The Religion of Unpolluted Human Ignorance (or, You’re Perfect Just the Way You Are)

I recently read, for the first time, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences,” regularly referred to as the “First Discourse” to distinguish it from the more famous, second “Discourse on the Origins and the Foundations of Inequality Among Mankind.” The First Discourse is a short thing, not more than 20 pages or so, but extraordinary in its biting observations on the positive wickedness and pretension of hubristic aspiration to scientific and humanistic knowledge and improvement. “That opaque veil with which Wisdom cloaked her actions should have warned us that we were not destined for a vain quest for knowledge. Is there a single one of her lessons from which we have profited or which we have neglected with impunity? Let all nations once and for all realize that nature wanted to protect us from knowledge, just as a mother snatches a dangerous weapon from the hands of her child. Let them know that all the secrets she hides from us are so many ills from which she protects us and that the very difficulty they encounter in searching for knowledge is not the least of her kindnesses. Men are perverse; but they would be far worse if they had had the misfortune to be born learned.”

The First Discourse ought to be read by everyone who is part of the knowledge class, as a bit of cold water on the pretensions of the ostensibly learned. But quite apart from its incisive criticisms (and there are quite a few), the First Discourse contains several themes that run through Rousseau’s broader body of work–especially the natural, unadulterated, internal goodness of humanity, the depravity and corrupting influence of social conditions and culture, and the importance of resisting this cultural pressure in being true to what or who one “really” is, uncorrupted by social expectations, knowledge, learning, and so on. As it happens, these are themes that are also crucial for understanding the present moment in American social and cultural life.

A new book, Rousseau’s God: Theology, Religion, and the Natural Goodness of Man (University of Chicago Press), by John T. Scott, develops many of these themes across Rousseau’s writing.

John T. Scott offers a comprehensive interpretation of Rousseau’s theological and religious thought, both in its own right and in relation to Rousseau’s broader oeuvre. In chapters focused on different key writings, Scott reveals recurrent themes in Rousseau’s views on the subject and traces their evolution over time. He shows that two concepts—truth and utility—are integral to Rousseau’s writings on religion. Doing so helps to explain some of Rousseau’s disagreements with his contemporaries: their different views on religion and theology stem from different understandings of human nature and the proper role of science in human life. Rousseau emphasizes not just what is true, but also what is useful—psychologically, morally, and politically—for human beings. Comprehensive and nuanced, Rousseau’s God is vital to understanding key categories of Rousseau’s thought.

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

  • In Holston United Methodist Home for Children, Inc. v. Becerra, a Tennessee federal district court held that a religiously affiliated children’s home that places children for foster care or adoption lacks standing to challenge a 2016 anti-discrimination rule promulgated by the Department of Health and Human Services. 
  • In American College of Pediatricians v. Becerra, a Tennessee federal district court dismissed for lack of standing a challenge to a rule promulgated by the Department of Health and Human Services that barred discrimination on the basis of gender identity in the furnishing of health care. The court also concluded that the plaintiffs lack standing to challenge an HHS rule requiring grant recipients to recognize same-sex marriages. 
  • In Kim v. Board of Education of Howard County, a Maryland federal district court rejected both equal protection and free exercise challenges to the manner in which the student members of the eight-member Howard County School Board are selected. 
  • Suit was filed in an Ohio federal district court challenging a school district’s rule change that allows transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms that conform to their gender identity. In Doe No. 1 v. Bethel Local School District Board of Education, Plaintiffs, who identify as Muslims and Christians, claim, among other things, that the new rules violate their free exercise and equal protection rights, their parental rights, and Title IX. 
  • Suit has been filed by the former head football coach for Washington State University, who was fired after refusing on religious grounds to comply with the state’s Covid vaccine mandate for state employees. The Athletic Department refused to grant him a religious accommodation, questioning the sincerity of his religious objections as well as the University’s ability to accommodate his objections. The complaint in Rolovich v. Washington State University alleges that the coach’s firing amounts to religious discrimination in violation of state and federal law and infringement of the plaintiff’s free exercise and due process rights. 
  • In In re Covid Related Restrictions on Religious Services, the Delaware Court of Chancery held that a challenge by religious leaders to now-lifted Covid-related restrictions on religious services should be brought in Superior Court, not in Delaware’s Chancery Court, which is limited to providing equitable relief.