Saturday, May 19, 2012

Hume's Critique of Religion

The Scottish philosopher David Hume, can be seen as trying to quench some of the enthusiasm that Rousseau had toward experience. Hume held that, in the words of Livingston, "Experience admittedly is not infallible; there are all imaginable degrees of assurance from the highest certainty to the lowest possibilities." (Modern Christian Thought, Livingston, pg. 50) With this in mind, we have to precede with the thought that experience cannot tell us everything. However, for Hume, neither can reason.

Hume holds a radical position in the history of philosophy with this stance. When examining the whole of philosophy, we see, according to Hume, that it has failed. Reason alone cannot leads us to truth. Neither can experience. With these two positions, Hume in effect, killed the philosophical enterprise. The Rationalist, from Plato to Descartes and beyond were wrong. The Empiricists, from Aristotle to Berkeley and beyond were wrong. But instead of enumerating his critique of philosophy, lets focus on his critique of religion.

Beginning with his critique of religion, he takes a shot at the Rationalists. Not only in his view is "reason impotent to convince us of the claims of faith", "The rational man, who proportions his beliefs the evidence, cannot take the way of faith." (pg. 52) Before we celebrate this statement, we must be wary. It can be seen and used as a counter to religion very easily. It can be read in both a positive and negative way. It can be read in a positive sense by saying that religion is super-rational. However, the same statement can be read to say that faith is irrational and an enemy of critical thought. Before we get into the connotations of this statement too much, we must understand why he said it.

For Hume, reason can only tell us a limited amount about nature and nothing about religion. From reason we can posit an external world, and even a world of order. We can examine nature and see how things work. Yet, we cannot take these as analogies for a divine being. Trying to draw religious inferences from our experience and knowledge of nature are uncertain and useless. "Uncertain because we cannot legitimately draw any inferences from nature beyond what we already know; useless because we cannot make any additions to our common experience of nature from which we would derive principles of moral conduct." (pg. 53) In other words, if something is not knowable to us, how can we know anything about it? If we do not have any basis to start our reasoning from, how can we reason? On top of that, how can we draw morals from such knowledge? Morals come from religion, not reason, for Hume. If that is the case, how can reason give us morality?

Reason for Hume can only try to point towards a Deistic, mechanistic creator. If we try to argue by analogy, that is by saying that God is like man, there are many problems. In Hume's The Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion at least three problems with reason leading to religion are outlined.

  1. If God is like man, only better, we must renounce all claims of infinity when talking about the nature of God. If the cause has to be like the effect, then God (the cause) has to be finite like man (the effect). The two, cause and effect, have to be in proportion and in likeness. If God is like man, then God must be finite as man is.
  2. If we argue from analogy, we have to get rid of all ideas of God's perfection. Or as he has Cleanthes state: "At least you must acknowledge that it is impossible for us to tell, from our limited views, whether the system contains any great faults or deserves any considerable praise if compared to other possible and even real systems...Many worlds might have been botched and bugled throughout an eternity, ere this system was struck out." (pg. 55) In other words, we as finite beings have a finite understanding and view of the world, the cosmos and history and cannot know if there is perfection or if it just seems that way.
  3. If we argue from analogy, we have to abandon the unity of God. Again, Hume has Cleanthes say:"A great number of men join in building a house or ship, in readring a city, in farming a common-wealth (popular starting points for the analogy of God's creative abilities); why may not several deities combine in contriving and framing a world?" (pg. 55) Again, just because things are created does not necessarily  mean that only one person\deity created them.
At this point, what can the Church learn from Hume? I think that one of the biggest lessons from this part of Hume's critique of religion shows us that we need to be careful with our argumentation. Not only should we make the best and most thorough argument possible, we need to understand the implications of them. Hume really puts his finger on the logical conclusions of some popular methods of trying to prove God. And if we allow Hume to speak to us, we hear  that we have failed to be convincing. 

If reason does not work as a method of theological argumentation and way to God, what does? Hume holds that religious beliefs cannot be proved by reason, as shown above. For Hume, religious beliefs are natural beliefs. They are not facts that can be inferred through thought. Religious beliefs are "instinctive and practical attitudes toward the world." (pg. 57) This means, for the Church, that we cannot know the truth of our doctrines and dogmas. We can only know what we feel, although we need to maintain a hardy skepticism toward them.

Where the Church needs instruction from Hume is in our attitude towards our beliefs. We need to question them and plumb the depths of our religious beliefs and not hold back. For Hume, nothing is sacred; that is free from critique. Hume himself might have been an agnostic, but at least he tried to open an alternative way to God that is not based in Reason.

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