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Main Course Essay - Compare and Contrast the Views of John Stuart Mill and Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the Connection between Religion and Politics

The time from the birth of Rousseau to the death of Mill saw a transformation in the relationship between religion and politics in European society. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation had begun to give way to the enlightenment. Rousseau was born just twenty years after the Battle of the Boyne, the decisive battle in the last great war of the reformation era. When Mill died in 1873, the flood of population to the cities, coupled with the propagation among the élite of enlightenment ideas, had set in train the rapid secularisation of European society. Symbolically, the Papal State had just disappeared from the map.

Neither Rousseau nor Mill was orthodox in their religious views. Rousseau famously converted from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism in his teenage years, before returning to the Calvinist flock in his forties, only to end his life despised by Catholics, Protestants and secularists alike for his unorthodox views. Mill was, unusually for his time, raised secularly. He remained an agnostic throughout his life, which brought him into conflict with the ecclesiastical authorities of his day, while having a respect for the person of Christ, and a passionate commitment to religious tolerance.

In this essay I will first examine the religious views of first Rousseau, then Mill, in turn, with particular reference to their views on the relationship between religion and politics. I will then compare the two before coming to conclusions as to how reconcilable their views are.

Rousseau and Religion

The French philosophes were perhaps the first modern European thinkers to openly challenge Christianity. After arriving in Paris, Rousseau soon became part of the circle of the Encyclopaedists, the avant-garde of the intellectual set. However, Rousseau had a deep Christian faith, and became scandalised by the atheism of the philosophes. At the same time Rousseau hardly held to an orthodox view of Christianity. His conversion to Roman Catholicism seems to have been primarily for social reasons, and his later re-conversion to Calvinism was similarly merely a means to regain Genevese citizenship. His apologia, Creed of a Savoyard Vicar, inclines towards universalism and Christian humanism: Cranston describes him as having a "very minimal religion", This eventually "offended almost everyone: Catholics, Protestants, materialists".

Neither is he beyond taking a swipe at religious authorities. There is a clever contrast between the opening paragraphs of the Discourse on Inequality where he states that "Religion commands us to believe that since God himself drew men out of the state of Nature, ... they are unequal because he wanted them to be so", and its last paragraph where he asserts, "it is manifestly against the Law of Nature, ... [that] a handful of people abound in superfluities while the starving multitude lacks in necessities." What conclusion can one draw but that religion has misrepresented the will of the Author of the Law of Nature?

On the other hand, there is no doubt that Rousseau’s Calvinist upbringing greatly influenced his political views. The lawgiver of The Social Contract seems to be as much based on Calvin as Moses. Diderot saw his eulogising of the Spartan as a product of his Genevese upbringing. He heaps praise on straight-laced Geneva as a model of Christian virtues in the dedication to the Discourse on Inequality. His castigation of modern society in Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, resonates with a Calvanistic asceticism, while his attack on the medieval scholasticists for destroying the simple perfection of the gospel sounds as if it were being delivered from the pulpit.

However, it is for his doctrine of Civil Religion that Rousseau sets out his views on the connection between religion and politics most clearly. If the end of the Social Contract is to ‘force men to be free’, then the end of civil religion is to ensure toleration through intolerance. Rousseau proposed that all should be forced to profess a series of articles of good citizenship, one of which, implicitly but clearly stated, is religious tolerance. Any religions which fail to subscribe to these articles must be outlawed. It is indeed surprising that the view is held to be extreme; Rousseau is simply proposing that religions which fail to comply with the civil laws of the state should be outlawed. No-one would complain if a religion which supported, say, human sacrifice or child abuse were outlawed. Moreover, in his Letter to Voltaire, Rousseau is at pains to point out that he has no intentions of interfering with private views; rather his aim is to exclude religious views which in themselves destroy the concept of religious liberty. Civil religion is a purely negative creed.

The doctrine is not as radical an idea as it is often presented, being a development of Hobbes’ proposition in Leviathan that while private views were irrelevant to the state, in public all must subscribe to the state religion. It is also a logical conclusion from some of Rousseau’s other proposals in The Social Contract; "If the general will is to be clearly expressed, it is imperative that there should be no sectional associations". In eighteenth century Europe, after two centuries of sectarian war, it was clear that there were no sectional interests quite as divisive as the Christian Churches. While some see civil religion as grossly intolerant, Creed of a Savoyard Vicar makes Rousseau’s personal distaste for religious intolerance clear. Rousseau, as so often, appears contradictory.

Mill and Religion

During Mill’s prime, the signs became clear that Christianity’s 1500 year long dominance of European society was coming to an end. Atheism, while hardly de rigeur, was common enough among the European intelligentsia, and after the revolutions of 1848 it became clear that, "God’s will was simply not an adequate basis for political authority in the modern world."

Mill was in the avant-garde of the spirit of the times. Mill believed that agnosticism was the only position a learned person could take regarding the existence of God. Mill asserted that if we did not know what God’s attributes were (and finite humanity is by definition incapable of knowing the attributes of an infinite being), it was impossible to say anything about God. In Theism, he weighs up the arguments presented for the existence of God, and concludes that while the evidence favours atheism, the order of natural world concedes a small possibility of the existence of God.

However, given the existence of evil in the world, Mill cannot accept the traditional view of God as all-powerful and all loving. If She exists, given the present state of the world, She must either be a being of finite power, or else She maintains a degree of moral aloofness for the universe. In the Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy, Mill famously adjured that "I will call no being good who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow-creatures; and if such a being can send me to hell for not so calling him, then to hell I will go.’

However, Mill did not see the supernatural as a necessary prerequisite for the religion. He was taken with Comte’s concept of Religion of Humanity, and although he felt that many of Comte’s proposals were illiberal, he agreed with him to the extent that he saw that a humanistic religion could give humanity an external frame of reference, and an excellence towards which could be striven beyond immediate selfish passions.

Some feel that Mill saw Christianity as the main barrier to development in European society, and he is usually presented as an agnostic. In referring to Jesus Christ, he is always careful to refer to him in purely human terms for example as "the founder of Christianity". That being said, Mill clearly has enormous respect for Jesus Christ whom he referred to as possessing "moral grandeur". He even asserted that the ‘golden rule’ was the ultimate utilitarian principle - utility required one to regard one’s neighbour’s interests as being equally valuable as one’s own. Mill was also fond of religious imagery - he saw enlightened radical intellectuals challenging the herd mentality of modern man as being resonant of the Old Testament prophets testifying to the Kings of Judah.

Whatever his views regarding the historical Jesus, he felt that Christianity is at best an incomplete moral system. He flatly rejects St. Paul’s famous assertion in the 13th Chapter of his letter to the Romans to obey the legal authorities - "It is essentially a doctrine of passive obedience" Of Christianity’s moral record he is scathing; he does not see much evidence of Christians selling their possessions for the benefit of the poor, or refraining from judgement lest they themselves be judged. The Churches’ record in supporting liberty is appalling, only supporting religious tolerance when they themselves are in a minority. Even in tolerant England, unbelievers are not facilitated with the full protection of the laws, being unable to swear an oath in court.

Obviously, given Mill’s belief in the absolute inviolability of the freedom of conscience, it is clear he supports no connection between Church and state. Furthermore, he rages at the government’s refusal to fund schools in which the Bible is not taught, as an act of gross intolerance towards Islamic and Hindu subjects of the Crown in India. His view on one of the burning Church-State controversies of his day, that of religious education in schools and public exams is typical - let Anglicans be educated Anglican; let nonconformists be educated nonconformist; and let the state so organise public examinations that they test knowledge of the variety views on religious issues, rather than any one sect’s view of the truth.

Despite his own cynicism regarding religion in general, and Christianity in particular, he staunchly defends the right to hold and propagate religious ideas as much as any others, and ridicules Dr Johnson’s view that persecution of the truth is "the most precious gift which can be bestowed on mankind". He admits to finding Mormonism bizarre, yet is shocked by moral crusaders out to destroy the Mormon religion.

Beyond his own religious views, there are a number of philosophical approaches which were bound cause conflict between Mill and the ecclesiastical authorities, even had he been a daily communicant at Westminster Abbey. Mill’s view of humanity as essentially progressive, ran contrary to the view of mankind as absolutely sinful, all-pervasive in Christianity until the eruption of modernist Christian thinking at the end of the nineteenth century. His views on the emancipation of women were at least half a century ahead of their time (the Church of England, for example did not permit women a say in even parish affairs until 1920), while his view that we cannot be certain of anything is a bald rejection of ontology, let alone the inspiration of the scriptures.

Rousseau Versus Mill

Despite being in disagreement on the likelihood of the existence of God, many of the principles which inform the views of Mill and Rousseau regarding the role of religion in the state are similar. Both are passionate opponents of what they see as the prevailing attitude of religious intolerance in European society. While both profess an admiration for the teachings of Jesus Christ, both see Christian philosophy as being incomplete, leading towards quietism. "Christianity preaches only servitude and submission. Its spirit is too favourable to tyranny for tyranny not to take advantage of it.", was Rousseau’s cry.

Both see the desirability of a secular creed to replace or enhance supernatural religion. This creed, in both cases, must have the ’golden rule’ as a central element. Sorenson states that Rousseau believed that "citizenship requires the development of active other-regardingness", while, according to Ryan, Mill believed that the religion of humanity gave mankind "the ability to give the individual moral objects outside himself, to make him feel he belongs to a vast collective".

However their different attitudes towards the development of this concept highlight the fundamental differences in attitude towards human liberty which exist between Rousseau and Mill. For Mill individuality is supreme; for Rousseau mean must be forced to be free - the individual finds his definition and his freedom in community.

Mill’s religion of humanity cannot be imposed - it is a purely voluntary scheme. Moreover, Mill concedes in The Utility of Religion that there is an inherent dangers that attaching a religion to a morality may introduce flaws into the morality which it did not otherwise have. For Rousseau on the other hand, it is essential that a stable state does not allow partisan bodies to disrupt its stability.

While both Mill and Rousseau claim to support freedom of expression, their religious views throw up differences also in this concept. For Mill, freedom of expression is absolute save where it is clear that a direct harm to others will come from it (e.g. shouting fire in a crowded theatre). Moreover, it is essential that in the theological sphere, as in other spheres, different ways of living and thinking must be tried in order that the best may be discovered. For Mill the history of the Reformation and it’s antecedents (Lollardism, Hussism, etc.), bears witness to this.

For Rousseau, however, freedom of expression cannot be allowed to damage the overall well-being of society. While he states that "Subjects have no duty to account to the sovereign for their beliefs except when those beliefs are important to the community" Implicit in this statement however, is that subjects must account for their beliefs when they are important to the community. The fundamental difference between Rousseau and Mill is that were Mill’s doctrine of freedom is a negative one, i.e. ‘all religions which do not damage others are legal’, Rousseau’s is, despite his protestations to the contrary a positive one ‘"it is very important to the state that each citizen should have a religion which makes him love his duty". The logical extension of this is the basis for Rousseau’s most controversial claims in this field - that those who do not sign up to the civil religion must be excluded from the state, and that those who do sign up to the civil religion yet act in contradiction should be put to death as perjurers.

Additionally, it is clear that Rousseau sees religion as a necessary tool of civil society. This is particularly evident when he notes how all great lawgivers through out history have called on the power of the divine to give blessing to their laws. Mill on the other hand, always presents religion, at least in an ideal world, as a purely private matter. His call on the state to distance itself for the church on education, and his discomfort with some of the potential consequences of actually implementing a ‘religion of humanity’ bear witness to this.

It can clearly be seen that although Mill and Rousseau start out from similar religious views, their different conceptualisations of freedom and individualism versus communitarianism lead them to radically differing conclusions. In the Western world at least, the ideas of Mill on this, as in so many other issues have proved vastly more influential than those of Rousseau.

Cranston, Maurice, Jean-Jacques - The Early Life and Works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1712-1754, Chicago, University of Chicago Press (1982).
Cranston, Maurice (translator), Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ‘A Discourse on Inequality’, London, Penguin (1984).
Cranston, Maurice (translator), Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ‘The Social Contract’, London, Penguin (1968).
Gourevitch, Victor (translator), Rousseau - The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press (1997).
McClelland, J S, A History of Western Political Thought, London, Routledge (1996).
Mill, John Stuart, On Liberty (with preface by Gertrude Himmelfarb), London, Penguin (1974).
Ryan, Alan, J S Mill, London, Routledge (1975).
Sorenson, L R, Rousseau’s Liberalism, in History of Political Thought vol. 11:3, (1990).

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