A more dangerous enemy? Philo’s “confession” and Hume’s soft atheism

  • Benjamin S. Cordry


While Hume has often been held to have been an agnostic or atheist, several contemporary scholars have argued that Hume was a theist. These interpretations depend chiefly on several passages in which Hume allegedly confesses to theism. In this paper, I argue against this position by giving a threshold characterization of theism and using it to show that Hume does not confess. His most important “confession” does not cross this threshold and the ones that do are often expressive rather than assertive. I then argue that Hume is best interpreted as an atheist. Instead of interpreting Hume as a proto-logical positivist and arguing on the basis of Hume’s theories of meaning and method, I show that textually he appears to align himself with atheism, that his arguments in the Dialogues on Natural Religion support atheism, and that this position is most consistent with Hume’s naturalism. But, I hold that his atheism is “soft” and therefore distinct from that of his peers like Baron d’Holbach—while Hume really does reject theism, he neither embraces a dogmatically materialist position nor takes up a purely polemical stance towards theism. I conclude by suggesting several ways in which Hume’s atheistic philosophy of religion is relevant to contemporary discussions.


Hume Theism Atheism Soft atheism Pluralism Expressivism 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Andre S. (1993) Was Hume an atheist? Hume Studies 19(1): 141–166CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Buckle S. (2007) Hume’s skeptical materialism. The Journal of Philosophy 82(4): 553–578Google Scholar
  3. Capaldi N. (1970) Hume’s philosophy of religion: God without ethics. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 1(4): 233–240CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Clark S. (2009) No abiding city: Hume, naturalism, and toleration. The Journal of Philosophy 84(1): 75–94CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Costelloe T. M. (2004) ‘In every civilized community’: Hume on belief and the demise of religion. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 55(3): 171–185CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Gaskin J. C. A. (1988) Hume’s philosophy of religion. Humanities Press International, Atlantic Highlands, NJGoogle Scholar
  7. Gaskin J. C. A. (2008) Hume’s critique of religion. Journal of the History of Philosophy 14(3): 301–311Google Scholar
  8. Hume, D. (1969). In E. C. Mossner (Ed.), A treatise of human nature. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  9. Hume, D. (1947). In Kemp Smith (Ed.), Dialogues concerning natural religion (2nd ed.). Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.Google Scholar
  10. Hume, D. (1992). In J. Fieser (Ed.), The natural history of religion. New York, NY: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  11. Hume, D. (1999). In T. L. Beauchamp (Ed.), An enquiry concerning human understanding. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Logan B. (1992) The irregular argument in Hume’s Dialogues. Hume Studies 18(2): 483–500CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Logan B. (1993) A religion without talking. Peter Long Publishing, New York, NYGoogle Scholar
  14. Logan B. (1996) Why Hume wasn’t an atheist: A reply to Andre. Hume Studies 22(1): 193–202CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. McEwen, B. (1907). Introduction to Dialogues concerning natural religion. Reprinted in S. Tweyman (Ed.) (1996), Hume on natural religion. Bristol: Thoemmes Press.Google Scholar
  16. Mossner E. C. (1954) The life of David Hume. University of Texas Press, AustinGoogle Scholar
  17. Nelson J. O. (1988) The role of part XII in Hume’s Dialogues concerning natural religion. Hume Studies 14(2): 347–371CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Noxon, J. (1996). Hume’s agnosticism. Reprinted in V. C. Chappell (Ed.), Hume. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.Google Scholar
  19. Noxon J. (2008) In defense of ‘Hume’s agnosticism’. Journal of the History of Philosophy 14(4): 469–473Google Scholar
  20. Parent W. A. (1976) Philo’s confession. The Philosophical Quarterly 26(102): 63–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Penelhum T. (1983) Natural belief and religious belief in Hume’s philosophy. The Philosophical Quarterly 33(131): 166–181CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Pike N. (1985) Hume on the argument from design. In: Pike N. (eds) Hume: Dialogues concerning natural religion. Macmillan, New York, NYGoogle Scholar
  23. Priestley, J. (1780). Letter 9: An examination of Mr. Hume’s Dialogues on natural religion. Reprinted in S. Tweyman (Ed.) (1996), Hume on natural religion. Bristol: Thoemmes Press.Google Scholar
  24. Tweyman S. (1996) Natural belief and belief in an intelligent designer of the world. In: Tweyman S. (ed.) Essays on the philosophy of David Hume. Caravan Books, Delmar, NYGoogle Scholar
  25. Yandell K. E. (1977) Hume on religious belief. In: Livingston D. W., King J. T. (eds) Hume: A re-evaluation. Fordham University Press, New York, NYGoogle Scholar
  26. Yoder T. S. (2008) Hume on God. Continuum International Publishing Group, New York, NYGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Division of Arts and HumanitiesLorain County Community CollegeElyriaUSA

Personalised recommendations