A reexamination of Hume's views on religion

Hume's "Inexplicable Mystery"

His Views on Religion

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Keith E. Yandell

"Yandell has put us all in his debt for the care with which he has examined the writings of one of the most influential critics of religion."
Journal of Theological Studies

The eighteenth-century Scottish empiricist David Hume has been regarded as a notorious enemy of religion. Still, his discussion of religion is systematic, sophisticated, and sustained. Focusing mainly on two of Hume’s works, the relatively neglected Natural History of Religion and the more widely read Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Keith Yandell analyzes Hume’s treatment of a subject that he described as "a riddle, an enigma, an inexplicable mystery." In so doing, he explores the relationships between Hume’s philosophy of religion and his general philosophy.

Hume’s "evidentialism," applied to religion, can be summed up by saying that it is unreasonable to accept a religious belief unless one has evidence for it. Since it is also Hume’s view that there is no evidence for any religious belief, he concludes that no one is ever reasonable in accepting a religious belief. Yandell examines the explanations that Hume gave for such acceptance in Natural History of Religion. Addressing the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, he compares Hume’s views to those of such authors as Herbert of Cherbury and Bishop Joseph Butler, traces changes in Hume’s theory of meaning, and discusses the ontological and cosmological arguments and Hume’s treatment of the problem of evil. Yandell then considers other lesser known writings by Hume that are relevant to his philosophy of religion.



"[Yandell] offers an interpretation of Hume's philosophy of religion and examines its foundations critically. The sweep of coverage and the author's control of his material are impressive. This is a readable and informative study which no one interested in Hume's views on religion can afford to neglect."
James King, Northern Illinois University

"[Yandell] has unearthed the underlying philosophical significance of [the Natural History]. That by itself is an important achievement and a valuable scholarly contribution. Yandell's discussion of the issues in Hume's better known writing is intrinsically important as well as constitution a significant deepening of our approach to issues in Hume's philosophy of religion. It is a tribute to Yandell's stature as a philosopher that he is able to return to ground which has been so frequently ploughed and still give us new insights and a more perceptive understanding of Hume's method and his results.... It is an original and illuminating reading of a number of major issues in Hume's philosophy."
Marvin Fox, Brandeis University




Part I: The Natural History of Religion

1. The Content of the Natural History
Hume's Theory of Religious Belief • Hume's Apparent Approval of the Design Argument • The Secondary Status of the Propensities to Religious Belief • Hume on Religion and Morality • Religion and Human Nature • Part Twelve of the Dialogues • Verbal Dispute in Dialogue Twelve • Philo's Confession of Faith

2. The Treatise Repetition of the Natural History Pattern of Explanation
The Skeptical Prologue • Belief in an External World: Humean Constancy • Belief in an Enduring Self • Principles of Association as Propensities, Causality Included • The Treatise Explanations and the Natural History Explanation • Conflict Concerning the External World • Conflict Concerning Enduring Numerically Identical Selves

3. Religious Belief as a Danger to Human Nature
A Further Similarity • Natural Beliefs • Basic Propensities • Religion and Human Nature Again • Human Nature • Hume and Calvin on Human Nature • The Rights of Reason and the Rights of Religion

4. Hume's Account of Persons as Propensity Bearers
Two Models of Human Nature • The Appendix Summary • The Soul or Person • Meaning • Do Simple Perceptions Endure? • Substances • Identity • Time • A Brief Look Backward • An Example of the 'Real Connections Among Perceptions' View • Self-Awareness • Observability and Transparency • Foundationalism • Certainty and Personal Identity • Transparency and Real Connections • Why We Believe in Personal Identity • Memory and Personal Identity • Agency and Morality • Summary of the 'Real Connection' Line of Reasoning • Conclusion

5. Hume's Explanation of Religious Belief
A Brief Review • The Elements of Hume's Explanation • A Critique of Hume's Strategy • The Critique Assessed • Religious Experience and Hume's Explanation • Elements of an Argument from Religious Experience • A Principle of Experiential Evidence • Social Science Explanations and the Argument from Religious Experience

Part II: Hume's Discussion of Natural Theology

6. Hume's Evidentialism
Hume and Radical Religious Evidentialism • Bishop Butler on Probable Evidence

7. Hume's Theory of Meaning
Incomprehensibility • An Introduction to Ineffability • Ineffability: Another Look • Divine Incomprehensibility and Negative Theology • Meaning, Verification, and the Designer Hypothesis • Incomprehensibility Again

8. Design, Causality, and Purpose
The Causal Principle and the Causal Maxim (Dialogues, Part Two) • Theism and the Dialogues • The Design Argument: Initial Formulation • On Proportioning Degrees of Belief and Evidence • Arguments from Experience • Inductive Arguments and Lawlike Connections • Inductive Argument and Argument by Analogy • The Design Argument and Postulation of Theoretical Entities • Relevant versus Irrelevant Properties • The Fallacy of Composition • Opposing Analogies • Is the Universe a Thing? • Being Designed and Having a Purpose

9. Inductive Arguments and Analogical Arguments
Cleanthes' Attempt to Avoid Philo's Critique (Dialogues, Part Three) • Inductions from Single Cases • Review and Prospect • A Two-Stage Design Argument • Argument by Analogy to Properties of the Universe's Designer • The Most Plausible Analogy or Model • Miscellaneous Topics • (A10) and Ultimate Explanations

10. Design Arguments and Multiple Models
Ramifications of and Alternatives to the Designer Hypothesis (Dialogues, Part Four) • More Ramifications of the Designer Hypothesis (Dialogues, Part Five) • Alternatives to the Designer Hypothesis Again (Dialogues, Part Six) • The Universe, Vegetables, and Animals (Dialogues, Part Seven) • Various Models for Understanding Universal Order Again • Alternative Models for Explaining Universal Order (Dialogues, Part Eight)

11. Other Theistic Arguments
Demea's a Priori Arguments (Dialogues, Part Nine) • The Notion of Necessary Existence • The Universe and Necessity • Explanation and Infinite Series • Philonian Determinism

12. Evil, Happiness, and Goodness
Religion and Fear (Dialogues, Part Ten) • Hedonism • The Equivocation Argument • The Equivocation Argument Assessed • Happier Possible Persons? • Means and Ends • The Argument of Epicurus • The Argument of Epicurus Assessed • Omnibenevolence and the Phenomena

13. Evil, Prediction, and Probability
The Prediction Argument (Dialogues, Part Eleven) • Is Evil a Priori Unlikely? • The Aquinas Line • The Leibniz Line • Determinism and Responsibility • Disanalogies between God and Human Agents • Direct and Indirect Causation • The Consistency Question • Philo's Four Causes • Philo's Four Circumstances • The Four Circumstances Argument • Evil and Probability

Part III: Further Humeana

14. Superstition, Enthusiasm, Suicide, and Immortality
Of Superstition and Enthusiasm • On Suicide • Immortality • Metaphysical Arguments • Moral Arguments • Physical Arguments • Ethical Arguments • The Pre-Dialogues Dialogue

15. Miracles
What Is a Miracle? • Miracles and "Extraordinary" Events • Miracles and the Stormy History of Science • Miracles and Epistemology • Hume's Argument Appraised • Hume's Subsidiary Arguments • Some Comments about the Subsidiary Arguments • Hume's Main Position on Miracles • Conclusion



About the Author(s)

Keith E. Yandell is Professor of Philosophy and South Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Subject Categories

Philosophy and Ethics



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