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Dialogues and Natural History of Religion
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42 of 44 people found the following review helpful
on June 5, 2004
This is a wonderful collection of Hume's most famous and influential writings on religion. Few books I've encountered include this much first-rate philosophy for the price, and so I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Hume's thinking about religion. It includes the section on miracles from Hume's Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals and the full versions of both The Natural History of Religion and the Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. (Hume's short autobiography, "My Own Life," is also included.) Furthermore, Gaskin has provided some helpful editorial material: there's a useful introductory essay discussing the selections, and he includes explanatory notes that clarify some of Hume's more obscure references.
The central theme of Hume's religious thought is the central theme of his philosophical thought as a whole--namely the extent of our ignorance and the impotence of human reason to discover the things we really want to discover. And, for this reason, his writing on religion provides a good illustration of his general philosophical method: he begins by pointing out the impotence of reason, and then he offers a naturalistic psychological explanation of why we continue to think as we do. Our tendency to believe various religious thesis, he argues, cannot be explained as a justifiable way of thinking about the world that we arrive at through the use of reason. It is, instead, explained by certain general principles governing the operation of human minds. And two major works in this volume illustrate the two components of Hume's philosophical method. In the Dialogues he argues that neither empirical research nor the a priori exercise of reason is likely to reveal that our religious beliefs are justified. In The Natural History he begins the project of explaining why we do in fact believe what we do about religion.
As I said above, the Dialogues pertain to the first part of the method. Most of the Dialogues is devoted to discussion of a posteriori arguments for the existence of God, though there is also a short section on various a priori arguments. The main argument considered here is the classical argument from design, which Hume seems to understand as an analogical argument of the following sort: the complexity and order of the universe show that it is similar to artifacts created by human intelligences; similar causes have similar effects; therefore, the universe must have been created by a being with something like a human intelligence; therefore, the universe must have been created by God.
Hume's objections to this argument are legion, and many of the individual objections are both ingenious and forceful. He provides reasons for thinking that the universe isn't all that similar to artifacts created by human beings. Hume also provides for thinking that, even if we think the universe is similar to a human artifact, we ought to think the universe was created by a being quite unlike God. In addition, he suggests certain speculative naturalistic explanations of the existence and nature of the universe; and he claims that it's unclear why an appeal to divine creation is to be preferred to these speculative naturalistic stories of the universe's creation. Hume's cumulative case against the argument from design is quite impressive. Indeed, I'm pretty sure that Hume has shown that the argument from design is more or less worthless as support for anything resembling traditional theism.
But where, in the end, does Hume come down on the issue of theism? It seems clear that he has no sympathy for organized religion, or for any religious views that purport to describe the nature of God, His intentions, or how and why He created the universe as He did. For any such religious view is going to overstep the bounds within which he thinks human reason can operate. And the only positive religious claim that is given respectful treatment here is the bare claim that we have reason to think that the cause of the universe as a whole is somewhat similar to a human intelligence. But does acceptance of this minimal thesis amount to his being a theist? It's very hard to tell. The problem is that it often seems Hume's explicit advocation of this position amounts to little more than a description of what he thinks is an inevitable human tendency to think this way.
And this is where the second part of his project, the part carried out in The Natural History of Religion, becomes relevant. For The Natural History is the work in which Hume sets out to trace the sources of religious belief to certain natural principles of the human mind. There he argues that the the operation of our minds, along with the conditions in which we find ourselves, leads us to arrive at the sorts of religious beliefs we find to be popular in past and present human societies. Our ignorance about the way the world operates and our apprehensiveness about the ways these unknowns can affect our lives naturally lead human beings to a form of polytheism. We tend to attribute the underlying principles by which the world operates to a large number human-like beings, and this is what polytheistic religion amounts to. But once polytheism is in place our tendency to attribute greater powers and more perfect natures to individual gods leads us to something closer to monotheistic views according to which there is a single wholly perfect being behind all the underlying principles governing the world and behind the existence of the world itself.
It should be clear, then, why it's difficult to pin down just what Hume though about religion. He does think that it's hard for beings like us to deny the general thesis that the universe as a whole was probably created by a human-like intelligence. For given how our minds actually work, he seems to think, we're bound to think something like this about the origin of the universe. Yet it's somewhat unclear that he thinks forming beliefs in this way is reliable. It may simply be that we have a brute instinct to think in a way that insures we'll see the world as resulting from some human-like intelligence, and it's at least not clear that that isn't a debunking account of the plausibility of theism.
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34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on May 22, 2002
Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is by far the most fascinating and critical look at religion I have ever read. The work is extremely well thought-out and, in my opinion, unbiased as well. As the editor, J.C.A. Gaskin, points out, Hume, in expressing points of view opposing to his own, portrays these views accurately and succeeds in anticipating his oponents' counter-arguments.
Second to the magnificence of Hume's ideas, the greatest thing about this book (and Hume's work in general) is the complete clarity of his writing and the ease with which the reader can follow the logical progression of his ideas.
I consider Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion to be Hume's greatest work. Regardless of your personal beliefs, Hume will make you re-think your views about religion and the universe.
Very highly recommended to all, skeptics and non-skeptics alike.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
David Hume, a philosopher of the period often classified as British Empiricism, is the intellectual associate of philosophers John Locke and George Berkeley. Born in Edinburgh in 1711, he attended the University of Edinburgh but did not graduate. He went to France during his 20s, and spent time there working on what would become his most famous work, 'An Enquiry into Human Understanding', first published under the title 'Treatise of Human Nature'. However, Hume was a prolific writer, and dealt with many areas of philosophy, including politics and ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics. He wrote in the area of history as well, and had a politic career as British ambassador to France and a post as a minister in the government for a few years. His final work, 'Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion', was published posthumously in 1779, although work had begun on it as early as the 1750s.

Hume was very concerned about rationality. Hume was never publicly and explicitly an atheist, but his rational mind, concerned about sensory and intelligible evidence, led him to question and doubt most major systems of religion, including the more general philosophical sense of religion and proofs of the existence of God. The primary arguments in his 'Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion' deal with the Argument from Design, and the Cosmological Argument. There is an assumed distinction here between natural religion and revealed religion, an especially important distinction in the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment philosophical structure.

- Natural Religion and Revealed Religion -

Natural religion is the idea that we come to know and understand God (and, consequently, what God wants or expects of us, if anything) simply from nature and our sensory perceptions, as well as our interpretations (emotion and rational) of this kind of understanding. From very early in his writing career, Hume attacked the idea of natural religion and most of its conclusions, drawing a sharp line between what we can actually know and what ends up being fanciful extrapolations based on other-than-rational ideas and evidence. Revealed religion is primary what most religions base themselves upon - the burning bush to Moses, the resurrection and post-resurrection appearances to the Apostles, the Buddha's enlightenment under the tree - these are examples of revelation. While Hume does take on the idea of revealed religion in his other works, this particular text does not concern itself with that topic, and stays in the domain of addressing natural religion.

- The Argument from Design -

Arguments from Design have always had a strong appeal to believers within religious frameworks; they have often been used as tools of evangelism, as attempts to show that beyond the revealed doctrines, the very nature of things points to a creator. In very short order, the Argument from Design in Hume's newly-industrial time might have read like this:

- Machines are designed by beings with intelligence.

- The world and the universe it is in resembles a machine.

- Therefore, the world must have been created by means of intelligent design.

This is an argument by analogy, and is convincing to some, but often more convincing to those already inclined to believe in the existence of God.

- The Cosmological Argument -

The Cosmological Argument is at once both more subtle and more simple. The most simple way of stating it would be that God is the 'first cause' of everything. If everything has to have a cause (even the whole universe), then that first cause must be God. In the twentieth century era of thinking of a universe that began with a Big Bang, it seemed to some that the Cosmological Argument was confirmed.

Hume would have been familiar with Leibniz's more subtle form of the Cosmological Argument, which argues for a world of infinite contingent causes. However, there has to be something outside of this system of infinite causes that produced the series - thus, even in a universe with no set beginning or ending, there would still need to be an overarching cause.

- Hume's Arguments -

Hume argues on many levels. His first criticism of the Argument from Design is that this analogy (as are most arguments from analogy) is faulty and not exact; we have no idea if the universe is like a machine. Even if it was, machines are often designed and built by several designers - why argue for one God rather than several? How do we know that matter and the universe don't have their own, internal self-organising principles?

With regard to the Cosmological Argument, the argument is a little more strained. Hume argues that, in any series of causality, once one knows about each cause, it makes no sense to inquire beyond the sequence of causes to some other effect. This is a very Empirical argument, to be sure, and while perhaps not entirely satisfying, it still has merit in philosophy to this day.

- Hume's Structure -

This is a dialogue, set up in the classical way of people talking with each other about the subjects. Hume draws primarily from Cicero, whose work 'On the Nature of the Gods' uses characters of the same names. However, whereas Cicero was concerned about the nature of the Gods (their attributes, powers, etc.) and not their existence, it is the very existence of God that occupies Hume's thoughts.

Hume, despite many years of work on this text, probably never quite thought it was finished. He left the work to Adam Smith (the noted economist, and friend of Hume in Edinburgh), who also thought the arguments against the existence of God were too strong, and likely too damaging to Hume's overall reputation. The tug-of-war over the publication makes for interesting reading in and of itself.

These are important arguments, worthy of discussion and dialogue in philosophy classes, theology classes, and among others who ponder the existence of God.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on August 26, 1997
This is a book for those who like to think about religion. Whether you are an atheist or a theist the book will challenge you. Hume arranges powerful arguments on both side of the question, and it is still a matter of scholarly debate what he really believed, however what Hume really believed is less important than the training in critical thinking he offers. This is the kind of book that can change your life
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on August 14, 2009
Hume was such a brilliant and complex thinker and widely read in both classical and contemporary literature. I found at major junctures of his arguments remarkable coincidence with my own independent ratiocinations when I first flirted with non-theism as a teenager, such as virtually all his reasonings against teleological arguments and on the development of monotheism from 'idolatry' (Hume's frequent term for polytheism.) So for me reading Hume is especially endearing. His prose is a piece of work, but becomes naturally stylish and attractive after feeling it up. The introduction, notes, and abstracts by the editor, Gaskin, are helpful.

In addition to the 'Dialogues' and 'The Natural History of Religion' is an excerpt from 'An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding' and a short autobiographical missive written shortly before Hume's death.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon January 11, 2011
This is a comparatively small volume, which contains some of David Hume's most critical arguments related to religion and god from a "natural religion" or "natural theology" perspective, but do not allow that to deceive you, potential reader, as it is incredibly dense with thought and meaning, and cannot be read lightly if one expects comprehension.

Hume, an 18th century Scottish philosopher, and one of the greatest philosophers ever, is known as an Atheist, though it is difficult to come up with that conclusion from reading these particular materials. Sure, he may have been, but he seemed to avoid any type of label, preferring to "suspend judgment" with regard to things that are ultimately unknowable. With that perspective, it would be reasonable to consider him an Atheist, in the sense of not having a belief in a god. It would also mean he was Agnostic, not knowing whether there was a god or not, and reserving judgment on such matters, but that term would not be used for such views until T.H. Huxley.

This wonderful book put out by Oxford University Press, edited by J. C. A. Gaskin, contains "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion" and "The Natural History of Religion." The first is a dialogue set up in the tradition of Cicero, with three persons arguing from different points of view, and the latter is simply a straightforward treatise on its subject.

In addition to an excellent introduction by Gaskin, there are also other minor additions:

1. My Own Life -- a brief summary by Hume.
2. Section XI of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, one of his greater philosophical works -- a section related to religion.
3. A letter concerning the Dialogues -- from Hume to Gilbert Elliott, requesting input for the dialogue portion of one of the "believers," Cleanthes.

This is a fairly good introduction to Hume, at least with regard to his religious and nonreligious thoughts, and I wish more people, both believers and nonbelievers, would challenge themselves with reading such as this, rather than resorting to some of the inane, superficial hype put out by both sides in recent years.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on April 30, 1997
Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion are the classic, and most damaging criticism of the tenets of natural theology. His refutation of the argument by design contained in the first nine chapters of the Dialogues and the 11th chapter in the Enquiry anticipated William Paley's watch analogy 20 years before it was published, and refutes it masterfully. The language, however, is somewhat difficult at times, and Hume's personal convictions about the subject matter are questionable, as he often contradicts hiself. These contradictions, however, can be taken as either sarcasm, or a response to the immense pressure placed on him by the church, and do not detract from the overall power of the works
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15 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on June 3, 2003
Hume is a master, one of the most important philosophers ever. In the Natural History, Hume masterfully shows the natural evolution of religion. From its crude beginings of polytheism to the more refined monotheism, comparing the value systems of each. Monotheism has roots and can be traced to a source. He concludes that any rational mind would aviod the unstable houses of religion altogether.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on January 20, 2008
How lucky am I to have this namesake.

This work is dynamite.

Hume walks right in and starts slaying every Sacred Cow in the place.

Not one God is left standing when he's finished. This is like watching Darwin taking the secateurs to church. Richard Dawkins doesn't even come close to Hume's intellectual power or economy of thought. They are in completely different leagues.

The introduction to this particular compilation paints a wonderful portrait of a man who deserves far more attention than he has received.

Erudite, clever, intellectually unassailable.

Apologists are left with nothing.

This work should be required reading for every school age child in the world.

It's fine to believe, but know what you're believing first.

Hume will take you there.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on May 18, 2011
David Hume was more playful than Kant allowed himself to be.

It is quite a bother to try to imagine the way religion and government depended upon each other prior to the birth of our own flash bang gravy train pulling a monetary net. Our fate was already in the works in 1774 when John Adams told Jonathan Sewall: "the die was now cast; I had passed the Rubicon. Swim or sink, live or die, survive or perish with my country was my unalterable determination."

The first edition of the Natural History of Religion (1757) by David Hume was quite Christian in declaring, "The savage tribes of America, Africa, and Asia are all idolaters. Not a single exception to this rule." Civilized religion is pictured as worship of "that perfect being, who bestowed order on the whole frame of nature. We may as reasonably imagine, that men inhabited palaces before huts and cottages, or studied geometry before agriculture; as assert that the deity appeared to them a pure spirit, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, before he was apprehended to be a powerful, tho' limited being, with human passions and appetites, limbs and organs."

Pride in philosophy is often show by asserting wit. In the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), Philo is a character using irony against the positions put forth by those who were concerned about social matters. David Hume died in 1776 after directing that the manuscript be published within a few years. Kant's great critical works appeared in 1781, 1783, 1787, and 1790. By insisting on universal maxims as a basis for morality, Kant backed the kind of ethics contained in the Ten Commandments soon after the exodus from slavery in Egypt. Demea in the Dialogues takes the position:

"To season their Minds with early Piety
is my chief care.;
and by continual Precept and Instruction,
and I hope too, by Example,
I imprint deeply on their tender Minds
an habitual Reverence
for all the principles of Religion."

Having a flash bang gravy train pulling a monetary net as the prime example of how power is exercised in this world is like the mention by Philo of "this profane and irreligious Age." Pride is described by Philo:

Those, who enter a little into Study and Enquiry,
finding many Appearances of Evidence in Doctrines
the newest and most extraordinary,
think nothing too difficult for human Reason;
and Presumptuously breaking thro all Fences,
profane the inmost Sanctuaries of the Temple.
But Cleanthes will, I hope, agree with me,
that, after we have abandoned Ignorance,
the surest Remedy,
there is still one Expedient left
to prevent this Profane Liberty.
Let Demea's Principles be improved and cultivated:
Let us become thoroughly sensible
of the Weakness, Blindness, and narrow Limits of human Reason:
Let us duely consider its Uncertainty and endless Contrarieties,
even in subjects of common Life and Practice:
Let the Errors and Deceits of our very Senses
be set before us; the insuperable Difficulties,
which attend first Principles in all Systems;
the Contradictions, which adhere to the very ideas of Matter,
Cause and Effect,
Space, Time,
and in a word, Quantity of all kinds,
the Object of the only Science,
that can fairly pretend to any Certainty or Evidence.

Kant took this set of aims hook, line, and sinker, to produce the basis for German philosophy extended by Hegel to justify the State as rational and by Marx to mythologize collective people as a new Prometheus in world history. The sociology of knowledge continues to assume a proper regimentation for uniformity as the basis for social systems to dominate as a flash bang gravy train must in order to continue to exist.
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