David Hume’s Genuine Theism

David Hume

“All the new discoveries in astronomy,” explained David Hume quo Philo, “which prove the immense grandeur and magnificence of the works of Nature, are so many additional arguments for a Deity, according to the true system of Theism.” (DNR 165)

Superstition, following Hume, ravishes from us the “presents of God and Nature”. Liberation from the slavery of the grossest superstition and false religion was Hume’s driving force in his campaign against superstition (Roman Catholicism) and enthusiasm (Protestantism) orthodoxy theism.  He explained,

That the corruption of the best things produces the worst, is grown into a maxim, and is commonly proved, among other instances, by the pernicious effects of superstition and enthusiasm, the corruptions of true religion. (E 73)

Sound philosophy and philosophical skepticism were not only the route to weed out superstition, man’s worst enemy, and false religion but also the route to establish a “true system of theism” and true religion.

Hume went head-on against rationalist orthodoxy, which assumed that religious beliefs can be defended by the principles of human reason. In its place he resurrected a “genuine theism” or “true religion” that is aesthetically founded. After dismantling rationalist argument from miracles, for example, Hume resolved that: “Our most holy religion is founded on Faith, not on reason; and it is a sure method of exposing it to put it to such a trial as it is, by no means, fitted to endure.”(EHU II, 135).

True theism emerges from aesthetic escalation of beauty and wonderful scenes in nature. There is no intelligent person who is so blind and senseless not to see the “regularity and uniformity of nature” and the awareness it strikes us (DNR 214¹). Hume rhetorically inquired:

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(E 158)

The “regularity and uniformity of nature” is for Hume the “strongest proof of design and of a supreme intelligence”(NHR 329). Philo’s skepticism is relaxed when it came to aesthetic appreciation that is poured out from reflecting the wonderful scenes of the parts of universe. “[T]he beauty and fitness of final causes strike us with such irresistible force, that all objections appear (what I[Philo] believe they really are) mere cavils and sophisms”( (DNR 201)

Cleanthes resounded the role of true religion², which Hume drafted in History of England vol. II but did not publish³. He contended that:

The proper office of religion is to regulate the heart of men, humanize their conduct, infuse the spirit of temperance, order, and obedience; and as its operation is silent, and only enforces the motives of morality and justice, it is in danger of being overlooked, and confounded with these other motives (DNR 220)

Hume’s criticism against rationalist orthodoxy should not be read as leading to atheism but  “pure theism” and “true religion”. Hume’s aim was to restore the gifts of a Deity and nature that was kept captive by superstition. Belief in the designer and supreme intelligent Deity is not founded through human reason but aesthetic appreciation of the “regularity and uniformity of nature”.

[1] See also NHR 309, 311, 317 & 325

[2] See E 581 for the providence of Hume’s Deity

[3] Mossner, Ernest C. (1954) The Life of David Hume. Austin: University of Texas Press. pp. 306-7


Hume, David (1947) Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, ed. Norman Kemp Smith. Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill.

_________ (1978) A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge, 2nd  ed. revised by P. H. Nidditch. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

_________(1882) The Natural History of Religion, from Philosophical Works of David Hume, ed. T. H. Green and T. H. Grose. London: Longmans, Green.

_________ (1987). Essay, Moral, Political, and Literary. E. F. Miller (Ed.) Indianapolis: Liberty Classics Pub.