In this post, Rousseau and religion as he interpreted it shall be discussed. The modern stance on religion originates from Rousseau’s genius. In his Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar, Rousseau propounds a philosophy of religion that contains the standard view that we moderns accept with the exception of God. Rousseau affirmed His existence. David Hume put the finishing touches to Rousseau’s stance by displacing God to the dustbin. This article investigates certain difficulties with Rousseau’s philosophy of religion.
A critical reading of Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar will uncover that Rousseau built his philosophy by taking Christianity as his model for religion. This is not unusual, since Rousseau was writing in an environment where Catholic and Protestant tensions rivalled that of Liverpool and Manchester United fans. If Rousseau’s philosophy was a philosophy of Christianity, there would be no quarrel. But he envisioned it as a philosophy of religion. All religions. When applied to other religions, Rousseau’s philosophy causes difficulties to arise. This is because not every religion resembles Christianity, and what is true of Protestants need not be true of Zen Buddhists, for instance.
It could be argued, of course, that Rousseau did not envision religion in such a broad scope. He explicitly refers to the three major Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, Islam. To expect his philosophy to encompass Eastern religions which were of no direct concern to him is unreasonable. This consideration is both correct and peculiar. It is correct because Rousseau does explicitly narrow his scope in understanding religion. Also it is strange because it shows that Rousseau viewed Islam as a Western religion. He states:
We have three principal religions in Europe. One accepts a single revelation, the second accepts two, the third accepts three…The one which accepts three is the most modern and appears to be the most consistent (p. 303)
The first religion is Judaism; the second is Christianity; the third is Islam. Rousseau saw Islam as the most modern and most rationally consistent religion, among the Abrahamic faiths. Today it is common knowledge, even if not announced due to PC (politically correct) reasons, that Islam is the least modern religion.
Even though the above contention is correct and strange, Rousseau still has difficulties to answer. His analysis of religion was primarily of Christianity. He admits that he is not well-versed in Judaism to be able to speak of it knowledgably (p. 304). And he makes statements about Islam that indicate he knew very little of it. He says that the Torah, the Bible, and the Quran is read in translation (p. 303). Muhammad spoke in Arabic and the Quran preserves that Arabic. Jesus spoke Aramaic but the Bible is in Greek. While saying he is focusing on all Abrahamic faiths, Rousseau focused only on Christianity. This, again, is understandable. And there is no problem in this, if he made this a philosophy of Christianity. But he made it a philosophy of Western religions.
Let us not be shallow. Let us admit that Rousseau made some mistakes with regard to Islam, slips of the pen. No human, after all, is free from errors. This doesn’t mean his philosophy of religion is flawed. One rotten pear does not mean the entire pear tree is rotten. Agreed. although it appears to me that there is more than one rotten pear here.
By taking Christianity as a model for all religion, Rousseau equated Christian themes with Islamic themes. He overlooked the crucial differences between the two religions. If he did, he would have been able to make a philosophy that can accurately capture the distinct characteristics of not only monks but also mujtahids. I will highlight several distinctive features of Islam, but before doing so I need to emphasis a point: I am not arguing that the Islamic themes are better than the Christian themes. I am not arguing that the Islamic themes are better than Rousseau’s themes. I am not arguing that the Islamic themes are correct. I shall not get involved in argumentation, but description. I am describing Islamic themes and showing how they differ from Christian themes. I am describing Islamic themes and showing how they differ from Rousseau’s themes. What follows shan’t be my own profession of faith.
Rousseau gives us a dialogue between The Inspired Man and The Reasoner. The Inspired Man propounds the Christian doctrine of mysteries. Christianity tells us that there are some mysteries of faith that cannot be accepted by Reason. The word “mystery” was the term priests gave to “logical contradictions”. The mysteries included the Trinity (One God who has three persons) and the Incarnation (God became flesh). To the sceptics, the priests replied that their Reason was too debased to understand such a Holy Truth as the mysteries. People were expected to accept these mysteries on authority of men alone.
Islam does not have the concept of mysteries. Islam propagates the idea of the pure Oneness of God:
Say, ‘He is God, the One. God the Eternal Refuge. He neither begets nor is born. Nor is there any equal to Him [112: 1-4]
There was no need for Muslims to explain how One God could be Three or how God who was unlike any created being was actually like a created being. Moreover, Muslim philosophers have explicitly said that logic is the basis of all knowledge. Fakhrudin Ar-Razi propounded the “Golden Rule” in Islamic philosophy. The Golden Rule states that if we choose a Divine Text over logic then we disprove the Divine Text which we could only know via logic. Any student of Muslim philosophy will be perplexed with The Inspired Man’s fallacious reasoning.
Many thanks for dropping by. if you have any question, please don’t hesitate to get in touch and we’ll get back to you.