A CRITICAL EVALUATION OF DAVID HUME’S CRITIQUE OF NATURAL RELIGION

Abstract

David Hume (1711-1776) ranks among the greatest of philosophers and issues of religion lie at the heart of what most concerned him. Although the exact nature of Hume’s attitude to religion is a matter of some controversy, there is general agreement that his basic stance was critical, if not hostile, to the doctrines and dogmas of orthodox religious belief and practice. There remains, however, considerable disagreement about whether or not Hume believed that there is any truth or value in religion. According to some, Hume was a sceptic who regarded all conjectures relating to religious hypotheses to be beyond the scope of human understanding – he neither affirmed nor denied these conjectures. Others read Hume as embracing a highly refined form of “true religion”. On the other side of this spectrum, it is claimed that Hume was committed to atheism, although due to social conditions at the time, this had to be (thinly) concealed or masked. The aim of this article is to provide an overview of Hume’s core concerns and arguments on this subject and to provide the reader with a framework for interpreting and assessing his various contributions.

CHAPTER ONE

METHODOLOGICAL CONSIDERATION

BACKGROUND TO STUDY

Hume’s philosophy of religion is generally interpreted against the background of a broader interpretation of his philosophy and the historical context in which it arose. One of the most familiar and deeply entrenched perspectives on Hume’s philosophy is that he belongs in the “British Empiricist” tradition – the last member of the great triumvirate of “Locke-Berkeley-Hume”. Viewed this way, Hume’s philosophy is understood as an effort to draw out the systematic sceptical implications of empiricist principles, whereby even our most common sense beliefs are brought into doubt and shown to lack rational credentials. Hume’s sceptical critique of religion is, according to this account, just one dimension of his overall empiricist-sceptical program. It is argued, moreover, his concern with religion was a later development in his thinking, one that eventually culminates in his posthumous Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779).

An alternative understanding of Hume’s philosophy, takes religion to be more fundamental in the development of this thought. More specifically, according to the irreligious interpretation, Hume’s first and most ambitious work, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), is deeply rooted in debates between “religious philosophers” and “speculative atheists” that dominated British philosophy throughout the late 17th and early 18th centuries. It is this debate – not the anachronistic, post-Kantian empiricist/rationalist divide – that shaped and motivated Hume’s most fundamental concerns throughout his philosophy, continuing from the Treatise through to the Dialogues (Russell 2008; Russell 2016). Both Hume’s skeptical and naturalistic principles, it is argued, are carefully crafted to serve his core irreligious aims and objectives. With respect to both these elements of his philosophy, Hume’s objective is to challenge and discredit the doctrines and dogmas of the Christian religion. Read this way, Hume should be understood as belonging to an irreligious tradition of thought of which the most celebrated representatives were Hobbes and Spinoza. His primary targets, consistent with this, were a set of apologists for the Christian religion, the most prominent of whom included Descartes, Locke and, especially, Samuel Clarke (a close associate and ally of Isaac Newton). It was Hume’s concern, according to this reading, to show that religion received little or no support from philosophy and, paired with this, that morality required little or no support from religion. These two issues were fundamental to the core debate between religious philosophers and speculative atheists. On both issues Hume sides decisively with the latter party on both.

STATEMENT OF THE PROBLEM:

This research study is in the area of philosophy of religion. Joseph Omoregbe, in his book A philosophical look at Religion has defined philosophy of religion as “free, unprejudiced rational inquiry into the nature, meaning and purpose of religion or is a defence of religion, but and unprejudiced investigation into the nature, meaning and purpose of religion and the truth value of religious tenets. The truth value of religion has to do with the truth or falsity of the religion. It lets us know whether religion is worth practicing. The question of truth value has to do with whether to engage in a religious activity is worthwhile. Truth value the way we understand it is what makes a theory or a religious system reasonable to believe. If the truth of a religious system is verified and confirmed to be true, it will give its adherents the motive power to put more effort in the course they believe. This is our task in this study and this will be done within the context of David Hume’ view on Religion.

David Hume was a Scottish philosopher who is generally regarded as the greatest of the British empiricist and it is said that he took empiricism to its logical conclusion which is skepticism.

Hume applied his rigorous empiricist logic to examining religious matters and drew some skeptical conclusion, this is the issue we want to critically examine in this study. The central problem then and controlling question of this study is was Hume an atheist? Our response will be in the negative, as we shall argue subsequently.

1.2   OBJECTIVE OF THE STUDY

Our objective in this study is to critically analyse and evaluate the views of David Hume on religion with a view to determining the validity or otherwise of the description of Hume as an atheist. An atheist is one who maintains that there is no God. Now, the question is, was this the position of David Hume?

Stated differently, our objective in this study is  to carry out a detailed critical study of natural religion.

We also aim to study Hume’s controversial essay “of miracles” which appeared in his An Enquiry Concerning Human understanding. A reading of these two pieces gives us a clear picture of Hume’s views on religion; and this is our objective in this study.

1.3   SIGNIFICANCE OF THE STUDY

This study is significant because not much attention has been paid or interest shown in studying Hume’s Philosophy of religion. Hume is basically renowned for his empiricist epistemological principles, but not many know how he applied these principles in the realm of religion. Hume’s works, A treatise of Human nature and An enquiry concerning Human understanding have received more attention than his Dialogues concerning natural religion. Perhaps this is because the Dialogues were published post thumously.

Consequently, this study is significant as it draws our attention and invites us to critically reflect on Hume’s views on religion with the aim of appraising such views and establishing it validity or relevance.

1.4   METHOD AND SCOPE OF THE STUDY

Every discipline, every science has its peculiar method of investigation,, this being a treatise in philosophy, one would be expected to apply the method or methods of philosophical enquiry or investigation. The activity of philosophizing is essentially a reflective activity, thus the method of philosophy involves several related activities. Speculation, analysis, critical evaluation, logical explanation and prescription, since the philosophical method relies on ‘pure reason’ the critical temperament is carried all through the study.

David Hume’s philosophy of religion will be critically examined and its implication will be highlighted. This will clearly show the strengths or weakness of Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, but the scope of our study is not limited to the dialogues, we need to have a general understanding of Hume’s empiricist epistemological formulation, particularly his theory of impression, and ideas, because this is the foundation upon which his entire philosophical system rests, as well as his attack on religion.

1.5   ORGANISATION OF THE STUDY

The study is broken up into four chapters. The first chapter concerns itself with the methodological consideration. This chapter is introductory and states the problem, the objective and purpose of the study. Its significance and justification the method adopted in the study in the scope of the study.

Our concern in the second chapter is of broad over view of Hume’s philosophy. Here we will examine his postulations in epistemology for which he has won great renown in Ethics, in this chapter we will also attempt to bring to focus Hume’s place in the history of philosophy.

The third chapter focuses on Hume’s views on religion and this is the main concern of our study, we examine first Hume’s concept of God and then his criticism of the argument from design as a proof of God’s existence. We also in this chapter examine Hume’s views on miracles, Hume was highly skeptical of reports of miracle as we shall see subsequently.

Hume also addressed the question of the presence of evil in the world that an infinitely good and omnipotent deity created. We also concern ourselves with those issues in chapter three that chapter is rounded up with a discussion of Hume’s views on soul and his position on religion generally.

The fourth and concluding chapter is evaluation. Here we critically examine the postulations of Hume presented earlier with a view to discovering the strengths or weaknesses of his arguments. We also examine the position of some commentators and interpreters of Hume’s position. Generally Hume is considered to be an atheist in matters of God and religion. But we raise the critical question, is this classification of Hume correct?