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Customer Review

on 29 June 2011
Oxford World Classics' is a good edition of Hume's writings on religion. As well as the Dialogues, it contains the brief autobiography My Own Life, a chapter of the first Enquiry (Of a Particular Providence) and the Natural History of Religion, which argues that the first religions were polytheistic.

In the Dialogues, which is the central text, there are clearly expressed treatments of three principal arguments for God's existence. The argument from design gets the most space, but the cosmological and ontological arguments, in versions similar to those of Isaac Newton's friend Samuel Clark, are also scrutinised with a sharp and sceptical eye. I read the Dialogues as a philosophy student some thirty years ago and it confirmed my agnosticism. Contrary to some earlier reviewers, I have since worked my way back to a slightly more positive appreciation of the arguments. Hume's view of necessity is based on his theory of impressions and ideas, but it seems to me intuitively absurd to say we can 'conceive' the non-existence of a necessary being, so I have some time for the ontological argument of St Anselm's writings and indeed Hegel's Lectures on the Proofs of the Existence of God. Hume's view of causality is also quite narrow, but these discussions are for another place.

As well as divine existence, which he reckons probable, the Dialogues end with a passage of 'unfeigned sentiments' attributed to the sceptical character Philo. Here Hume addresses the divine attributes (omniscience, omnipotence and benevolence) and says that there is perhaps less analogy between the moral attributes and those of man than between the intellectual ones. To me this was reminiscent of The Book of Job more than the argumentative to and fro of the earlier chapters. One thing missing from this edition are any passages of religious history and psychology from the History of England. In his concluding portrait of Charles I in the The History of the Stuarts, Hume seems to me to be giving his secular view of Christ in a way that would be of interest to Christian readers.

So this is a good edition and will strengthen anyone's intellectual grasp of the arguments for God's existence, particularly if accompanied by some reading in informal logic.
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