Hume’s Atheism And God As Nature

The ‘freethinker’ Anthony Collins is said to have commented on Samuel Clarke‘s Boyle Lectures on the existence of God that “it had never occurred to anyone to doubt the existence of God until Clarke tried so hard to prove it.” (noted in John Clayton’s Reason, Religion, and Gods: Essays in Cross Cultural Philosophy of Religion, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2006, pp. 314.) I was reminded of this “mischievous” remark yesterday afternoon during my philosophy of religion class, as we discussed David Hume’s ‘Of Miracles‘–which carries out a systematic epistemic debunking of claims for the existence of miracles– for at one point a very bright student asked: Professor, what exactly were Hume’s views on religion? Was he an atheist? (This was her third encounter with Hume this semester, whom we had encountered before in two extracts from Dialogues Concerning Natural Religions–against the argument from design, and a statement of the problem of evil.)

Hume scholars will recognize quite readily the can of worms being opened by such a query. (Googling ‘Was Hume an atheist?’ should provide some hint of the dimensions of said can.) Here, I just want to make note of a provocative remark that Philo makes in his rejoinder to Cleanthes in Part VII of the Dialogues–as part of the refutation of the argument from design:

How, therefore, shall we satisfy ourselves concerning the cause of that Being whom you suppose the Author of Nature, or, according to your system of Anthropomorphism, the ideal world, into which you trace the material? Have we not the same reason to trace that ideal world into another ideal world, or new intelligent principle?….If the material world rests upon a similar ideal world, this ideal world must rest upon some other; and so on, without end. It were better, therefore, never to look beyond the present material world. By supposing it to contain the principle of its order within itself, we really assert it to be God; and the sooner we arrive at that Divine Being, so much the better. When you go one step beyond the mundane system, you only excite an inquisitive humour which it is impossible ever to satisfy.

It seems to me in these closing sentences that two claims are present: a) Hume suggests that ‘rational’ approaches to proving the existence of God are destined to fail in that they push beyond the bounds of experience and thus, transgress the limits of what can be known or claimed to be true, and b) if there is a referent for the term ‘God’ then the most reasonable thing would be to identify it with the ‘principle of order [of] the present material world.’ The former reasserts Hume’s empiricist biases in metaphysics and epistemology; the latter, more interestingly, supplies another conceptualization of the term ‘God.’ (Hume’s further claim that ‘the sooner we arrive at that Divine Being, so much the better’ suggests that the longer the chains of reasoning to arrive at the conclusion of God’s existence, the more susceptible they will be refutation.)

So for Hume, the best way to make sense of ‘God’–the only kind of ‘God’ whose existence we could reasonably claim to believe in–is as the principles that underwrite the sensible world we experience. The laws of nature, for instance. God, then, is not the Author of Nature, God is Nature. If ‘atheism’ is defined as the rejection of the standard theistic conception of God as all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful–then Hume was an atheist.

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