Hume’s Scepticism and His Ethical Depreciation of Religion

  • Miguel A. Badía Cabrera
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 145)


It does not cease to produce wonder that Hume, who looks in The Natural History of Religion 1 for the origins of religion in human nature, should have been able to reveal such a small amount of humanity to be present in religion. Sympathy, compassion, generosity, gratitude, enlightened self-interest, indeed rationality, these features of the social life, which have such an important place in his analysis of the principles of morality, may also be substantial components of the religious life. Yet if one takes Hume as a guide, it is only by an effort of the imagination that one can conclude that these qualities are conspicuously displayed there, too. Religion all too often degenerates into a furious madness, but the moral life is not exempted from falling into aberrations of its own. Religious foibles he generously describes; the moral ones — although he affirms that his aim is not to promote or recommend morality — he barely touches upon except for a few mocking remarks directed against the Cynics and Stoics.2 In the Natural History he strongly suggests that religion is the one main factor which invariably leads men astray in the pursuit of the good life; for no other reason he titled section 14, “Bad influence of popular Religion on Morality.” The determination of the actual psychological motives and biographical factors which may have inclined Hume to depreciate historical religion does not fall within the scope of this paper.3 All I shall attempt to show is, first, that Hume’s peculiar conception about the origins of historical religion naturally leads in the direction of such ethical depreciation; and second, that such a thesis is not inevitable, even within the framework of Hume’s philosophy, and that it appears to be at odds with some basic tenets of his moral theory.


Human Nature Religious Belief Moral Life Religious Life Primary Impression 
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  1. 1.
    References to Hume’s works in this paper will use the following abbreviations and refer to the following editions: T A Treatise of Human Nature,ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge, 2d ed. revised P. H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988): T,I Book I: Of the Understanding T,II Book II: Of the Passions T, III Book III: Of MoralsGoogle Scholar
  2. E.
    David Hume: Essays, Moral, Political and Literary,ed. Eugene F. Miller, rev. ed. (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1987).Google Scholar
  3. D.
    Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion,ed. Norman Kemp Smith, 2d ed. (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill, 1947; Indianapolis, 1981).Google Scholar
  4. H.
    The History of England, from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution of 1688,6 vols. Based on the edition of 1778 (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1983).Google Scholar
  5. EU.
    An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge, 3d ed. Revised P. H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975).Google Scholar
  6. EM.
    An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals,ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge, 3d ed. revised P. H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975).Google Scholar
  7. N.
    The Natural History of Religion,ed. H. E. Root (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1956).Google Scholar
  8. 2.
    See, for example, T,I, 272; EU, 101; EM,“A Dialogue,” 342–343.Google Scholar
  9. 3.
    This emphasis on the negative may be attributed, at least in part, to the polemical character of the work, perhaps written with the Evangelical wing of the Scottish Church in mind. During the period of publication of the Natural History of Religion, the Highflying or Evangelical party conspired to produce the most severe condemnation of Hume’s person and writings, i.e., his excommunication from the Church of Scotland. This, in turn probably led Hume, as E. C. Mossner convincingly suggests, into his voluntary exile from Scotland. See The Life of David Hume (London and Edinburgh: Nelson, 1954), pp. 336–355. On the other hand, the militant attack on religion typical of the deistic controversy had ceased already at the time Hume chose to publish the Natural History. See Sir Leslie Stephen, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, 2 vols., 1876, 3d ed. 1902 (New York and Burlingame: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1862), I, 77, 136.Google Scholar
  10. 4.
    Hume’s doubts concerning the authenticity of religious assent are quite unmitigated, asserting that “notwithstanding the dogmatical, imperious style of all superstition, the conviction of the religionists, in all ages, is more feigned than real, and scarcely ever approaches, in any degree, to that solid belief and persuasion, which governs us in the affairs of common life” (N,60).Google Scholar
  11. 5.
    Gerhard Streminger compiles an almost complete catalogue of these moral infirmities of religion; see “Religion a Threat to Morality: An Attempt to Throw Some New Light on Hume’s Philosophy of Religion,” Hume Studies 15.2 (November 1989): 277–293.Google Scholar
  12. 6.
    Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Natural History of Morals,” Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Helen Zimmern, in The Philosophy of Nietzsche, The Modern Library (1927; rpt. New York: Random House, 1954), pp. 478–497; see especially the second essay, “ ‘Guilt,’, ‘Bad Conscience’ and the Like,” of the The Genealogy of Morals, trans. Horace B. Samuel, in The Philosophy of Nietzsche, pp. 668–716.Google Scholar
  13. 7.
    “ ‘Guilt’, ‘Bad Conscience, ’ and the Like,” The Genealogy of Morals, pp. 712–713.Google Scholar
  14. 8.
    One can say with some justice that in this comparison with regard to courage and abasement, Hume has also anticipated one of the most notorious theses of Ludwig Feuerbach, to wit, that there is an inversely proportional relation between the aggrandizement of divinity and the depreciation of its worshipper: “this phenomenon is an extremely remarkable one, characterizing the very core of religion, that in proportion as the divine subject is really human, the greater is the apparent difference between God and man; the more, by reflection on religion, by theology, is the identity of the human and the divine denied, and the human, considered as such is depreciated. The reason of this, is that what is positive in the conception of the divine being can only be human, the conception of man, as an object of consciousness, can only be negative. To enrich God, man must become poor; that God may be all, man must become nothing” (The Essence of Christianity, trans. George Elliot [New York: Harper, 1957 ], pp. 75–76 ).Google Scholar
  15. 9.
    See Roberto Torretti, Hume y la religion,Ediciones Atenea, Separata del No. 395 de la Revista Atenea (Santiago de Chile: Editorial Universitaria, S. A., n.d.), p. 25.Google Scholar
  16. 10.
    The most emphatic affirmation of this theory occurs in the Appendix to the Treatise (624–625). There he says that “belief consists merely in a certain feeling of sentiment; is something which depends not on the will, but must arise from certain determinate causes and principles of which we are not masters (624, cf. 625 and passim).... And this different feeling I endeavour to explain by calling it a superior force or vivacity, or solidity, or firmness, or steadiness. This variety of terms, which may seem so unphilosophical, is intended to express the act of the mind, which renders realities more present to us than fictions, causes them to weigh more in the thought, and gives them a superior influence on the passions and imagination” (629). A similar posture is found in EU, sec. 5, pt. 2, 47–55. J. C. Gaskin, Hume’s Philosophy of Religion(London: Macmillan Press, 1978), p. 129, calls it Hume’s “final” theory of belief because the passage in T, 629, is found verbatim in EU, 49.Google Scholar
  17. 11.
    Hume, History of England,8 vols. (Edinburgh, 1792), vol. II (1756), p. 449 (quoted from E. C. Mossner, op. cit., p. 306). Mossner also transcribes the original draft in full, a MS in Keynes Library, Kings College, Cambridge, and which is endorsed: “Draft of Preface to a volume of D. Hume’s History in David Hume’s own hand found among my father’s papers.”Google Scholar
  18. 12.
    Hume scholars who deny that religious beliefs are on the same footing with the beliefs that, since Norman Kemp Smith onwards, have been called “natural beliefs,” support their case precisely by stressing the importance of all the passages of the Natural History in which Hume denies an instinctual status to religious beliefs. By contrast, those scholars who assert the opposite view, mostly disregard the Natural History,concentrate on the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion,and endeavor to establish that the belief in an intelligent cause of the universe exhibits all the features which in the Treatise Hume assigns to the so-called natural beliefs. An important exponent of the first group of interpreters is J. C. Gaskin, Hume’s Philosophy of Religion. See in particular Ch. 8 “Scepticism and Natural Belief,” pp. 126–140. Peter Jones, in Hume’s Sentiments (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1984) defends a similar view. “In due course, Hume tries to establish that religious beliefs are not natural, in any significant sense” (p. 60). Stanley Tweyman’s Scepticism and Belief in Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1986), forcefully expresses the opposite view: “The position I will defend is that the belief in an intelligent designer of the world satisfies all the criteria of a natural belief and, therefore, must be regarded as being such a belief” (p. 136). D. W. Livingston, Hume’s Philosophy of Common Life (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), approaches a somewhat similar view: “The propensity to philosophical theism, though more variable by custom than the propensity to believe that our perceptions are of continuously and independently existing objects, is, nevertheless, a universal propensity of human nature” (p. 331). I assume, but cannot justify here, that what Hume took to be the common core of all religion (N,32), i.e., the “belief in invisible, intelligent power in the world” (and thus its logical development, the belief in an intelligent author of the universe) is a natural belief in the sense of the aforementioned dispute. However, in order to establish this position, one would have to abandon the identification of “instinctive” and “natural,” which almost all Hume interpreters take for granted.Google Scholar
  19. 13.
    The passage of the Natural History alluded to is ambiguous. J. C. Gaskin derives from it a completely different interpretation; see, op. cit., p. 137.Google Scholar
  20. 14.
    I only say more than plausible because a sufficient justification of such an assertion cannot be given within the scope of this paper. In an unpublished paper, “Hume on Religion and Instincts,” I have tried to ground and develop this thesis. An early version of this paper was read at the Hume Conference held 10–14 August 1987 at Sâo Paulo, Brazil. The Conference was sponsored by the Hume Society and the University of Sâo Paulo.Google Scholar
  21. 15.
    From Religion to Philosophy,Harper Torch Books (New York: Harper and Row, 1957), p. 114.Google Scholar
  22. 16.
    Even in late monotheistic religions like Christianity Hume assumes that the moving force behind the moral commands and the specifically religious practices continues to be, almost exclusively, the prudent pursuit of our own happiness. He says, for instance, that: “By these distinguished marks of devotion, he has now acquired the divine favour; and may expect, in recompense, protection and safety in this world, and eternal happiness in the next” (N,72).Google Scholar
  23. 17.
    The difficulties that beset this sort of analogical argument can and will be ignored in this paper.Google Scholar
  24. 18.
    This is a difficult point of interpretation in which I tend to side with Pall S. Árdal. See his Passion and Value in Hume’s Treatise, 2d ed. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1989), Ch. 3, pp. 41–79. For a different and worthy view, see D. G. C. Mac Nabb, David Hume: His Theory of Knowledge and Morality, 2d ed. (London: Basil Blackwell, 1966), pp. 185–197. Two widely different but equally important assessments concerning the relative importance of Newton’s influence on Hume’s philosophy are found in John Passmore, Hume’s Intentions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952 ); and Nicholas Capaldi, David Hume: The Newtonian Philosopher ( Boston: Twayne, 1975 ).Google Scholar
  25. 19.
    N,“Author’s Introduction,” 21: “This preconception [the belief in divine beings] springs not from an original instinct or primary impression of nature such as, give rise to self-love, affection between the sexes, love of progeny, gratitude, resentment; since every instinct of this kind has been found absolutely universal in all nations and ages, and has always a precise determinate object, which it inflexibly pursues.”Google Scholar
  26. 20.
    To believe is at least, according to Hume, to have a lively idea or conception; on the other hand, what is absurd cannot be conceived by the imagination. Thus it seems to follow that we cannot really believe what is known to be unintelligible. See T, I,95. D. G. C. Mac Nabb argues convincingly in favor of this interpretation in op. cit., pp. 73–74.Google Scholar
  27. 21.
    “Whatever cavils may be urged; an orderly world, as well as a coherent, articulate speech, will still be received as an incontestable proof of design and intention” (D 155). My reading of Part III of the Dialogues has affinities with Stanley Tweyman’s interpretation. He asserts that “in presenting the Articulate Voice illustration, Cleanthes is not so much concerned with establishing that it involves a rational inference as he is with emphasizing how we would react to such a voice” (op. cit., 56). In addition, I believe with Tweyman against Nelson Pike [David Hume, Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970), p. 229], that Cleanthes is not thereby abandoning his defense of the argument from design.Google Scholar
  28. 22.
    E,“Of Superstition and Enthusiasm,” 76–77; EM,193. His condemnation of the enthusiastic spirit of both Independents and Levellers is even stronger in H,where it is reduced to a self-deluded form of extreme egoism and ambition, which effectively destroys the force of the moral sentiments and constraints, and provokes the disintegration of society (see H, v. 5, Ch. 59, 513–514; v. 6, Ch. 60, 53–54).Google Scholar
  29. 23.
    Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans. John Harvey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1923 ), p. 31.Google Scholar
  30. 24.
    Ibid., p. 32.Google Scholar
  31. 25.
    In Part IV of the Dialogues,Philo appears to mischievously deny that we can have any idea of the God of the philosophers, or a being of infinite perfection. If all impressions are particular and totally determined existences, then it is nonsense to say that we could have an experience of divine attributes. “Our ideas reach no farther than our experience: We have no experience of divine attributes and operations: I need not conclude my syllogism: You can draw the inference yourself” (D,142–143). According to Hume, there is no innate idea of God; its origin must be sought in “particular impressions” (T,I, 160, 248). Such an idea is in fact the product of an act of self-awareness and projection (EU,19, 72). In the Natural History he traces the many historical representations of divinity to the propensity of human beings “to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object, those qualities with which they are familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious” (N,30). This tendency is just a particular instance of a general and constant propensity of human imagination with which Hume dealt in the Treatise and which he brought forward in order to explain the origin of our belief in “power” or causal efficacy — in other words, the propensity of the imagination to “spread itself on external objects and to conjoin with them any internal impressions which they occasion” (T, I,165).Google Scholar
  32. 26.
    See, for instance, the passage quoted in note 4 above (N,60), and the following: “This is in the meantime obvious, that the empire of all religious faith over the understanding is wavering and uncertain, subject to every variety of humor, and dependent on the present incidents, which strike the imagination” (N,62). Hume had anticipated this doctrine in the Treatise,when giving a causal account of our de facto unbelief in immortality (T, I, 114–115).Google Scholar
  33. 27.
    The Letters of David Hume,ed. J. Y. T. Greig. 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), I, 50–51.Google Scholar
  34. 28.
    Peter Jones (op. cit., p. 80) mentions the first sentence of this passage and Gerhard Streminger (op. cit., pp. 277–278) quotes it in full in order to draw attention to its striking similarity with the suppressed preface of 1756 to Volume 2 of the History of England,which was mentioned above.Google Scholar
  35. 29.
    On this matter of the moral harmfulness of religion, I side with Gaskin (op. cit., Ch. 9, “The Causes and Corruptions of Religion,” pp. 143–158; see in particular, pp. 151, 154–155). Streminger quotes this passage in order to establish essentially the same conclusion. See “A Reply to Ellin,” Hume Studies 15.2 (November 1989): 303. Yet he makes no effort to determine the roots of Hume’s ethical depreciation of religion and its consistency, or lack of it, with his theoretical and moral philosophy.Google Scholar
  36. 30.
    For a sympathetic treatment of Joan of Arc, see H,vol. 2, 397–410: “This admirable heroine, to whom the more generous superstition of the ancients would have erected altars, was, on pretence of heresy and magic, delivered alive to the flames, and expiated by that dreadful punishment the signal services which she had rendered to her prince and to her native country” (p. 410).Google Scholar

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  • Miguel A. Badía Cabrera

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