Part of Rousseau’s project is to try to create citizens who are both courageous (his “savage man” in the state of nature) and yet tolerant. In book IV.viii of the Social Contract, Rousseau divides religion into two types: (1) “religion of man,” “true theism,” or “natural divine right,” and (2) religion of the citizen (p. 127). The religion of man has no particular ceremonies, rituals or dogmas, whereas the latter is permeated with these and considers all who do not subscribe to its beliefs and practices “infidel” and “barbarous” (p. 127). The problem of the religion of the citizen for Rousseau is that it makes humans intolerant-what he wants are courageous and tolerant citizens, which is what his “natural religion” hopes to accomplish. Rousseau also mentions a third type of religion, Roman Catholicism. The problem with Roman Catholicism according to Rousseau (in a very Nietzschean key) is that it puts “man in contradiction with himself,” and hence promotes man’s alienation by forcing him to be both a citizen of the world and a citizen of heaven (or an other worldly world) (p. 128).
From one perspective Rousseau’s civil religion shares much in common with Hobbes’ view, as both men find the “two heads” generated by Christianity to be problematic, as they lead to sectarianism. As mentioned above, the problem with the religion of the citizen is intolerance, so Rousseau must re-fashion this religion so that his chief goal of tolerance is met. According to Rousseau what is needed for the proper religion are not particular dogmas of faith (excepting those that promote a certain kind of morality useful for Rousseau’s project), but instead this religion must make citizens love their duties. As Rousseau explains,
“[t]here is, therefore, a purely civil profession of faith, the articles of which are for the sovereign to establish, not exactly as religious dogmas, but as sentiments of sociability without which it is impossible to be a good citizen or a faithful subject” (p. 130).
Rousseau goes on to say that this religion does not produce piety or love of God, but “sentiments of sociability” (one can even be banned for unsociability rather than impiety) (p. 131). In sum, Rousseau gives us a religion quite similar to that which Spinoza espouses in the Theological Political Tractatus in which the only dogmas that are allowed are those that serve morality. Rousseau, however, makes quite explicit that intolerance has no place in his religion.
When we turn to Rousseau’s “Savoyard Vicar,” we also find an account of religion with a moral trajectory-something very similar to the civil religion set forth in Rousseau’s Social Contract. (This is not to identify the vicar with Rousseau; the character is fictional, yet the general account given harmonizes with what Rousseau says in the Social Contract). In the Emile, we find the vicar promoting a religion that on the surface gives the impression that will plays a prominent role (as in Christianity). For example, in his discussion of the will, the vicar rejects the modern doctrine of inertia and advocates a more pre-modern view in which the will serves as the source of movement (pp. 272-274). With the doctrine of inertia, one can then do away with the need for (1) the soul as the cause of motion, and (2) God as the first cause. By eliminating these two features, one is poised to develop a religion that promotes tolerance (again, cf. Spinoza). So what the vicar wants to do is to re-insert premodern ideas that speak against the modern doctrine of inertia, all of which give the appearance of the primacy of the will. However, as we read on, we begin to question the character of the will being presented. For example, of the vicar’s second article of faith, we read, “[i]f moved matter shows me a will, matter moved according to certain laws shows me an intelligence” (p. 275). By affirming an intelligence that moves according to laws, the vicar cancels the effectiveness of the will and in essence does away with freedom. Here it seems that we have a modern notion of movement according to laws of nature which does not require a first cause.
In article three, we are told (with no argument given) that man is “free in his actions and as such is animated by an immaterial substance” (p. 281). The idea is that the body (material) is passive and the will (immaterial), which moves the body, is active. So we have two substances in the vicar’s account. This then allows the vicar to assert that we have some kind of immortality; however, the vicar is quick to qualify his claims.
“My limited understanding conceives nothing without limits. All that is called infinite escapes me. What can I deny and affirm, what argument can I make about that which I cannot conceive? I believe that the soul survives the body long enough for the maintenance of order. Who knows whether that is long enough to last forever?” (p. 283).
So the vicar is only willing to go so far-he allows for the possibility of the soul surviving the body, but will not claim that the soul/will is eternal. Having made this move, the vicar can easily promote a religion without eternal punishment, and this, of course, harmonizes perfectly with a religion of tolerance. Anticipating Kant, the vicar emphasizes the limitations of human knowledge, calls eternal punishment into question, and wants humans to think that they are free and in some sense not simply material beings; yet, he also has to keep things “watered down” such that people will not take this seriously enough to be willing to “force” their views on others.
The complexity of discerning the correct authorial voice in this work is exceedingly difficult; however, as the narrative unfolds, we read a footnote that seems to establish a clear distinction between Rousseau and the vicar. The footnote reads,
“This is, I believe, what the good vicar could say to the public at present” (p. 295).
Overall, the vicar is more hostile to modern skepticism and materialism than Rousseau. So why does Rousseau have a fallen priest promote this rather ‘thin’ religious teaching? Here we find a connection between what was said in the Social Contract regarding the legislature as a kind of “god” who via laws re-fashions humans. Similarly, in the vicar’s discussion, he emphasizes that religion is able to convince people of things which philosophy cannot because of the absence of divine authority in the latter. Philosophy, of course, is supposed to appeal to reason alone and this, as many in the Western tradition have highlighted, is insufficient to motivate people to obey the law.
So, in contrast to Rousseau, the vicar is crafted as having significantly more hostility toward philosophy and the science of the day which was so shot through with materialism. Likewise, the vicar’s view is presented as a kind of common sense position with regard to metaphysics and physics, and his real concern is clearly with morality. This concern with morality is where we see an overlap between the vicar and Rousseau. In short, the vicar presents a view that although manifesting distinct differences, is quite compatible with Rousseau’s teaching in the Social Contract (as well as the Reveries), however, he, as it were, dresses it up religious garb.
Near the end of the “Savoyard Vicar,” we are told in a footnote that “fanaticism is more pernicious than atheism” (p. 312); thus, we must at all costs avoid religions that promote intolerance. In spite of that, Rousseau also admits that there are certain aspects of “fanaticism” that are worth keeping (e.g., courage). Yet, Rousseau is of course concerned to control the fanaticism of the modern soul. Thus, in Rousseau’s account, humans in the state of nature are painted as good (contra Hobbes), and they are free, that is, not dependent on others (no conflicts with sovereigns here). Hobbes, in contrast, attempts to control the nastiness of humans by stressing their fear of death. That is, according to Hobbes, humans naturally fear death and this fear itself breeds fanaticism in religion. Rousseau presents a decidedly more optimistic of humans in the state of nature and emphasizes (e.g., in the Reveries) the “sweetness of existence”-even in the midst of persecution. For Rousseau, the state of nature represents a “wholeness” that is the antithesis of the alienation that comes with society and its vanity, and this picture of integrated man (this is man who has his place in the whole of nature and has not elevated the part over the whole, as is the case according to Rousseau with dogmatic rather than “natural” religion) is the polar opposite of what we find in fanaticism.