Hume, David (1711–76)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB040-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 29, 2023, from

6. Philosophy of religion

Causes and effects of religion. Hume believes that religions, especially primitive religions, spring from the ‘trembling curiosity’ with which men, ‘agitated by hopes and fears’, scrutinize the ‘course of future causes’ affecting their life. Prominent among these fears is the fear of death and what may lie beyond it, and so it is part of Hume’s proposed cure for what he sees as the evils of ‘religion as it has been commonly found in the world’ that this fear be conquered, that he persuade us both that death is ‘annihilation’, which ‘entirely destroys this self’, and that the thought of such future annihilation need be no more repugnant than the thought that, before conception and birth, we were nothing. Hume here repeats Epicurus.

The ‘trembling curiosity’ into future causes affecting our life gets its anxious quality in part from the intensity of the hopes and fears which are involved, in part from uncertainty, in part from the sort of causes which are postulated. Religion involves ‘belief of invisible intelligent power’. ‘Invisible’ signalizes our lack of real understanding of this power; ‘intelligent’ signalizes our determination to make it comprehensible, to treat it as if it were a person, one to whom we can make petitions, who might be placated by our praises and sacrifices. It is our ‘curiosity about causes’, and its imperfect satisfaction by our empirical inquiries, which is the cognitive component of the religious impulse. It is our concern for our own welfare which provides the affective component. Religion evidences both our will to know the causes affecting our welfare, and our only partial success in discovering the determinants of our happiness and misery by natural means, let alone in controlling them.

As scientific understanding of these causal factors increases, religion might be expected to have a less vital role to play, but then, if Hume is right, religion’s role is never purely cognitive. It is our anxiety that needs a palliative, and uncertainty is only part of the cause of our anxiety. There is also our concern for our own future, and science may fail to cater to that. Hume sees the natural development of religion, once natural knowledge grows, to be a shift from polytheism to more ‘rational’ monotheism. Monotheism fits better with a more or less unified account of an orderly universe, whose regularities can be regarded as divine laws. But when one all powerful God is substituted for the many gods of more primitive religions, the reasons for fear of this God are increased, not diminished. Belief in one all-powerful God ‘is apt, when joined to superstitious terrors, to sink the human mind into the lowest submission and abasement’ (The Natural History of Religion: 52). What is more, different religious traditions develop slightly different versions of this one God, who becomes a jealous God, requiring his worshippers not merely to abase themselves, but to go to war against the infidel, and to burn the heretic. Hume sees monotheistic religions to be intellectually less ‘ridiculous’ than the polytheism from which they develop, but to be, morally speaking, much worse. The roots of religion are our ignorance of causes affecting our happiness, our tendency to anthropomorphism, and our desperate fears for our own future. To the extent that ignorance of causes is reduced, without any abatement of our fear of death or our infantile wish that some super-person be in charge of our fate, religion will simply adapt itself to scientific knowledge, not be banished by it. Hume’s thesis in the Treatise, that reason serves the passions, gets special application in the Natural History, where he tries to diagnose the particular passions served by theology and by religious beliefs, and finds that ‘the love of truth’ is ‘too refined’ a motive to explain such beliefs. They are not caused nor can they be cured by rational argument, however refined. If the roots of religion lie as much in our anxious passions and in our will to anthropomorphism as in our interest in causal forces at work in the world, then, to counter religion, more than science and argument will always be needed. The clever arguments put into the sceptic Philo’s mouth in the Dialogues on Natural Religion, and not answered by stronger counterarguments, seem in the end not to convince even Philo himself.

Argument from design. ‘The argument from design’ is put forward in the Dialogues by Cleanthes, a very calm and enthusiasm-free believer, who is of the opinion that ‘religion, however corrupted, is better than no religion at all’, (Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: 219) and who defends the hypothesis that the universe, with the order it displays to our eyes and minds, is the work of an intelligent creator. Philo argues, against Cleanthes, that the hypothesis of an intelligent cause of the universe is only one of several that intelligent human thinkers have come up with, and has no better empirical support than the others. No hypothesis about a supposedly unique cause of a unique effect can have support of the usual inductive sort. Since the universe was not formed under our eye, all we can do is speculate and suggest analogies, taken from the ‘corner’ of the universe we have observed. We know by experience that an orderly effect (that is, one that strikes us as well-ordered) can come about in several ways. It may, like a building, have an intelligent builder as its cause. It may, like a spider’s web, be spun instinctively from the belly of an insect. It may, like a well-formed calf, have come to be by animal ‘generation’. It may, like a well shaped turnip, have grown from seeds, by ‘vegetation’. It may, like patterns in the sand on the beach, have come about by sheer chance. All these local causes of ‘order’ could be used as analogies to explain the order we perceive in the whole universe (or as much of it as we have any knowledge of). None of these known causes of local order are known as ultimate causes. In particular human thought is not. The builder’s plans may have come into his head by observing and imitating natural order, or by copying earlier builders’ work, and by cooperation with his workmates. Orderly thought itself calls for a causal explanation. Thought is often disorderly, and human designs are often botched. So our thought provides a very dubious analogy on which to model a worship-worthy universe-cause. ‘What peculiar privilege has this little agitation in the brain which we call thought, that we must thus make it the model of the whole universe?’ (Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: 148).

Philo eventually answers his own question. Thought has privilege because the question of the cause of the universe arises only for thinkers. So ‘a purpose, an intention, a design strikes everywhere the most careless, the most stupid thinker’ (Dialogues on Natural Religion: 214). Our incurable anthropomorphism, what Hume in the Treatise called our mind’s propensity to spread itself on external objects, ensures the privilege of thought among the many equally well- or ill-founded hypotheses about the cause of the universe. Philo’s conclusion about what human reason can establish is ‘one simple, though somewhat ambiguous, or at least undefined proposition, that the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence’ (Dialogues on Natural Religion: 227; original emphasis). The analogy is not said to be less remote than the others which Philo had proposed. ‘Human intelligence’ is undefined. It may still be being taken as a matter of agitation in the brain. And ‘cause or causes’ is carefully noncommital – reason cannot even establish monotheism over polytheism, let alone establish one intelligent and just cause of order in the universe. The remote analogy is to human intelligence, not to human benevolence or justice.

After this estimate of how little human thought at its least careless and stupid can conclude about the cause or causes of an orderly universe, and after a vivid catalogue of the ‘pernicious consequences’ of ‘religion as it has commonly been found in the world’, Philo purports to fly for alleviation of his ignorance to the revealed truths of Christianity (which, in the Natural History, Hume had argued was effectively polytheistic). Shortly before his dramatic flight, Philo had asked, ‘When we have to do with a man, who makes a great profession of religion and devotion; has this any effect on those who pass for prudent, than to put them on their guard, lest they be cheated and deceived by him?’ (Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: 221). We have been put on our guard, but, as readers of Hume’s Dialogues, we are still left in reasonable doubt about how to interpret the intentions of his characters, let alone of their author. Hume left his readers with a real enigma in the character of Philo, and, more generally, in these Dialogues and in the Natural History. As he wrote to Adam Smith when trying, shortly before his death, to arrange for the publication of the Dialogues, ‘nothing can be more cautiously and more artfully written’, and as he wrote at the end of the Natural History, ‘the whole is a riddle, an aenigma, an inextricable mystery’.

Our prospects. In the Natural History, Hume’s optimistic hypothesis was that ‘the first religious principles must be secondary’, or derivative. In some or even most conditions, human nature leads to religion, to varying religions, and so to religious zeal, religious persecution, religious wars. But religious belief and devotion are not ‘so universal as to admit of no exceptions’, and so do not spring from ‘an original instinct’, as Hume believed that, say, ‘love of progeny’ does. His aim was to diagnose the ‘first principles’ which in so many conditions had religion as their ‘secondary’ manifestation. Part of what we can see him to be doing in his History of England is studying the actual variations in religious (or irreligious) sentiment in one country’s history, as a supplement to the less historical (more ‘natural-historical’) treatment of the varieties of religion that he gives us in the Natural History. His work as a scientist of human nature combined, in his lifelong attention to human religions, with his advocacy of the cause of ‘the party of humankind’, whom he saw to be so threatened by ‘sacred zeal and rancor’. He spoke occasionally of the ‘true religion’. Analogously to ‘true scepticism’, which turns scepticism on scepticism, this can be taken to refer to whatever benign reflection-improved form can be taken by the ‘primary principles’ that get their pathological secondary expression in superstition and in religious enthusiasm.

Hume is no optimist about the human condition. He is well aware of our bloodthirsty history, our record of inhumanity, and in his History he contributes to its recording. Where the Christians see religious devotion as the proper response to acknowledgment of the radical evil in our natures, Hume sees religion itself to be a near-inevitable evil propensity in our natures, one that increases our capacity for cruelty and inhumanity, and calls for some secular salvation. This turning of the tables yields a perhaps over-simplified diagnosis of the main causes of human misery, but its originality, its daring, and its considerable explanatory power can scarcely be gainsaid.

Citing this article:
Garrett, Don. Philosophy of religion. Hume, David (1711–76), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB040-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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