Religion and Politics in Hume and Smith (March 2023)

david hume religious freedom atheism established religion

March 2023

with Edward Harpham

This Virtual Reading Group will explore Adam Smith’s religious and political ideas through the lens provided by David Hume's writings.
David  Hume wrote extensively on religious and theological matters in his many philosophical, literary, and political essays as well as in his six-volume History of England. Hume was condemned in his time as an atheist and a deist by church authorities and celebrated as a defender of free thinking by proponents of the Enlightenment. Disagreement over how Hume viewed religion in political terms continues to this day. In sharp contrast to his friend and colleague, Adam Smith was much more circumspect on religious matters, scattering his religious ideas throughout passages in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and the Wealth of Nations. Many of his religious comments found in early editions of The Theory of Moral Sentiments were edited out of or deleted from later editions, making it difficult for readers to understand what his religious ideas were or how they affected his political thought.

Pre-registration is required, and we ask you to register only if you can be present for ALL sessions. All readings are available online. Participants who successfully complete ALL sessions will be eligible to receive an Amazon e-gift certificate.

The readings and sessions are as follows:

Session I: Wednesday, March 1, 2023, 12:00-1:00 pm EST, Hume’s Natural History of Religion
We will explore Hume’s perspective on the origins of religion in general including the doctrines of polytheism, theism, and Christianity and the consequences that these doctrines have for his thoughts on morality and politics. 

Session II: Wednesday, March 8, 2023, 12:00-1:00 pm EST, Philosophy, Moral Sentiments, and Religion in Hume and Smith
Were Smith’s religious ideas are an extension of or a break with Hume’s religious and political thought?
  • David Hume, Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, Part I,  Essay X, “Of Superstition and Enthusiasm” and Essay X, “Of the Immortality of the Soul”
  • David Hume, Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, Section XI, “Of a Particular Providence and of a Future State”  
  • Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments and Essays on Philosophical Subjects, Part II, Section II, Chapter 3, “Of the Utility of this Constitution of Nature;” Section III, Chapter 3, “Of the Final Cause of this Irregularity of Sentiments;” Part III, Chapter 2, “Of the Love of Praise and the Love of Praiseworthiness(paragraphs 31-35),” Chapter 5, “Of General Rules and that they are justly regarded as the laws of the deity,” Chapter 6, “In what Cases the Sense of Duty ought to be the sole Principle of our Conduct; and in what Cases it ought to concur with other Motives;” and Part VI, Section II, Chapter 3, “Of Universal Benevolence”

Session III: Wednesday, March 15, 2023, 12:00-1:00 pm EST, The State, Politics, and the Clergy: From Hume’s Histories to Smith’s Wealth of Nations
How did Hume and Smith compare in their thought on religious toleration and established churches?
  • David Hume, Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, Part I, Essay IX, “Of the Parties of Great Britain” and The Life of David Hume, ESQ: “Letter from Adam Smith, LL.D. to William Strahan ESQ”
  • David Hume, The History of England, Volume III, Chapter XXIX, “Digression Concerning the Ecclesiastical State” 
  • Adam Smith, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Volume II, Book V, Chapter 1, Part III, Article III, “ Of the Expense of the Instruction for People of all Ages”