days, religion naturally depended the might of the conquering king. Romans, according to Rousseau, had the magnanimity of allowing the vanquished to keep their own Gods and rituals, though they always requested the Gods of the town to leave it, before they occupied it! With this generosity (some of the Romans even went to the extent of adopting the religion of the defeated group! , they spread paganism and found themselves burdened with many Gods and religions all over their vast empire.
According to Homer, Gods fought for their people instead of men fighting for their Gods. When Christianity appeared with its idea of kingdom in heaven, these pagan followers, who had never been obsessed with heavenly kingdoms, assessed Christians as cunning opportunists, waiting in the wings to usurp the authority the moment it becomes weak and establish violent and despotic earthly kingdoms, with ‘visible’ rulers, along with the heavenly one.
Here, Rousseau makes one of his profound, yet hilarious comments: “However, since princes and civil laws have always existed, the consequence of this dual power has been an endless conflict of jurisdiction, which has made any kind of good polity impossible in Christian states, where men have never known whether they ought to obey the civil ruler or the priest,” (p. 179). Rousseau thinks that in pagan days, people had better societies and life. There was less persecution and no religious disharmony.
According to him, Christianity’s gaining importance as a religion spoiled the peace that existed in pagan societies. Before the advent of Christianity, people and societies were more or less alike, with less passion and intensity towards religion. For them, Gods were a support in life, a basis for their laws and justice; but definitely not a passionate and insane belief to die for. Getting back to the olden days had proved difficult, although sincere attempts were made, mainly due to the fact that Christianity became stronger with every wave of religious fanaticism.
Rousseau thinks that religious sentiment and loyalty constitute one of the greatest sources of active commitment and willingness to give of oneself to a ‘cause’ in people,” Dent, 1988, p. 231). He touches the failure of political system during the caliphs’ administration, who succeeded Mohamed the Prophet, under Islam. He also mentions the conflict between the two new religions, Islam and Christianity. He doubted the success achieved by Kings of England and Czars of Russia, who made themselves the religious heads too.
In spite of these events, the power of the Church went unabated and actually spread to far flung areas, where conversions, sometimes by force continued. “Thus there are two powers, two sovereigns, in England and in Russia, just as there are elsewhere,” (p. 180). He says philosopher Hobbes is the only one person, who saw the evil of the religion and its remedy clearly, while daringly proposing that the two heads should be reunited so that complete unity could be restored. His admiration for Hobbes is clearly evident here.
This does not prevent him from pointing out the error in Hobbes’ theory. He says that the reunification theory of Hobbes cannot happen, because the Prince will have his own interest in heart, whereas the utterly dominant nature of Christianity will be incompatible with any other system. Rousseau says that no kingdom has ever been founded without religion as one of the basic forces. Christian laws that have formed the basis of many states had been more harmful to states and their people than useful.
The dangerously harmful affects of Christianity or any other religion had never been understood properly, because there always existed a very vague idea about religion and its role in a politic state throughout man’s civilization. He feels that religion should be considered in two parts, one religion of the man, and another religion of the citizen. He calls the religion of the Man as the ‘divine natural law’ and the true theism, because it does not have any temples, churches or holy places, and it is a contact between the man’s heart to the supreme God, spreading to the society in the form of morality of each human being.
He calls it ‘pure and simple religion of the Gospel’. The religion of the citizen belongs to that particular country and it gives its Gods and tutelary deities to that country. This religion is mainly the part of the political system. “…it has its dogmas, its rituals, its external forms of worship laid down by law; and to the one nation which practices this religion, everything outside is infidel, alien, barbarous…. ” He calls it civil or positive law. According to this law, religion takes a very aggressive form and its belligerence threatens other religions.
It is closed to other religions, self-righteous and intensely passionate. It has no harmony with the followers of diverse religions. He also talks about the third kind of religion, under which he lists Catholic Christianity, Lamas and Japanese religion, which create two rulers, two homelands, ‘puts them under two contradictory obligations and prevent their being at the same time both churchmen and citizens’. He has strong opinion about this third religion. ‘One might call this the religion of the priest. It produces a king of mixed and anti-social system of law which has no name’.
He thinks all the three kinds of religions are harmful to man and to society. They show diverse paths to people that end in conflict, hatred and bloodbath. “Everything that destroys social unity is worthless; and all institutions that set man at odds with himself are worthless” (p. 181). Perhaps, he feels that there might be some good in the second kind of religion, because it binds the man to morality, law and hence, to social contract. This is helpful for the peace and well being of the society. It glorifies the prince, the country, and the lawmakers. Becoming a martyr for the country is admired under this religion.
This does not mean that it has no flaws. It is bloodthirsty, intolerant, and aggressive and makes the religion full of rituals while glorifying all of them. It deceives the man making him to indulge in superstitious beliefs and wrong goals. He is almost repeating Hobbes when he says: “This puts the people concerned into a natural state of war with all others, and this is something destructive of its own security,” (p. 182). He reiterates that the Christianity of the Gospel was the true religion that did not build up mutual hatred, but made them treat each other as brothers.
But it detaches the social bonds and there is nothing to hold people under the same political body. There is no binding in this kind of religion and people become unnecessarily spiritual, ignoring the society. He is incredulous while saying “It is said that a people of true Christians would form the most perfect society imaginable. I see but one great flaw in this hypothesis, namely that a society of true Christians would not be a society of men,” (p. 182). In a perfect State, Rousseau says, everybody will be above reproach, from the prince to pauper, from judge to soldier.
They will be doing their duty with sincerity and all are incorruptible. Soldiers do not mind sacrificing their lives and there is peace everywhere. Every person will be doing his work dutifully, but without any vigor or ambition. They are never deeply involved in the business of the State. Christianity (he calls it the religion of humanity) and its followers believe in the other heavenly abode and whatever they do on this earth is done with supreme indifference about its outcome. They are unruffled about the State’s success or failure, and they do not enjoy life on earth for the fear that they might lose their heavenly entry.
Religion calls for their work, but not involvement in that work. They will be doing what is required of them without any enjoyment or the heady feeling of success. This also requires as a basic need that every citizen should be a true Christian with exemplary nobility. Because if one ambitious man, one ‘Cromwell’ appears amongst this spiritual brood, that man will vanquish these pious, unambitious people within no time. So, this harmony could be destroyed even by one person, who is less Christian, because a true Christian would not think ill of his neighbor, or would not bear to attack the usurper.
As people would be living like monks hardly sparing any thought for the happenings around them, they live a comparatively uncomfortable life without ambition or creativity. When the hope itself will be absent, naturally creativity too will disappear. “And after all what does it matter whether one is free or a slave in this vale of tears? ” Rousseau questions sarcastically, “The essential thing is to go to paradise, and resignation is but one more means to that end,” (p. 184). He tries to imagine this Christian holy army being attacked by either Sparta or Rome, all fired with patriotism and fervor.
These inspired armies would route out the Christian holy warriors crushingly before they could collect their wits. Here, religion does not have any proper connection with the political body and ‘leaves the law with only the force the law itself possesses, adding nothing to it’. In such a society, the strong bond that holds it together will be lacking and a loose fabric of society will remain. This kind of religion disconnects people from not only the State, but also from all other materialistic worldly attachments. Rousseau insists, ‘…and I know of nothing more contrary to the social spirit’.
In such a state, if there were an attack from outside, people happily would go to war without any passion or desire for victory, because it is their sacred duty to do so. They know how to die and not how to conquer the enemy, which is unimportant to them. ‘It does not matter to them whether they are victors or vanquished. ’ Even being slaves is agreeable to them, as this short life has to somehow pass, if they have to reach their paradise, which is the goal of pure Christianity. He cannot resist ridiculing the spiritless version of Christianity.
He does not agree that Christian troops are excellent; because he is yet to see that excellence. They are only soldiers of priests and pontiffs and hence, they are fighting for their spiritual homeland and the heaven above. As long as Christians were fighting for their pagan emperors, they were brave and inspired. This bravery ceased to exist the moment the emperors became Christians. The requirements of the civil society are different. It is politically necessary that every citizen should have a religion, which makes him bow to the law and justice and also makes him attached to the society,
Prince and the country. It is for the best interest of the sovereign that all his citizens are religious and thus ruling them becomes extremely easy. If this requirement is not present, there is no reason why a sovereign should interfere in religious matters at all. The rules of civil religion should be simple and mostly they all depend on the benevolent and impartial and all-seeing almighty who would reward every good and punish every bad behavior and intention. He provides everything to every body and nothing would escape his eyes.
But this kind of ideal religion should not have intolerance and Rousseau says intolerance is something that belonged to the religions that have been rejected by him. Rousseau seems to be of the opinion that a tolerant religion is good for the society and State; but an intolerant one could be disastrous and self-defeating. It would neither serve people and their societies, nor the States, and would be beneficial to none. Strangely, the terrible truth of this statement could be seen today, with the intolerant fanaticism of religions clashing everywhere.
According to him theological and civil intolerances are inseparable. “Wherever theological intolerance is admitted, it is bound to have some civil consequences and when it does so, the sovereign is no longer sovereign, even in the temporal sphere; at this stage the priests become the real masters, and kings are only their officers,” (p. 187). This means, all the religions, which tolerate other religions, should be tolerated, with only one pre-requisite, that these religions should not have anything against the duties of a citizen. But anyone who dares to say ‘Outside the church there is no salvation’ should be expelled from the state, unless the state is the church and the prince the pontiff,” (ibid). Rousseau says this rule could be permitted only in a theocratic government. “But Rousseau was trying to face squarely an issue which many would pretend is not there; namely, how can we build an affective unity of citizens, that is both consistent with a degree of pluralism and tolerance and which can sustain the liberties citizens enjoy together,” Bertram (2004, p. 188).
Rousseau argues in his masterly work that civil religion is the result of a Social Contract, facilitating a wild man to live in the security of a lawful society, by giving up certain self-gratifications that his limitless freedom could provide him. One of the pre-requisites of this Social Contract is an advantageous religion that would be helpful in the creation of a just society. But it should have great tolerance as intolerance towards alien religions and their followers can only immerse all the societies and states in relentless bloodbath and endless enmity.
Rousseau was no great sympathizer of religion. Still he argues that a tolerant religion is necessary to maintain a society of justice and morality. Here, he comes very close to Hobbes’ theory, though Hobbes did not say much about the necessity of a religion. The authentic way in which Rousseau argues against and for religion, and his analytical criticism of religion shows the reasons for his everlasting relevance in politics and philosophy. Many thinkers and philosophers have agreed or disagreed with him. But none had been able to undermine his continuing influence.