18th Century Religious Scepticism Not Based on Science: Part 3 – David Hume and Scepticism

David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is one of the classic anti-religious texts. Hume was an agnostic sceptic, rather than an atheist materialist. Published after his death in 1779, the Dialogues are a sustained attack on Natural Theology. In them, Hume attacked the idea of the universe as a machine, and suggested other, organic metaphors. The universe could have grown instead like some kind of vegetable. He also criticised the idea that the features and characteristics of animals were proof of the existence of a Designer. He argued instead that an animal with a particular set of characteristics would have to follow a particular lifestyle or die out. This did not, however, show that those features were designed, or that the animal was intended to pursue this particular manner of existence. He also argued that the immense suffering in nature also argued against the existence of a benevolent deity. He also argued that the regular operation of natural laws also did not show that they were grounded in God’s will. He also argued that miracles were so highly improbably that they should not be accepted, and that if they did exist, they were not necessarily proof of God’s existence as every religion had them. As for the origin of religion itself, in his unpublished book, the Natural History of Religion, he believed that the original religion of humanity had been polytheism, the belief in many gods. This was in stark contrast to the Deists and orthodox Christians, who believed that the first religion had been monotheism. He also saw all religions as leading to fanaticism, and attacked religious virtues as being useless to society.

Hume’s Arguments not Accepted at Time, Criticism by Joseph Priestly

Hume’s Dialogues are considered by the majority of scholars as totally destroying the arguments for the Almighty’s existence based on nature. This is, however, very much a post-Darwinian view. Matt Ridley, in his collection of texts on evolution, places an extract from the dialogues in a section entitled ‘Philosophical Consequence of Evolution’. At the time it was felt that Joseph Priestley had decisively refuted Hume’s arguments in his 1780, Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever. Priestley stated that

‘With respect to Mr. Hume’s metaphysical writings in general, my opinion is, that, on the whole, the world is very little the wider for them. For though, when the merits of any question were on his side, few men ever wrote with more perspicuity, the arrangement of his thoughts being natural, and his illustrations pecularliarly happy; yet I can hardly think that we are indebted to him for the least real advance in the knowledge of the human mind.’

Regarding Hume’s ideas on how humans form concepts, Priestley believed that they had all been refuted by Hartley’s Observations on Man, which Hume didn’t appear to have read.

‘He seems not to have given himself the trouble so much as to read Dr. Hartley’s Observations on Man, a work which he could not but have heard of, and which it certainly behoved him to study. The doctrine of association of ideas, as explained and extended by Dr. Hartley, supplies materials for th emost satisfactory solution of aolmost all the difficulties he has started, as I could easily show if I thought it any consequence; so that to a person acquainted with this theory of the human mind, Hume’s Essays appear the merest trifling. Compared iwth Dr. Hartley, I consider Mr. Hume as not even a child.’

Priestley was also highly critical of the quality of the arguments for the non-existence of God advanced by the character of Philo in the Dialogues. According to Priestly, the character of Philo advanced ‘nothing but common-place objections against the belief of a God, and hackneyed declamations against the plan of providence’.

Priestly was also unimpressed by Hume’s argument that analogies from animals and plants could also equally be used to explain the cosmos. Hume had suggested that if the universe were an animal, then comets could be viewed as this creature’s eggs. Priestley said of this

‘Had any friend of religion advanced an idea so completely absurd as this, what would not Mr. Hume have said to turn it into ridicule. With just a smuch probability might he have said that Glasgow grew from a seed yielded by Edinburgh, or that London and Edinburgh, marrying, by natural generation, produced York, which lies between them. With much more probability might he have said that pamphlets are the productions of large books, that boats are young ships, and the pistols will grow into great guns; and that either there never were any first towns, books, ships, or guns, or that, if there were, they no makers.

How it could come into any man’s head to imagine that a thing so complex as this world, consisting of land and water, earths and metals, plants and animals, &c &c &c should produce a seed, or egg, containing within it the elements of all its innumerable parts, is beyond my powers of comprehension.’

Hume’s Argument on Organic Nature of Universe Scientific Nonsense, According to Priestly

Priestly even suggested that this view of the origin of the cosmos was based on ignorance, not science.

‘What must have been that man’s knowledge of philosophy and nature, who could suppose for a moment, that a comet could possibly be the seed of a world? Do comets spiring from worlds, carrying with them the seeds of all the plants, &c that they contain? Do comets travel from sun to sun, or from star to star? By what force are they tossed into the unformed elements, which Mr. Hume supposes everywhere to surround the universe?> What are those elements: and what evidence has he of their existence? or supposing the comet to arrive among them, whence could arise its power of vegetating into a new system?’

Priestly had possibly missed the point about HUme’s organic analogies. They were not serious suggestions, but intended to show that the machine metaphors used for the universe were only one of several that could equally be used. Nevertheless, Priestly showed that these metaphors were just as, if not more vulnerable, to criticism as those which likened the cosmos to a machine.

Hume’s Spokesman for Design Champion of Science in these Debates

Most of Hume’s arguments against religion and the evidence for design in the universe are philosophical, not scientific. He does use Newton’s suggestion that the cosmos was permeated by an ether to argue that it was movements in this, rather than the actions of the Almighty, that resulted in the effects of gravity. Despite this it is Hume’s character, Cleanthes, who idealises and defends science. Cleanthes states that ‘The true system of the heavenly bodies is discovered and ascertained … Why must conclusions of a (relgious) nature be alone rejected on the general presumption of the insufficiency of human reason?’

Hume’s Empiricism also Used to Attack Not Yet Verified Scientific Concepts

Furthermore, Hume’s agnosticism could act against scientific investigation. Hume believed that just because two events were seen to occur together did not mean that one caused the other. Hume did not wish to attack science. He was an empiricist, and this attitude that no concepts should be accepted unless they were directly experienced could be used against scientific ideas as well as religious, if taken to extremes. Atoms and genes, for example, were theoretical suggestions long before they were verified by science. These concepts would have had to be rejected if the standards of evidence Hume levelled against religion were applied to science. Those secular scientists that did not believe in them frequently attacked them on the basis that such ideas were exactly like those of religion in their lack of a sound scientific basis. The great 19th century chemist, Marcellin Berthelot, stated:

‘I do not want chemistry to degenerate into a religion; I do not want the chemist to believe in the existence of atoms as the Christian believes in the existence of Christ in the communion wafter’.

Refutation of the Argument against Miracles and Other Arguments

As for Hume’s arguments against miracles, they have been refuted by the secular, agnostic philosopher Earman. Earman’s article attacking them was called ‘The complete Failure of Hume’s Arguments against Miracles’. Hume’s arguments against design in the cosmos have also been attacked by Robin Attfield in his Creation, Evolution and Meaning (Aldershot: Ashgate 2006). Attfield argues against atheism from a theistic evolutionist perspective.

As for Hume’s argument that monotheism originally arose from polytheism, this has been accepted by theologians as not actually affecting the truth of the Christian revelation. I was taught it at my old Anglican church school. There is another theory that the original religion was monotheism. This is based on similarities to Judeo-Christian conception of the Almighty in other cultures, and by the fact that rather than developing into monotheism, the number of gods in polytheist religions actually increases over time.

Conclusion: Hume’s Arguments Philosophical, Not Scientific, and Could be Used Against Science

Thus Hume’s arguments against religion have been attacked in turn, and were largely not based in science. Joseph Priestly, who was a scientist as well as Unitarian minister, attacked them for their lack of a scientific basis. Indeed, Hume’s empiricism, when taken to extremes, could and did occasionally act against scientific discovery, as Berthelot’s rejection of atoms shows.


John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1991).


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One Response to “18th Century Religious Scepticism Not Based on Science: Part 3 – David Hume and Scepticism”

  1. 18th Century Religious Scepticism Not Based on Science: Part 3 – David Hume and Scepticism | ChristianBookBarn.com Says:

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