David Hume (Mis)understood

David Hume

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.

Next: David Hume’s Genuine Theism


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)

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4 thoughts on “David Hume (Mis)understood

  1. “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.”

    Nice little modus tollens, but it creates a false dilemma.

    Anyway, Hume attacks theism and deism throughout his life, but he refused to be called an atheist. Had agnosticism been available for Hume to choose from (without fear of reprisals) I believe he would have been most comfortable with that. It’s a fruitless endeavor, however, to try and prove one way or another what the enlightenment philosophers truly believed. You simply have to take their arguments (all of them) and weigh them against each other, then weigh them against all of the other arguments that have been put forth since we (humanity) began asking tough questions.

    • Thank you for your comment R.L. I am not sure I follow how Hume not being an atheist creates a false dilemma. Is there third or more alternative between atheist and not-atheist. In not-atheist I included all form of world views that rejects atheism(I am not sure one can group Hume as an agnostic, as I will show some of beliefs he held that are not compatible with agnosticism).

      Theism( which deism is a form of it) is so broad. Hume attacked only standard theism. Hume did not attack but actually hold a kind of limited theism, or what he called true theism.

      He refused to be tagged as a deist. But I am not sure he ever attacked deism. The early deists in America used Hume’s works dearly. He was their hero, thus it would be weird that they were not aware that he attacked them, if he did that is. I am not familiar of an passage in Hume’s work that attack deism, but quite the contrary I am familiar with a number that support such a view. See also Peter S. Fosl(1999) “Hume, Skepticism, and Early American Deism,” Hume Studies, Vol. 25, No. 1 & 2, pp. 171-192

      • Well, I realize that the modus tollens was an attempt to simplify Bacon’s particular position, which Hume then seems to affirm, but both men, in this instance, discard the many men who are both atheistic and philosophically versed. Such an argument makes sense in Bacon’s time, since there were very few philosophers that were openly hostile to religious views. J.S. Mill commented on this very fact, insofar as he proclaims that the populace would be very surprised to find that many intellectuals are religious in public, but nonreligious in private. Staying with J.S. Mill, he is the perfect example of an individual that was well versed in philosophy, but was an atheist. Can it be argued, that a man raised by James Mill and tutored by Jeremy Bentham knew “little philosophy.” He spoke and read in Greek and Latin by the time he was four years old, for heaven’s sake. No, I do not think that such an argument would hold.

        Therefore, the argument creates a false dilemma. That is, people with only a small philosophical background can, and are, theists. Conversely, people with an ample background in philosophy can, and are, atheists.

        With regard to Hume, I’m not very interested in whether he was an atheist, deist, classical theist, “true” theist, etc. I take Hume’s arguments, just as I do with any other philosopher, and determine if they merit my assent. I do not agree with all of Hume’s work – clearly, as Kant demonstrated, strict empiricism is a foolhardy position, for instance. And we must make a distinction on this point: his work can be construed in either direction. You mentioned, for instance, that he argues against the cosmological argument (a cornerstone in both theistic and deistic philosophy); he also argued against the ontological; his work “On Miracles” essentially strips any and all possibility of divine intervention from his philosophy; and he stresses in the aforementioned that the responsible thinker discards beliefs for which there is an absence of evidence (i.e. faith-based beliefs). He does, however, mention supreme beings throughout his work, and one would simply be speculating as to what this actually meant – was he being metaphorical, for example? I’ve never analyzed his work in this manner, so it’s not something that I’m comfortable proffering theories on, and moreover, I think it’s largely inconsequential.

        • So much thank you for this dialogue R. L. The idea behind Bacon is not much about little philosophy, but the idea that Hume also reechoed with Philo and Cleanthes that little reflection on the matter of God lead a person to atheism, while more reflection lead a person to pure theism. In Philo’s words “[t]o be a philosophical sceptic is the first and most essential step towards being a sound, believing Christian.”

          Hume denied Samuel Clarke’s cosmological argument. He stated in his letters that other forms are not affected by his criticism and also it is teleological arguments that were considered cornerstone in theistic(which includes deism) natural theology.(see Hume’s 1745 ed. letter: A letter From A Gentleman To His Friend in Edinburgh ) Hume understood cosmological arguments as arguments a priori, while teleological arguments as a posteriori. We know that Hume and Kant were not friends of any a priori arguments 🙂

          I am not familiar with any passage in Hume’s works that essentially strips any and all possibility of divine intervention. Quite the contrary passages appears in Hume’s essays. In his essay “Of Suicide” Hume stated for example:

          “The providence of the deity appears not immediately in any operation, but governs everything by those general and immutable laws, which have been established from the beginning of time. All events, in one sense, may be pronounced that action of the almighty: They all proceed from those powers, with which he has endowed his creatures. A house, which falls by its own weight, is not brought to ruin by his providence more than one destroyed by the hands of men; nor are the human faculties less his workmanship than the laws of motion and gravitation. When the passions play, when the judgment dictates, when the limbs obey; this is all the operation of God; and upon these animate principles, as well as upon the inanimate, has he established the government of the universe”

          He went on,

          “Nature still continues her progress and operation; and if general laws be ever broke by particular volitions of the deity, ’is after a manner which entirely escapes human observation”(Hume 1985:581)

          His work “On Miracle”, Hume’s aim was not to show that miracles are impossible but that we cannot believe in them from empirical evidence but on faith. This is why after dismantling argument from miracles Hume still concludes that “Our most holy religion is founded on Faith, not on reason” (EHU 10.2, 130)

          Hume’s supreme being and understanding of true theism are scattered in almost all of his works, and one need not simply speculating as to what Hume meant because these passages could be brought together and interpreted in a way that aligns with Hume’s overall understanding. Mostly in his short essays, Hume wrote so much on this being. Example his essay “The Platonist”, Hume wrote:

          “Can we then be so blind as not to discover intelligence and a design in the exquisite and most stupendous contrivance of the universe? Can we be so stupid as not to feel the warmest raptures of worship and adoration, upon the contemplation of that intelligent being, so infinitely good and wise? The most perfect happiness, surely, must arise from the contemplation of the most perfect object. But what is more perfect than beauty and virtue? And where is beauty to be found equal to that of the universe? Or virtue, which can be compared to the benevolence and justice of the Deity”(ibid, 158)

          Sorry that the reply is very long. But in short, I think this article is not for those who are not very interested in whether he was an atheist, but those who are interested and mostly those who hold that Hume was an atheist.

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