The Frontal Cortex

Richard Dawkins and David Hume

Anthony Gottlieb has an excellent review of several recent books on atheism in the New Yorker. I especially enjoyed his comparison of David Hume and some of the more polemical atheists currently atop the bestseller lists:

In 1779, a year after Voltaire died, that idea was attacked by David Hume, a cheerful Scottish historian and philosopher, whose way of undermining religion was as arresting for its strategy as it was for its detail. Hume couldn’t have been more different from today’s militant atheists.

In his “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion,” which was published posthumously, and reports imaginary discussions among three men, Hume prized apart the supposed analogy between the natural world and a designed artifact. Even if the analogy were apt, he pointed out, the most one could infer from it would be a superior craftsman, not an omnipotent and perfect deity. And, he argued, if it is necessary to ask who made the world it must also be necessary to ask who, or what, made that maker. In other words, God is merely the answer that you get if you do not ask enough questions. From the accounts of his friends, his letters, and some posthumous essays, it is clear that Hume had no trace of religion, did not believe in an afterlife, and was particularly disdainful of Christianity. He had a horror of zealotry. Yet his many writings on religion have a genial and even superficially pious tone. He wanted to convince his religious readers, and recognized that only gentle and reassuring persuasion would work. In a telling passage in the “Dialogues,” Hume has one of his characters remark that a person who openly proclaimed atheism, being guilty of “indiscretion and imprudence,” would not be very formidable.

I still find Hume’s slim volume of religious skepticism to be the most convincing assault on God I’ve ever read. It’s witty, entertaining, and is so reasonably rational that even believers can’t help but engage with the arguments.

Comments

  1. #1 Baratos
    May 15, 2007

    In a telling passage in the “Dialogues,” Hume has one of his characters remark that a person who openly proclaimed atheism, being guilty of “indiscretion and imprudence,” would not be very formidable.

    This part confuses me. Does it suggest Hume looked down on people who admitted their lack of faith, or that it just weakened their argument somehow?

  2. #2 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    May 15, 2007

    Context, context, context.
    Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
    by David Hume


    Don’t you remember, said Philo, the excellent saying of Lord Bacon on this head? That a little philosophy, replied Cleanthes, makes a man an Atheist: a great deal converts him to religion. That is a very judicious remark too, said Philo. But what I have in my eye is another passage, where, having mentioned David’s fool, who said in his heart there is no God, this great philosopher observes, that the Atheists nowadays have a double share of folly; for they are not contented to say in their hearts there is no God, but they also utter that impiety with their lips, and are thereby guilty of multiplied indiscretion and imprudence. Such people, though they were ever so much in earnest, cannot, methinks, be very formidable.
    .
    But though you should rank me in this class of fools, I cannot forbear communicating a remark that occurs to me, from the history of the religious and irreligious scepticism with which you have entertained us…

    1) Oh look, it’s a rhetorical device. Surprise, surprise, surprise.

    2) It’s not original to Hume, but is part of a quote from Bacon.

    3) In 18th century England, open atheism was not good for one’s career or health.

  3. #3 Brian Thompson
    May 15, 2007

    I prefer to examine everything outside of context. It makes the world a very interesting place – nothing makes sense anymore, except for porn movies, which then make perfect sense.

  4. #4 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    May 15, 2007

    Anthony Gottlieb has an excellent review of several recent books on atheism in the New Yorker.

    Wow, that review is dated May 21.

  5. #5 Anne-Marie
    May 16, 2007

    “Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution” by Randal Keynes spends a lot of time on Darwin’s ideas about the evolutionary origins of morality, and also mentions Hume’s influences on his ideas about the topic. The book is definitely worth reading!

  6. #6 John
    January 27, 2010

    “From the accounts of his friends, his letters, and some posthumous essays, it is clear that Hume had no trace of religion, did not believe in an afterlife, and was particularly disdainful of Christianity”

    Rubbish. That’s only one conclusion of Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

    Hume’s work here has been interpreted along very different lines.

    Don’t box Hume in to suit your beliefs. And read more interpretations of Hume work. Even wiki shows that your statement above is too dogmatic an interpretation of Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

    An Aside: However. you write a very good Blog!

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