The piece in question is a section from the novel Emile by French enlightenment author, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, from the section of the book entitled Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar. Emile is a treatise on the nature of education and the nature of man, and the section of the book Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar being intended to provide an example of how religious matters should be discussed with young people. Emile is written in the form of a novel, and the ideals that Rousseau wishes to promote are expressed via the characters. Specifically, Rousseau, in writing Emile sought to describe a system of education that would enable, what he refers to in The Social Contract as “natural man” to survive a corrupt society. The character of Emile and his tutors being used to describe how this “natural man” would go about being educated. The Savoyard vicar is said to represent Rousseau’s own ideas on religion, and was supposedly based upon two Savoyard priests that Rousseau had known in his childhood: Abbé Gaime from Turin and Abbé Gâtier from Annecy.
Rousseau was a French Enlightenment philosophe and writer most famous for his brilliantly written essays. The French Enlightenment was strongly characterised by an attitude critical both of religion in general and Christianity in particular, and a number of Enlightenment thinkers outside of France held similar views also. However, Rousseau was different in that, whilst he was a deist, he disagreed regarding several key points. First of all, he denied the materialism of men such as d’Holbach, Diderot, et al. Secondly, he was highly critical of rationalism. Rousseau was famous for his emphasis on emotion and romanticism. One of Rousseau’s key ideas was that of “natural man.” Rousseau believed that man should live by his emotions and instincts; man should act naturally. As such, he defended what he referred to as “natural religion,” which is a sentiment expressed in Emile. The language employed in Savoyard Vicar is emotive and sensual. For example, consider how the Savoyard Vicar describes how he knows that God exists: “I perceive the Deity in all his works; I feel him within me & behold him in every object around me…” and: “He remains at an equal distance from my senses & understanding (beyond reason.) (Emphasis mine.) Thus the God of Rousseau, as expressed by the Savoyard Vicar, is present in His creation and can be experienced, unlike the impersonal God of traditional Deism.
Rousseau is therefore arguing that God cannot be known via reason and the senses, but instead can only be known via personal religious experience. However, since God can only be known via such experiences, God’s nature, or ‘essence’ is thus fundamentally unknown (although Rousseau is adamant that omnibenevolence is an essential characteristic and attribute of God.) Rousseau, however, goes on to describe religious pluralism, or universalism. He maintains that what matters is your relationship with God, and so it does not matter what religious tradition you grew up in. In other words, all religions can lead to God. This is in sharp distinction to the other Enlightenment Deists, who believe that God can be demonstrated to exist via reason and logical arguments, and Christian Enlightenment figures such as John Locke who maintained the same. One slight discrepancy, however, is how, throughout the rest of the novel, religion plays no role in Emile’s life.
Rousseau’s argument is not particularly convincing, even if it does have some justification. Whilst it could be argued that belief in God is properly basic based on religious experience, so that there are no de jure objections to theism, the argument that God cannot be argued as existing via reason is unjustified. Rousseau himself argues that God is present within nature, but if that is the case than Rousseau’s argument, that God is inaccessible to reason and the senses, is undermined! In other words, he contradicts his own argument. Furthermore, it can be argued that subjective religious experiences ARE a form of sensory data. They might not be rational, but I do not think it can be argued that they are not a form of sense data. After all, atheists would presumably put religious experience solely to some form of neural activity, such as endorphins or similar (although such an argument could be criticised on the grounds that it commits the genetic fallacy.) Back to Rousseau’s emphasis on feeling, however, there are several good arguments for theism that ARE based on reason, the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the axiological argument, the ontological argument, and the ratiological argument. These are arguments that theists, including many enlightenment thinkers themselves, have consistently used for centuries.
Thus I think Rousseau can be criticised on the grounds that he simply assumes his argument to be true. With that said, I do think there is some merit to the argument that God can be known via religious experience. I just don’t think it is the sole basis upon which can affirm a viable worldview. Rousseau was trying to justify religious belief in God, yet ironically enough his view that God can only be known through emotion and subjective experience, actually serves to undercut warrant in belief in God. Indeed, Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume, upon hearing that copies of Emile were being burned, remarked that: “[Rousseau] has not had the precaution to throw any veil over his sentiments; and, as he scorns to dissemble his contempt for established opinions, he could not wonder that all the zealots were in arms against him. The liberty of the press is not so secured in any country ... as not to render such an open attack on popular prejudice somewhat dangerous.” Rousseau was devastated and crushed by such words. Nonetheless, many of the ideals expressed in Emile became important in the field of pedagogy, despite its being burned, and became the basis for a new system of education. Whilst his religious ideas were certainly nuanced, and in some cases insightful, I think they fell short of the mark.