Religious Philosophers and Speculative Atheists
Interpretations of Hume's philosophy of religion are often made against the background of more general interpretations of his philosophical intentions. From this perspective, it is not unusual to view Hume's views on religion in terms of the skepticism and naturalism that features prominently in his Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), his first and most ambitious philosophical work. According to the account that is now widely accepted in the scholarly literature, Hume removed almost all the material in the Treatise that was concerned with religion because he was anxious to avoid causing any “offence” among the orthodox. In his later works, ...view middle of the document...
Moreover, a view of this kind is liable to overlook the way in which 17th and 18th century theological controversies and debates structure and shape Hume's entire philosophy — not just his philosophy of religion. Put another way, Hume's philosophy of religion is integral to his entire philosophical system. It should not be viewed as an extraneous outgrowth or extension of earlier concerns and commitments that lack any specific irreligious motivation or orientation.
In the opening paragraph of the last section of the first Enquiry (XII) Hume makes the following observation:
There is not a greater number of philosophical reasonings, displayed upon any subject, than those, which prove the existence of a Deity, and refute the fallacies of Atheists; and yet the most religious philosophers still dispute whether any man can be so blinded as to be a speculative atheist. (EU.149/12.1 — Hume's emphasis)
These remarks bring to light an important point. The central debate that shapes Hume's views on the subject of religion is not the empiricist/rationalist controversy, nor its “British”/”continental” correlate, but a more fundamental dispute between philosophical defenders of Christian theology and their “atheistic” opponents. It is this divide over issues of religion that is especially important for understanding the positions and arguments that Hume presents throughout his philosophical writings.
During the 17th and early 18th centuries British philosophy gave rise to two powerful but conflicting philosophical outlooks. On one hand, this era has been described as “the golden period of English theology” because of the emerging alliance between philosophy and theology. It was, in particular, a major concern of a number of divines at this time to show that theology could be provided with a rational defence — one that would ward off all threat of scepticism and atheism. Among the leading representatives of this tradition were Henry More, Ralph Cudworth, John Locke, Samuel Clarke, George Berkeley and Joseph Butler. (More and Cudworth were both Cambridge Platonists.) On the other hand, in opposition to this Christian tradition, there existed a sceptical tradition of which the greatest representative was Thomas Hobbes. Almost all the defenders of the Christian religion during this period had their arguments targeted against the “atheistic” doctrines of Hobbes.
From the perspective of Hobbes's critics the doctrines that lay at the heart of his atheism were materialism, necessitarianism, moral relativism and egoism, and scepticism concerning natural and revealed religion. Any thinker who endorsed doctrines of this kind was liable to be read as a follower of Hobbes and branded an “atheist”. During this period Hobbes was not without his followers. The most important thinker to become closely associated with Hobbes, in the minds of his critics, was Benedict Spinoza. In the Theological-Political Treatise (1670) Spinoza pursued a number of Hobbesean...