Book Review: Dialogues and Natural History of Religion by David Hume

A word first on the precise book I read, as I am aware that the works of David Hume have been published under various similar titles but with different contents. This version was published by Oxford University Press and has an introduction written by John C.A. Gaskin. The bulk of the book is made of Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and The Natural History of Religion. It also contains Hume’s My Own Life, section XI of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and a letter dated 10/03/1751 concerning the Dialogues.

As a freethinking christian, I am advocate of reading views that contradict one’s own. You can see some examples of other such books I have read, including those by Marcus Borg, Christopher Hitchens and Ben Whitney. When I asked Simon Clare for a recommendation of such a book, he mentioned Hume in passing, but ultimately recommended Whitney. Though I thought it would be worthwhile having a read of some of Hume’s work.

The inclusion of section XI of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding was a little odd, as the notes reference other sections which weren’t included in this volume.

The bulk of the book is made up of the Dialogues, which I confess came as quite a pleasant surprise as I was not expecting a classic work of atheistic thinking to be quite so good. The thing that struck me most was the format. I’ve not read a work like it since I did Plato’s Republic quite some years ago. Instead of a straightforward exposition, Hume has created several characters who enter into a protracted discussion. In so doing, the notes to the book state that Hume somewhat disguises what his own view is. The two main characters are Cleanthes (who dominates the early part of the discussion) and Philo (who dominates the latter part). There is also Demea who interjects occasionally. Though Demea is not cast as a simpleton, as Galileo did in a similar dialogue which got him in an awful lot of trouble, he is regarded as an earnest believer and is not as nuanced as Cleanthes.

In setting up a dialogue as he has done, Hume somewhat disguises what his own view was. Cleanthes is, roughly, the reasonable believer while Philo is the extreme sceptic. Which of these represent Hume’s voice? The notes attached, and a few comments I’ve seen when looking into it, say that Philo represents Hume’s true view. Given the body of the other writings in this volume, that is an understandable point of view. Though in the letter about the Dialogues which is included, Hume explicitly states that he sides with Cleanthes. The notes try to dismiss this by stating it was a typo, though I’m not so sure.

As for the contents of the Dialogues themselves, they can be roughly divided up into two parts. In the first, the existence of God is assumed and then the question is posed as to what we might discern about the nature and character of God by mere observation of the world around us. In so doing, Hume deliberately blinkers the conversation by limiting it to “natural religion” and excludes any consideration of history. In this first part, the ultra-sceptic Philo puts in his objections occasionally but is typically well-countered by Cleanthes. However, having started with the fairly narrow premise of what might be inferred about God, it is of little surprise that the answers which emerge are very limited. An interesting point raised in the notes in that this first half is meant to be a counter-argument to the argument from design, though it was written before William Paley’s famous, influential and nowadays disregarded work, Natural Theology. I say it is meant to be a counter-argument rather than it is a counter-argument as it seems to me that Hume and the participants in his fictional dialogue rather side-step the issue and merely present other, reasonable possibilities so that one could only conclude that natural theology is not compelling, rather than showing it to be false.

The second half of the Dialogues turns the question around and Philo takes to the fore. Instead of taking the existence of God as obvious, this is now called into question and instead, the participants look at whether the existence of God is necessitated by what we observe from the world around us. Crucial to this is the classic question attributed to Epicurus, the question of theodicy. In so doing, Hume examines four “sources” of evil and there is a discussion on each in turn, though I did feel that a proper definition of ‘evil’ was somewhat lacking, making the discussion amenable to the prejudices of the participants (i.e. the different voices in Hume’s head which he wrestles with). Consequently, the conclusions of the discussions may be somewhat skewed away from the rational objectivity for which he strives. It is interesting to note that at this point in the dialogues Demea departs, though no particular reason is given; it seems to me that Hume is saying something along the lines of, “given that all has been said, the devout believer has no choice but to concede defeat and leave.” Though I admit, that is just my interpretation. Yours may be different.

I also admit that I used the word ‘conclusion’ in the preceding paragraph rather loosely, as Hume does not really come to any succinct verdict. He certainly doesn’t go so far as to say that he has disproved God, which is what I was expecting, given the book’s reputation as a classic work of atheism. Instead, he merely goes so far as to demonstrate reasonable doubt.  Yet this is, as I said earlier, reasonable doubt on a single strand of theological thought, that of natural theology. If anything, he well demonstrates that this strand alone is insufficient to base a belief of God on. In this, I would agree with him. Though it is Hume’s own limited scope that leaves open much more to be explored. My own faith, for example, though I am fascinated by the fine-tuning question in physics, do not hurry down the path of teleology which tends to lead to the God-of-the-gaps argument. Instead, I take fine-tuning as a possible indication of the providence of God, but I hold it tentatively, aware that it might be wrong. The rock of my faith, however, is the person of Jesus, who, if memory serves me correctly, does not get a single mention in the Dialogues. If he does, then he is certainly not a central figure. Neither is Abraham or David or the Buddha or Muhammad.

So what then, of the follow-up, The Natural History of Religion? The introductory notes states that it was unusual for it to be partnered with the Dialogues, as the Natural History was considered an inferior work, though the editor of this volume wished for them to be paired. In this respect, I would agree with the prevailing view as the Natural History contains far fewer points of relevance.

As an aside, if you read the Natural History (and to some extent, the latter parts of the Dialogues) one may see why the so-called “New Atheism” is really not all that new. The starting premise, though unstated, is that all religion must be untrue. This is assumed, without reason or evidence. The question which then arises, and which this book attempts to answer, is “Where did religion come from?” The answers which Hume gives are, sadly, all too frequently echoed today by the internet atheists one meets on discussion forums whose knowledge and understanding of any religion is shaped predominantly from a few years of attending church as a child, followed by confirmation bias of listening to and reading the naysayers as adults. So we find here an attempt at understanding the evolution of monotheistic thought out of polytheism. There is a discussion likening beliefs in gods to belief in elves and pixies. Yet nowhere does Hume draw on any historical evidence for his assertions. They are stated as though they should be taken at face value, which I doubt even his arch-sceptic, Philo, would have done.

It was a disappointing end to the volume, as I must admit I really rather liked the Dialogues. They have much to offer and much to mull over. Certainly, anyone who wishes to delve into the idea of teleology should only do so if they pay heed to Hume tapping on their shoulder, warning them of fruitless alleyways of thought. Yet to include the Natural History of Religion without tackling the very real historical figures of Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad, to name just three, is to miss the point entirely. That said, I would recommend that anyone who might regard themselves as a christian, a catholic, a Jew or a Muslim, should read Hume.  Though he does little to challenge the specifics of faith, the philosophical musings on what we might know about the nature of God and how we know it is of great value. His case for the reasonableness of doubt is well made and is one that I agree with, even though I do not go so far as some readers of Hume might to do allow doubt to fester into disbelief.

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