Naturalizing Religion: Superstition, Enthusiasm, and Religious Conduct

I. The Natural History of Religion and Religious Naturalism
  • Stephen Paul Foster
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales D’histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 154)


In 1757 Bishop William Warburton, Hume’s implacable enemy, obtained a manuscript copy of Hume’s Four Dissertations. The first was a piece that was eventually published as The Natural History of Religion. He then wrote to Andrew Millar, Hume’s friend and publisher, in order to persuade him to suppress the work. “Sir,” he wrote, “I supposed you would be glad to know what sort of book it is which you are about to publish with Hume’s name and yours to it. The design of the first essay is the very same with all Lord Bolingbroke’s, to establish naturalism, a species of atheism....”1 Hume disdained Warburton as a bully: petulant, insolent, and abusive. (Letters-H, II, 244)2 Even so, the bully Bishop clearly understood what Hume was about in the Natural History. A naturalistic account was indeed Hume’s overriding design in writing this work.3 Published in 1757, the Natural History was probably written between 1749 and 1751, around the same period Hume was also working on the posthumously published Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.4 The Dialogues in fact attack the much vaunted design argument for the existence of God. The existence of a perfectly designed universe implies the existence of a Perfect Designer: this was the eighteenth-century bulwark against atheism and the conceptual linchpin of natural religion. 5 Hume’s Dialogues, however, were damaging. As Norman Kemp Smith proclaims in his own “Introduction” to the Dialogues: “[t]he argument from design is, [Hume] suggests, the ‘religious hypothesis’ par excellence, yet is not defensible.”6 Though Hume, as Kemp Smith goes on to suggest, had resorted to writing in the dialogue form so as to dissimulate his iconoclastic intentions, he nevertheless decided to delay the publication of the Dialogues until after his death knowing that it would greatly offend Christians and that the outcry from his critics would be shrill.7


Religious Belief Eighteenth Century Religious Conversion Original Italic Exemplary Moral 
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  1. 1.
    Wayne Colver, “Note on the Text,” in NHR,9, original italics.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Stephen, History of English Thought, 1: 1, notes that Warburton and Johnson were successive dictators of eighteenth-century England’s literary world. Also, Gibbon’s Critical Observations on the Sixth Book of the Aeneid was an early, anonymously published work attacking Warburton’s allegorical interpretation of Virgil’s Aeneid.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Immanuel Kant referred to his first Critique as effecting a Copernican revolution in philosophy, reversing the understanding of the conceptual structure of thinking relative to the knower and the known. Hume never wrote of his own work in any such way, but he initiated a type of “Copernican revolution” of his own, one that reversed the order of thinking about ethics and religion. One of the major effects of Hume’s philosophical writings was to naturalize the study of religion. See Sterling P. Lamprecht, “Naturalism and Religion,” in Naturalism and the Human Spirit,ed. Yervant H. Krikorian (New York: Columbia University Press, 1944), 18, for a discussion of naturalism and religion. Lamprecht defines naturalism as: “a philosophical position, empirical in method, that regards everything that exists or occurs to be conditioned in its existence or occurrence by causal factors within one all-encompassing system of nature, however ‘spiritual’ or purposeful or rational some of these things and events may be in their functions and values prove to be.” Such a definition would apply to Hume and Gibbon.Google Scholar
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    See John Vladimir Price, “David Hume’s ‘Dialogues Concerning Religion,’ Composition and Publication,” in DNR,105–128, for a detailed account of the posthumous history of Hume’s Dialogues. This account also provides detail on Adam Smith’s reluctance to get the Dialogues published. Smith had been directed by Hume’s will to get them into print.Google Scholar
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    Byrne, Natural Religion and the Nature of Religion, 111,writes that deism was on the cusp of a modernist perspective on religion. The deists were coming to have a strong sense of the humanity of religion.Google Scholar
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    Keith E. Yandell, “Hume on Religious Belief,” in Hume, A Re-evaluation,111, argues that The Natural History of Religion contains the most explicit and straightforward statement of Hume’s views on religion. “I suggest that The Natural History of Religion contains the key to Hume’s position, and that the Dialogues must be read in the light of the Natural History. Or, to be more accurate, The Natural History expresses straightforwardly theses which the Dialogues express only by implication.”Google Scholar
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    Roland Stromberg, Religious Liberalism in Eighteenth-Century England (London: Oxford University Press, 1954), 1–10. Also see Gay, The Rise of Modern Paganism,145. Gay provides a good, brief synopsis of the development of a naturalistic perspective toward the world from the latter part of the seventeenth-century through the eighteenth. “In 1691 the Dutch pastor Balthasar Bekker had attacked the widespread belief in the devil with his De betooverte Wereld—The Enchanted World, and five years later John Toland had published his first deist tract under the title Christianity not Mysterious. This tone echoes through the eighteenth century: Voltaire wrote a philosophical dictionary; Hume a natural history of religion; Raynal, a philosophical history of European expansion in the Indies; Kant, an essay on religion within the limits of reason alone; Holbach, a whole system of nature.” Google Scholar
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    Leo Strauss, Spinoza’s Critique of Religion,trans. E.M. Sinclair (New York: Schocken Books, 1965), 86. Gaskin, Hume’s Philosophy of Religion,187, argues that Hume should be credited as the first modern thinker to treat religion completely from a psychological and anthropological perspective. James Collins, The Emergence of the Philosophy of Religion (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967) 6, writes that for Hume, “the study of religion is philosophically relevant by reason of its own direct contributions to our apprehension of man’s makeup and aspirations.”Google Scholar
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    Frank E. Manuel, The Eighteenth Century Confronts the Gods ( Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959 ), 180.Google Scholar
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    See Brown, Cult of the Saints,13. Brown is very critical of flume’s Natural History of Religion for bequeathing a completely disparaging view of the religious ideas and sentiments of common, i.e., non-philosophical people, as irrational and superstitious and hence unworthy of consideration.Google Scholar
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    Manuel, The Eighteenth Century Confronts the Gods,168–170.Google Scholar
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    Pocock, “Superstition and Enthusiasm in Gibbon’s History of Religion,” 89, says: “[w]hat occurs in chapter 28 is purely Humean: the greatest recorded example of that flux and reflux of polytheism and monotheism, superstition and enthusiasm, which Gibbon’s master—for such Hume was in a number of ways—had declared inherent in the Natural History of Religion.” Google Scholar
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    what is the difference?’ you will ask me, ‘for if A is like B, B is like A.’ I am aware of it; but what I mean is, that the gods did not derive the pattern of their form from men; since the gods have always existed, and were never born—that is, if they are to be eternal; whereas men were born; therefore the human form existed before mankind, and it was the form of the immortal gods. We ought not to say that the gods have human form, but that our form is divine.” Cicero, De Natura Deorum,trans. H. Rackham, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1933), 87–89.Google Scholar
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    Superstition and enthusiasm are widespread categories in the discussion of religion in the eighteenth century. See Susie I. Tucker, Enthusiasm: A Study in Semantic Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972 ), 18–19, and Ronald Knox, Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion ( Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1983 ).Google Scholar
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    Stromberg, Religious Liberalism in Eighteenth-Century England,13–14. Caution here, however, should be noted in characterizing enthusiasts as enemies of religious tradition or authority. See Conal Condren, “Radicals, Conservatives and Moderates in Early Modern Political Thought: A Case of Sandwich Islands Syndrome?”, History of Political Thought 10, no. 3 (autumn 1989): 536. “Battles in political religious discourse begin to look like fights not between radicals and conservatives, but between claimants to the mantle of authentic conservation; the rhetorical goal is to be recognized as custodian of legitimate tradition.” This raises the question as to whether eighteenth-century critics of religious enthusiasts such as Hume and Gibbon were sufficiently historically appreciative of the spiritual yearnings of the “enthusiasts” (ancient or modem) or simply condemning what they saw as an excess emotion.Google Scholar
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    E. M. W. Tillyard, The English Epic and Its Background (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), 522; Frank Manuel, The Eighteenth Century Confronts the Gods,Chapter 3.Google Scholar
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    Pocock, “Superstition and Enthusiasm in Gibbon’s History of Religion,” 83–84, says: “(s]ince enthusiasm is the idolatry of the Word, and superstition the idolatry of the Word made Flesh, there is not much room left for an authentic Christianity between them.”Google Scholar
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    D. Jordan, Gibbon and His Roman Empire,108, says that the “first gods of polytheism were created through fear. This was an idea borrowed from David Hume. It gave Gibbon a psychological understanding of the importance of religion, and he built up his picture of polytheism from this assumption.”Google Scholar
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    Gaskin, Hume’s Philosophy of Religion,184, says that Hume’s statement that early men were all polytheists is open to some qualifications, but could be fixed up to be acceptable.Google Scholar
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    See Alan Wardman, Religion and Statescraft Among the Romans, ( Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982 ) 21.Google Scholar
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    John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter H. Nidditch ( Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975 ), 699.Google Scholar
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    This is a problem raised by Catholic polemicists in their conflicts with the Reformers. See, Popkin, History of Scepticism,Chapter One, “The Intellectual Crisis of the Reformation,” for an extensive historical treatment of the problem of justifying religious authority for truth-claims.Google Scholar
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    Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,trans. Talcott Parsons (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), drew the connections between the origins of capitalism and the Protestant view of the world. See also Gellner, Reason and Culture,51, 138–9. Gellner argues that Weber’s great insight regarding the Protestant ethic is that the inner conviction that drove the Protestants toward those virtues that undergirded capitalism—sobriety, willingness to save, modestly, hard work, etc.—was born from un—reason. Capitalism is one of history’s great works of unintended consequence. Enthusiastic religiosity begat prosperity.Google Scholar
  31. 35.
    Some theorists see a link between what was called “backsliding,” or a cooling in religious zeal, and devotion, and material success. Backsliding was a problem, particularly for the Protestant Puritan divines who frequently complained about this tendency. Hume saw it as inevitable in fanatical religions. For a discussion of the “backsliding” or “retrogression” phenomenon as it affected the covenant theology of the New England Puritans, see Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1939), 473, where Miller writes: “[t]hat success breeds sloth, that prosperity relaxes spirited efforts, were lessons of experience even to Puritans.”Google Scholar
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    Gellner, Plough, Sword and Book,114–15 points out this problem with Hume. Hume “says that unitarians are enemies of liberty, and then he says that their zeal is a friend of it. A cogent argument makes unitarian scripturalism anti-liberal in general, but a friend of liberty on one occasion. Hume notices this, but his attempt to deal with it is feeble. The real answer would seem to be that it is important for the zealous enthusiasts to be defeated but not crushed. The defeat converts them to toleration.... The fact that their defeat is not total helps them secure toleration. A spiritual as well as political balance of power helps maintain a situation in which central coercion is not exercised to the full.”Google Scholar
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    Whether Hume is fair in his characterization of the Reformers as reckless innovators, however, raises a question alluded to above. See Condren, “Radicals, Conservatives and Moderates in Early Modem Political Thought,” 536. The Reformers, Condren argues, claimed to be clearing away a “tangled undergrowth of illegitimate tradition, work which the reformation had but begun in breaking with Rome. Although this work needed to go to the extremity (suggesting radical in the harmless sense) of rooting out episcopacy, the claims were, nevertheless, focused on the need to conserve what was valuable.” Did Hume, because of his disdain for the religious emotion of the Reformers, fail to comprehend historically the nature of their theological grievances?Google Scholar
  34. 39.
    Pocock, “Superstition and Enthusiasm in Gibbon’s History of Religion,” 83, characterizes enthusiasm as “the worship of the ideas or scriptures in which the godhead is apparent to men, and occurs when the mind is alone with these ideas or scriptures and no sensory, priestly, or civil authority is permitted to act as mediator....”Google Scholar
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    Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church,5, confirms Gibbon’s observation. He notes that the impetus for early incidents of persecution of Christians came initially from their unpopularity with the pagans. Of the persecution of Christians at Lyons in 177 he says: “during the early summer of 177, feeling in Lyons gradually seethed up against the Christians. First, they were subjected to a series of social and semi-religious sanctions as though they were polluted persons.”Google Scholar
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    Frend says: “Gibbon’s sixteenth chapter of the Decline and Fall remains one of the finest summaries of the history of the relations between the primitive Church and the Empire ever written. In the sentence ‘The Jews were a people which followed the Christians, a sect which deserted the religion of their fathers’, Gibbon puts his finger on the central weakness of the Christian position in the first three centuries.”Google Scholar
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    Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church,34, points to three features of Jewish martyrdom that were emulated by Christians. First, martyrdom involved the notion of being a personal witness to the truth against heathen forces, a witness that involved personal suffering. Second, there was a hope of personal resurrection and vengeance against the persecutors. Third, the struggle against the persecutors was seen in cosmic terms as one against demonic forces of evil.Google Scholar
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    See A. H. Armstrong, “The Way and Ways: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in the Fourth Century A.D.” Vigiliae Christianae 38, no I (1984), 1. “In general I do not think that any Christian body has ever abandoned the power to persecute and repress while it actually had it. The acceptance of religious toleration and freedom as good in themselves has normally been the belated, though sometimes sincere and whole-hearted recognition of ajait accompli.” Google Scholar
  39. 44.
    Again, see Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church,9, who confirms Gibbon’s observations. “[A]s always in the second and early third centuries, there is popular hatred, the prime mover of anti-Christian outbreaks. The intense fury of the people and their fear that somehow or other the Christians might triumph over the gods, stands out on every page of the confessors’ story.”Google Scholar
  40. 45.
    Edward Clodd, Gibbon and Christianity ( London: Watts and Co., 1916 ), 62.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1997

Authors and Affiliations

  • Stephen Paul Foster
    • 1
  1. 1.Central Michigan UniversityMount PleasantUSA

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