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Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, David Hume Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Sep 7th, 2021

Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion contains a number of insights concerning the origin, meaning, and resolvability of disputes about religion. Chief among these is Hume’s insight that philosophical reasoning is consciously and unconsciously utilized by religious persons to rationalize their faith presuppositions. In Hume’s work, this insight does not originate entirely from a distrust of religious institutions characteristic of Enlightenment thinking, (although distrust of the church and its political aspirations is a recurrent theme in the Dialogues). Rather, Hume’s suspicion of theology appears to stem largely from his skepticism regarding the limits of human reason.

Hume’s critique of theology is driven by and expressed as a suspicion that natural theology is for the most part an unconscious effort to rationalize and legitimate a preexisting and culturally acquired religious view of the world. This critique entails the view that theistic arguments lack rational force in the absence of a predisposition to view the world in theistic terms. The vehicle by which Hume develops this suspicion is a dramatic exchange between a Christian dogmatist, a philosophical theologian and a philosophical skeptic.

In the Dialogues Hume develops his suspicion of theology by placing theological and philosophical disputes within the context of a hypothetical conversation between three friends, Cleanthes, Philo, and Demea. By utilizing the misdialogue form, Hume allows various arguments and styles of reasoning to be assessed in relation to the intellectual and personal dispositions of the conversants.

As Hume constructs the dialogue, Philo succeeds in making his case against religion and theology without ever being fully recognized by his companions as a true antagonist to religion. He can accomplish this not because the other participants are totally naive and do not suspect him, but instead because none of them, not even Cleanthes, can fully appreciate that his own arguments and common sense view of the world presuppose a religious premise which Philo does not share.

Philo perceives the importance that religious presuppositions play in his companions’ reasoning as well as their relative blindness to the role these assumptions play. He is able to choose his words in a way that will make his statements appear to be conciliatory to religion. As I will illustrate below, those statements in which Philo appears to make a statement either about the reasonableness or inescapability of certain religious beliefs are usually conspicuously not statements about what he himself believes.

They are statements either about what “religious persons” believe or about how any person who takes Philo to be a “religious person” would interpret his words. In short, these passages do not represent Philo’s statements about his own beliefs, but instead statements about the beliefs of a religious person. Essentially Hume makes the statement that a “religious person” has a culturally acquired view of the world which is less desirable than that of a secular humanist.

Philo emerges as the character in control of the conversations if not by the persuasiveness of his arguments, then by virtue of his success at manipulating the views of his opponents into a successful argument against theism without being fully detected as an agnostic. Through the personal dynamics between Philo, Cleanthes, and Demea, Hume explores his suspicion that disputes between theologians and secular philosophers over the origins and benefits of religion, are a manifestation of certain culturally acquired motivational attitudes and dispositions operating in the guise of objective discourse.

Historically, the Dialogues has been read as a philosophical treatment of arguments for and against the existence of God. Within this prevailing interpretive tradition, the Dialogues is scrutinized for a Humean answer to two issues:

  1. whether the argument from design can provide a rational basis for at least some minimal version of theism; and
  2. whether there are bases of support for religious belief apart from those sought through natural theology.

Hume’s answers to these questions and his legacy for theology in general, remain clouded by the difficulty of sorting out the positions of his three main characters, Philo, Cleanthes, and Demea; and by the difficulty of determining which if any one of these characters speaks for Hume.

Demea represents a position of Christian orthodoxy. He is convinced that the purposes of the conversations with his two friends are not to question God’s existence but merely to assess the extent to which knowledge of God’s nature is possible. He maintains that God’s existence can be demonstrated by a priori arguments, but that His nature is wholly unknowable.

In contrast to Demea, Cleanthes seeks to justify claims about the nature and existence of God purely on the basis of inferences from experience. His theology is founded on the view that questions regarding the existence and nature of God are questions of fact, and that all knowledge regarding matters of fact is derived a posteriori. In Parts II and III of the Dialogues, Cleanthes advances a sophisticated version of the argument from design to support the proposition that there exists a Being of superior virtue and intelligence. He concedes that the argument does not establish the attributes assigned to God by classical theism but maintains that it does nevertheless provide a sufficient justification for theism.

Philo’s position is ambiguous. With Demea, Philo claims to be a skeptic with respect to knowledge regarding the nature of God, and rejects the use of the Design Argument to establish the Christian conception of God. However, Philo also appears to reject Demea’s a priori arguments for God’s existence, and with Cleanthes, holds that all knowledge of factual matters is derived a posteriori.

In Parts I-IX, Philo advances and elaborates upon a set of objections to the argument from design similar to those Hume advances in his earlier essay, “Of A Particular Providence.” Utilizing a feigned alliance with Demea, Philo frequently seeks to give the impression that his arguments are not intended to support skepticism with respect to the existence of God, but only with respect to the Divine nature. However, the more radical implications of his arguments are obvious both to the reader and to Cleanthes, and throughout the first eleven parts of the twelve-part work, Philo seems intent on undermining any theological benefit whatever to the argument from design.

The problem of discerning Philo’s position is complicated in Part XII where Philo appears to reverse himself and concede some degree of legitimacy to the argument from design. In his final speech, Philo states

If the whole of natural theology, as some people seem to maintain, resolves itself into one simple, though somewhat ambiguous, at least undefined, proposition, that the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence if this proposition be not capable of extension, variation, or more particular explication; if it affords no inference that affects human life, or can be the source of any action or forbearance; and if the analogy, imperfect as it is, can be carried no further than to the human intelligence and cannot be transferred, with any appearance of probability, to the other qualities of the mind; if this really be the case, what can the most inquisitive, contemplative, and religious man do more than give a plain, philosophical assent to the proposition, as often as it occurs, and believe that the arguments on which it is established exceed the objections which lie against it?1

On its face, this passage appears to represent a concession to Cleanthes. It has been cited by some commentators to support the view that Philo acknowledges a role for natural theology and endorses theism on the basis of the design argument.2 However, because of its numerous qualifications, this passage remains ambiguous.

It can be argued that hhis passage does not express Philo’s endorsement of natural theology, but instead represents Philo’s insight that for philosophically minded religious persons—persons who both adhere to the principles of scientific reasoning, and who possess a view of the world shaped by certain religious beliefs and attitudes—assent to some version of the argument from design is unavoidable. The key to the meaning of the passage, therefore, lies in Hume’s and Philo’s use of the term “religious man.” To such a person the argument from design will provide a satisfying principled explanation of God’s existence. Philo, however, assiduously avoids identifying himself as such a person.

Even if Philo’s total rejection of the design argument and natural theology can be established, this does not resolve the issue of his (or Hume’s) views on religion. Certain of Philo’s speeches in Part XII seem calculated to give the impression that he endorses religion on some ground or another.

He asserts that “[to] be a philosophical skeptic is, in a man of letters, the first and most essential step towards being a sound, believing Christian—a proposition which [he] would willing recommend to the attention of Pamphilus [the narrator].”3

As we shall see below, this statement is compatible with some versions of fideism. Philo also makes statements in this part which are consistent with the view that human beings have an innate sense of religion which is activated by their recognition of design in the operations of nature. For example, he states that no one has a deeper sense of religion impressed on his mind, or pays more profound adoration to the Divine Being, as he discovers himself to reason in the inexplicable contrivance and artifice of nature, a purpose, an intention a design strikes everywhere the most careless, the most stupid thinker; and no man can be so hardened in absurd systems as at all times to reject it.4

This passage could be construed as support for the view that some minimal belief in God is basic to human nature and unavoidable.

What is the meaning of disagreements between religious believers and nonbelievers, or the meaning of the disputes between natural theologians and sceptics? In the Dialogues, Hume illustrates rather than posits some answers to these questions.

Hume sought to understand religion in terms of its natural psychological origins and cultural consequences. He understood theology as the result of philosophy in the service of religious belief, and religious belief as a product of a given natural and cultural environment that activates certain passions, which in turn trigger certain natural tendencies of thought. Moreover, religious belief varies because of differences in social, cultural, and intellectual circumstances within which people and their natural passions and propensities of thought are situated. The dialogue form affords Hume a superior means of illustrating the dynamics of how religion correlates with personality, cultural and educational differences and of how intellect and reason operate in the service of religious beliefs.

Throughout the conversations of the Dialogues, Hume invites the reader to evaluate the validity of certain beliefs and arguments according to the general character and credibility of the conversants, each of whom displays an individual style and tone in the conversations. In the Dialogues, then, we are not surprised to find his narrator making evaluations of the philosophical arguments using observations about the “character” of the conversants.

On my reading of the Dialogues, this theme of education and the relation of religious beliefs to philosophical arguments is significant not only as a literary device, but as an illustration of the way in which religious beliefs influence the outcome of philosophical arguments. The disagreements between Demea, Cleanthes and Philo are in the end rooted in differences of disposition and the unique way in which each of the parties has unconsciously pressed philosophical principles into theological service. Hume identifies this unconscious interplay between religion and philosophy in his National History, and develops his understanding of this interplay dramatically in the Dialogues.

Reference

David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, ed. Nelson Pike. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970.

Footnotes

  1. Dialogues, XH, 33.
  2. See Dialogues, 125-238.
  3. Dialogues, XII, 33.
  4. Dialogues, XII, 2.
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