David Hume Believed in God, Grants Design Inference

You might have heard of David Hume the empiricist, or David Hume the skeptic, or David Hume the atheist humanist, or David Hume the rational anti-religious critic. But have you heard of David Hume the deist? Beneath all the others labels for David Hume, some accurate some not, the 18th century Scottish Philosopher was some brand of theist or deist. He has famously argued against the possibility/knowability of miracles, so it might be a stretch to call him a theist–in the modern sense of the term. But Hume makes some telling statements in “The Natural History of Religion” that show he is not so easily assimilated into the contemporary anti-theistic fervor of some of the New Atheist and Militant atheist camps.

In Natural History of Religion Hume sets out to give an account of religion as it ties into the “universal and essential properties of human nature.” He contrasts “vulgar,” “superstitious,” and “popular” religion from more sophisticated God-belief (pg. 41, 73, 76). He cautiously avoids any specific appeal to miracles, that is, except for one. Hume grants as a point of rational induction that the various “designs” of nature point back to a supreme designer.

He says, “the whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary princples of genuine theism and religion.” (Authors Intro., 21). Whatever else may come of religion among the diverse and sometimes ignorant masses, it remains true–in Hume’s view–that a designing Deity is a sound inference from the evidence of nature. Indeed he argues over the course of the book that mankind tends to corrupt that core religious/theistic instinct; religion may be pure and true but can “easily be perverted” (Ibid.).

Not only does Hume favor monotheism, he considers it a more enlightened form of religion than polytheism. He affirms a religious evolution view wherein man first imagines the higher powers as “groveling and familiar” characters before conceiving of the sophisticated and simple monotheism found among enlightened races (ch. 1, pg. 24).

Later Hume makes a telling point about applying critical thought (he terms “philosophy”) to religion. I will quote him at length to give a sense of his context as well as his claims.

Many theists, even the most zealous and refined, have denied a particular providence, and have asserted, that the Sovereign mind or first principle of all things, having fixed general laws, by which nature is governed, gives free and uninterrupted course to these laws, and disturbs not, at every turn, the settled order of events by particular volition. From the beautiful connexion, say they, and rigid observance of established rules, we draw the chief argument for theism; and from the same principles are enabled to answer the principal objections against it. But so little is this understood by the generality of mankind, that, whatever they observe any one to ascribe all events to natural causes, and to remove the parituclar interposition of a deity, they are apt to suspect him of the grossest infidelity. A little philosophy, says lord Bacon, makes men atheists: A great deal reconciles them to religion. For men, being taught by superstitious prejudices, to lay the stress on a wrong place; when that fails them, and they discover, by a little reflection, that the course of nature is regular and uniform, their whole faith totters, and falls to ruin. But being taught, by more reflection, that this very regularity and uniformity is the strongest proof of design and of a supreme intelligence, they return to that belief, which they had deserted; and they are now able to establish it on a firmer and more durable foundation.” (ch. VI., pg. 42)

Hume has a lot going on here. First, we might need to parse out his use of “theism.” He does not offer any distinctives from deism, so he might mean by theism “god exists” or “belief in God.” If that God turns out to have engineered nature like a great watch and then he left it untouched to run on its own, then that particular form of theism would be “deistic” in nature. Second, Hume shows his generally low view of the masses. Throughout the whole book Hume throws verbal darts at the various “barbarous” and “vulgar” “wretches” that are the unenlightened masses. He is quite discriminatory, biased, and classist. This might be attributed to his education, plus his English affiliations, and his era–he wasn’t exactly standing in the high tide of human rights. Altogether, those features might be enough to infuse in Hume an air of intellectual superiority. Third, Hume has argued in the broader course of this book that these “barbarous” peoples take an otherwise responsible and reasonable theological/religious sentiment and abase it with polytheistic and superstitious corruptions. In particular, they decline the sublime and rational inference of a designer and turn instead to all sorts of anthropomorphic forces that they can manipulate for gain and with whom they can superstitiously appease their irrational and immoral interests. Fourth, the deity he has in mind is a “supreme intelligence.” The logic, summed up, is this: Premise 1: Elements in nature are designed such as the “regularity” and “uniformity” of nature (pg. 42), the “beauty of final causes” (ch. VI, pg. 41), the apparently “destined” finery of the human hand (Ibid.). Premise 2: Design implies a designer. Conclusion: Therefore nature manifests evidence of a grand designer. Hume, therefore, dignifies the design argument, natural theology, and in prescient terms, a theological application of Intelligent Design.

To be sure, Hume does not give just any monotheism a pass. He does see monotheism as a cleaner or more rational belief, in itself, than polytheism. But he allows some stiff criticism to come through such that he is not any sort of orthodox Christian (see, ch. XIII, footnote 1, pg. 68-69). Yet, without stretching credulity, he might be a nominal or unorthodox Christian. He says, “nothing indeed would prove more strongly the divine origin of any religion than to find (and happily this is the case with Christianity) that it is free from contradiction, so incident to human nature” (ch. VI, pg. 45). Very interesting!

In the concluding pages of this short treatise, Hume gives an even clearer approval of the design inference. He calls people “barbarous and ininstructed” who do not see a “sovereign author in the more obvious works of nature.” (Ch. XV, pg. 74). He adds,

[I]t scarcely seems possible, that any one of good understanding should reject that idea, when once it is is suggested to him. A purpose, an intention, a design is evident in every thing [sic]; and when our comprehension is so far enlarged as to contemplate the first rise of this visible system, we must adopt, with the strongest conviction, the idea of some intelligent cause or author” (ibid.).

Bear in mind that Hume has nowhere in this book called himself a deist, but his favorable treatment of God-belief is everywhere consistent with deism, specifically pointing out an intelligent designer at back of nature.

But Hume goes on in the same passage.

[T]he uniform maxims, too, which prevail throughout the whole frame of the universe, naturally, if not necessarily lead us to conceive this intelligence as single and undivided, where the prejudices of education oppose not so reasonable a theory. Even the contrarieties of nature, by discovering themselves everywhere, become proofs of some consistent plan, and establish one single purpose or intention, however inexplicable and incomprehensible” (ibid.).

Hume could hardly be clearer in his affirmation of natural theology. Hume is at least a deist, and perhaps a qualified theist with protestant Christian leanings (he rejects the eucharist, and is averse to the Catholic church, ch. X, XI, pgs. 52, 55-56).

*All quotations are from: David Hume, A Natural History of Religion. H.E. Root, ed. and intro. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1956, reprint 1957.

2 thoughts on “David Hume Believed in God, Grants Design Inference

    1. Speaking as a graduate student we don’t always get back to the original sources and read them for ourselves. There are just too many of the “great books” to read. So we trust secondary reports on them in articles and more recent literature. Often those original authors are making candid admissions besides the “main” point of the book that give much more color to their historical portrait than we typically see.

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