In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 book, Emile, in which he explores the education of children, the question is proposed, in what religion should we raise our student? As every parent knows, educating a child inherently and unavoidably forces one to articulate and define what they themselves believe on a multitude of topics, including religion. So, what should we tell children about God, faith, and spirituality? Since Rousseau is arguing that the ultimate, ideal outcome of education is the student’s capacity to reason for himself, his position on religion is radical for his time: “We shall join to neither this one nor that one, but we shall put him in a position to choose the one to which the best use of his reason ought to lead him” (Rousseau 1979:260, trans. Bloom).
Sometimes, when you want to communicate something extremely controversial, it feels safer to attribute your ideas to someone else rather than to explicitly state your argument. One infamous example of this rhetorical device occurs here in Emile. Bracing us for the revolutionary idea that children should not be taught any religion at all, Rousseau says, “Instead of telling you here on my own what I think, I shall tell you what a man more worthy than I thought…It is up to you to see if useful reflections can be drawn from it…I am not propounding to you the sentiment of another or my own as a rule. I am offering it to you for examination” (260).
Rousseau’s argument centres on a monologue given by an old, wise vicar to a delinquent juvenile. The churchman recounts his discovery of the futile depravity of all human knowledge and theology. Certainty, he laments, is a fool’s game. The vicar’s journey led him to make his “whole philosophy” nothing more than a simple “love of truth” — flexible, inquisitive, and open:
I am resolved to accept as evident all knowledge to which the sincerity of my heart I cannot refuse my consent; to accept as true all that which appears to me to have a necessary connection with this first knowledge; and to leave all the rest in uncertainty without rejecting it or accepting it and without tormenting myself to clarify it if it leads to nothing useful for practice. (269-270)
Any other approach to life, says the vicar, amounts to nothing more or less than self-delusion; the only alternatives are to either blindly accept the ideas of other people or inoculate oneself against truth by clinging to what one already believes in spite of what anyone says or proves to the contrary.
Navigating the world as an independent, free-thinking, observant being taught the vicar a lesson that changed his life: “There is in the depths of souls…an innate principle of justice and virtue according to which, in spite of our own maxims, we judge our actions and those of others as good or bad. It is to this principle that I give the name conscience.” No matter where he travelled, no matter to whom he spoke, he discovered that all humans, everywhere, adhere to an internal compass. “Conscience, conscience! Divine instinct, immortal and celestial voice, certain guide of a being that is ignorant and limited but intelligent and free” (289-290). Conscience is, the vicar observes, the only visible trait that differentiates us from other animals. It is the ground of our divine being.
Importantly, he says, this conclusion is self-evident. It does not rely on inspired writings, holy institutions, or proselytization; anyone can simply look around and comprehend incontrovertible truth. “You see in my exposition only natural religion. It is very strange that any other is needed!” (295). Therefore, one must begin their inquiry into the divine not by selecting one religion and being intolerant of all the others, but by viewing the whole human enterprise of creeds and faiths as a dispassionate, outside observer, as someone who is concerned with nothing more than knowing the truth for oneself. The vicar lays out the paradox of unrelenting belief:
I found nothing in natural religion but the elements of every religion. I considered this diversity of sects which reign on the earth, and which accuse each other of lying and error. I asked, “Which is the right one?” Each answered, “It is mine.” Each said, “I and my partisans alone think rightly; all the others are in error.” “And how do you know your sect is the right one?” “Because God said so.” “And who told you that God said so?” “My pastor, who certainly knows. My pastor told me this is what to believe, and this is what I believe. He assures me that all those who say something other than he does are lying, and I do not listen to them.” (296)
This leads the old vicar to an irreconcilable conundrum: if the person who adheres to the ‘true religion’ and the person who adheres to the ‘false religion’ both adhere to the same fundamental practices (trusting their religious figureheads, affirming the supremacy of their divine revelations, abiding by a creed, believing themselves to possess truth), how can we say that one is at fault and the other has merit? They are both doing exactly the same thing:
Their choice is the effect of chance; to blame them for it is iniquitous. It is to reward or punish them for being born in this or in that country. To dare say that God judges us in this way is to insult his justice. (297)
Are we, then, sincerely seeking the truth? Let us grant nothing to the right of birth and to the authority of fathers and pastors, but let us recall for the examination of conscience and reason all that they have taught us from our youth. (297)
The vicar goes on to expound on the central distinction between the religions of men and the “natural religion” of those who are only obedient to their conscience: the religionist accepts everything on the authority of others, the naturalist only reasons for himself. Ultimately, every alleged supernatural proof, every miracle, and every prophecy comes down to the same thing: a story told by someone else. Therefore, to believe is to accept the authority of men about propositions one cannot observe for oneself; it is to surrender and subjugate one’s own ability to think to another person. All religions are, thus, fundamentally the same; they are not about believing in God per se, but about believing in what someone else tells you about God (301). Just look, says the vicar, at religion’s preoccupation with books:
I shall never be able to conceive that what every man is obliged to know is confined to books, and that someone who does not have access to these books, or those who understand them, is punished for an ignorance which is involuntary. Always books! What a mania. Because Europe is full of books, Europeans regard them as indispensable, without thinking that in three-quarters of the earth they have never been seen. (303)
“I therefore closed all my books,” says the vicar. There is only one book that matters, “the book of nature,” and it is open for all eyes to read, regardless of their geography, culture, or ethnicity (306). Everything that one must need know about the divine is contained in the world around them.
The old churchman imagines himself born on a deserted island, with no human contact at all, and yet guided by his reason and conscience is nonetheless able to know the Author of nature, “to love Him, to love His works, to want the good that He wants, and to fulfill all my duties on earth in order to please Him. What more will all the learning of men teach me?” (307). This is Rousseau’s fundamental thought experiment: what if we concede “nothing to the authority of men or too the prejudices of the country in which one was born” but rely solely on our reason alone to determine what is true about the world around us? (313). What if we did not teach young children anything they could not otherwise learn by themselves in any other country? (260).
“I have transcribed this,” says Rousseau, in conclusion, “not as a rule for the sentiments that one ought to follow in religious matters, but as an example of the way one can reason with one’s pupil in order not to diverge from the method I have established” (313). However, Rousseau’s literary ‘Trojan horse’ strategy — presenting his vision of “natural religion” in the words of an imaginary vicar — failed miserably in the short-term; Emile was immediately deemed heretical. It was banned and burned the year it was published. But while it is easy for us to lapse into a debate about the merits of Rousseau’s vision of “natural religion” vis-a-vis revealed religion, we must remember that his first concern centres on the question of education. What ought we teach young children? In the end, Rousseau wants us to come face-to-face with our own blind compulsion to turn our kids into mini carbon copies of ourselves; Christian parents want Christian kids, Muslim parents want Muslim kids, capitalist parents want capitalist kids, and rational parents want rational kids. But what sets the rational parent aside, ultimately, is that they want their child to be able to legitimately choose for themselves, with as little influence and interference from their parents as possible. After all, as Rousseau argues, raising rational children is about raising children who can think for themselves.
Therefore, ‘reason’, according to Rousseau, dictates that we ought to influence the development of children’s cognitive, rational abilities as little as possible — save for liberating, protecting, shielding them from our dogmas so that they might have a fighting chance of becoming adults who are not just branded facsimiles of us.
If any of this offended your sensibilities, blame Rousseau, not me.