« Update on the Book | Main | God and Science »

February 27, 2006

Undercover Atheist?

david_hume.jpgNow along with writing entries I seem to have given myself responsibility for alerting you to when an entry is important. The debate over Hume's beliefs or lack of beliefs -- begun by Dennett and Wieseltier, picked up in comments here and here , and in an entry below -- strikes me as important for a couple of reasons:

1. David Hume might have mounted -- in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and Natural History of Religion -- the most thorough and intelligent critique of religion we have seen. So it is of more than mere passing interest whether he was or was not a believer.
2. We're still struggling to figure out whether anyone was an atheist in Europe between the end of the Roman Empire and the publication, in 1770, of Baron d'Holbach's System of Nature, the first avowedly atheistic work. Some historians, as I have noted, believe it was impossible not to believe in God, given the mindset in Europe at the time. Others believe it was merely impossible to say you didn't believe. Hume provides quite a case study.

Here's a quote from his History I find intriguing and, probably, revealing:david_hume.jpg

"The conviction of the religionists, in all ages, is more affected than real... Men dare not avow, even to their own hearts, the doubts which they entertain on such subjects: they make a merit of implicit faith; and disguise to themselves their real infidelity."

My guess is that Hume hung on to some faith in his own heart -- but very, very little; very, very tenuously.

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at February 27, 2006 9:05 PM


Remember Pascal's "DIEU d'Abraham, DIEU d'Isaac, DIEU de Jacob, non des philosophes et des savants." Hume said No to the former, Yes, Probably to a minimal version of the latter (though minimal is a relative term, and here means something awfully big.) The "religionists" of the quote from the History are those who, like Pascal, affirm revelation, though unlike Pascal they need not reject a natural theology. If Hume suspected their sincerity, don't we commonly suspect the holders of convictions we find unintelligible or plainly false of insincerity or bad faith? So Bacon finds "atheism ... rather in the lip than in the heart of man": "The Scripture [Psalm 14:1 ] saith, The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God; it is not said, The fool hath thought in his heart; so as he rather saith it by rote to himself, as that he would have, than that he can thoroughly believe it, or be persuaded of it..." ("On Atheism", Essays). You just can't believe that, Bacon thinks, because I can't -- but you do. Is it more than one step up from telling your interlocutor what he says, to tell him what he must be or can't be thinking, regardless of what he says? Perhaps Hume is trying to give "religionists" the benefit of the doubt: deep down, they would have to acknowledge agreement with me, if only they would leave off fooling themselves. But if we disagree, we will do better to presume we are participating in yet another honest difference, no less honest even should it be intractable. I will take you at your word that you are an atheist, Hume at his that he believed religious conviction was often more affected than real -- or should we think those beliefs affected, out of self-delusion?

Posted by: Dabodius at February 28, 2006 8:24 PM

Fair comments. But I do sense, as much as one can sense across two and a half centuries, that this was a difficult subject for David H. And I don't think it is unwarranted to read the passage I quote, and it goes on for a while, as possibly refering to a struggle he had, or chose not to have, with himself. Yes, it is good to take people at their word. But Hume wrote his great works on religion at a time when no one in Europe had ever avowed atheism in print. One watched one's words, even one's thoughts, with a care very different from that you or I might apply on such subjects.

Posted by: mitch at March 2, 2006 1:51 AM

Post a comment

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)