Saturday, August 11, 2007


Of Hares and Tortoises

So I'm reading Norman Kemp Smith's introduction to Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and, after the contretemps over Gordon Lynch's article and PZ Myers' allegation that Lynch is claiming that "atheism is a religion driven by hate," there is a certain amusement in reading about Hume's definition of atheism.

First of all, Hume's religion was not of the ordinary sort:

Hume opens his Natural History of Religion with the assertion that the whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent Author, and that no rational inquirer can suspend his belief a moment in "the primary principles of genuine religion." T.H. Huxley's comment is not unjust: "But, if we turn from the Natural History of Religion, to the Treatise, the Enquiry, and the Dialogues, the story of what happened to the ass laden with salt, who took to the water, irresistibly suggests itself. Hume's theism, such as it is, dissolves away in the dialectic river, until nothing is left but the verbal sack in which it was contained."

But his definition of "atheism" supposedly came from a good ... or at least famous ... source: Plato via Cicero, according to whom:

[T]here are three kinds of atheists: those who deny a Deity, those who deny his Providence, and those who assert that he is influenced by prayers, devotions, and sacrifices.

If the third type seems a little strange, here is how the argument goes:

Hume's reason for classing as atheists the third type -- those who believe that God is influenced by prayers and sacrifices, and that there are therefore special religious duties -- is that they conceive God in unworthy anthropomorphic fashion as intervening, like man and the other animals, only by special acts in special circumstances -- through auguries, dreams, and oracles, as the Greeks and Romans believed, through certain special happenings and revelations as the Jews and Christians teach.

Even at this day, and in Europe, ask any of the vulgar, why he believes in an omnipotent creator of the world; he will never mention the beauty of final causes, of which he is wholly ignorant: He will not hold out his hand, and bid you contemplate the suppleness and variety of joints in his fingers, their bending all one way, the counterpoise which they receive from the thumb, the softness and fleshy parts of the inside of his hand, with all the other circumstances, which render that member fit for the use, to which it was destined. To these he has been long accustomed; and he beholds than with listlessness and unconcern. He will tell you of the sudden and unexpected death of such a one: The fall and bruise of such another: The excessive drought of this season: The cold and rains of another. These he ascribes to the immediate operation of providence: And such events, as, with good reasoners, are the chief difficulties in admitting a supreme intelligence, are with him the sole arguments for it.
And just as disorders, prodigies, miracles -- the departures from the order of nature -- are, Hume, contends, what chiefly impress the religious, so also

madness, fury, rage, and an inflamed imagination, though they sink men nearest to the level of beasts, are, for a like reason, often supposed to be the only dispositions, in which we can have any immediate communication with the Deity.
So, it isn't that neo-atheists are becoming like a religion, it's that fundamentalist religions, in Hume's view, beat them to becoming atheists by over 200 ... or is that over 2,000 ... years!

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