David Hume: The Psychology of Belief and the Origins of Religion

David Hume wrote the book  Dialogues on Natural Religion  more or less in parallel with another work, the Natural History of Religion .  In his introduction, Hume postulates that there are two types of research to be done in religion: its foundations in reason and its origin in human nature. While Dialogues on Natural Religion  investigates the former, the explicit task of Natural History of Religion is to explore the latter.

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The Origins of Religion and the Psychology of Belief

In the book  Natural History  of Religion , he discharges the question of the fundamentals of religion in reason by pointing to the design argument, before focusing on its true task: how various passions give rise to religion .

According to Hume, every religion started out as a polytheist . This was due in large part to an ignorance of nature and a tendency to attribute agency to things.

In barbaric times, we had neither the time nor the capacity to contemplate nature as a whole, as a uniform. Because of this, we don’t understand natural causes in general. In the absence of this understanding, human nature is such that we tend to attribute agency to effects, since this is the form of cause and effect with which we are most familiar.

This is especially true for effects that appear to break regularity. Irregularity can be beneficial, such as a particularly abundant harvest, or harmful, like a drought. Thus, on your account, while we exercise our propensity to attribute agency to irregularities, a variety of effects give rise to a variety of anthropomorphized agents. We postulate deities that help us and deities that oppose us.

Monotheism originated from polytheism

Eventually, says Hume, polytheism gives way to monotheism not through reason, but through fear . In our obsequious praise of these deities, motivated by fear instead of admiration, we do not dare to attribute limitations to them, and it is from this flattering praise that we arrive at a unique and infinite deity that is perfect in every way, thus transforming us in monotheists.

If this monotheism were based on reason, its adherence would be stable. As it is not, there is “ebb and flow”, an oscillation from side to side between anthropomorphized deities with human flaws and a perfect divinity. This is because, as we move away from anthropomorphism, we make our divinity insensitive to the point of mysticism.

Hume insists that monotheism , while more reasonable than polytheism, is still generally practiced in the ordinary sense; That is, as a product of passions and not reason.

See too:

  • God is dead! What did Nietzsche mean by that?
  • 12 Nietzsche Quotes About Jesus Christ and Christianity
  • God’s Invention | Feuerbach and Marx By Clóvis de Barros Filho

Superstition and enthusiasm

As he repeatedly insists, the corruption of the best things leads to the worst, and monotheism has two ugly forms that Hume calls “superstition” and “enthusiasm”. Both of these corrupt forms of monotheism are based on inappropriate passions and not reason. If we believe that we have invisible enemies, agents who wish us badly, we try to appease them with rituals, sacrifices and so on. This gives rise to priests who serve as intermediaries and petitioners for these invisible agents. This emphasis on fear and ritual is the hallmark of Hume’s “superstition” , of which Catholicism of his day was his prime example. Superstition arises from the combination of fear, melancholy and ignorance.

  • Read also: The superstition of Skinner’s pigeons

Enthusiasm, on the other hand, comes from excessive worship. In the midst of such obsequious praises, a closeness to the divinity is felt. The emphasis on divine selection is the hallmark of Hume’s “enthusiasm”, a view that Hume sealed to many forms of Protestantism of his time. Enthusiasm, therefore, arises from the combination of hope, pride, conceit, imagination and ignorance.

In this way, Hume identifies four different forms of “false” or “vulgar” religion. The first is polytheism, which he sometimes calls “idolatry”. Then there are the common monotheisms, superstition, enthusiasm and mysticism.

Although Hume does not explicitly call the latter a vulgar religion, he insists that it must be based on faith and therefore has no adequate basis in reason. True religion, by contrast, supports the “principles of genuine theism,” and seems to consist mainly of attributing a deity as the source of nature’s regularity. Note that this implies that interruptions of reality, like miracles, count  against genuine theism rather than in favor of it.

God as the cause of the universe / Religion and morality

In the Dialogues on Natural Religion , Philo has the essence of true religion as maintenance and “cause or causes of order in the universe that are likely to have some remote analogy to human intelligence.”

This divinity is stripped of the traits that make the project analogy weak, and it is even more stripped of human passions, because, for Philo, it would be absurd to think that the deity has human emotions , especially a need to be praised.

Cleantes, however, complements his version of true religion, adding that the deity is “perfectly good”. However, because of this added moral component, Cleantes sees religion as giving morality and order , a position that Philo and Hume, in the Investigation of Moral Principles , deny.

Instead, the true religion described by Hume and Philo is independent of morality. As Yandell (1990: 29) notes, it does not overlap new duties and motives on the moral structure. True religion, therefore, does not affect morality and does not lead to “harmful consequences”. In fact, it does not seem to participate in our actions. Since true religion cannot guide our actions, Philo says that the dispute between theists and atheists is “merely verbal”


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