The Reading Room
David Hume’s Great Work on Religion Is Banned, Along with All His Books
The Christian religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one.—David Hume
The life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster.—David Hume
By the early 1770s, when the great philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment David Hume had completed his final, hugely influential contribution to the history of modern philosophy, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, his entire career—and his life—had been cast in shadow by his reputation as an atheist.
Many earlier works, especially an essay Hume published on miracles, had convinced the reading public, but more particularly his fellow philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, that his repeated claims that he did not deny God’s existence were mere politicking. After all, the Church of Scotland (the “Kirk”) had initiated proceedings to try him for infidelity—a serious charge—but had been dissuaded by his influential friends. (Apparently, a decisive argument was that Hume was not a member of the Church and thus his beliefs were none of its official business.)
Historians of philosophy today generally characterize Hume as something other than an atheist. Some call him a “skeptic,” some a “weak deist,” some “irreligious.” It is certain, however, that he was not a Christian of any stripe.
Perhaps more significant, since Hume was not a wealthy man (brought up from age two by his widowed mother), some of the renowned intellectuals who tried to protect him from persecution for his beliefs because of his “atheism” blocked his appointment to the Chair of Pneumatics and Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. His earlier publications on “the science of man” (e.g., the nature of the human mind, the requirements of knowledge) and on moral philosophy (actually “mores,” the nature of human relations, society)—to name only two of his historic contributions to Enlightenment disciplines—made him the obvious choice for the chair. Later, a supposedly more “neutral” position, the Chair of Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, also was denied to Hume. Even his close friend Adam Smith, who had vacated the chair, opposed Hume’s appointment. As a kind of consolation prize, he was made librarian of the Faculty of Advocates of the University of Edinburgh.
In Dialogues, Hume did not claim that God does not exist. At least to that extent, his protestations against the label “atheist” were true. Instead, the Dialogues wrote the very issue of God’s existence out of the Enlightenment. (See “The Eighteenth Century’s Boundless Optimism Collides with Hume.”) He directed his powerful skeptical arguments against two claims advanced by scientists and secular philosophers ever since the early seventeenth century (the Age of Science):
- First, that man’s reason (science) could understand nature, potentially anything, because knowable laws governed the world created by God.
- Second, this understanding of nature told man all that he could know about the creator, including that the creation had been designed for man’s benefit and thriving.
This understanding of nature, nature’s creator, and man’s position in the creation made unnecessary revelation (including the Bible), faith in God’s benevolence, knowledge through grace, and the entire apparatus of mediation between God and man represented by the clergy. The entire religious establishment promoted only confusion, intolerance, blood wars among sects, and, in the process, promoted their own livings and all their centuries of economic burdens on mankind.
But take heart, claimed the scientists, philosophers, and others crusading against the church, especially the Roman Catholic Church. Any individual by using reason—by observation and understanding of nature—could comprehend all there was to know about God. And that comprehension would be valid according to the canons of the Age of Enlightenment: reason, experience, observation, and the methods of science. This was the position broadly called “deism,” the credo embraced by virtually all Enlightenment intellectuals, even (or especially) those like Voltaire, Ethan Allen, Diderot, and Thomas Jefferson, who campaigned against all “organized religion” and the entire religious establishment.
And now, David Hume says, “No. Not true. None of it.”
He did not say it in his own voice. To put some distance between himself and the book’s arguments, he presented everything as dialogues among three characters: one expressing the view of established religion, one the deist line, and one, Philo the skeptic, widely assumed to be expressing arguments intended by Hume.
In capsule summary, those arguments were that we cannot conclude that nature had a “creator,” we cannot conclude that nature has any perceptible consistent “design,” and we cannot conclude that nature is “beneficent” toward humans or even created with humans and human life in mind at all.
But go right ahead and believe in God—just don’t do so in the name of reason and science.
Most of Hume’s fellow Enlightenment thinkers and most philosophers in the centuries since publication of Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion have viewed Hume’s arguments as devastatingly effective and fatal to deism, never mind to traditional Christian theology. He is viewed as delivering a blow from which the “argument from design” could never recover, although the final divorce of that argument from any pretension to science did not come until publication in 1859 of Darwin’s Origin of Species. (Darwin claimed that Hume had been crucial to his thinking.)
Realize that Hume had spent his entire career, in a sense, preparing for this assault on what he saw as the scientific pretensions of the new Enlightenment “natural religion.” (See “David Hume: Skepticism, Pessimism, Enlightenment.”) His epistemology (theory of knowledge) in Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals had pushed to its logical conclusion the principle that we can know only our own experiences—not a supposed “real world” conveyed to us in our perceptions. All our valid ideas are based only on this experience, and as such are only probable, not certain. “Metaphysics,” “speculation,” “abstraction,” “rationalism” (for example, the ideas of Descartes and Leibniz)—all are worthless if our goal is knowledge.
Take, for example, our concept of a “cause” that brings about an effect. Did you ever observe a cause? You observed one rolling billiard ball striking another ball and the second ball move. And, so far, that observation seems consistent. But that is all we can say. There is a constant correlation between two actions. Any talk of a “cause” is “metaphysical,” just “speculation.”
This epistemology, worked out in great detail, is brought to bear by Hume in his critiques of the major claims of deism and other religious positions. Indeed, Hume—for reasons we can understand—seems to have waited for his final major work to apply to religion the structure of scientific inquiry he had originated and refined over decades.
When Hume had finished writing Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, and circulated it among the Edinburgh intellectuals, including Smith, they advised—actually implored—him not to publish it until after his death. His publisher, too, joined this chorus of warnings.
It did not turn out to be a lengthy delay. Hume died of abdominal cancer a few years later, in 1776 (and so did not see the American and French Revolutions, both historic earthquakes attributed in large measure to Enlightenment ideas like Hume’s). During his last years, Hume made exacting plans for posthumous publication of his book, plans duly executed by his nephew, David Hume the Younger.
Dialogues was published in 1779, without Hume’s name as author. But when the author was identified (it did not take long), the book was added to other works by Hume that had been banned starting in 1761. Hume was one of those authors all of whose books were added to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the official list of books, actively maintained until 1948, that Catholics were forbidden to publish or to read. It was officially discontinued in 1966.