Early Humanism


’s The (1757) is the most influential eighteenth-centuryhumanistic theory of religion. In composing a “nat-ural history” of religion, Hume brings religiousphenomena within the purview of science. As part of his larger project to create a science of humannature, Hume seeks both to isolate the causes ofreligion in human nature and to identify the con-sequences of religion in light of human nature. Notonly does Hume consider religion a fit object forscientific investigation, he also theorizes that

reli-gion arises in the absence of science. In his pithyphrase, “Ignorance is the mother of devotion”. Religion, Hume believes, fills the void whenhumans lack the aptitude for better founded ex-planatory principles. Hume rejects the theological anthropology ofhisforebears’ Calvinism wherein Godendowshu-mans with aninnatereligioussense. In Hume’s naturalistic anthropology, religious principles are derivative. They are not an“originalinstinctorpri-maryimpressionofnature,”likeself-love, sexual drive,or love of progeny. These latter are all universal, he claims, and have a “precise determinate object,” where as religion is not universal and is not uniforminits “ideas. ” In this last judgment Hume attends to the extraordinary diversity of religious beliefs. Despite this diversity,heclaims,allparticularreligiousphenomenacoincidein“thebeliefofinvisible,intelligentpower”. If religion itself is not universal, it is, nevertheless, a response to universal feelings. Concernabout the “various and contrary events of humanlife” elicits hopes and fears whose object are theunknown causes of those events. Becausethey need “to form some particular and distinctidea” of the causes and because science “exceeds”their comprehension, “the ignorant multitude”allow the imagination to clothe the unknowncauses with human features (p. 29). Hume posits anatural propensity in humans to “conceive all be-ings like themselves, and to transfer to every ob-ject, those qualities, with which they are familiarlyacquainted, and of which they are intimately con-scious” (p. 29). A French admirer of Hume’s the-ory, Baron d’Holbach, coined the term anthropo-morphismto capture the tendency Humedescribes. Humans, Hume argues, anthropomor-phize the unknown causes behind significantevents and, thereby, create gods. Anthropomor-phizing the unknown causes not only rendersthem more familiar and comprehensible, but alsofurnishes the possibility of gaining their favor “bygifts and entreaties, by prayers and sacrifices” tocontrol future events (p. 47).Hume believed that these two facets of an-thropomorphism, that it provides both familiarity(explanation) and the possibility of gaining favor(control), result in opposed tendencies in religion.The need for familiarity and concrete, even sensi-ble, representations of unknown causes explainsidols, polytheism, and mythology. The need togain favor, on the other hand, leads to the obse-quious pursuit of ever more exalted terms of praise(and abject means of self-abasement), culminatingin iconoclasm, monotheism, and an insistence onmystery. Blatant contradictions in theologies of all types manifest the tension between these needs. The two tendencies produce contrary movements,furthermore, and initiate a continuous “flux and re-flux” between polytheism and monotheism. Al-though Hume believes that both polytheism andmonotheism compromise and distort naturalhuman virtue, he believes that monotheism engen-ders intolerance and exhibits a greater pronenessto enormities.

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