Reflections on Hume on Religion

david hume religion atheism deism

Edward J. Harpham for AdamSmithWorks

August 10, 2023
This essay explores David Hume’s thinking about religion and God. I will begin by briefly reviewing the argument of Hume’s Natural History of Religion and what the argument tells us about his fundamental beliefs about God and religion’s place in world history. I will then turn to consider whether Hume was an atheist, a deist, or what some commentators have labeled as an “attenuated deist?” (see Hume 1993, Gaskin, 1978, 1988,1993; Penelhum 1975, 2000; O’Connor 2001; Blackburn 2008). My goal will be to explain why it is important to characterize Hume as an attenuated deist when it comes to religious matters.

Hume’s Natural History of Religion
Taken together, David Hume’s The Natural History of Religion (1757) and the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) were an ongoing attack on contemporary notions of God and the place of religion in history. The Natural History of Religion is a straightforward analysis of the causes of religion, the psychological forces behind a belief in God, and the subsequent natural evolution of religion in human affairs over time. Published after his death, the Dialogues recounts a sustained discussion among three interlocutors: Demea who argues that the existence of God can be proven a priori through rational argument, Cleanthes who believes God’s existence can be proven a posteriori through a version of the design argument, and Philo who is skeptical of both lines of argument. While The Natural History of Religion is a psychological and historical account of religion, the Dialogues is philosophical.

In his Natural History of Religion, Hume argues that the key factors driving the birth of ideas about God and religion are uncertain events in our lives that spark hopes and fears. Uncertainties give rise to ideas about the invisible powers operating in the world. After that, our imaginations go to work. The primitive first religions in history were polytheistic, as the human imagination conceived of gods as superhuman entitles possessing many human characteristics. Out of polytheism emerged naturally a more refined monotheism, leading to cycling in history between polytheistic religions and monotheistic religions. Popular monotheistic religions gave rise to superstition and enthusiasm for the practice of religions with serious negative consequences for society. Superstition and enthusiasm corrupt our understanding of morality and virtue and promote the persecution of our fellow men. Hume believes that religion “perverts” our natural moral sentiments and makes it difficult to rationally grasp the true nature of God. Given the religious conflicts of the seventeenth century, these ideas are not that surprising. 

Hume as a Christian or an Atheist, a Deist, or an Attenuated Deist
In light of his natural history of religion and the arguments developed in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, is Hume a believing Christian? Not likely. There is no evidence that he believed in Christian/Presbyterian doctrine after his youth. In his writings, Hume makes no reference to the sacred stories told in the Bible nor does he accept the miracle stories proclaimed at the heart of the Old and New Testaments.

Is Hume an atheist? This is a little trickier to answer. Many of Hume’s contemporaries saw him as one who had broken with the church and denied the immortality of the soul. Attempts were made to excommunicate him from the Church of Scotland along with his friend and colleague, Lord Kames. Hume himself, however, rejected such a simple characterization of his views and affirmed the existence of the deity numerous times in his writings. Diderot recounts how at a dinner party one night in France Hume remarked that he “did not believe in atheists, nor had he ever seen any.” His host, Baron D’Holbach, responded in a jocular fashion, “Count how many we are here. We are eighteen. The Baron added: It isn’t so bad a showing to be able to point out to you fifteen at once: the other three haven’t made up their minds.” (Mossner: 483). Hume’s mitigated skepticism in philosophical and theological matters left him uncomfortable with the certainty of French atheism.

Is he a theist who believes in a God that can intervene through miracles in history? Again, not likely. His essays “Of Miracles” and “Of a particular Providence and of a Future State,” published as Sections 10 and 11 of the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, close off the possibility that miracles contravening the laws of nature might support the truth of the Christian narrative. From Hume’s natural history perspective, there does not appear to be a place for divinity to act in the world, nor is there a place for the truths of revelation either through doctrinal practice (praying to God to help and protect us) or through the inspiration and knowledge provided by the Bible.

If Hume is not a Christian, an atheist, or a theist, is he a deist? Does he believe in a watchmaker-like creator God, one that does not intervene directly in history but works in the background assuring there is order and meaning in the world? The answer here is complicated, depending on what you mean by deism, a creator God, or by intervention in history. Many scholars believe he is an “attenuated deist,” that is, a deist of a particular sort, one who believes that there is a divinity lying behind creation but views the standard deist analogy between God’s intelligence and human intelligence as being remote. He also denies the morality of the deity. (see Gaskin 1988, 1993, Penelhum 1975, 2000, O’Connor 2001, Lorkowski).

The idea that Hume is an attenuated deist rests on arguments paralleling his discussion of causation and personal identity in A Treatise of Human Nature and An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Reason itself cannot prove that there is a linkage between cause and effect. Nor can reason account for personal identity. But living in this natural world and participating in "common life" demands a certain “natural belief” (some commentators have argued for an “instinctive belief”) that orients us towards both. We cannot live in the natural world without accepting (believing in) the existence of causation and of personal identity. Book I of the Treatise seems to deny causation or the existence of personal identity. In contrast, Book II Of the Passions takes identity and causation as given if we are to be part of the world of common life and action. (See Baier 1991)

Hume’s argument for a belief in divinity follows a similar line. The third sentence of the first paragraph of the Natural History reads: "The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion." The thrust of Hume’s argument is twofold: First, the natural order suggests the existence of an "intelligent author." Thus, there is a divinity/author of nature. Second, no "rational enquirer" can suspend his belief with regard to the primary principles of "genuine Theism and Religion." Reason demands that we believe in this divinity as lying behind the natural order that we experience in the world.

Section V of the Natural History of Religion, particularly the first sentence of the second paragraph, is consistent with this reading. Hume begins by reaffirming a reasonable belief in an intelligent author of nature and natural order. He then spends most of his time in Section V explaining how polytheism and historical religions go wrong. The existence of Hume’s God is no guarantee that historical religions and religious beliefs will not wreak havoc on human societies in history.

This line of argument is further supported by a reading of the first paragraph in the final section XV of The Natural History where Hume writes, ""the uniform maxims, too, which prevail throughout the whole frame of the universe, naturally, if not necessarily, lead us to conceive this intelligence as single and undivided, where the prejudices of education oppose not so reasonable a theory."  The two key points Hume makes in Section XV and also throughout the entire Natural History are (1) Our rational understanding of this divinity is extremely limited. We know the divinity exists, but s/he is beyond our comprehension. "The whole is a riddle, an enigma, an inexplicable mystery" and (2) Historical religions have made a mess of morality throughout all of human history. Philosophers may grasp the idea that God exists, but they are unable to tell us about God’s qualities or characteristics. Whether God is good or moral is not something that philosophers of theologians can prove a priori. What matters for Hume is not the working out of God’s will in history but the evolution of human nature in history. Humanity’s job is not to grasp the will of God but to figure out in the present what can be done to make the world a better place.

The Natural History of Religion is a straightforward analysis of the causes of religion and the human belief in God. He provides a framework for thinking about the subsequent “natural” evolution of religion over time. The argument of the Dialogues is much more complex and, at times, perplexing. As a dialogue, the argument moves back and forth between participants, making it difficult at times to know which voice is Hume’s. Not surprisingly, the Dialogues is subject to a wide range of interpretations. Much of the difficulty in understanding Hume’s final position lies in the fact that at the end of the Dialogues Philo appears to abandon his skeptical position about the status of God and to accept elements of Cleanthes’s deistic argument. Near the beginning of part XII of the Dialogues, Philo concedes to Cleanthes, “A Purpose, an intention, a design strikes everywhere the most careless, the most stupid thinker, and no man can be so hardened in absurd system, as at all times to reject it… And thus all the sciences almost lead us insensibly to acknowledge a first intelligent Author; and their authority is often so much the greater, as they do not directly profess the intention.” (Hume: Dialogues, p.116). Is Hume’s position that of Philo, Cleanthes, or both?

Reading Hume as an attenuated deist helps explain a number of features of his religious thought. This reading clears up some of the apparent confusion as to what Hume’s conclusions were about the existence of a deity in Dialogues Concerning a Natural Religion or how these related to the arguments in The Natural History of Religion. In both books, Hume accepts the existence of God, but in a highly skeptical way. It also helps readers to understand why he rejected conventional Christianity, atheism, theism, or conventional deism as perspectives for viewing God’s role in this world. Hume believed that accepting the fact of the existence of God is something a rational individual cannot deny. Speculating on the nature or characteristics of God is a fruitless endeavor beyond our limited intellectual capacities. Attenuated deism reaffirms our belief in a creator God, but it is a belief that only gets us only so far in this common life. The tools that we must cultivate for mastering this world are not those of theology, but of psychology, ethics, history, economics, and political science freed of the blinders of religious enthusiasm and superstition.

Secondary Sources
Baier, Annette C. (1991). A Progress of Human Sentiments: Reflections on Hume’s Treatise.” Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Gaskin, J.C.A. (1988) Hume’s Philosophy of Religion. Second edition (1988). London: Palgrave, 1988.
Gaskin, J.C.A. (1993) “Hume on Religion.” In The Cambridge Companion to Hume. Edited by David Fate Norton. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press. Pp. 313-44.
Hume, David. (1993) Dialogues and Natural History. Oxford World’s Classics. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hume, David. (1998). An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. Edited by Tom. L. Beauchamp. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.
Hume, David. (1999). An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Edited by Tom L. Beauchamp. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lorkowski, C.M. “David Hume: Religion.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 
Mossner, E.C. (1980). The Life of David Hume. Second edition. Oxford, New York: Clarendon Press, Oxford University Press.
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