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The English Deists: David Hume


"David Hume (1711-1776) was a Scottish philosopher and historian. During his lifetime Hume was careful to disguise his own views (atheism most believe), so the question of whether he was an atheist or merely a deist remains debatable to this day. Hume's most famous anti-religious work is his Natural History of Religion (published posthumously in 1779), which offers an account of the (merely natural) origins of religious beliefs and is widely regarded as the preeminent modern critique of philosophical theology." Ref, Investigating Atheism Cambridge.

(Extract from IEP)

Hume, who summarized the Deistic criticism and raised it to the level of modern scientific method by emancipating it from the conception of a deity conceived through the reason and by abandoning its characteristic interpretation of history. He separates Locke's theory of knowledge from its connection with a scheme of mechanical teleology and confines the human mind within the realm of sense perception.

Beginning then with the crudest factors of experience and not with a religious and ethical norm, he traces the development of systems of religion, ethics, and philosophy in an ascending course through the ages. He thus overthrow the Deistic philosophy of religion while lie developed their critical method to the extent of making it the starting-point for the English positivist philosophy of religion.

Distinguishing between the metaphysical problem of the idea of God and the historical problem of the rise of religions, he denied the possibility of attaining a knowledge of deity through the reason, and explained religion as arising from the misconception or arbitrary misinterpretation of experience (Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, written in 1751, but not published till 1779; Natural History of Religion, 1757).

Against the justification of religion by other means than rational Hume directs his celebrated critique of miracles, in which to the possibility of miraculous occurrences he opposes the possibility of error on the part of the observer or historian.

Human experience, affected by ignorance, fancy, and the imaginings of fear and hope, explains sufficiently the growth of religion. Hume's contemporaries failed to recognize the portentous transformation which he had effected in the character of Deism.

The Scottish "common-sense school " saved for a time the old natural theology and the theological argument from miracles to revelation; but in reality Hume's skeptical method, continued by Hamilton and united to French Positivism by Mill and Browne, became, in connection with modern ethnology and anthropology.

The basis of a psychological philosophy of religion in which the data of outward experience are the main factors (Evolutionism, Positivism, Agnosticism, Tylor, Spencer, Lubbock, Andrew Lang).

In so far as Hume's influence prevailed among his contemporaries, it may be said to have amalgamated with that of Voltaire; the "infidels," as they were now called, were Voltairians.

Most prominent among them was Gibbon (d. 1794), whose Decline and Fall offers the first dignified pragmatic treatment of the rise of Christianity.

The fundamental principles of Deism became tinged in the nineteenth century with skepticism, pessimism, or pantheism, but the conceptions of natural religion retained largely their old character.


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