Hugh McLachlan: Don't believe all you hear of Hume

The idea that the great Scots philosopher David Hume was an atheist cannot be confirmed by his own writings on religious matters

DAVID Hume, the great Scottish philosopher, the tercentenary of whose birth is now being celebrated, is widely known but his ideas are not. Many people imagine that he was a strident atheist. Indeed, contemporary polemical atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are keen to claim him as a precursor of themselves. However, Hume was a far more subtle, imaginative and complex thinker with regard to religion than he is generally thought to have been.

He wrote: "Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous." This has been interpreted as an attack on religion as such but such an interpretation is disputable.

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His essay on the ethics of suicide starts with the provocative claim: "One considerable advantage that arises from Philosophy consists in the sovereign antidote which it affords to superstition and false religion." Again, it is not clear that this should be read as an attack on religion as such.

Hume made a distinction between what he called "false religion" and what he called "true religion". He talked too of "genuine theism" as a sub-category of theism in general. He wrote: "The proper Office of Religion is to reform Men's Lives, to purify their Hearts, to inforce all moral Duties, & to secure Obedience to the Laws & civil Magistrate. While it pursues these useful Purposes, its Operations, tho' infinitely valuable, are secret & silent; and seldom come under the Cognizance of History…"

In the introduction to his book The Natural History of Religion, he wrote: "The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author: and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion."

This hardly sounds like atheism.

Hume thought that what we would now call the theory of intelligent design was worthy of serious consideration as a philosophical interpretation - although not as a scientific theory - of the existence of the universe. He analysed it carefully and thoroughly in his brilliant and very readable book Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Yet, partly because the book takes the form of a discussion between people of different views and Hume gives all his characters something interesting and sensible to say, one cannot be justifiably sure what Hume's own settled opinion on the matter was. Perhaps he did not have one.According to Hume, if something is designed, it does not follow that a particular designer designed it. It might, for instance, have been designed by a committee. "Why may not several Deities combine in contriving and framing a world?"

Even if we think that a designer designed the universe, we cannot conclude that a God who has the features that religious believers typically attribute to Him must have created it. In particular we cannot conclude that God is morally good, far less morally perfect. Similarly, we cannot conclude that God is a good designer.

For all we know, since we have no other universes to compare our own one to, the universe might be in all sorts of ways imperfect. For instance, it might be the case that: "This world… is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant Deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance." As another logical possibility, perhaps it is: "… the work only of some dependent, inferior Deity; and is the object of derision to his superiors…" Yet again, it might be: "… the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated Deity; and ever since his death, has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force, which it received from him…"

According to Hume, we cannot logically prove either the existence or non-existence of God since, according to him, it involves no logical contradiction to assert either that God exists or that He does not exist. Between theism and atheism, logic is neutral.

However, it does not follow, nor did Hume claim, that is it irrational either to believe that God exists or to deny it. It is not irrational to believe something that we do not know to be true if we similarly do not know that it is false.

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However, it is a mistake to claim to know that which we merely believe. Hume might be thought to be criticising those religious believers who claim to know that their religious beliefs are true. However, that is not the same as attacking them for holding the beliefs. It is not the same as attacking the beliefs as beliefs.

Those who claim to know that it is irrational to hold beliefs that cannot be rationally supported by evidence or logically proven are mistaken. Indeed, since the claim itself is not supported by evidence nor is it logically proven, those who assert it refute themselves.

Sometimes, if there is no evidence that some particular event occurred at a particular time and place, we can take this lack of evidence as proof that the event did not occur. For instance, if there is no evidence this morning in my study that my study was on fire during the night, I can justifiably claim to know that it was not on fire during the night.

However, we cannot take apparent lack of evidence that God exists as evidence that he does not exist. We know from experience what would count as evidence that my study was on fire last night.We do not similarly know what would count as evidence that God exists. From experience, we can compare rooms that have been on fire with those that have not. However, we cannot compare universes that have been with other ones that have not been designed by a God. Hence, there might be evidence all around us that God exists that we are unable to interpret correctly as such.

Hume argues that, at least in general, religious beliefs are based on sentiments rather than on reason. However, we cannot conclude that Hume was thereby attacking religion. Some sentiments, according to him, are more laudable and appropriate than others.

Hume also argued that our moral judgments are based on our sentiments, in particular our sentiment of sympathy for others and our sentiments of pleasure and pain, rather than on reason. However, he did not intend thereby to attack our moral judgments. He did not claim that morality is unimportant.

Hume even argued that our scientific beliefs are based on human sentiments. However, he was not intending thereby to attack science and such or to suggest that we should abandon our scientific beliefs.

I would suggest that Hume's criticism of particular religious beliefs and particular attitudes towards religious beliefs have been misinterpreted as arguments against religion as such and against theism as such. Dogmatic atheism coheres with his temperament and his ideas no more than does dogmatic theism.

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If he had an opinion about atheism that he wanted to express clearly and unambiguously, it is strange that he did not take the opportunity to express it in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. According to his own specific instructions, this book was published only after his death. He had nothing to fear from and nothing to lose by the posthumous publication of his views.

It is far from clear that Hume was an atheist and manifest that, if he was, his atheism was of a curious sort.

I suspect that he was a deist, that is, someone who believes in the existence of an abstract God of some sort but does not consider Him to have such features as a benevolent concern for humankind.

• Hugh McLachlan is professor of applied philosophy in the School of Law and Social Sciences at Glasgow Caledonian University