Without doubt, David Hume’s Dialogue Concerning Natural Religion is both the most famous and most influential criticism levelled against standard theism’s natural theology. Hume’s worldview had no room for any form of theism from superstition (Roman Catholicism) and enthusiasm (Protestantism) traditions. His stance against standard theism may lead a (non)religious prejudiced reader to the conclusion that Hume was an atheist, or worst anti-theist.
In two parts article I focused on the charge that Hume was an atheist. I argued, contrary to Antony Flew (1992), Peter Millican (2002) and Bernard Williams (2006), that Hume was not an atheist. There are elements of “genuine Theism and Religion” (NHR 309), a “true system of Theism”(DNR 165), and “suitable notions of divine perfections”(DNR 88) in Hume’s worldview that is incompatible with any form of atheism.
Hume’s works showed that he was not an atheist (nor was he standard orthodox theist). In The Natural History of Religion, Hume wrote:
A little philosophy, says lord BACON, makes men atheists: A great deal reconciles them to religion. For men, being taught, by superstitious prejudices, to lay the stress on a wrong place; when that fails them, and they discover, by a little reflection, that the course of nature is regular and uniform, their whole faith totters, and falls to ruin. But being taught, by more reflection, that this very regularity and uniformity is the strongest proof of design and of a supreme intelligence, they return to that belief, which they had deserted; and they are now able to establish it on a firmer and more durable foundation. (NHR 4:329¹, Hume’s emphasis)
A simple argument, beside Hume’s belief in a supreme intelligent Deity, is the case that if Hume was an atheist, then it is the case that he had little philosophy. Surely it is not the case that Hume had little philosophy. Therefore it is not the case that Hume was an atheist.
We may be tempted to claim that Hume’s position changed over time. Even though in NHR he argued that “[t]he 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”(4:309), Hume’s spokesman Philo, throughout chapter 11 in Dialogues, refuted this argument.
This temptation would overlook Philo’s unexpected reverse of course in chapter 12. Philo held a certain form of design argument. He admitted that, “a purpose, an intention, or design strikes everywhere the most careless, the most stupid thinker; and no man can be so hardened in absurd systems, as at all times to reject it.” (DNR 214). Philo’s skepticism ought not be viewed as deconstructive skepticism but a constructive one because for him, “[t]o be a philosophical sceptic is the first and most essential step towards being a sound, believing Christian.”(228)
If this is true, how then should we understand Hume’s criticism levelled against classical arguments for existence of God? Does Hume’s stance against standard theism lead to atheism?
Hume’s own response against a similar charge, namely his denial of doctrine of causes and effects, the principle that whatever begins to exist must have a cause of existence, led to downright atheism, could be used as a guarding tool to understand Hume’s thoughts. In Letter From a Gentlemen Hume denied that charged and explained that it was only Samuel Clarke’s argument a priori that his denial would affect. Both arguments from design, “these Arguments so sensible, so convincing, and so obvious, remain still in their full Force” and other “metaphysical Arguments for a Deity are not affected”. In a similar manner the second part of this article will show that Hume’s criticism affects only standard form of theism. What he called true system of Theism (DNR 165) is not affected.
¹ A similar quote is echoed in DNR part 1: “Don’t you remember, said Philo, the excellent saying of Lord Bacon on this head? That a little philosophy, replied Cleanthes, makes a man an Atheist: a great deal converts him to religion”(23) Edinburgh; London: William Blackwood and Sons(1907).
Flew, Antony (1992). David Hume: Writings on Religion. La Salle: Open Court.
Hume, David. Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, ed. Norman Kemp Smith (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merill, 1947).
___________ The Natural History of Religion, from Philosophical Works of David Hume, ed. T. H. Green and T. H. Grose (London: Longmans, Green, 1882).
Millican, Peter (2002). Reading Hume on Human Understanding. Oxford: Clarendon Press. (See pp. 34-40)
Williams, Bernard A. (2006). The Sense of the Past: Essays in the History of Philosophy. Princeton, N. J. : Princeton University Press. (See pp. 267-273)