David Hume, Atheist
Elaine Sternberg for AdamSmithWorks
August 8, 2023
August 8, 2023
Was David Hume an atheist? The subject divides political theorists, historians and philosophers, both for its own sake, and also because his views often influenced those of his great friend Adam Smith. The idea of god certainly gets mentioned repeatedly throughout Hume's texts. Hume also offers several examples of the argument from design. But his presentations of the argument reveal its flaws, and his central metaphysical principles explicitly exclude all supernatural divinity. Whatever Hume the man may have believed, his philosophical writings are certainly sceptical, and challenge belief in divine existence.
Two versions of the argument from design appear in Hume's Natural History of Religion. The Section 5 account works backwards. Starting with the conclusion, it explains the conditions of reaching it:
Whoever learns, by argument, the existence of invisible intelligent power, must reason from the admirable contrivance of natural objects, and must suppose the world to be the workmanship of that Divine Being, the original cause of all things.
This passage begs the question of whether there is a god, insofar as it depends on apprehending 'the admirable contrivance of natural objects'. Unlike 'existence', 'contrivance' necessarily presupposes a contriver. All Hume establishes here, is that the idea of an intelligent designer is necessary for those who have already accepted that the natural world has been intelligently designed. But even for those who acknowledge the complex beauty of the natural world, the existence of a divine creator is, according to this excerpt, merely something that must be 'supposed', i.e., imagined. Unicorns must be supposed when considering the possibility of horses with one horn, but that does not constitute evidence or argument that any unicorns exist.
The argument from design appears again in Section 15 of The Natural History of Religion.
...see a sovereign author in the more obvious works of nature, it scarcely seems possible that any one of good understanding should reject that idea, when once it is suggested to him. A purpose, an intention, a design, is evident in everything; and when our comprehension is so far enlarged as to contemplate the first rise of this visible system, we must adopt, with the strongest conviction, the idea of some intelligent cause or author.
This may seem more compelling: not all understandings of 'purpose' and 'design' beg the question. Instead of referring to a blueprint, 'design' might refer to a non-planned pattern, the sort that emerges when paint is accidentally splattered. Similarly, x's having a purpose might just refer to its having a function, without requiring that anyone deliberately created it to perform that function: rocks can be used as paperweights. It only when what is deemed 'evident in everything' is intention, that the idea of an intending author must be adopted. In that case, however, the conclusion follows simply because it is built into the premise. Once again, the argument furnishes no support for belief in god. Rejecting that belief may 'scarcely seem possible', but it nevertheless is so, especially for thinkers disposed to be sceptical. An idea can be 'contemplated' without being considered true, and even 'adopted' for the sake of argument or as an example of something false.
Hume's rejection of divine belief is reinforced in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Section 11 presents yet another version of the argument from design. In the guise of Epicurus, Hume allows -- for the sake of argument -- that the natural world was deliberately created. He shows that even if that premise were true, it would not justify belief in the god of religion. A supremely excellent cause (here, an intelligent, benevolent, perfect god) cannot be inferred from a vastly inferior effect (the actual world, which clearly contains evil and disorder). Hume further questions whether, in the absence of constant conjunction, any cause at all can be known only by its effects. Even if it could be, he declares that a god with the excellent qualities assumed by religion is 'mere hypothesis'. Neither god, nor anything not already known naturally, can be established by the argument from design. The principle that an intelligence created and sustains the universe is, he argues, both 'uncertain and useless'.
Hume attacks divine belief even more vigorously in Section 12 of the Enquiry. He dismissively asserts that
Divinity or Theology, as it proves the existence of a Deity, and the immortality of souls... its best and most solid foundation is faith and divine revelation.... (XII.iii.32; emphasis in text)
But both are emphatically rejected:
If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion. (XII.iii.34; emphasis in text)
However misguided this impoverishment of metaphysics may be, it is central to Hume's philosophy: it informs both the Enquiry and the Treatise On Human Nature. For philosophers, it is indeed this scepticism that mainly makes Hume distinctive, interesting, and important: he also challenges both causality and personal identity. Having denied that they are objective, mind-independent features of the world, Hume claims instead that they are mental constructs, projections onto the world that result from minds' operating on the sense data that constitute experience. Some such explanation is needed, because causality and personal identity are inescapable: they are necessarily presupposed and employed even in attempts to reject them. No comparable substitute account is offered for divine existence, because none is needed: unlike causation and personal identity, divinity can be rejected without obvious incongruity or practical contradiction. If anything about god's supposed operation is axiomatic, it is simply the presence of order. But as Hume recognises in his Essays on property and promising, order can emerge spontaneously: no deity is required to account for it.
There is thus much textual support for the view that Hume the philosopher was an atheist. Evidence that Hume the man was also one, is suggested by the cheerful, wholly secular acceptance he famously displayed throughout his terminal illness. Any denial of personal atheism he might have made earlier perhaps reflected a rare nod to prudence and public opinion. Shortly before his death Hume acknowledged that he had "wantonly exposed (him)self to the rage of both civil and religious factions" (Essays, p.xli).
An indication of just how unpopular atheism was in 18C Edinburgh is provided by the experience of Hume's close friend Adam Smith. Unlike Hume, Smith was generally circumspect about any religious doubts he may have had. In the Theory of Moral Sentiments, he went so far as to assert that the "important rules of morality are the commands and laws of the Deity" (TMS III.5.3). But he reported the secular equanimity that Hume maintained on his deathbed, and famously declared that Hume approached "as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit." (Essays, p.xlix) That published appreciation notoriously brought upon Smith "ten times more abuse than the very violent attack (he) had made upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain" (Corr, p.251). When even admiring suspected atheists was so controversial, any personal lack of belief was more prudently concealed than proclaimed.
- Hume, David (1902 (1777)) Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals. Ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge, M.A. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press. References are to Section.Chapter.paragraph numbers.
-------- (1987 (1777)). Essays Moral, Political, Literary. Edited by E.F. Miller. Revised edition. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.
-------- (1757) The Natural History of Religion. London: A. and H. Bradlaugh Bonner.
- Smith, Adam (1982 (1869)) The Theory of Moral Sentiments ('TMS'), Glasgow Edition. Edited by D.D.Raphael and A.L. Macfie. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund. References are to Part.Section.Chapter.Paragraph numbers.
------- (1987) Correspondence of Adam Smith ('Corr'), ed. E. C. Mossner and I. S. Ross (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1987). Letter to Andreas Holt dated October 1780.