While surfing online, I had run across a series from the British GUARDIAN newspaper by philosopher Julian Baggini on the 18th-century Scots philosopher David Hume, and enjoyed it. On seeing this book on Amazon, believing it to be an expansion on that theme, I bought it sight unseen. I was then surprised to find that it consisted of the same series -- consolidated and, I think, tweaked to answer some of the issues raised by the bumptious commenting online to the original series -- along with Hume's primary writings on religion. I wasn't disappointed, however; although I find squabbling over religion like pounding sand down a rathole, Hume's writing on the subject is entirely witty and worth reading.
Following Baggini's introductory essay, the first item in this volume is "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion", an extended work mostly concerning the "teleological argument", the idea that an intelligence created the Universe. Hume seems to have been sympathetic to the idea, but then pointed out that the only reason we have to think an intelligence created the Universe is through reasoning by analogy with far feebler human constructions. In effect, we assume that because human inventions accidentally or deliberately imitate nature, then nature must be imitating humans. We are mesmerized by a scene in a mental mirror that imposes human ways of doing things on a Universe that, as all admit, isn't run by humans.
The fact is that we don't really know anything about the origins of Universes, so we have nothing else to tell us if the Universe is a design or not. We could still decide on intuition that it is a design, but we would have no information about the designer other than that he was capable of designing the Universe, and we are no wiser about the Universe than we were before. No law of nature works the slightest bit differently whether we assume the Universe is a design or not. Hume could easily concede the possibility of an intelligent design of the Universe, because it amounts to exactly nothing.
The second item is "The Natural History of Religion", which has been judged a landmark study in the anthropology of religion, reflecting Hume's approach to the world as a behaviorist. The essay suggests, among many other things, that polytheism is much more tolerant than monotheism -- if you've got a gang of gods, so what's one more? Hume does seem a little annoying in his pompous condescension to "false religions", but it's quickly obvious that Hume's shots at false religion slyly strike with as much accuracy at any other religion, with the bonus of mocking religious factionalism and bigotry.
Next, the book runs "Of a Particular Providence & a Future State" and "On Miracles", essays from Hume's book AN ENQUIRY CONCERNING HUMAN UNDERSTANDING. "Of a Particular Providence" covers similar ground to "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion", if much more briefly, while "On Miracles" is a lethal critique not so much of miracles but of the mindset of miracles -- more below; it has been angrily denounced ever since Hume published it. The final entries are "On the Immortality of the Soul", a little tour-de-force of logic and irony, and "Of Superstition & Enthusiasm", something of a ringer, suggesting that enthusiastic young or revived religions are preferable to old dusty hidebound ones.
I have to warn anyone who is not familiar with Hume that he's not an easy read. The oddity in this is that it's not at all because he's obscure; no, his writing style is just antique by modern standards, his ideas are subtle and tend toward the equivocal, and his writing is peculiarly elliptic -- in that one may have to read through an entire item a few times before all its dovetailed elements snap into a whole. Once the reader understands him, he's clear as a bell. Hume is something of an acquired taste, but those who can get into him will him vastly worthwhile: he had a BS filter built like a main battle tank, and he's just as impressive in the 21st century as it ever was.
* As a footnote, the critiques of the miraculous mindset in "On Miracles" have been rebutted so many times as to have become part of its charm. The most prominent rebuttal is: "Hume said miracles were impossible -- but he can't prove any such thing!"
Not exactly. Hume, being an empiricist, would never have said he could prove something is impossible, only that it hasn't been observed. The trick is that he wasn't the one who was saying miracles were impossible -- it was the advocates of miracles who said they were impossible. What's a miracle? It's something that happened that everyone, including the advocates, normally thinks simply doesn't happen. Hey, if people came back from the dead all the time, why would anyone make a fuss about it? So a miracle starts out with: "I'm going to tell you about something you WOULDN'T NORMALLY BELIEVE -- but it REALLY HAPPENED!" -- which is getting off on the wrong foot: "OK, then if you want me to believe it, it better be good."
The next rebuttal is that Hume said people couldn't believe miracles. No, he said you can believe them on faith, for what that's worth -- we can believe anything we like on faith. Even a skeptic can believe in a miracle, on the tough condition that the evidence provided for the miracle outweighs all the evidence that suggests such things don't happen. He concluded that advocates of miracles never provide anything close to adequate on that score; having made extraordinary claims, they will then deny the need for extraordinary evidence. Indeed, the approach of the advocates is to try to shift the burden of proof onto the skeptic by simply proclaiming miracles the undeniable truth and then insisting: "You can't convince me I'm wrong!" -- in hopes the skeptic will be stupid enough to take on such an obviously futile task.
There are other counterattacks, but they go downhill from low ground. It's not really surprising that advocates of miracles, talking in circles in the first place, respond to criticisms by talking in more circles. The big irony is that hardly anyone knows who Hume is; why one of his essays should be such a terror as to demand endless cycles of confused rebuttals is a mystery. After all, he admitted people could believe in miracles on faith, and if they did so, there was nothing to say about it. As far as skeptics go, they never needed Hume to tell them they shouldn't believe in miracles -- they never have, any more than believers swallow the miracles of rival religions.
No citizen has an obligation to believe anyone; and, on the other side of that coin, why would believers be concerned about the opinions of skeptics? They can be ignored without difficulty; if ignoring them seems inadequate, believers have a perfect right to tell them to take a long hike off a short pier. So where's the problem? One certainly has to humor the endless rebuttals of Hume, which always conclude with his execution in effigy: being long dead, he can be executed as many times as anyone likes.