A More Dangerous Enemy? Philo’s “Confession” and Hume’s Soft Atheism

Benjamin S Cordry. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion. Volume 70, Issue 1. August 2011.


Hume was an irreligious, soft atheist. He was also a deeply ambivalent pluralist. Though he did not characterize himself in this way, this characterization is supported by his published writings and serves to position him historically and in a way of interest to contemporary philosophers of religion. This characterization needs explanation and justification—especially so given that Hume repeatedly appears to describe himself as believing in God and even more so if we take, as I do (though I’m not arguing for it here), Philo to be Hume’s primary spokesperson in the Dialogues concerning Natural Religion.

Herein I show how these “confessional” passages can be interpreted in a non-theistic way and make the case that Hume is best interpreted as an atheist. I conclude by showing how Hume’s philosophy of religion is relevant for both contemporary atheists and theists. I begin with some preliminary remarks.

Preliminary Remarks

In asserting Hume to be an atheist, I mean that he rejected theism—he was not a theist, nor did he suspend judgment by taking a purely theologically agnostic position. Theists maintain that nature was created by a single person-like being that is beyond, or above, or prior to nature and is independent of nature. God has an asymmetric causal relationship to nature. Crucially, God is held to have something very much like an emotional investment in the world because whatever made the world allegedly did so as a matter of choice and choices depend on value judgments which, according to Hume anyway, depend on emotions and desires. This characterization of theism covers many (but certainly not all) self-described theists. In Hume’s day, conservative and liberal Protestant thinkers as well as deists like Rousseau would have agreed to it as did Hume’s characters Cleanthes and, when not waxing mystical, Demea. Many today who profess belief in God claim at least this and it is a position defended by theistic philosophers like Richard Swinburne and William Lane Craig. Most theists go well beyond this characterization and assert that God is infinite and/or works miracles and/or reveals himself to humanity.

My threshold characterization of theism fits the position those who ascribe theism to seem to Hume intend: Hume is alleged to have believed in an intelligent being that is outside the natural world and chose to create it. One scholar who might object is Shane Andre who distinguishes between traditional theism (with an infinite, personal God) and a broader theism which acknowledges “one or more divine beings, personal or otherwise, manifesting extraordinary but perhaps not superlative powers.” Erasing, as it does, the distinction between God as a personal being and God as an impersonal force as well as minimizing the distinction between polytheism and monotheism and making no mention at all regarding God’s transcendency, this is far too broad. Someone opposed to such a broadly characterized theism really objects only to words, not ideas. Hume, however, does not object to theistic language, he objects to theism.

Insofar as theism is supposed to explain something significant about the world, I’ll refer to the propositional content of theism as the personal design hypothesis. Hume does not accept this hypothesis. Moreover, he attempts to refute it and evinces materialist leanings. With respect to the positions of his contemporaries and ours, Hume is best classified as an atheist.

Hume’s atheism is soft. This is a matter of both expression and attitude: Hume does not directly declare the non-existence of God nor does he condemn philosophically-minded believers as ignorant or irrational. He even leaves open the possibility of a respectable affirmation of a limited belief and downplays the philosophical dispute between some theists and atheists by calling it purely verbal. According to Hume, all of our reasoning is made possible by a psychological background of habits, feelings, concerns, and emotions with the result that different people cannot but see some things differently. This naturalistic understanding of the mind does not lead Hume to embrace relativism, but it does lead him to adopt a pluralistic attitude. It softens his atheism.

That Hume was irreligious in that he had a generally negative opinion of conventional religious practices and institutions is not disputed; that Hume was any kind of atheist has been. Indeed, contemporary scholars have described Hume variously as an “attenuated deist,” an “amoral theist,” a “pious theist,” a “domesticated theist,” a “limited theist,” a “minimal theist,” and even a “mystical theist.” To be sure, most argue, Hume did not believe in the traditional God, but he did believe in something similar; Hume is, allegedly, some kind of soft theist. While Timothy Yoder indicates that Hume has typically been interpreted as an atheist or agnostic, Hume is now quite commonly held to be a theist.

It is best to shun overly quick paths to the judgment that Hume was an atheist. One might hold that Hume, like Flew, presumes atheism for methodological reasons and, since he criticizes all of the reasons to believe in God that he knows of, he must end up as an atheist. Likewise, if one interprets Hume as a proto-logical positivist, one might argue that the very investigation of God is ruled out a priori on methodological grounds. While both of these interpretations have some textual support, several things could be said against them. Given their dependency on ideas that thrived after Hume, these interpretations could be dismissed as anachronistic. It could also be that Hume does have these views but doesn’t think they lead to atheism—maybe he believes there is some empirical support for a God that is somewhat like us. Another possibility is that Hume just is inconsistent and his philosophy of religion merits treatment independently of his reflections on meaning and method. Moreover, such quick paths to Humean atheism can lead the interpreter to hastily dismiss Hume’s allegedly confessional remarks as either simple prudential duplicity or mere literary irony and thereby miss their full meaning. They can also lead one to be blind to other evidence of Hume’s atheism. Most importantly though, the quick arguments miss important points Hume makes in favor of atheism and how his atheism is distinct from other atheisms.

There is a distinction between being a theist and using theistic language and imagery. Consequently, just as one shouldn’t rush to the judgment that Hume was an atheist, one must be careful not to hastily conclude that Hume was a theist. A possible example here is Nicholas Capaldi who holds that Hume claims to know that God is without knowing what God is. One problem with this is that for us to determine whether or not Hume believed in God, we must ourselves characterize what God is. Another problem is that Hume himself (T, 1.1.6) objects to drawing a strong distinction between a substance and its attributes and Capaldi’s interpretation would require just such a distinction since the existence would be known but not the attributes. The most telling problem, given the significance Capaldi assigns to the fact that all three speakers in the Dialogues say that God exists, is that we know Hume doesn’t always use theistic language theistically. Philo uses the word “God” as a rigid designator for the cause of the universe, whatever it be (DNR, II-3); he is even willing to apply the word “God” to the material world (DNR, IV-9). Given the first, it could be that Philo, though of course he doesn’t know this, designates the Big Bang with the word “God.” This would be an idiosyncratic use of language, but it is not theism. By itself, Hume’s use of theistic language and imagery does not indicate a commitment to theism. Even though when listed together Hume’s many seemingly confessional passages strongly suggest it, anyone trying to make the case that Hume really was a theist must pay very carefully attention to what the “confessional” passages mean and how they are used. If we do this, the support they lend for a theistic interpretation of Hume largely washes away.

Interpreting the Most Important “Confession”

The most important “confession” comes towards the end of the Dialogues. If Philo is Hume’s spokesperson, since we know that Hume expected the Dialogues to be published posthumously, Philo’s final words can be taken as Hume’s final words. The Dialogues itself marks the importance of these remarks since Philo claims to be speaking quite candidly, giving his “unfeigned sentiments” (DNR, XII-9). Moreover the last part contains several extended monologues which give Hume the opportunity to present some of his thoughts more straightforwardly. The lengthiest and most carefully worded of the “confessional” remarks was written during what Norman Kemp Smith says was the final revision and is as follows (I’ll call the quote Q and refer to its propositional content as the rational design hypothesis):

If the whole of natural theology, as some people seem to maintain, resolves itself into one simple, though somewhat ambiguous, and at least undefined proposition, that the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence: If this proposition be not capable of extension, variation, or more particular explication: If it afford no inference that affects human life, or can be the source of any action or forbearance: And if the analogy, imperfect as it is, can be carried no farther than to human intelligence; and cannot be transferred, with any appearance of probability, to the other qualities of the mind: If this really be the case, what can the most inquisitive, contemplative, and religious man do other than give a plain, philosophical assent to the proposition, as often as it occurs; and believe that the arguments on which it is established, exceed the objections which lie against it (DNR, XII-33)?

This is simply not a confession of theism. For one thing, it is a hypothetical: if natural theology is understood a certain way, then Hume will assent. The tentative wording suggests that Hume does not think the antecedent is fulfilled—some people “seem” to maintain that this is what natural theology amounts to and Hume will assent “if this really be the case.” For another thing, the qualifications Hume lists are so stringent that proponents of natural theology would reject them. As Hume doubtless knew, they would have been rejected by Locke, by Clarke, by Butler, by the English Deists, and even by the comparatively liberal Rousseau; they are (preemptively) rejected by Cleanthes. The theists of his day, as well as those of ours, would simply not accept this set of qualifications because Hume so qualifies the proposition that it loses its theological point—it cannot be used to understand God more deeply nor to guide or even motivate any conduct. Moreover, theists are opposed to the notion that there could be more than one ultimate source.

Even though Q is a hypothetical, it seems likely that Hume really did intellectually assent to the idea that there is some designing source of the order in nature since there are many other non-hypothetical “confessions.” Supposing Hume assents to the rational design hypothesis, this is no assent to theism since Hume does not describe the source of order as unitary or non-natural, nor in an asymmetric relationship with nature. A theistic description of the source would be one of the “more particular explication[s]” Hume forbids. Yoder problematically ascribes to Hume belief in a creator God and such a God would certainly be in an asymmetric relationship with nature. However, Q does not affirm this—there is no reason, based on Q, to hold that the source of order is outside of nature. Given that in Q Hume explicitly forbids developing any more detailed theology, the other “confessional” remarks, if Hume is to be read consistently, must not really commit him to anything further. But, since he does assent to something and uses theistic language and imagery in doing so, it is likely that he thinks he has something important in common with philosophical theists.

Setting aside its hypothetical formulation, in Q Hume assents to the rational design hypothesis and says that the arguments for it are better than those against it. Since, through Philo, he’s been arguing all along against the teleological argument, this is an odd thing for him to say. Terence Penelhum argues that Hume believes in spite of his criticisms because of some “non-intellectual basis for theism in our natures that we cannot avoid”: flawed reasoning gives rise to Hume’s assent, but even recognizing the flaws his assent continues. Gaskin argues that Hume thinks the teleological argument shows the reasonability of belief in God as long as one’s concept of God is deistic and vague and he asserts that Philo’s arguments weaken but do not destroy Cleanthes’ reasoning. Beryl Logan, who emphasizes passages other than Q, holds that Hume accepts a kind of irregular argument—when we reflect on the order in nature, we just find ourselves moved by sentiment and imagination to believe in a designer. Differing somewhat in their interpretations of it, Nelson Pike and Timothy Yoder likewise affirm that Hume makes an irregular argument while Stanley Tweyman argues that belief in God is natural according to Hume.

The wording of Q suggests that Hume’s assent is not based in any kind of rational inference from empirical evidence since he reverses the usual relationship between the arguments and the position saying he assents and because he assents he’ll hold that the arguments for it are better than those against it. He does not assent on the basis of the arguments. This makes Gaskin’s position problematic. Penelhum’s position is also problematic since, if Hume were to believe despite seeing the reasoning behind his belief as hopelessly flawed, his belief wouldn’t be philosophical and it wouldn’t be one that he could expect any reasonable person to accept. Likewise, insofar as the rational design hypothesis is a product of philosophical reflection, is neither a universal nor inevitable belief, and is without practical import, it seems incorrect to characterize it, as Tweyman does, as a natural belief alongside belief in causation and an external reality. This passage is very puzzling: how can one have a philosophical assent that has no regard for arguments?

The proposition is so qualified as to be almost empty. If it were an empty tautology, then one could assent to it just on the basis of understanding it—it would be a long-winded way of saying nothing. However qualified the rational design hypothesis is, it is not true simply by virtue of relations between ideas. The hypothesis asserts that probably there is some source of order that is remotely analogous to the human intellect. Probabilistic assertions of analogies are not relations of ideas. Examining my ideas cannot tell me how probable something is; nor does it appear that the idea of a source of design contains or is contained in the idea of human intelligence—these ideas are related, but not by something like definition. While it is true that reflection on our ideas could show that everything is remotely analogous to everything else in some sense, Hume singles out the analogy between the source and the human intellect as being a more probable remote analogy than other possible analogies. This suggests, contra Kemp Smith, that he is not simply asserting a special case of the notion that everything is analogous in some way to everything else; and if it were such a special case, there would be no need to say it was probable. Hume really is assenting to something. What? And why?

Since it is presented as what some say is a hypothesis of natural theology, it should be that we are dealing here with sources that are, with respect to the order found in the natural world, ultimate—the role played by these sources should parallel the role played by God in natural theology and may even be God-like in other ways. Given their role, if we could understand these sources, we would have come to the end of knowing how the natural world works—we would know both what the principles of order in the natural world are and why they function as they do. While we have a natural belief that there are causes at work in the world, natural theology goes beyond this and comprehends the various causal forces into a system. Natural theology completes our scientific understanding of nature. The ultimate source or sources in this system are supposed to be remotely analogous to the human intellect. How so?

For one thing, the sources are orderly producers of order. Through influencing behavior, the human intellect is a cause of order, but the intellect itself is orderly in the way it works; likewise with these ultimate sources. This, however, doesn’t go far enough since even the emotions are orderly producers of order and Hume singles out the analogy with the intellect. Going further, the sort of order the sources produce is, quite amazingly, the sort of order the human mind can recognize. It did not have to be the case that the human mind is so adjusted to the order of the natural world that it is able to acquaint itself with that order and even represent that order in formulas; the intellects of other animals don’t seem to be nearly as in harmony with nature as ours. Hume maintains that there is a kind of pre-established harmony between the sources of order within the world and the human intellect that discovers and represents that order (EHU, 5.21).

Gravity, though it may not be one of the ultimate sources Hume refers to in Q, is a good example. Whatever produces gravitational order is harmonious enough with the mind of Newton that Newton can construct a formula that accurately describes this order. Gravity is not an observed regularity; it is an orderly force that gives rise to numerous seemingly unconnected observed regularities such as free fall, orbits, and tides. Newton’s theory connects all these by means of a simple formula. This is quite remarkable. Nature, Hume writes, has “implanted in us an instinct, which carries forward the thought in a correspondent course to that which she has established among external objects” (EHU, 5.22). The order within nature parallels the order within our intellects, a harmony that simply does not hold between nature and our emotions.

Hume points out that thinking of nature as having a design has proved useful in all the sciences including astronomy and physiology (DNR, XII-2, 3). This analogy proves its use not when it is turned into a basis for theology, but when it leads to new scientific discoveries: that nature “does nothing in vain” directs us to look not beyond nature, but at how things within nature are connected. Our suppositions on how nature should work as a mechanism turn out to help us figure out how it does work. Judgments about how nature should work involve a normative component that treats nature as having a design. Once again, this shows a parallel between the human mind and the sources of order in nature.

This may be as far as Hume’s remote analogy goes: the sources of order in nature produce order that is similar to the order of our ideas as produced by our intellects. That said, the analogy could go further without approaching anything like theism. Gravity illustrates this too. Like a mind, gravity produces order, as it were, in response to information. In Newton’s theory, the strength of the gravitational attraction between two bodies depends on their masses and the distance between them. Gravity is sensitive to these factors as if it knew them, as if it could perform a calculation that takes certain input information to determine the strength of the force it outputs. There is even a remote resemblance between the forces of nature and an infinite God: the forces of nature act everywhere (i.e. are omnipresent), the forces of nature are exceptionless (i.e. are omnipotent), and the forces of nature take into account all relevant factors and proceed by “calculations” that are instantaneous and infallible (i.e. are omniscient).

Hume does not say that the source is a mind and does the distinctive things minds do. He does not say that it deliberates or plans, that it gives an account of reality, that it infers, argues or reasons, that it combines and compares ideas, or even that it has ideas. To deny the remote analogy as I’ve interpreted it would be tantamount to holding that the order found in nature is a product of chance or chaos—a position we know Hume did not hold since he says “[c]hance has no place” (DNR, VI-12). Once again, Hume may only be indicating that our intellects position us to understand the mechanisms within nature far better than our emotions and desires permit us to understand the goals of nature. If he means more, he may only mean that the ultimate forces are “information sensitive” and “calculate.” As indicated above, someone taking this approach can even see these forces as somewhat God-like in being, in a sense, omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient. In any case, a materialist who identifies the ultimate sources with the forces of nature can affirm that those forces are, in interesting ways, mind-like and God-like. Hume may not be a materialist, but if what he says in Q is so formulated that even a materialist could assent to it, then it is definitely not a confession of theism.

Hume philosophically assents to the rational design hypothesis though he doesn’t infer it. This assent is reasonable because it does not conflict with any evidence he is aware of nor does it stir any feelings of rejection. Perhaps, as he reflects on the meaning of the hypothesis and on specific things he’s learned about the lawful behavior of nature and human beings, he just finds himself believing it. To that extent, the irregular argument interpretation is correct; the problem is that what Hume is going along with, at least in Q, doesn’t cross the threshold of theism. Based on a philosophical contemplation of nature, Hume has what might best be described a reasonable faith that reality is ultimately orderly. He even suggests that if we could understand the hidden springs of nature, we would see that all things are necessary (DNR, VI-12). That he knows what he assents to is not really theism explains his use of a hypothetical in Q.

While he does not assent to theism, Hume does share important common ground with philosophical theists. Cynics, radical skeptics, anarchists, and radical indeterminists reject the rational design hypothesis. Moreover, religious believers who accept divine caprice or who immerse themselves in enthusiasm, superstition, or mysticism also reject it. Hume’s approach to nature is similar in this regard to that of philosophical theists like Cleanthes.

Interpreting the Other “Confessions”

It might be said that too much here is being made of Q; there are, after all, many other seemingly confessional statements made by Philo and Hume himself. As there are too many to provide individual interpretations to each, I’ll confine myself to some general remarks and a few illustrations. Several things could be said about these “confessions”: it could be that Hume is speaking loosely, it could be that they are duplicitous, it could be that they are ironic, it could be that they really are straightforward confessions of theism, or it could be that they serve another purpose.

Without doubt, some of Hume’s remarks are duplicitous and/or ironic. He can hardly have thought, as Pamphilus says, that Cleanthes’ opinions are nearest the truth (DNR, XII-34). Many passages are laced with a form of irony in which Hume introduces some word or phrase in what he says or shortly thereafter remarks in such a way that the apparently affirmed theistic position is effectively called into question or even cancelled out; Hume sometimes commits a bit of linguistic sleight of hand and often chooses his words quite carefully. For example, at the end of the Natural History of Religion not long after saying that any reasonable and informed person must “adopt, with the strongest conviction, some idea of [an] intelligent cause or author” (NHR, 73) Hume writes that “[t]he whole is a riddle, an ænigma, an inexplicable mystery” (NHR, 74). Some passages border on ridicule: Philo sarcastically asks, “Supposing there were a God … were it possible for him to give stronger proofs?” (DNR, XII-4). It is incredulous to suppose that Philo, despite having argued at length against natural theology, thinks the evidence we have is the best God could provide. It can hardly be, however, that all the seemingly confessional statements are mere irony or duplicity. If they were, it would be difficult to avoid Priestley’s dismissive judgment that Hume was merely amusing his readers.

It is unlikely that any of these remarks really are straightforward confessions. If in fact Hume were a theist, he could have made a much stronger claim than he did in Q and, since he would have been better received doing so, he had motive to do so. He could even have used the word “God.” Q, however, is calculated to disappoint natural theologians. Although he does not confess to theism, he does speak loosely as when he says things like, “the sciences lead us insensibly to acknowledge a first intelligent Author” (DNR, XII-2). Hume doesn’t literally mean that there is an intelligent author of nature—all minds are within nature and follow, as Hume himself discovered, natural laws. Belief in a non-natural mind would be a strangely Cartesian position for Hume to hold, one troublingly inconsistent with everything he writes regarding how minds work. If the source of nature is literally a mind, if it has what Pike calls intelligence “in the ordinary sense,” one has to wonder absurd things like whether it has impressions (and what would impress itself on a mind outside of nature!), whether it learns by association, whether it has natural beliefs, whether its intellect is and should be a slave to its passions, how its sense of justice is shaped by living in a community, whether it has to balance its love for itself with its love for others, etc. Instead of taking it literally, this reference to an intelligent author is an example of Hume speaking loosely—it would be cumbersome, awkward, and graceless to always write that the “cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence.” Granted then that he speaks loosely, why does he say anything at all on these occasions?

For one thing, couching his position in theistic language makes it more palatable and, if his portrayal of Philo in Part XII is a reflection of his own desire to live peacefully with philosophical theists, he would like his views to be respected by philosophical theists. For another thing, we know that he thinks theistic language can serve an expressive purpose. Shortly after seemingly acknowledging the existence of God in Part II, Philo says:

Wisdom, thought, design, and knowledge; these we justly ascribe to him; because these words are honorable among men, and we have no other language or conceptions, by which we can express our adoration of him. But let us beware, lest we think that our ideas in any wise correspond to his perfections, or that his attributes have any resemblance to these qualities among men (DNR, II-3).

We shouldn’t hold that God really is wise or literally does think—these ideas are not faint shadows of what God really is, they don’t serve to describe God accurately at all, they’re just ways of expressing our attitudes. It is consistent with this that Hume would, on occasion, use theistic language to express and commend an attitude of wonder and awe at the design we find in nature and its source. Reverence is an attitude that it is entirely appropriate to take towards nature. By saying that nature has an intelligent author, we express our wonder and awe. This wonder is happily expanded and fulfilled as we study the lawfulness of nature. Hume’s allegedly confessional remarks are not really confessions of theism at all. Aside from Q and perhaps a few other cases of just loosely asserting the rational design hypothesis, the remarks that are neither purely ironic nor duplicitous are best understood as primarily expressive rather than assertive. One, of course, isn’t forced to decide whether a particular passage is ironic or expressive, it can be both. Hume can use theistic language to express the awe he feels towards nature and then introduce ironic elements to be sure that his expression is not taken too literally.

Hume’s Atheism

If the above analysis is correct, Hume does not assert a theistic position. This absence itself suggests that he is either a theological agnostic or an atheist. Although Hume does not declare the non-existence of God, there is textual evidence that Hume was an atheist and this is a position that fits well with his overall philosophical naturalism and makes sense of his arguments. Before entering into this issue, it is worthwhile to point out that not only does Hume not confess to theism, in at least one passage he appears to explicitly reject it.

The way Hume describes it, a “genuine theism” or “true religion” would be intellectually modest, would distance itself from religious factions, would be motivated by hope rather than fear, and would not utilize religion as an ersatz morality. Cleanthes, a radical religious progressive who embraces science and is no fan of mysticism, superstition, enthusiasm, or clericalism, articulates just such a philosophically theistic position: he claims that God could be finite (DNR, XI-1) and might even be caused (DNR, IV-13); he claims that the only legitimate role of religion is to “regulate the heart of men” (DNR, XII-12); and he holds that God made the world in order that humans can be good and have everlasting happiness (DNR, XII-24). Replying sympathetically, Philo says, “True religion, I allow, has no such pernicious consequences [i.e. it doesn’t produce factions or intolerance]” (DNR, XII-22); and, “These appearances [of a God who made the world for the achievement of universal human goodness and everlasting happiness] … are most engaging and alluring; and with regard to the true philosopher they are more than appearances” (DNR, XII-25). Philo acknowledges Cleanthes’ intelligence and sincerity (by implication, Cleanthes is a true philosopher and is advocating for a true religion) and he sees the very real appeal of Cleanthes’ description of God and characterization of the proper role of religion. However, we know Hume doesn’t actually accept Cleanthes’ position since he does not believe in the immortality of the soul, since he thinks that the causes of natural order are neither good nor evil (DNR, XI-15), and since he thinks real religions won’t confine themselves to their “proper role.” After indicating how unrealistic it is to ascribe a purely moral function to real-world religions, Philo goes on to say, “Nor have I anything to do with that speculative tenet of theism, which … is a species of philosophy … [and is] always confined to very few persons” (DNR, XII-22, emphasis added). The “speculative tenet of theism” here is Cleanthes’ philosophical theism. Philo, presumably in line with Hume, will follow neither real-world religions nor a philosophically pure religion. Philo reiterates that he is not a philosophical theist at the end of Part XII where he contrasts philosophical theists who merit divine praise with skeptics who are entitled to divine compassion (DNR, XII-32). Presumably the theist is Cleanthes and the skeptic is Philo.

Hume was an atheist rather than a theological agnostic. In order to qualify as a theological agnostic, Hume would have to hold that his criticisms do not refute the personal design hypothesis and he would have to consider it to be on relatively equal terms with rival positions like materialism. To the contrary, there is good reason to think that Hume thinks he has refuted theism; moreover, while he was not a dogmatic materialist, he was much more sympathetic to materialism than to theism. Further, Philo, Hume’s spokesperson, aligns himself with atheism at the beginning and end of the Dialogues and atheism is consistent with Hume’s naturalistic position on the afterlife and miracles.

Indirectly, Hume’s position on the afterlife and miracles supports atheism. We know that Hume did not believe in an afterlife or miracles. His position on these issues is not one of indifferent skepticism, but of denial. Given how closely associated these ideas are historically, culturally, and psychologically with theism, we should expect Hume to have the same position on it. These ideas are also logically connected since each involves belief in the supernatural. It would be strange for Hume to hold that our minds are within nature but yet there’s still a quasi-Cartesian, non-natural, ultimate mind. Likewise, it would be strange for Hume to deny events that violate the laws of nature except in the one case of creation. Had Hume been agnostic about God, he should also have been agnostic about the afterlife and miracles. If there might be a God, then God might provide an afterlife or intervene in nature; if God exists, no position on God’s character or will could be justified since any can be made consistent with our actual experience if one is sufficiently creative (DNR, XI-12).

Hume himself says that ignorance of the nature of God motivates religious faith—if the intellect does not decide the matter, one flies to whatever position satisfies one’s feelings. The Natural History illustrates how for the unphilosophical masses “ignorance is the mother of devotion” (NHR, 75): they will the void with creatures of their imagination. For those who are more philosophical, skepticism is the “first,” “essential step” towards Christianity (DNR, XII-33). Hume here is, I think, alluding to fideistic skeptics like Pascal, Montaigne, and Bayle, as well as to Pamphilus’ tutor, Demea, who is cast in the mold of a skeptical fideist in Part I. Radical (as opposed to mitigated) skepticism lobotomizes the mind and frees it to follow feeling alone. Given the emotional gravitas of the idea of God as well as its obvious imaginative appeal, it would take a Herculean effort to resist filling the void if one’s official position was that the existence and nature of God are unknowable. Indifference regarding the existence of God differs from indifference regarding the existence of mathematical objects.

So far as more direct evidence that Hume was an atheist is concerned, there are at least two passages in which Philo indicates an alignment with atheists. Early on, Philo quotes Bacon that modern atheists “have a double share of folly” since they not only disbelieve but state their disbelief (DNR, I-18). Philo goes on to imply that Cleanthes does, would, or should (his meaning is somewhat unclear) rank him in this “class of fools” (DNR, I-19). Philo either thinks of himself as an atheist or as someone whom others would call an atheist. In the last part of the Dialogues, Philo suggests a verbal compromise between theists and self-described atheists (DNR, XII-7). Given that the would-be compromising theist is a likeness of Cleanthes, Philo is implicitly identifying himself with the would-be compromising atheist. Moreover, Philo says that the atheist would agree that there is some remote analogy to intelligent design so long as the remoteness of the analogy is sufficiently stressed and, in Q, Philo himself affirms this remote analogy. At the beginning and end of the Dialogues, Philo aligns himself with atheists. Cleanthes also seems to view Philo as an atheist.

The verbal dispute passage is, in part, an ironic reversal of an earlier charge by Cleanthes against Demea that the difference between mystics who stress the utter mysteriousness of God and atheists who deny the existence of God is merely verbal (DNR, IV-1). Given that Cleanthes has Demea in mind as the mystic, and given that Philo and Demea have been, in Demea’s eyes anyway, supporting each other, and given that Cleanthes knows that Philo’s position is actually antithetical to Demea’s, it makes sense to identify the atheist Cleanthes has in mind here with Philo. Cleanthes’ charge is not just an objection to Demea, it is also an in-joke with Philo: maybe Philo is right to agree with Demea! In the verbal dispute passage, Philo alludes to this earlier passage and affirms Cleanthes’ identification of himself with atheists. Since then Philo is Hume’s spokesperson, Hume is aligning himself with atheism.

In addition to aligning himself with atheists, Hume refutes the personal design hypothesis. This occurs in the discussion of the problem of evil where he depicts Philo as triumphant and no longer offering mere cavils and sophisms (DNR, X-36). If we are to go by empirical evidence alone, then, Philo says, the source of order in the world is morally neutral. When we evaluate the world, the causes that order the world produce no patterned distribution of good or evil—there is no settled preference for either or for some fixed ratio of the two. Good and evil, whether natural or moral, are distributed pointlessly. The implication is that we cannot ascribe any of our moral values to whatever originates the universe—it is, as Yoder says, amoral.

Even though Hume focuses on natural and moral evil, Hume’s point can be made quite generally. If the universe is produced by something genuinely person-like, then it is produced by something that has values, desires, feelings, and attitudes. These cannot but be reflected in the product. When we examine the world for ourselves though, we see no patterned distribution that reflects anything personal—we only see patterned distributions in accord with natural laws. This means that we cannot profitably interpret the cause as genuinely person-like—it doesn’t operate on the basis of any of our values, nor does it appear to us to have anything we can recognize as values, moral or otherwise, ours or otherwise—there is, Hume says, no preference for good or evil, hot or cold, dry or wet, light or heavy, etc. (DNR, XI-14). Whatever the source of order is within the world, it values nothing. While it is, in a too literal sense, amoral, it is really much, much less than this; after all, amoral people may be without moral values, but they still have values. The source has no personal values—it is more like a rock than a sociopath. Consequently, it has neither desires nor feelings and is wholly impersonal.

It follows from the above that, according to Hume, the universe is not a product of something that makes choices. Yoder points out that Hume rejected the notion of particular providence. This implies that the source is not responding to events as they unfold by making particular decisions. Since the world itself does not reflect any values, the world itself is not chosen either. The source of nature is entirely blind, “without discernment or parental care [for] her maimed and abortive children” (DNR, XI-13). Hume judges the personal design hypothesis to be an abject failure.

It might be claimed that this is too strong of a reading of Hume’s position. Hume, after all, explicitly grants that one can make theism consistent with observed reality if one is creative enough. So he can’t have refuted theism. This, however, misconstrues the relationship between theory and experience. As Quine pointed out, any theory, with sufficient modification of other claims, can be made consistent with experience. This doesn’t, however, mean that all theories are on equal ground. In the case of natural theology, assuming Hume successfully countered the arguments natural theologians put forward, his presentation of the problem of unreflected personal values, if cogent, refutes theism—especially so given the account of the origin of religious belief he gives in the Natural History. Without good reasons to accept theism and given the typical basis of religious belief in human nature as it responds emotionally and imaginatively to an uncertain and nearly uncontrollable world, the absence of reflected personal values gives Hume a compelling reason to reject theism.

Through his portrayal of Philo, Hume shows that he has materialist leanings. Hints of materialism abound in Philo’s remarks: a world of ideas is no more intrinsically plausible than a world of material things (DNR, IV-14); we have considerably more experience of matter ordering itself than of ideas doing so (DNR, IV-11); and in all observed instances ideas depend on material beings: ideas are copied from material things and, in all known cases, the beings that reason are themselves biologically generated (DNR, VII-15; VIII-11). Ideas, and by implication minds, simply do not stand in a causally asymmetric relationship with the rest of nature.

Materialism has an advantage over theism in that it has recourse to general causes (like the forces of nature) rather than particular ones (DNR, IV-14). Generally speaking, we always understand a particular event as subsumed under some more general causal principle. But, the creation of the world couldn’t be this way unless God were subject to higher-order causal principles. In that case, God wouldn’t seem to be God. Theists sometimes treat creation as an event so wholly unlike any other that our standard model for understanding events fails in this case—it is a kind of explanatory singularity. The materialist, however, is more uniform and applies the same type of understanding to all particular events.

Philo says that it is better “never to look beyond the present material world” and “supposing it to contain the principle of order within itself, we really assert it to be God” (DNR, IV-9). We ourselves are better off pursuing knowledge by adopting materialism—especially if observation and experimentation are our best tools for investigating reality. This is a kind of pragmatic materialism. When we try to extend our knowledge beyond the material world, we must eventually “sit down with the same answer … which might have satisfied [us] from the beginning” (DNR IV-14): namely, “I don’t know why things are this way.” Pragmatic materialism dovetails nicely with the metaphysical agnosticism that results from Hume’s mitigated skepticism.

Philo doesn’t just hint at materialism, nor does he simply show its practical benefit, he favors a comprehensive, speculative materialism. Towards the middle of the Dialogues, Philo is clear on what he thinks is, of all the positions canvassed, the most probable origin of the cosmos, the one that, though not completely satisfactory, “solves all the difficulties,” and the one that we must “sooner or later” “have recourse to”: “were I obliged to defend any system of this nature (which I never willingly would do), I esteem none more plausible than that which ascribes an eternal, inherent principle of order to the world; though attended with great and continual revolutions and alterations” (DNR, VI-12). This is a speculative, metaphysical position that Philo says he would if he had to endorse one. While not a dogmatic materialist, Philo has strong materialist leanings and does not think that materialism and theism are equals. Even though as a mitigated skeptic he’s officially agnostic on the question of the ultimate origin of nature, he doesn’t think all possible answers are equally good and he doesn’t think theism gives a good answer at all. He’s an atheist, a materialistically-inclined metaphysical agnostic, and a pragmatic materialist.

Philo’s materialist leanings are particularly problematic for Gaskin’s account of Hume’s alleged attenuated deism. Gaskin writes, [A]t the ultimate point of decision in looking for the source of order in nature – when it could be regarded as an inherent principle in things (‘brute fact’ is the more fashionable phrase) or as something which also warrants very circumspect use of the word ‘intelligent—at this point in the ambiguity Hume inclines to the latter of the two possibilities.

Gaskin means that Hume faces a choice between unintelligent, inherent sources or an intelligent, external source. Only by favoring the latter would Hume merit being called any kind of deist (if Hume believed in intelligent, inherent sources he’d be an attenuated animist or pantheist). This is an unforced, false dichotomy. Even so, if Hume had to choose between these two, he would probably say that the sources are inherent and unintelligent. There is a considerable difference between actually being intelligent and being remotely analogous to something that is intelligent since intelligent beings use ideas to think and deliberate. As we’ve seen, Philo explicitly says he would defend materialism if he had to defend something and, as we’ll shortly see more of, Hume indicates that we cannot literally ascribe thought to the source.

That Philo is willing to call nature “God” is extremely important as is his indication that we should “piously ascribe to him every species of perfection” (DNR, II-3)—nature is so mysterious to us, so much larger than us that we express our awe and commend such awe to others by describing nature theistically without taking these descriptions in anything like their literal sense. Those who do not hold nature in awe are, according to Philo, worthy of ridicule and should be held in contempt. His own deep sense of religion (DNR, XII-2) follows Seneca’s advice and in practice equates knowing God with worshipping God (DNR, XII-32). Given that the theist’s God, were it to exist, could not possibly be an object of knowledge; the real object of knowledge, Philo’s real “God,” is nature and the “worship of God” is science. This fits atheism. Interestingly, Hume also ironically uses Demea and Cleanthes to make a case for atheism.

Human minds are, as Demea so eloquently points out, wholly within and determined by nature:

All the sentiments of the human mind … have a plain reference to the state and situation of man and are calculated for preserving the existence, and promoting the activity of such a being in such circumstances … All our ideas … cannot … be supposed to have a place in supreme intelligence … none of the materials of thought are in any respect similar in the human mind and the divine intelligence … were we to remove these circumstances [our manner of thinking] we absolutely annihilate its essence (DNR, III-13).

What Demea says here is entirely consistent with Hume’s understanding of the human mind as he presents it in several works. The human mind is a natural product. For his part, Demea thinks we have some vague, mysterious idea of a non-natural mind which can be put to work in a traditional cosmological argument for the existence of God (DNR, IX-3). Hume, however, uses Cleanthes to reject this argument (DNR, IX-5ff) and to point out that if we cannot model the divine mind on the human mind then we might as well drop the idea altogether and be atheists (DNR IV-1). Although both Demea and Cleanthes reject materialism, taken together, their criticisms show the futility of postulating a mind that is beyond nature—their positive positions (mysticism and anthropomorphism) are not Humean, but their criticisms are. Jointly, their criticisms support atheism. Since then Hume uses all three characters to argue for atheistic conclusions, we should conclude that Hume himself was an atheist.

Hume’s Soft Atheism

Although Hume was an atheist, his atheism is soft. This is not just a matter of how he expresses himself. Hume was an ambivalent pluralist. While he was no friend of clericalism, superstition, mysticism, and enthusiasm, he apparently respected Cleanthes’ position. He portrays Cleanthes’ position as that of someone who is articulate, intelligent, informed, and good-willed as well as one worthy of divine praise (DNR, XII-32). Although Cleanthes’ position is not Hume’s, it is one that Hume not only tolerates, but respects—as well he should given his own theory of belief formation.

According to Hume, our rational assessments are inescapably caught up in our habits of thought, instincts, feelings, and desires. Our desires for the world to be as we want and our judgments that the world should be a certain way are inextricably entangled with our accounts of how the world really is, our justifications for this, and our explanations of this. Indeed, without habits, instincts, and feelings, it would be impossible for us to theorize at all. The way Hume portrays Cleanthes, his theism is a product not only of his empirical reflection, but also of his deeply felt opinion on how reality should be—true religion is, he says, “the only great comfort in life [and] …[t]he most agreeable reflection” (DNR XII-24). In part, Cleanthes sees the world as he does because of how he wants the world to be. This is not to say that Cleanthes’ philosophy is a product of wishful thinking or fantasy. Hume’s fairly charitable portrayal of Cleanthes as well as his own sophisticated understanding of the psychology of belief is at odds with such a simplistic reading. Hume does not portray Cleanthes as someone who is incessantly rationalizing or defensive. He does, however, show that Cleanthes’ position is deeply influenced by his values and attitude (see especially DNR X-20, 28, 30, and 31).

The further removed some issue is from what is directly observable and measurable, the more our rational assessments will be rooted in factors that vary from one person to another—such assessments become increasingly rich in subjectivity. For example, in trying to determine whether the distribution of good or evil is patterned or not, strict empirical methods do not apply—there is no fixed measuring tool and what is observed varies somewhat from one person to another. Likewise we are thrown upon subjectively rich assessments when we use analogies to reason about the origin of the universe: a world of intelligent spiders would probably believe the universe to be spun from a spider’s belly (DNR, VII-17). The result is that in such matters, people cannot but form different opinions and cannot definitively resolve disputes in mutually agreeable ways. Hume’s psychological theory moves him to adopt a pluralistic attitude.

Hume’s pluralism is on display in the verbal dispute passage in which Philo suggests that both positions can be worthy of respect. The theist and the atheist wouldn’t really agree to the same thing, instead each would agree to positions that are closer to each other than their typically polemical rhetoric would admit—their disagreement is minimized, not erased. The theist is to agree to a metaphysically deflated position and the atheist to a verbally inflated one. Hume wants to show that even though there’s no agreed upon objective way to definitively settle this matter, there is a common area of agreement between theists and atheists: the world is deeply rational. If they can agree that their more defined positions are generated by, in part, unarguable subjective factors, then they can respect one another.

The theist, perhaps, is subjectively influenced to settle into a worldview that is familiar and comforting: what’s responsible for the reality we experience is something much like us that has us in mind. The atheist too is subjectively influenced. It isn’t that the atheist necessarily wishes to live in a Godless world (though that could be the case); the atheist may just prefer to keep closer to the hard facts. It may even be that an atheist is psychologically inclined towards taking a controversial position—our assessments can be as much influenced by how we would like to interact with others as how we really want the world to be. Such is how Cleanthes repeatedly characterizes Philo (VII-18; XII-1, 24) and Philo himself acknowledges having a tendency to push things too far (DNR, XII-9). None of this should be taken to indicate that there is such a thing as the theistic psychology or the atheistic psychology. Instead, Hume’s position should be that there are a range of normal, healthy psychologies that, looking at similar evidence and being committed to the empirical ideal, come to distinct but respectable positions because in cases like this the assessments themselves are rich in subjectivity. A verbal compromise allows the disputants of such an issue to achieve a joint recognition of their circumstances and show respect for one another.

The unrespectable positions, presumably illustrated through Demea, are the ones that are subjectively rich in vices like dogmatism, willful ignorance, and fear mongering.

Pluralist though he is, Hume is also deeply ambivalent about the possibility of achieving genuine mutual respect between diverse positions. At the end of Part XI, Demea makes up a polite excuse to leave and quits the conversation. Cleanthes advises Philo not to discuss religion with Demea anymore, and won’t himself be discussing religion with Demea and Philo at the same time in the future (DNR, XII-1). Most importantly, Cleanthes won’t agree to make more modest, less anthropomorphic claims and actually holds that corrupt religion is better than no religion at all. The verbal compromise is a failure—for Cleanthes to accept it would require him to give up more than he’s willing to. Philo has refuted Cleanthes’ position so Cleanthes should take a more modest one but doesn’t; Cleanthes doesn’t even seem to recognise the need to. A similar pessimism is found in Section 11 of the Enquiry. There Hume’s friend who loves skeptical paradoxes argues that society should be tolerant of atheism as a purely philosophical position but Hume counters that this is not psychologically realistic (EHU, 11.28): just because good arguments show that people should tolerate philosophical atheism does not mean they will—the Athenians, like Demea, see people who disagree with themselves as enemies. At any given time, there are psychological limitations on how open a person is to rationally revising her beliefs or her judgments of the beliefs of others.

Despite Hume’s pessimistic assessment of the achievability of reaching mutually intellectually respected diverse positions, there is a very important difference between Cleanthes and Demea: although neither revises his position in light of criticisms, Cleanthes remains Philo’s friend whereas Demea comes to see him as an enemy (DNR, XI-18). When the grounds of mutual respect are not purely intellectual, a failure to reach a common intellectual understanding need not impact one’s assessment of the other’s humanity. The approach of the dogmatist is treat “correct” belief as the ultimate measure of the worth of a person. Hume’s atheism is soft not only in that he is philosophically pluralistic since allows that there are multiple intellectually respectable positions, but also in that he rejects dogmatism. Though he is an atheist, Hume, unlike d’Holbach, does not take up the role of enemy of theism.


While a number of contemporary scholars have argued that Hume was some kind of theist, I hope to have made a good case that Hume was an atheist. Although some arguments for Hume’s atheism are too quick, so are some of the theistic interpretations: the allegedly confessional remarks don’t establish that Hume was a theist. The most important “confession,” Q, does not commit Hume to any theistic doctrine and could even be affirmed by materialists. The other “confessions” should not be read as committing Hume to anything more. While some may just be merely ironic or duplicitous, others should be taken as expressions rather than assertions—Hume believes in a wondrously orderly world and sometimes uses theistic language to express this. Some textual evidence suggests that Hume’s spokesperson, Philo, thinks of himself as an atheist. Moreover, Philo refutes the notion that the ultimate causes are personal and holds that in practice materialism is better than theism and is also more attractive metaphysically. The mutual criticisms of Demea and Cleanthes also support atheism. Finally, atheism coheres better with Hume’s known positions on miracles and the afterlife. Nevertheless, Hume was not a dogmatic atheist. Philosophical theism, with its commitment to a God that works through general providence and its defining the proper role of religion as exclusively moral, is a position that he respects.

This characterization of Hume shows that Hume’s philosophy of religion presents a challenge to contemporary theists as well as atheists. Insofar as hard atheists maintain that all rational and informed people should be atheists, they take a position that is at odds with naturalism. The human mind that does the judging is, in all cases, situated within nature and society—its thinking is a product of social situations, psychological habits, instincts, education, desire, feeling, and imagination; a natural mind is incapable of the Cartesian suspension of its materiality. As a result, even those with minds well-endowed to pursue objective knowledge will not necessarily agree. This doesn’t make truth relative, but it does support a pluralistic, soft position. This observation, however, does not suffice as a final resting place for philosophic reflection. While Hume is, in his attitude, an ambivalent pluralist, he doesn’t seem to have a theory of pluralism. The need for such a theory is most acute in his ambivalent handling of Cleanthes: Philo refutes Cleanthes’ position but also wants to make some accommodation for it.

Hume’s atheistic philosophy of religion presents particular problems for contemporary natural theology. In addition to responding to Hume’s criticisms of arguments put forward by natural theologians, anyone responding fully to Hume must give due consideration to Hume’s pragmatic materialism, to his naturalistic understanding of the mind, and to the problem of unreflected personal values. The last problem is this: if the world is a product of a mind, then, like any designed product, we should be able to figure out something about the values of the being that made the world by looking at the world. However, the world doesn’t appear to reflect any personal values. The first problem arises from Hume’s empiricism and his mitigated skepticism: insofar as we are investigating nature, our experience of nature serves as a fixed constraint on our theorizing; but, when we try to theorize beyond nature, we seem to be completely unconstrained—anything we imagine (and more!) could turn out to be true but, aside from personal preference, no account seems better than any other. The second problem is perhaps the most serious: Hume’s major philosophical writings, the Treatise, both Enquiries, the Dialogues, and the Natural History all indicate that minds are subject to natural laws. This amounts to a discovery about how minds work. If Hume is right, minds are within nature and theism has to be discarded since it is built on a faulty understanding of the nature of minds. This is a particularly strong point because it does not appear to depend on Hume’s contentious reflections on meaning or method and, through the burgeoning of psychology, it has stood the test of time. If the word “mind” rigidly designates anything of the same kind as a human or animal mind, then it is a matter of discovery that minds are subject to natural laws and therefore are within nature. Unlike dogmatic materialists like d’Holbach and LaMettrie, what makes the mind natural for Hume is not what it is made of, but how it works. Theism is at odds with psychology.

Given the difficulty of interpreting Hume, I cannot hope to have definitively settled the matter of Hume’s atheism. Nevertheless, those who ascribe theism to Hume face two significant challenges that I don’t think they have so far met. First, they need to show that the source of order in nature Hume assents to is a particular and non-natural cause as opposed to a general and natural one (like the forces of nature). If this can be shown, then it needs to be shown that this source is literally intelligent—that it actually does something that minds do. In particular, it needs to be shown that the source is something that Hume thinks really deliberates.