Rousseau’s Ideas on Religion and Education and their influence

Jean-Jacque Rousseau (1712 – 1778) was a French speaking Genevan philosopher who has influenced so much of the thinking of western culture that I want to digress a little from the normal kind of article I write here to explore just a few of his ideas.

I was drawn to take a look at this man because of a chance comment by my uncle who was instrumental in founding a Christian school in Sydney years ago. He said words to the effect that much of modern education today is simply following the ideas of the book "Emile" which he considered to be full of antichrist ideas. It may well be, as Darling  has argued, that "the history of child-centred educational theory is a series of footnotes to Rousseau". As Christians, who are charged to teach all nations, this should be a matter of SERIOUS CONCERN to us.

To learn about the life of Rousseau I refer you to this Wikipedia page. Apparently he was raised as a Calvinist, became a Catholic and then reconverted to Calvinism. But when you read anything of his writings you may observe that he had his own ideas about religion, which were not really compatible with either Calvinistic OR Catholoic dogmas. And certainly, they are not compatible with biblical Christianity. But because this man's thought was so influential in modern education, modern politics, the French Revolution, the American Revolution and generally the way people think about things, I believe its worth taking a look at these ideas and contrasting them with what I consider to be a biblical view.

Rousseau believed that man was basically good. He denied the idea of "original sin". He wrote, "Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the Author of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man." This, of course, is one man's way of handling the very thorny problem of how mankind becomes morally evil. For Rousseau, it is society's fault, and he spent a lot of his life thinking and writing about how society and the process of socialization could be improved in order to at least mitigate the negative effects of this process.

An intellectually brilliant and multi-talented man, Rousseau was also a musician, an educator – but also a fornicator. He lived a sexually immoral life at various times with various women. This alone should alert us to the fact that he was not a Christian. And when you look at his writings, this should be very obvious. Some of his ideas are extremely dangerous, and no doubt have directly or indirectly steered multitudes of people away from the Christian faith.

In "Emile", we have the infamous "Profession of a Savoyard Priest" in which various Unitarian ideas are powerfully presented. These ideas stand in opposition to the claim of Jesus Christ that He is the only way to the Father. There is this belief in society today that God is terribly UNJUST for making salvation depend on the knowledge of someone whom not everyone even gets to hear about – namely Jesus. Rousseau advocates something called "Natural Religion" in which Human Reason is the final arbiter of truth, not Divine Revelation. Rousseau includes arguments against Divine Revelation and its confirmation by miracles in this treatise. For Rousseau, whatever seems unreasonable to Human Reason is disparaged. What Rousseau will not acknowledge is that mankind's REASON is also fallen, and unaided, will NOT lead a man to the truth.

The Bible clearly states in Romans 1 the following:

Rom 1:18  For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,
Rom 1:19  because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them.
Rom 1:20  For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse,
Rom 1:21  because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.
Rom 1:22  Professing to be wise, they became fools,

Rousseau was not an atheist, though he did spend some parts of his life with atheists like Diderot. Rousseau was considered to be a Deist of sorts – someone who believes in an abstract deity that winds up the Universe and then lets it go its way.

Rousseau rightly discerns that the "Author of all things" does reveal Himself in Nature, and correctly deduces that all that a Good God creates is Originally Good. What he struggles with, and what all people who think deeply on these matters may struggle with, is how and at what stage man becomes evil.

As humans we naturally DON'T like the idea that we were born with a sinful nature. We DON'T like the idea that GOD DOES NOT OWE SALVATION TO ANYONE. We don't like the idea that WE CANNOT SAVE OURSELVES OR REASON OUR WAY TO ENLIGHTENMENT. We naturally DON'T like the idea that God sent His Son to die and therein also condemn the fallen nature of man. We DON'T like the idea that God would require us to diligently seek Him out instead of just getting on with the job of making life here and now more pleasant for ourselves. Rousseau gives voice to all these natural preferences of mankind in his writings, and naturally gets a lot of sympathy from a wide audience, because he is "giving the people what they want" in this regard.

Now in the "Creed of the Savoyard Clergyman", which is part of the educational treatise "Emile", Rousseau states:

"They seem to be very like that theism or natural religion, which Christians profess to confound with atheism or irreligion which is their exact opposite."

Rousseau then, is anti-Christian. He believes in a kind of theism which is "natural religion". He is opposed to special revelation (such as the Bible), and mocks any voice which claims to be a voice of divine inspiration, in a section in which foolish words are put in the mouth of a pseudo-character "INSPIRATION" who is basically refuted by "REASON".

Consider another passage from this "Savoyard Priest":

"At Constantinople the Turks state their arguments, but we dare not give ours; then it is our turn to cringe. Can we blame the Turks if they require us to show the same respect for Mahomet, in whom we do not believe, as we demand from the Jews with regard to Jesus Christ in whom they do not believe? Are we right? On what grounds of justice can we answer this question?

"Two-thirds of mankind are neither Jews, Mahometans, nor Christians; and how many millions of men have never heard the name of Moses, Jesus Christ, or Mahomet? They deny it; they maintain that our missionaries go everywhere. That is easily said. But do they go into the heart of Africa, still undiscovered, where as yet no European has ever ventured? Do they go to Eastern Tartary to follow on horseback the wandering tribes, whom no stranger approaches, who not only know nothing of the pope, but have scarcely heard tell of the Grand Lama! … What have the women of those countries done that no missionary may preach the faith to them? Will they all go to hell because of their seclusion?

"If it were true that the gospel is preached throughout the world, what advantage would there be? The day before the first missionary set foot in any country, no doubt somebody died who could not hear him. Now tell me what we shall do with him? If there were a single soul in the whole world, to whom Jesus Christ had never been preached, this objection would be as strong for that man as for a quarter of the human race."

The argument here is part of a larger objection to any form of the Christian revelation. The thought is firstly: we expect the Jews to believe in Jesus and respect him, and we mistreat them when they don't. If that is right, why shouldn't we respect Mohamed, the prophet of Islam?

But further than that, what about all the people who have never heard? At Rousseau's time, the evangelical and missionary movement was still in its infancy.

Rousseau is asking, "Are people guilty because no one has come to preach Jesus Christ to them? Should they go to hell for that reason?"

To which I answer: people are guilty because of THEIR SINS. They are guilty because they suppress the truth in unrighteousness. God reveals the truth about Himself to people through nature, and people go against that, and do wrong. God is not OBLIGATED by justice to take responsibility for the sins of the children of Adam. These people who never received the mercy we have received in hearing the gospel, have still done things worthy of death in God's eyes. It is mercy and grace when people have a chance to hear the gospel. God does not owe this to anyone and Jesus says in a parable "Is it not permissible to do what I want with my own things?" (Matthew 20 – the Parable of the Labourers).

Rousseau says in another place that if we were to try to check out the truth of all religions that claim to speak the truth about God, the world would be full of truth seekers and no one would be able to get on with life! Here it is:

"Hence it follows that if there is but one true religion and if every man is bound to follow it under pain of damnation, he must spend his whole life in studying, testing, comparing all these religions, in travelling through the countries in which they are established. No man is free from a man's first duty; no one has a right to depend on another's judgment. The artisan who earns his bread by his daily toil, the ploughboy who cannot read, the delicate and timid maiden, the invalid who can scarcely leave his bed, all without exception must study, consider, argue, travel over the whole world; there will be no more fixed and settled nations; the whole earth will swarm with pilgrims on their way, at great cost of time and trouble, to verify, compare, and examine for themselves the various religions to be found. Then farewell to the trades, the arts, the sciences of mankind, farewell to all peaceful occupations; there can be no study but that of religion, even the strongest, the most industrious, the most intelligent, the oldest, will hardly be able in his last years to know where he is; and it will be a wonder if he manages to find out what religion he ought to live by, before the hour of his death."

Rousseau's error here is to suppose that God does not speak to people by His Holy Spirit. For Rousseau, the only way to know the truth about religion, if there is one, is to work it all out by means of scientific enquiry and reasoning. A Christian ought to know that even if the truth is plainly put before the mind of an unregenerate man, without the influence of the Holy Spirit that man will be wholly disinclined to submit to the truth of it, or to actually TRUST God. It is one thing to be convinced of the truth of Christianity mentally – quite another to ACTUALLY TRUST GOD.


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