A Natural History

Stemming from Thomas humeHobbes, David Hume sought to unmask and discredit the doctrines and dogmas of orthodox belief. His primary concern in this regard was to uphold the distinction between religious philosophers and speculative atheists. Hume was, as an empiricist, of the latter ilk. In his Natural History of Religion, Hume sets out to show how religion emerged and developed in practice. He is concerned with religion’s foundation in reason and its origin in human nature. He starts by claiming that nature “bespeaks an intelligent author,” but that the origin of religion’s belief and practice is difficult to ascertain. Unlike an “original instinct or primary impression of nature” that produces a universal instinct in humanity, it appears on examination that “the first religious principles must be secondary” and, as such, open to perversion and even destruction “by various accidents and causes.” The purpose of his work, therefore, is to produce a natural history of religion by identifying “what those principles are, which give rise to the original belief” and the factors that produce changes in it” (33). It is important to note here, however, that natural religion for Hume means “coming from humans,” which is in contrast both to revelation and innateness. Religion, wherever it recurs, recurs because of humans struggling with their passions—in this case, fear. Humans fear the chaotic world and attribute the unknown forces to the various gods working their will in the world. Hume goes on to suggest that the origin of religion is polytheistic (in contrast to monotheistic) and that theological doctrines are developed “beyond reason and common sense” (66). In fact, Hume suggests, religion is antithetical to ethics, where ritual is a stand-in for ethics within religious systems. In this way, religion can be said to be anti-social. In the end, Hume maintains that when religious principles are examined, it appears that they are nothing but “sick men’s dreams…the playsome whimsies of monkies in human shape” (86). In other words, religious principles cannot be rational.

*Hume, David. The Natural History of Religion. Edited by H. E. Root. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010.

*This summary is for my upcoming comprehensive exam in the study of religion.


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