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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)

Abstract

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

Keywords

Religious Belief Eighteenth Century Religious Conversion Original Italic Exemplary Moral 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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References

  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
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    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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    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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    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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    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
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    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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    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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    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
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    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
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    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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