Cover image for Toward a Humean True Religion : Genuine Theism, Moderate Hope, and Practical Morality By Andre C. Willis

Toward a Humean True Religion

Genuine Theism, Moderate Hope, and Practical Morality

Andre C. Willis

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264 pages
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2015

Toward a Humean True Religion

Genuine Theism, Moderate Hope, and Practical Morality

Andre C. Willis

“Andre Willis's book is an original treatment and superb analysis of Hume’s conception of ‘true religion.’ Willis’s meticulous scholarship ranges across the magisterial corpus of the most profound and powerful philosopher in the English language. His synthetic perspective situates Hume’s conception of ‘true religion’ within the context of Hume’s quest for a science of human nature. His use of major figures such as Locke, Hutchinson, Descartes, Hobbes, Tindal, Toland, Grotius, and Lord Herbert to situate Hume’s mitigated skepticism, attenuated naturalism, and classical humanism is quite persuasive. Willis's argument is highly nuanced, critically fair, and textually grounded. The writing is crystal clear, balanced, humble, assured, and honest. It is the kind of book that would make Hume smile from the grave, as if to say, ‘Someone has got the gist of what I was about! And there is no greater satisfaction than this!’”

 

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David Hume is traditionally seen as a devastating critic of religion. He is widely read as an infidel, a critic of the Christian faith, and an attacker of popular forms of worship. His reputation as irreligious is well forged among his readers, and his argument against miracles sits at the heart of the narrative overview of his work that perennially indoctrinates thousands of first-year philosophy students. In Toward a Humean True Religion, Andre Willis succeeds in complicating Hume’s split approach to religion, showing that Hume was not, in fact, dogmatically against religion in all times and places. Hume occupied a “watershed moment,” Willis contends, when old ideas of religion were being replaced by the modern idea of religion as a set of epistemically true but speculative claims. Thus, Willis repositions the relative weight of Hume’s antireligious sentiment, giving significance to the role of both historical and discursive forces instead of simply relying on Hume’s personal animus as its driving force. Willis muses about what a Humean “true religion” might look like and suggests that we think of this as a third way between the classical and modern notions of religion. He argues that the cumulative achievements of Hume’s mild philosophic theism, the aim of his moral rationalism, and the conclusion of his project on the passions provide the best content for this “true religion.”
“Andre Willis's book is an original treatment and superb analysis of Hume’s conception of ‘true religion.’ Willis’s meticulous scholarship ranges across the magisterial corpus of the most profound and powerful philosopher in the English language. His synthetic perspective situates Hume’s conception of ‘true religion’ within the context of Hume’s quest for a science of human nature. His use of major figures such as Locke, Hutchinson, Descartes, Hobbes, Tindal, Toland, Grotius, and Lord Herbert to situate Hume’s mitigated skepticism, attenuated naturalism, and classical humanism is quite persuasive. Willis's argument is highly nuanced, critically fair, and textually grounded. The writing is crystal clear, balanced, humble, assured, and honest. It is the kind of book that would make Hume smile from the grave, as if to say, ‘Someone has got the gist of what I was about! And there is no greater satisfaction than this!’”
“Hume’s repeated references to ‘true religion’ have rarely been taken seriously by philosophers, for whom he has been the paradigmatic religious skeptic. Of late, though, the thought that this may be an important mistake has been gaining traction. Andre Willis’s book is the first sustained and comprehensive attempt to capitalize on this revolutionary idea. By exploring texts beyond the normal narrow compass of the Dialogues and the essay ‘Of Miracles,’ Willis opens up the possibility of a far richer philosophical understanding of Hume on religion than the one that has been dominant for a century or more.”
“Hume’s occasional praise of ‘true religion’ is often viewed as an ironic gesture of respect toward an empty set. In his new book, Andre Willis argues instead that such comments point to the possibility of an adaptive form of religious life that fosters moderation of the passions, ethical formation, and affective solidarity. Building constructively on Hume’s broadly Ciceronian predilections, Willis defends a Humean notion of ‘true religion’ as a productive way forward for anti-foundationalist and post-metaphysical retrievals of ‘religion.’ Under Willis’s deft and sympathetic treatment, Hume emerges as an important resource for those convinced that religiousness in some form is here to stay and hopeful that it can do so as a kind of natural piety. A refreshing and important contribution.”
“With great acuity and originality, Willis does address the question of how Hume’s thinking on religion might be made serviceable to our post-secular twenty-first-century culture in general, and a philosophically-informed study of religion in particular. In fact, this line of thought is well articulated in the first page of Willis’s book and becomes again prominent in his insightful and challenging last chapter, ‘A Humean true religion.’ Willis’ study is a must read for anyone who wants to know whether Hume might be a good philosophical guide to help such an Enlightened sense of piety to flourish.”
“[Willis] succeeds in his attempt to establish Hume as a constructive voice in dialogues about religion and in calling into question the belief that Hume was a thoroughgoing atheist.”

Andre C. Willis is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Brown University.

Acknowledgements

Abbreviations of Primary Texts

Introduction

Chapter 1: The ‘Proper Office of Religion’ from Cicero to Hume

Chapter 2: Genuine Theism

Chapter 3: Moderate Hope

Chapter 4: Practical Morality

Chapter 5: The Religious Significance of Hume’s True Religion

Bibliography

Introduction

On June 6, 1764, Sir James Macdonald, Eighth Baronet of Sleat (a peninsula on the Isle of Skye in the Scottish Highlands), penned a letter from Paris. His friend David Hume, in his role of secretary to the British ambassador, was also in Paris. Hume’s writings, particularly his History of the Stuarts and Natural History of Religion, were greatly admired in France, and statesmen, visiting dignitaries, and patrons of high-society literary salons exalted him as if he were an international luminary. In fact, the entire sojourn in France—Hume’s fourth, longest visit (twenty-six months)—was marked by adulation from the French reading public. This enlivened and energized Hume. He may also have been relieved by the sentiment expressed in Sir James’s correspondence to a friend in England: “poor Hume, who on your side of the water was thought to have too little religion, is here thought to have too much.”

What Sir James dubs Hume’s “too much” religion is the point of departure for this book. Hume’s contribution to religious thought is generally regarded as negative. He is widely read as an infidel, a critic of the Christian faith, and an attacker of popular forms of worship. His reputation as irreligious is well forged among his readers, and his argument against miracles perennially indoctrinates thousands of first-year philosophy students. The offhanded remark of Sir James, however, whose Oxford training and cosmopolitanism earned him the nickname “the Scottish Marcellus,” reminds us that our philosophical views are, ultimately, perspectival and that religion is an interpretive concept. To the French, Hume’s writings neither confirmed that he was an atheist in the mode of D’Holbach, nor made clear that he desired to destroy the church à la Voltaire. The iconoclastic French atheists therefore took Hume’s critique of religion to be relatively mild.

Perhaps Sir James’s comment reflected the philosophes’ inclination to see Hume’s work as open to the possibility that religion could be understood as a social convention and an artifact of culture that affirmed habits of moral excellence, aimed to moderate passion-inspired beliefs, and, as a result, buttressed the stability of the civic order. To them, even mild receptivity to this concept of religion would have been troubling, for religion required submission and thereby diminished human liberty. Hume actually shared most of the philosophes’ criticisms against religious belief: he thought popular religion, in its modern sense as a philosophically legitimate system of beliefs, was mostly dangerous, and he was deeply troubled by the conventional categories of dogmatic Christianity (miracles, a supernatural deity with human attributes, etc.).

Hume took history seriously. He acknowledged religion to be a historical activity of humans in community that sometimes had pernicious outcomes and other times had virtuous ones. He may have understood himself as occupying a watershed moment when the classical notion of religio, a set of socially beneficial celebrations of the gods, was being replaced by the modern notion of religion, a system of beliefs, practices, and rules warranted by abstract thought. Treating Hume as a transitional figure between the dying legacy of cultus deorum, pietas, and virtus and the emergence of the idea ‘religion’ as a set of epistemically true yet speculative claims repositions the relative weight of his antireligious sentiment. Instead of relying on personal animus, this move allows that both historical and discursive forces were central for his invective against religion. The distinction between modern conceptions of religion that sought philosophical legitimation and the classical idea of religio that was marked by the capacity to stabilize sociopolitical order was partially reflected in Hume’s bifurcated approach. As a modern thinker, he sometimes took religion to be a broad, neutral phenomenon eminently suited for cross-cultural and transhistorical study that had become corrupt in its contemporary popular manifestations. Yet the classical influence on his thought led him, at other times, to consider religion to be a particular virtue that could serve ethical formation in spite of its rampant distortions. This helps us understand why, on the one hand, Hume advanced a derisive critique of popular religious beliefs yet, on the other, he encouraged the virtue of moderate passions in our religious endeavors (as well as our philosophical and political ones). The dynamic oscillations of Hume’s thought project—his veritable attempt to expose the severe limitations of abstract thought and false philosophy and, at the same time, his quest to promote the possibilities of reflective imagination and true philosophy—are accentuated by paying close attention to his handling of religion, which follows from his interrogation of modern philosophy.

Hume challenged false philosophy as abstruse thought by showing that its foundational claims for truth were, on its own standards, unjustifiable. He called, instead, for a reflective turn toward nature and common life—what he named “true philosophy”—to gain a clearer sense of the sources of our ideas and beliefs. Hume’s acute sense of the bidirectional historical tendencies (both classical and modern) tugging at his philosophical consciousness along with his temperament as a thinker coalesced in ways that made his thought project unique. His notion ‘true philosophy’ was as illuminating an ideal as its appearance was elusive. Its sources were uncommon, and its content—humility, greatness of mind, and benevolence—unusual. More exceptionally, true philosophy might, on rare occasion, invite religion to its “proper office,” which Hume named “true religion,” following the discursive parameters of his day. Hume did not detail what he meant by true religion. We may reasonably presume, however, based on the overall emphasis of his project, that a Humean true religion might preserve the best of classical religion updated, without the epistemic insecurities of modern philosophy summoned by commitments to rational certainty and moral realism. Too thin for converts and too mild for most religious believers, Hume’s true religion manifested only rarely and was mostly an ideal form. Perhaps he took true religion to be something like a (classical) virtue warranted by the (modern) conventions of common life. He may have thought of it as true not because it reflected epistemic certainty but because the outcome of its beliefs could marshal Europe into an age of peace and (true) Enlightenment. That this was very unlikely (as Hume admitted) does not nullify the possibility that a constructive project based on Hume’s grappling with religion might be of contemporary use for the philosophy of religion.

Most philosophers of religion hold the view that when it came to religion, Hume was simply a devastating critic. Scholars who take this position, however, cannot deny the warm references to true religion in his thought. Is true religion a throw-away category in Hume—empty or insincere—a mere fig leaf hiding his irreligion? Or is it a bit more—an inchoate suggestion about how we might properly conceive religion? The following argument assesses Hume’s philosophy of religion with an eye toward its generative value for contemporary religious thought. I am neither agnostic on the question of Hume’s sincerity in his endorsement of true religion, nor am I silent on whether he uses it as a fig leaf. On my reading, it seems that the category ‘true religion’ fits neatly into Hume’s philosophical schema and is a requirement of his bifurcated approach to religion. Further, I demonstrate that it was crucially deployed in the discursive tradition of which Hume was a part. If we can support the idea that true religion is a sincere, genuine category of Hume’s thought that signified a nonconventional form of religion, then reconceiving this idea in Hume’s work might support generative work in the contemporary study of religion. In other words, to the question, “Can the rarely interrogated constructive components of Hume’s philosophy of religion, his sense of religion properly conceived, be of any use for contemporary discourse in religious studies?,” this book answers “Yes.”

Since Hume’s lush writing offers little explicit positive content for his notion of ‘true religion,’ the reader must decode his suggestions for insights regarding religion’s ‘proper office.’ To make some provisional claims about what a rare form of religion might look like if it reflected a Humean attitude, we might cobble together disparate aspects of his work. Relieved of its claims for metaphysical legitimacy, released from morality derived from fear of divine authority, and unrestricted by a fixed set of worship practices, religion appears quite bare in Hume’s work. Yet in this very austerity we might find a way to reconceive of religion as a socially beneficial convention thoroughly grounded in history and community with little interest in competing with science in the quest for epistemic truth. Broadly speaking, this approach correlates with contemporary work in religious studies that refuses to treat religion as a system of beliefs or a transhistorical essence. The speculative argument that follows submits that based on the broad contours of his project, this fertile conception of religion might be constituted by a genuine theism, calm passions, and a practical morality. And, thought of this way, it could be of some use to contemporary theories of religion.

Hume’s early philosophical writings and his works on religion are, of course, central for any constructive endeavor based on his work. It behooves us, however, to look beyond these formal writings for a more complete sense of what Hume may have meant when he referred to the “proper office” of religion. Hume’s numerous letters provide an important angle into his more private, inner thoughts and give us a key to the Humean attitude; they display his congenial and broad intentions as a thinker. Both his fundamental respect for certain forms and practices of religion as well as his critical disposition toward other forms and elements is evident in the letters. Hume’s historical writings reflect this same approach: they attack examples of “modern” religion and its empty rituals yet affirm religion when it facilitates the development of virtuous character and practical morality. Hume’s overall account of religion might be summed up in this famous statement from one of his essays: “That the corruption of the best things produces the worst, is grown into a maxim, and is commonly proved, among other instances, by the pernicious effects of superstition and enthusiasm, the corruptions of true religion” (EMPL, 10.73). To some degree, all genres of his work take on this bifurcated attitude regarding religion. They reflect that Hume conceived of religion in two basic ways: as both a destructive force in human society (vulgar religion) and a constructive force for human society (true religion).

Assessing Hume’s dual sense of religion sanctions our keeping track of the extraordinary breadth of his work. To do this in a Humean way we should honor the emblems of Hume’s attitude: the direct challenge to abstruse and philosophical reason, the commitment to historicism and perspectivalism, and the investment in outcomes and utility over rational certainty and analytic clarity. Sifting Hume’s trenchant condemnation of ‘false religion’ through this Humean filter helps us comprehend his criticism and grasp his indirect suggestions for a true religion. Critics might wonder if the Humean approach is too loose to ferret out a consistent dual line of argument such as I have proposed and be worried that the Humean attitude, with its strident critique of reason, is actually a commitment to irrationalism. Neither of these concerns trouble me. Hume’s critique of rationality is not a mere rejection of reason; it is an assault on the furnishing of reason with metaphysical and normative authority. As a ‘true’ philosopher, Hume believed that abstract reason was useful in revealing “relations of ideas” (T, 1.2.5.20), not “matters of fact” (T, 1.3.7.3). He maintained that our behavior was grounded in habits of reflective common life and that these habits were derived from the passions and social conventions mitigated through the psychological concept “sympathy.” The Humean approach, then, undermines the content and temperament of those who dogmatically venerate philosophical reason. At the same time, it exhibits firm loyalty to reasonableness and rational scrutiny. The following argument sustains this commitment: it venerates the reasonable and the reflective as well as the social and the passional over the demands of abstract rational thought and dogmatic metaphysical reasoning. Additionally, it is largely sympathetic to Hume and evades persistent criticisms of his arguments and condemnations of his writings. My aim is to interpret Hume’s thought in a way that makes the best sense of it to see what we might learn anew. Philosophical subtlety and intellectual prestige, as Hume’s approach confirmed, should not be tied to the capacity to debunk arguments and expose gaps in logic. Following Hume’s example, we might consider what it means to operate from the idea that good interpretation is an act of compassion requiring intellectual courage and heroic insight, what he called “greatness of mind” (EPM, 7.4).

So as not to distort the author’s view, sound interpretative work must be based on the full spectrum of available evidence, honest about its intentions, and clear about its limitations. The standard interpretation regarding Hume and religion situates him as the Enlightenment secularist and atheist critic of religion. Although partially true, this is too narrow a view of the existing evidence and it reflects something of a general bias against religion. Most important, this reading of Hume renders his writing barren for generative work in religious studies. An interpretation that attends to the overall arc of his thought project and refuses to take a narrow focus positions us to see that Hume was not simply a detractor of popular religion, a moralist devoid of a sense of the use-value for religion, or a philosopher obsessed with causal logic. Again, Hume was certainly a critic of popular religion: it is undeniable that the experience of evangelical Presbyterianism soured him and that he was concerned that his native Scotland would be further embittered by the Kirk. He made unequivocally horrible and reductive statements about Catholicism, besmirched enthusiastic believers of false religion, and attacked all religious sects that increased factionalism in society. At the same time, however, he contended that religion was a persistent and inescapable fact of human history based on (but not original to) human nature; he showed awareness that, as a social convention, religion could be a potential source of happiness for human beings and a possible benefit to the social order; and he did not challenge that religion provided psycho-emotional support for the vast majority of human beings. These aspects of religion may have formed the basis for his mild suggestion ‘true religion.’

Toward a Humean True Religion attempts to demonstrate that if we take true religion to be constituted by the positive conclusions of Hume’s philosophy of understanding, his thoughts on the passions, and his notion of moral utility, then we might discover its worth for contemporary debates in religious studies. More specifically, the thesis here is that we might construct a true religion based on Hume’s work, particularly his ideas of basic theism, his sense of the calm passions, and his commitment to character development. I offer my argument as one possible, usable interpretation, not as a definitive conviction about Hume’s intentions. I am more strongly committed, however, to the negative claim: we must object to arguments that reduce Hume to simply an atheist or a skeptic. By providing some constituent yet provisional features of a Humean-inspired true religion, it is my hope that we might be able to bring Hume off of the sidelines of philosophical discourse of religion and fruitfully deploy his thought for current debates in theology, religion, and morality.