Empiricist David Hume’s Theory of Religion

David Hume (1711–1776) was a philosopher, historian, and essayist whose work remains influential today in several disciplines including philosophy and religious studies. Before examining Hume’s theory of religion, we must contextualize him as an empiricist.

Hume is both a proponent of empiricism and naturalism. His empiricism leads him to question much of metaphysics because of its endless quarreling. In particular, ancient philosophy focused too much on speculation rather than on experience and observation, and relied on a priori assumptions (1). But Hume’s critique of speculative philosophy was not to undermine philosophy itself. Rather, his critique attempts to pave the foundations for an empirical metaphysics. 

Hume’s empiricism is naturalistic in that he does not wish to appeal to the supernatural as an explanation for anything, whether that be for human nature, the mind, or religion. This empiricism demands that experience is at the bottom of everything people experience. We will come to see how Hume locates religion not in supernaturalism but in naturalism according to which all religious phenomena, such as belief in God, the origin and evolution of religion, and much else, have naturalistic explanations.

Hume on Religion 

Hume’s ideas were noted for their perceived hostility towards religion. Indeed, as we will come to see, Hume was critical of widely held religious views of his time. To emerge from his hand are several works touching on the topic. There is his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), Natural History of Religion (1757), and Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), published posthumously, to name just a few. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion offers skeptical analyses of arguments for God’s existence and An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding takes to task belief in miracles. 

Hume realizes the importance of engaging religion stating that “As every enquiry, which regards religion, is of the utmost importance” (2). But one should not take this as Hume affirming a positive view of religion. For instance, at the conclusion of Natural History, Hume states that when we “Examine the religious principles” prevailing in the world, we find them to be “sick men’s dreams: Or perhaps will regard them more as the playsome whimsies of monkies in human shape, than the serious, positive, dogmatical asservations of a being, who dignifies himself with the name of rational” (3). He further knocks theology stating that “all popular theology, especially the scholastic, has a kind of appetite for absurdity and contradiction” (4). 

Perhaps confusing is that Hume also perceives something positive in religion. He warns his readers to “Look out for a people, entirely destitute of religion: If you find them at all, be assured, that they are but a few degrees removed from the brutes” (5). These statements have intrigued Humean specialists to make sense of his personal view of religion. But it is unclear what Hume’s personal religious or irreligious worldview is, although it is obvious he is a skeptic and no theist in any traditional sense. Scholar Paul Rusell posits that Hume’s worldview is “irreligion” for this avoids “any connotations of a dogmatic or rigid atheism” but “also makes clear that Hume’s fundamental attitude towards religion (qua various forms of thick theism) is one of systematic hostility – that is, he believes we are better off without religion and religious hypotheses and speculations” (6).

Hume distinguishes between “false” religion of “vulgar” superstition and philosophical “true religion” (7). It is not exactly clear what Hume means by “true religion” although he seems to think that “false” religion’s superstition and enthusiasm are “the corruptions of true religion” (8). Commentators speculate what Hume’s “true” religion is. Gordon Graham cites the religious studies scholar Andre Willis who states that Hume did “not have a set of secret religious beliefs or intentions” but still “wanted a true religion, not a deeper secularism or a more virtuous atheism” (9). Gordon says Hume does not have a clear conception of “true” religion and P. J. E. Kail writes that the concept is “vacuous in its contents and consequences that it is scarcely a religion” (10). Whatever “true” religion is, it does little to take away from Hume’s coordinated assault on traditional religion.

On the Origin of religion

Hume’s Natural History tries to account for the origin and evolution of religious belief (11). Motivating Hume’s writing of this book is his realization of just how widespread religious belief in humanity is. Religion involves belief in “invisible, intelligent power[s]” that “has been very generally diffused over the human race, in all places and in all ages” (12).

Hume’s book was not warmly received by its critics. William Warburton (1698-1779), an early critic, alleged that Natural History wanted to “to establish naturalism, a species of atheism” (13) and the professor of moral philosophy James Beattie claimed that Hume did harm in his efforts to “subvert the principles of truth, virtue and religion” (14). This skepticism might well be justified since Hume’s “naturalistic” approach intends to demonstrate that religious belief reflects human weakness, limitations, and vulnerabilities. Hume wants to discredit any notion that religion rests upon reason or philosophical justification.

Hume thinks that if he can discover and isolate the origin of religion in some naturalistic cause, then this will discredit religious belief itself. Hume thus theorizes that the earliest “primary” religion of humanity was “polytheism”, “the first and most ancient religion of mankind” (15). The further one looks back into ancient history, the “more do we find mankind plunged into polytheism… The most ancient records of the human race still present us with that system as the popular and established creed… in ancient times, appear universally to have been polytheists” (16). 

Polytheism was a religion of “idolators” containing many “limited and imperfect deities” lying behind storms, diseases, famines, and wars (17). The elements of nature were subjected to the power of invisible agents and gods who themselves proved unpredictable in their interactions with humanity: “To-day he protects: To-morrow he abandons us.” But this did not deter humans from performing all kinds of rituals, rites, and ceremonies as a manner of persuasion to gain the favor of the gods.

Hume thus places the origin of polytheism (and religion) in the hopes and fears of humanity that emerged from the “various and contrary events of human life” (disease, wars, natural disasters, etc.). He claims that the “first ideas of religion arose not from a contemplation of nature, but from a concern with regard to the events of life, and from the incessant hopes and fears, which actuate the human mind” (18). Religion and belief in the gods emerged as humanity tried to exert control over that which is feared and did not understand.

Having claimed that religion originated in fear, Hume implicates theism by asserting that it has also been shaped by irrational forces. Just as polytheistic beliefs “are no better than the elves or fairies of our ancestors, and merit as little any pious worship or veneration”, so must theism be little better than these since it is a later product of the same irrational forces (19). 

Hume hypothesizes how theism emerged from polytheism. People attributed to the gods traits that somehow reflected themselves. For example, the god of poetry was ascribed the traits of elegance, politeness, and amicability; the god of merchandise that of thievishness and deceit; the god of war that of cruelty and ferocity (20). Over time, a god was gradually selected as an object of veneration and worship (21). Desiring to exalt and please this god, its worshipers attributed superior powers and perfections to the god until it became conceptualized as perfect and infinite. The nature of the god became ineffable and mysterious, and so monotheism was born.

God and Arguments for God

Hume argues that we cannot know anything about God: God is “a Being, so remote and incomprehensible, who bears much less analogy to any other being in the universe than the sun to a waxen taper, and who discovers himself only by some faint traces or outlines, beyond which we have no authority to ascribe to him any attribute or perfection” (22). Knowledge of God in human thought is impossible, 

“All the philosophy, therefore, in the world, and all the religion, which is nothing but a species of philosophy, will never be able to carry us beyond the usual course of experience, or give us measures of conduct and behaviour different from those which are furnished by reflections on common life” (23).

Whatever God is, it does not exist “out there” in the universe or in some transcendent state, but is the product of human psychology and ideas within the mind: the “idea of God… arises from reflecting on the operations of our own mind, and augmenting, without limit, those qualities of goodness and wisdom” (24). Equally, religion has its “origin in human nature” and not in revelation or supernaturalism.

With such skepticism in hand, it is only natural that Hume guns for arguments theists use to justify belief in God, especially those from natural theology. In particular, he criticizes the cosmological and design arguments. Hume wants to undermine the casual logic embraced by others, such as by John Locke (1632-1704) and Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688), who maintain that whatever exists must have a cause or ground for its existence, which is an essential component in the cosmological argument that posits that the universe, since it exists, itself must have a cause. 

Hume counters this by asserting that it is possible to conceive of something beginning to exist without a cause (25). There is, he thinks, no contradiction affirming this and so the casual principle is neither intuitively nor demonstratively certain. Hume contends that it is not possible to show that his counter view to the causal principle is inconceivable or absurd. It is then conceivable or logically possible that a causal series has always existed without any ground for its existence or that came into existence uncreated.

A criticism Hume makes against the design argument, but which I think is arguably more pertinent to his criticism of the cosmological argument, concerns the inductive inference made to support the cosmological argument. We can only infer a cause—say that B is caused by A—after we have observed many cases of Bs causing As. But can we infer a creator or cause of the universe if the universe’s creation was a once-off event? Hume thinks not.

Hume then turns to undermine the design argument, although he acknowledges that it is one of the more plausible cases for theism (26). This argument claims that the order in nature/universe is similar to complex artifacts created by humans (such as a watch or a work of art, for instance) and thus appears to be designed, or the product of an intelligent designer.

Hume retorts that this comparison cannot be made since the gap between human-made artifacts and the universe is too great. He uses the example of a house. When we see a house, we can rightfully affirm an architect or builder as the designer behind it. Can one then say that the universe resembles the house and therefore must also have had an “architect”? Hume says no. He argues that inferring the design of the universe from that of a house is a faulty analogy: “But surely you will not affirm, that the universe bears such a resemblance to a house, that we can with the same certainty infer a similar cause, or that the analogy is here entire and perfect” (27). Since the house and universe are so dissimilar, to say that there must be a cause of the latter based on an analogy of a house is no more than “a conjecture, a presumption concerning a similar cause”. 

It is further conjectural Hume argues because our experience of the universe is very limited to a “narrow corner”. Thus, how can our knowledge of the whole be anything less than speculative? We cannot know the universe is designed since “the subject lies entirely beyond the reach of human experience” (28). Further, if our experience of the universe is finite and corporeal, then how can we infer an infinite designer?

Hume argues that human-created artifacts have purposes in that they work toward an end or goal. The universe, however, is unlike this since it has no end towards which it is moving. Indeed, “A man finding a watch or any other machine in a desert island” could “conclude that there had once been men in that island” (29). But universes are unlike watches.

Hume further rules out the immortal soul. He maintains that consciousness is dependent on bodily existence which, by implication, must mean that it dies upon bodily death (30). He contests the view held by his contemporaries that the mind is distinct from matter because it is simple and indivisible, whereas matter is divisible. The notion of substance is “confused and imperfect” especially since we lack any understanding of what material and immaterial substances are: “Matter, therefore, and spirit are at bottom equally unknown” (31). It is simply unknown if consciousness exists within an immaterial substance. 

The Problem of Evil 

Enquiry and Dialogues take up the problem of evil, which Hume considers to constitute one of the more serious contenders against there being a good, benevolent God. At the argument’s core is the notion that evil is real and that any beauty and order in the universe being evidence for God must be doubted in light of it. All the evil, misery, and suffering in the world “is not, by any means, what we expect from infinite power, infinite wisdom, and infinite goodness” (32).

Hume presents the ancient objection raised by the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE). This objection is commonly known today as the Epicurean Dilemma and goes likes this: “Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?” (33)

Hume is convinced that this argument proves that the existence of evil and suffering in the world is incompatible with a morally perfect and omnipotent God. He maintains that the Epicurus’ charge is “yet unanswered” and that “Nothing can shake the solidity of this reasoning, so short, so clear, so decisive…”

One comeback Hume anticipates is the claim that there is no such thing as real evil in the world, only apparent evil. But he retorts that this notion runs contrary to human experience in which evil certainly appears real.

Another comeback is that God is moral in ways that finite human beings cannot imagine. But this appeal to mystery is, retorts Hume, speculative and runs counter to empiricist principles. What about the argument that evil in the world is necessary? Does this get God off the hook? Hume thinks not as any reason for evil’s necessity is “unknown to us” (34). Further, the believer must be able to show that all evil is necessary. But this is, argues Hume, impossible which means the believer can never support this claim.

Hume’s conclusion, which we assume emerges through the voice of the character Philo (Dialogues has Hume creating fictional characters through whom views and arguments are presented), is that the evil in the world is best explained by an indifferent God. This cannot be an evil God since there is much good in the world; neither can it be a good God since there is much evil in the world. Nonetheless, in the end, the theist or religious believer must still face the problem of evil which, in Hume’s view, remains unanswered.

Miracles

Arguably one of Hume’s most well-known aspects of his work is his skepticism of miracles. Hume is aware that miracles provide religion, notably Christianity, with credibility, which is a point he does not wish to concede. He recognizes that miracles are essential to Christianity in that the religion is “not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one” (35). A miracle is the “transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity” (36) but that there is “insufficient [evidence] to convince us of its [the miracle’s] veracity” (37). 

Hume makes several charges. First, “a miracle is a violation of a law of nature” that is, based on experience, established beyond doubt (38). Further, it is more probable that a witness to a miracle (Hume uses an example of the resurrection of a deceased man being restored to life) is mistaken or deceiving others than the miracle being legitimate (39). Underlying this supposition is the claim that our “uniform experience” of the regularities of nature clashes with a supposed miracle and that, as a result, we should not believe it. Even if a “miracle” is witnessed by many people, Hume would rather believe there is a hoax involved. He uses the example of a hypothetical resurrection of Queen Elizabeth to make his point,

“But suppose, that all the historians who treat of England, should agree, that, on the first of January 1600, Queen Elizabeth died; that both before and after her death she was seen by her physicians and the whole court, as is usual with persons of her rank; that her successor was acknowledged and proclaimed by the parliament; and that, after being interred a month, she again appeared, resumed the throne, and governed England for three years: I must confess that I should be surprized at the concurrence of so many odd circumstances, but should not have the least inclination to believe so miraculous an event. I should not doubt of her pretended death, and of those other public circumstances that followed it: I should only assert it to have been pretended, and that it neither was, nor possibly could be real” (40).

There is also the issue of testimonial credibility to miracles. Miracles, writes Hume, have never been “attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good-sense, education, and learning” as to convince us that delusion or deceit is not involved (41). When judging a miracle claim, one should take into account whether or not the witness to a miracle has much to lose if he is lying or deceiving others. Nonetheless, if “any suspicion remain”, writes Hume, “that the event and command concurred by accident, there is no miracle and no transgression of the laws of nature” (42). 

Third, Hume thinks that miracles are believed and witnessed “chiefly” by “ignorant and barbarous nations” or peoples. It is strange, he thinks, “that such prodigious events never happen in our days” (43). Hume argues that as humanity progresses away from its “barbarous ancestors” into more “enlightened ages”, it learns that “there is nothing mysterious or supernatural” behind events traditionally deemed so. Miracles never happen in our days and are never witnessed by “civilized people”. But despite humanity’s progress, superstitious beliefs in miracles “can never be thoroughly extirpated from human nature”. Hume thinks belief in miracles is the product of the “passion of surprise and wonder” and “agreeable emotions” (44).

Importantly, Hume is not saying that miracles are impossible. He does not think that there is an inherent logical contradiction to think that the laws of nature could be violated. Rather, as a thoroughgoing naturalist, he just supposes that a hidden natural cause consistent with the experience of the laws of nature will be discovered behind supposedly extraordinary events and that a supernatural miracle is not needed as an explanation.

Reflections and Implications

Hume’s views of religion have engendered swathes of reflection, discussion, and criticism over the past three centuries.

Some of Hume’s insights remain relevant today because they touch on perennial questions such as, for instance, the problem of evil and suffering. This problem was raised by Epicurus in the fourth century BCE, popularized by Hume, and is of continued discussion in disciplines such as theology and the philosophy of religion. The problem of evil and suffering puts theists who hold to a belief in an all-good and all-powerful God on the defensive and in need of having to come up with convincing explanations to account for it. Theistic philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig concedes that “The problem of evil is certainly the greatest obstacle to belief in the existence of God. When I ponder both the extent and depth of suffering in the world, whether due to man’s inhumanity to man or to natural disasters, then I must confess that I find it hard to believe that God exists” (45).

The rejection of miracles by many modern-day skeptics traces back to Hume’s naturalism. For contemporary philosophical materialists and naturalists, miracles cannot happen because they are considered violations of the laws of nature and there is no God or transcendent Being external to the universe to make them occur.

Nonetheless, Hume’s skepticism of miracles has been met with much criticism. Some critics argue that his skepticism is question-begging when asserting that uniform experience is against miracles. As William Lane Craig counters: “To say that uniform experience is against miracles is implicitly to assume already that the alleged miracle has not occurred; that all miracle reports are false. Otherwise [if a miracle has occurred] truly uniform experience would not be against miracles. So the whole argument is reasoning in a circle if we take uniform experience to rule out by definition the occurrence of miracles” (46). The writer C. S. Lewis also identified this circularity: “[W]e know the experience against [miracles] to be uniform only if we know that all the reports of them are false. And we can know all the reports to be false only if we know already that miracles have never occurred. In fact, we are arguing in a circle” (47). 

Critics might contend against Hume’s view that miracles have never been attested by those of “unquestioned good-sense, education, and learning.” This assumes that no educated person or individual of “good-sense” has witnessed a miracle. It is also making an epistemic claim that goes beyond what one could know. How would Hume have known that no educated person has not witnessed a miracle? Further, the historian Craig Keener has offered an extended examination of miracle testimonies and discovered various people of “education” and “learning”, including scientists, doctors, and scholars, claim to witness miracles (48). This is not to say that these miracles are authentic; rather, it is to challenge Hume’s claim that only the “uneducated” witness what are perceived to be miracles.

It would be interesting to see what criticisms of the cosmological argument Hume would offer based on present-day understandings of the intricacies of the universe today (e.g. of the constants of nature). Hume classified his contention against the cosmological argument as arguments a priori. Today, unlike during Hume’s time, cosmological arguments are considered a posteriori. Physical evidence (e.g. the constants of nature) is used by advocates of the argument to support the logical conclusion of there being a designer. But how might have Hume countered this should such evidence have been available in his day? 

Most relevant to the academic study of religion, notably as it exists as a discipline today, is whether or not Hume offers a sufficient concept of religion. Central to religion, Hume believes, is belief in an “invisible intelligent power” which he considers “almost universal” among “mankind”. Although this might account for some theistic religions, Hume does not consider non-theistic religions (e.g. Buddhism or Confucianism). Hume’s definition is thus just as limited as others, such as the anthropologist E. B. Tylor’s conception of religion being belief in “spiritual beings”. Hume’s definition is too reductionist since it neglects swathes of religious phenomena (e.g. the institutional, material, ethical, practical, narrative, and experiential dimensions).

Hume’s many views in his theory of religion will continue to engender discussion and debate in the present era. His broad skepticism of religion will be met by religious apologists seeking to defend their religious traditions. Hume will continue to invite discussion in the philosophy of religion and philosophy in general.

References

1. Morris, William Edward., and Brown, Charlotte R. 2001. David Hume. Available.

2. Hume, David. 2007. The Natural Historical of Religion. Toronto: Aegitas. p. 3.

3. Hume, David. 2007. Ibid. p. 75. 

4. Hume, David. 2007. Ibid. p. 49.

5. Hume, David. 2007. Ibid. p. 77.

6. Russell, Paul. 2016. “Hume on Religion.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. p. 64.

7. Hume, David. 2012. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. AUK Classics. p. 121.

8. Hume, David. 1963. Essays, Moral, Political and Literary. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 75.

9. Graham, Gordon. 2016. “Hume and Smith on Natural Religion.” Philosophy 91(3):345-360. p. 348. 

10. Kail, P. J. E. 2007. “Understanding Hume’s Natural History of Religion.” The Philosophical Quarterly 57(227):190-211. p. 190.

11. Russell, Paul. 2016. Ibid. p. 47-52.

12. Hume, David. 2007. Ibid. p. 3.

13. Warburton, William. 1841. A Selection From Unpublished Papers of the Right Reverend William Warburton, D.D., Late Lord Bishop of Glocester. J.B. Nichols and son. p. 309. 

14. Forbes, William. 1824. An Account of the Life and Writings of James Beattie. E. Roper. p. 122.

15. Hume, David. 2007. Ibid. p. 5.

16. Hume, David. 2007. Ibid. p. 5.

17. Hume, David. 2007. Ibid. p. 11.

18. Hume, David. 2007. Ibid. p. 12. 

19. Hume, David. 2007. Ibid. p. 20.

20. Hume, David. 2007. Ibid. 27-28.

21. Russell, Paul. 2016. Ibid. p. 50.

22. Hume, David. 2010. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Digireads.com Publishing. p. 149.

23. Hume, David. 2010. p. 149.

24. Hume, David. 2010. p. 18, 65.

25. Russell, Paul. 2016. Ibid. p. 16-17.

26. Hume, David. 2007. Ibid. p. 3.

27. Hume, David. 2012. Ibid. p. 27.

28. Hume, David. 2010. Ibid. p. 145.

29. Hume, David. 2010. Ibid. p. 25.

30. Russell, Paul. 2016. Ibid. p. 43-44.

31. Hume, David. 1799. Essays on Suicide and the Immortality of the Soul. Decker. p. 15.

32. Hume, David. 2012. Ibid. p. 96.

33. Hume, David. 2012. Ibid. p. 93.

34. Hume, David. 2012. Ibid. p. 104.

35. Hume, David. 2010. Ibid. p. 132.

36. Hume, David. 2010. Ibid. p. 182.

37. Hume, David. 2010. Ibid. p. 133.

38. Hume, David. 2010. Ibid. p. 114.

39. Hume, David. 2010. Ibid. p. 116.

40. Hume, David. 2010. Ibid. p. 129.

41. Hume, David. 2010. Ibid. p. 116.

42. Hume, David. 2010. Ibid. p. 182

43. Hume, David. 2010. Ibid. p. 120-121.

44. Hume, David. 2010. Ibid. p. 118.

45. Craig, William Lane. n.d. The Problem of Evil. Available.

46. Craig, William Lane. 2018. Doctrine of Creation (Part 18): Determining the Intrinsic Probability of the Resurrection. Available.

47. Lindsley, Art. 2014. C.S. Lewis on Miracles. Available.

48. Keener, Craig. 2011. Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts. Baker Academic.

Let me know your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s