Dialogues concerning Natural religion

by Hume

Those of you, who like me, spend some time discussing religion, one is bound to hear the name of Hume mentioned. Being that I like such debates and would, for all that is reasonable, want to participate in a discussion where I could say something, I endeavored to read Hume. I started with the above book which is going to be the subject of our discussion today.

Natural religion is defined here asΒ the “religion of nature,” in which God, the soul, spirits, and all objects of the supernatural are considered as part of nature and not separate from it.

In this dialogue, we have Cleanthes, Demea and Philo all arguing from different viewpoints. When we first meet the three friends, Philo is telling them he intends to postpone the teaching of religion to his children until they have a firm foundation in philosophy, a proposition which doesn’t sit well with Cleanthes. His [Cleanthes] first response is a rejection of skepticism and argues no one can live in that manner. He says

in a flush of humour, after intense reflection on the many contradictions and imperfections of human reason, may entirely renounce all belief and opinion, it is impossible for him to persevere in this total scepticism, or make it appear in his conduct for a few hours. External objects press in upon him; passions solicit him; his philosophical melancholy dissipates; and even the utmost violence upon his own temper will not be able, during any time, to preserve the poor appearance of scepticism. And for what reason impose on himself such a violence? This is a point in which it will be impossible for him ever to satisfy himself, consistently with his sceptical principles.

Philo responds by saying

[..]To whatever length any one may push his speculative principles of scepticism, he must act, I own, and live, and converse, like other men; and for this conduct he is not obliged to give any other reason, than the absolute necessity he lies under of so doing.

Hume, through Demea wants us to believe

No man, no man at least of common sense, I am persuaded, ever entertained a serious doubt with regard to a truth so certain and self-evident. The question is not concerning the being, but the nature of God.

a doubt which I think was entertained at least by a few men of his time if not of an earlier time. Demea continues to tell us

next to the impiety of denying his existence, is the temerity of prying into his nature and essence, decrees and attributes.

but why should we not inquire into these questions? We have been told at least by some divines that the belief in god is important to us for the security of our life in the nether world. It is only natural that we must inquire into the being of such a deity, its nature and mode of existence.

Cleanthes then claims to establish the existence of god posteriori. He says

[..]The curious adapting of means to ends, throughout all nature, resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the productions of human contrivance; of human designs, thought, wisdom, and intelligence. Since, therefore, the effects resemble each other, we are led to infer, by all the rules of analogy, that the causes also resemble; and that the Author of Nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man, though possessed of much larger faculties, proportioned to the grandeur of the work which he has executed. By this argument a posteriori, and by this argument alone, do we prove at once the existence of a Deity, and his similarity to human mind and intelligence.

which here is anthropomorphism at work.

Cleanthes living before Darwin makes the argument that creationists are wont to employ whenever they argue for design in nature, that of complexity. Here he tells us

[..]Consider, anatomise the eye; survey its structure and contrivance; and tell me, from your own feeling, if the idea of a contriver does not immediately flow in upon you with a force like that of sensation. The most obvious conclusion, surely, is in favour of design; and it requires time, reflection, and study, to summon up those frivolous, though abstruse objections, which can support Infidelity.

which I have already said above is an argument from ignorance. We now know that the eye is a case of adaptation and natural selection that has taken several million years to develop.

The dialogue continues in this vain with Cleanthes maintaining the world resembles the working of a mind, only, superior to man’s, but a mind all the same. To dissuade him from this thought, Philo argues

[..]But were this world ever so perfect a production, it must still remain uncertain, whether all the excellences of the work can justly be ascribed to the workman. If we survey a ship, what an exalted idea must we form of the ingenuity of the carpenter who framed so complicated, useful, and beautiful a machine? And what surprise must we feel, when we find him a stupid mechanic, who imitated others, and copied an art, which, through a long succession of ages, after multiplied trials, mistakes, corrections, deliberations, and controversies, had been gradually improving? Many worlds might have been botched and bungled, throughout an eternity, ere this system was struck out; much labour lost, many fruitless trials made; and a slow, but continued improvement carried on during infinite ages in the art of world-making. In such subjects, who can determine, where the truth; nay, who can conjecture where the probability lies, amidst a great number of hypotheses which may be proposed, and a still greater which may be imagined?

he continues to question Cleanthes in this manner by asking

To multiply causes without necessity, is indeed contrary to true philosophy: but this principle applies not to the present case. Were one deity antecedently proved by your theory, who were possessed of every attribute requisite to the production of the universe; it would be needless, I own, (though not absurd,) to suppose any other deity existent. But while it is still a question, Whether all these attributes are united in one subject, or dispersed among several independent beings, by what phenomena in nature can we pretend to decide the controversy?

This is the same question raised in Aristotle’s first cause argument. For how, in the name of all that is reasonable, arrive at the number of designers or first cause[s] involved in the being of the universe? The argument that since man has been able to design a particular species of things, then the universe must also have been designed doesn’t help solve the problem. In fact as has been oft repeated, even allowing a designer, we still cannot get to the nature of this designer and whether such a designer is still extant.

Demea tells us

Whatever exists must have a cause or reason of its existence; it being absolutely impossible for any thing to produce itself, or be the cause of its own existence. In mounting up, therefore, from effects to causes, we must either go on in tracing an infinite succession, without any ultimate cause at all; or must at last have recourse to some ultimate cause, that is necessarily existent: Now, that the first supposition is absurd, may be thus proved. In the infinite chain or succession of causes and effects, each single effect is determined to exist by the power and efficacy of that cause which immediately preceded; but the whole eternal chain or succession, taken together, is not determined or caused by any thing; and yet it is evident that it requires a cause or reason, as much as any particular object which begins to exist in time. The question is still reasonable, why this particular succession of causes existed from eternity, and not any other succession, or no succession at all. If there be no necessarily existent being, any supposition which can be formed is equally possible; nor is there any more absurdity in Nothing’s having existed from eternity, than there is in that succession of causes which constitutes the universe. What was it, then, which determined Something to exist rather than Nothing, and bestowed being on a particular possibility, exclusive of the rest? External causes, there are supposed to be none. Chance is a word without a meaning. Was it Nothing? But that can never produce any thing. We must, therefore, have recourse to a necessarily existent Being, who carries the REASON of his existence in himself, and who cannot be supposed not to exist, without an express contradiction. There is, consequently, such a Being; that is, there is a Deity.

To which Cleanthes responds by saying first

Nothing is demonstrable, unless the contrary implies a contradiction. Nothing, that is distinctly conceivable, implies a contradiction. Whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent. There is no being, therefore, whose non-existence implies a contradiction. Consequently there is no being, whose existence is demonstrable.

and then continues to make what I consider a decisive argument against necessary existence, a line oft repeated by Craig and his many clones

It is pretended that the Deity is a necessarily existent being; and this necessity of his existence is attempted to be explained by asserting, that if we knew his whole essence or nature, we should perceive it to be as impossible for him not to exist, as for twice two not to be four. But it is evident that this can never happen, while our faculties remain the same as at present. It will still be possible for us, at any time, to conceive the non-existence of what we formerly conceived to exist; nor can the mind ever lie under a necessity of supposing any object to remain always in being; in the same manner as we lie under a necessity of always conceiving twice two to be four. The words, therefore, necessary existence, have no meaning; or, which is the same thing, none that is consistent.

and he asks further why

may not the material universe be the necessarily existent Being, according to this pretended explication of necessity?

These dialogues continued to cover pain and suffering in the world and how this affects belief in a benevolent deity.

At the end Hume says

I cannot but think, that PHILO’s principles are more probable than DEMEA’s; but that those of CLEANTHES approach still nearer to the truth.

Hume has here made a claim that the existence of a deity is a given, the question to be answered here is the nature of deity. I contend here that neither the nature nor the being of a deity is given or known and as such talk of deities leads to an abyss of meaninglessness and wild speculations that is the habit of those divines and frauds who speak of knowing the mind and intention of deities.


About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

24 thoughts on “Dialogues concerning Natural religion

  1. Sonel says:

    Looks very interesting Mak. I started reading and it lost me at ‘human reason’. LOL! I don’t ponder on things like this much as I can’t follow much of the intelligent reasonings like the ones you and Arkenaten usually have because of my limited concentration. Some days are worse than others. This morning I was up at 4am to take photo’s of the sunrise and now the one braincell that sometimes work is tired as well. What I can tell you is that any religion is meaningless to me as I don’t believe in any of them but that you know by now. Sincerely – your friend, the Googlist. πŸ˜‰


    • makagutu says:

      The times I have woken up at 4am, I am travelling or I slept really early and can’t sleep anymore, so my dear Googlist, there you got passion. We share in the beauty though, you share with us very beautiful photos everyday.
      The book is an interesting read.


    • mixedupmeme says:

      I am so glad to read that someone else can’t follow the intelligent reasonings of Mak and his ilk. Much better to take pictures of the beautiful real world and leave the others to discuss the nonsense of the make believe world. πŸ™‚


  2. In studying Hume there are important lessons: 1) philosophy has not much advanced in several hundred years – we’re still debating the same topics. 2) Philosophy is/was the science of debunking religion.

    I don’t think either of these are intentional, but necessary given the strong beginnings of theology as science adopted by most western civilizations. So we find ourselves today fighting the last vestiges of the legacy of theology as science. Theology, for much of it’s rule, forbade actual science as herasey, slowing it’s advance.

    Now that theology is no longer the pinnacle of thought on all matters, it is relagated to same corner of the room as philosophy with nothing to add but conjecture as to what might lie beneath our skulls. Now we have the tools to study each synapse, each signal, the very details of the workings of a thought.

    Though we do not yet understand the knowledge we’ve gained comprehension is all but assured. Where then is there room for philosophy? Where then is there room for notions of gods?

    I’d gladly shoot both of them in the head to be the first to say clearly that our brains work like so….. my explanation being the very bullets that killed them, both theology and philosophy.

    It is well and good to muse about thoughts and what might lie beyond our senses but it is much like discussing the beauty of a flower. Much more can be made of studying the flower and creating new species, perhaps even species which carry medicinal value to save the lives of those only concerned with it’s beauty. Perhaps it’s more useful to work on extending our senses than speculate upon what we might find if ever we do extend them.


    • makagutu says:

      I don’t know if we have killed philosophy as yet, I would not pass that judgement yet. The questions that concerned our forefathers still concern us today, questions such as why we are here and whether there is a reason for all of it. There are those like you and I who have come to the realization that there is no cosmic meaning in all this and that it is us to give our individual existence meaning.

      The question of death is to most people a very difficult one and to the extent that philosophy prepares one for death, I think it is still alive.

      There are those billions of people that religion is the arbiter of truth so much such that in a dispute between science and received doctrine, they would choose the latter. Whereas specific disciplines in science would answer some of their questions, philosophy- speculative philosophy would still have a place as long as we do not go out of the field of experience as divines are wont to do.


    • “Philosophy is/was the science of debunking religion.”

      Nay, nay, not so! There was a time when Philosophy, especially among the Greeks, involved the art of confirming religion. I’d suggest Dale B. Martin’s Inventing Superstition. Many went into great detail regarding how daemons live among us, causing illness and making us forget where we put our car keys.


  3. aguywithoutboxers says:

    An excellent summation, my Nairobi brother! Additionally, if humans are to never understand the divine, then why do so many of the elevated clergy of the various belief systems spend so much energy trying to interpret the nature of the deities? It should be an impossible and wasted endeavor. Thank you, buddy!


    • makagutu says:

      A very important question. If we can’t comprehend god, why concern ourselves with it. We could concern ourselves with other better things like how to end pestilence, wars, infant mortality, poverty, and ignorance.
      Most welcome buddy


      • aguywithoutboxers says:

        And one more. almost equally important, how to rid ourselves of all those corrupt politicians! πŸ™‚


        • makagutu says:

          Now that is a million dollar question! Maybe killing them would do humanity a great good, the politicians and the divines of all stripes


          • aguywithoutboxers says:

            No doubt about it, my Nairobi brother! LOL! However, perhaps locking them all up on a polar icecap would be more humane! Now, what to do about all those who REFUSE to obey the posted traffic speeds on all our roadways? πŸ˜‰ I love you, my friend. Speed away all you want! It bothers me not! LOL!


          • makagutu says:

            Speed limits slow down traffic and here are a cause for police to extort drivers or the government to mince money- depending on who the said driver decides to pay.
            I think it is more humane to kill them fast. At the poles they may survive and join society and spread the malady we are trying to get rid of.


          • aguywithoutboxers says:

            Send the extortionist police out with the politicians! they deserve each other! Let them prey on others who are equally as dishonest! πŸ™‚ As for the speeders, I could never punish you, my friend! πŸ˜‰


  4. “Consider, anatomise the eye; survey its structure and contrivance”

    Interestingly, that’s one of the first things that Theists hit on in their effort to prove they haven’t lived a totally wasted life.


  5. fojap says:

    By the way, many people think that Hume was an atheist and that last bit you mentioned was what he had to write in order to not get arrested, which the Church of Scotland considered doing. The existence of a deity is a given because the law said so. Is it possible to be a skeptic and not be what, at least colloquially, might be called an atheist? (Northier just wrote a post about the Agnosticism/Atheism question and VJack at Atheist Revolution had a post about the relationship between skepticism and atheism.)

    “…in 1744 Hume applied for the Chair of Pneumatics and Moral Philosophy at University of Edinburgh. The position was given to William Cleghorn because Hume was viewed as an atheist. ”

    “Led by Thomas Reid, critics charged Hume as a heretic, but defended by young clerical friends, some argued that, as an atheist, Hume’s potential heresy was outside the scope of the Church of Scotland. As a result, Hume again failed to gain a professorship of Moral Philosophy at University of Glasgow, but nevertheless achieved great literary fame as a historian and essayist. He wrote a great deal on Theology, and like Immanuel Kant, seemed to support prevailing views of his day. However, his Philosophy was clearly open to non-religious interpretations. “Examine the religious principles,” he wrote, “You will scarcely be persuaded, that they are anything but sick men’s dreams.” Skeptical both of religious belief and pure Atheism, such as contemporaries like Baron d’Holbach argued, Hume neither believed in God nor ruled out the possibility of some form of diety or creator. ”


    I don’t know about the reliability of the source of the previous quote and that last sentence seems express a tad too much certainty. Whether Hume could best be called an atheist or an agnostic has been continually debated since he was alive.

    What I don’t get, and I just wrote something to this effect on Nothier Than Thou’s blog, is what sort of consolation religious people get from insisting that many atheists are in fact agnostics. In either case, they still think the believers are very wrong.

    I came across this which is rather cute.

    However, the video doesn’t mention his views on morality, which is the area in which he was most influential on my own thought. His Dialogues Concerning Natural Religions is often quoted, but I think for someone who has already come to a position of atheism, or a considered agnosticism, it’s not so interesting. It’s probably most interesting for people in a religious environment who are starting to doubt. Also, the antiquated language makes it slow going – at least it did for me.

    You seem to not have enjoyed it, so I am not so much recommending other books by him so much as simply stating that I personally found, when I was in my twenties, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals to be very enlightening. He also has some stuff on the question of free will in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.


    • fojap says:

      Oh yeah, can anybody enlighten me about what that comment in the video about the Scottish stabbing people is supposed to be about. It seems a propos to nothing and I don’t get it.


    • makagutu says:

      You need not worry, actually I have lined up for reading this year the two books you mention.
      Thank you for this very insightful comment.
      I have read a few books of d’Holdbach and I must say I found all of them great, very great indeed.


  6. […] For those interested in reading more on natural religion, Hume wrote a dialogue with the same title and which I wrote a review sometime back. […]


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