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God, Hume and Natural Belief

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 February 2009

J. C. A. Gaskin
Trinity College, Dublin
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Hume's doctrine of natural belief allows that certain beliefs are justifiably held by all men without regard to the quality of the evidence which may be produced in their favour. Examples are belief in an external world and belief in the veracity of our senses. According to R. J. Butler, Hume argues in the Dialogues that belief in God is of this sort. More recently John Hick has argued that for some people it is as natural (and as rational) to believe in God as to believe in an external world. I shall first inquire what Hume understands by reasonable belief and by natural belief. I shall then use the results of this investigation to argue, against Butler, that belief in God is not a natural belief; and against Hick, more briefly, that his thesis is not viable in as far as it depends upon Hume's doctrine of natural belief. These discussions are important to the philosophy of religion since by means of natural beliefs it could be urged that belief in God is something justifiable without reference to reason or evidence: a position which would be of immense value to the theist.

Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 1974


1 Butler, R. J., ‘Natural Belief and the Enigma of Hume’ in Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie, 1960, pp. 73100Google Scholar. This brilliant and important article has received much less attention than it merits from anthology-makers and critics. The argument which I refer to as ‘Butler's thesis’ forms only a part of this long article. With much of the rest I am in warm agreement.

2 References to Hume's writings will be given by means of abbreviations followed by page numbers. The following abbreviations are used: Dialogues for the Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, ed. Smith, N. Kemp (2nd ed.London, 1947)Google Scholar; Enquiry for the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Hendel, C. W. (New York, 1955)Google Scholar; Letters for The Letters of David Hume, ed. Gregg, J. Y. T., two vols. (Oxford, 1932)Google Scholar; N.H.R., for The Natural History of Religion, ed. Root, H. E. (London, 1956)Google Scholar; Treatise for A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. Selby-Bigge, L. A. (Oxford, 1888)Google Scholar; Abstract for An Abstract of a Treatise of Human Nature, ed. Keynes, J. M. and Sraffa, P. (Cambridge, 1938)Google Scholar and Letter for A Letter from a Gentleman, ed. Mossner, E. C. and Price, J. V. (Edinburgh, 1967).Google Scholar

3 Hick, John, ‘A New Form of Theistic Argument’ in Proceedings of the XIV International Congress of Philosophy, vol. V, pp. 336341 (Vienna, 1970).Google Scholar

4 It is interesting to note that in some chapters devoted to attacking Hume's account of belief, Thomas Reid comes to an almost identical conclusion concerning its indefinability: ‘In like manner, every man that has any belief—and he must be a curiosity that has none—knows perfectly what belief is, but can never define or explain it’ (Inquiry into the Human Mind, Ch. II, sect. V).

5 For example: Enquiry, 145Google Scholar; N.H.R., 22Google Scholar; essay ‘The Platonist’ (1742)Google Scholar; Dialogues, 214Google Scholar; Treatise, 633.Google Scholar

6 Dialogues, N. Kemp Smith's edition, pp. 5775 and 97123Google Scholar. Kemp Smith's evidence still seems decisive. It has been partially challenged by Noxon, J. in ‘Hume's Agnosticism’ in The Philosophical Review, 1964Google Scholar, but his evidence is largely self-stultifying and his conclusion is rather a guess about Hume's psychology than a statement about the extent to which Philo represents Hume's opinions.

7 Even Demea's profession ‘that each man feels, in a manner, the truth of religion within his own breast’ (Dialogues, 193Google Scholar) does not claim for belief in God the universality and unavoidability which would be required to make it a natural belief.

8 Note particularly Dialogues, 223226Google Scholar; much of N.H.R.; the essays ‘Of Superstition and Enthusiasm’ and ‘Of National Characters’ (the long note on the clergy); the unpublished preface to vol. II of the History of England reproduced by Mossner, in his Life of David Hume, p. 307Google Scholar, and the History of England itself, much of which consists in a recital of the ill effects of religion on politics and society particularly under the Tudors and Stuarts.

9 In Alciphron IV, 1617Google Scholar, the sceptic Lysicles argues ‘you must know then that at bottom the being of God is a point in itself of small consequence, and a man may make this concession without yielding much. The great point is what sense the word God is to be taken in’. He concludes ‘Since, therefore, nothing can be inferred from such an account of God, about conscience, or worship, or religion, you may even make the best of it. And, not to be singular, we will use the name too, and so at once there is an end of atheism’.

10 The ancestor of this article was a paper read in 1968 at a meeting of the Irish Philosophical Club at Ballymascanlon. I am indebted to the company on that occasion for their comments. More recently I am grateful to David Berman, my colleague in Trinity College, for his very useful suggestions and corrections and for his careful scrutiny of the final draft.

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