The topic of religion in its various aspects-its psychology, its epistemology, its metaphysics, its history, and its bearing on morals and human life-appears with great frequency throughout Hume’s writings, and perhaps no topic is of greater practical signiﬁcance in his overall philosophical project. Adam Smith reports in his ﬁnal reminiscence [1.7] that Hume, anticipating his own imminent death, jocularly imagined making a plea to Charon, the boatman of Hades, for additional time: “I have been endeavouring to open the eyes of the Public. If I live a few years longer, I may have the satisfaction of seeing the downfall of some of the prevailing systems of [religious] superstition.” Yet Hume imagined Charon replying, “That will not happen these many hundred years. Do you fancy I will grant you a lease for so long a term? Get into the boat this instant, you lazy loitering rogue” (EMPL “Letter from Adam Smith”: xliii-xlix). Religion is the source of many of the psychological “experi-
ments” that Hume describes in A Treatise of Human Nature, and despite his late excision of a discussion of miracles [1.2], his readers would readily have observed the work’s irreligious implications. These include the rejection of the immateriality of the soul as well as the denial of the demonstrability of the Causal Maxim that was charged with leading “to downright Atheism” in the successful eﬀort to exclude him from the chair of philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. As Paul Russell has shown, however, there were many others.1 Hume’s account of the origin of the belief in bodies, for example, would have been seen to deny the Cartesian doctrine that
God is not a deceiver. And his claim that all “nice and subtile questions concerning personal identity can never possibly be decided, and are to be regarded rather as grammatical than as philosophical diﬃculties” (THN 18.104.22.168/262)—because they are a matter of degree without a decisive standard-would be seen to undermine immortality and the justice of divine rewards and punishments. At the conclusion of Book 1, of course, he endorses philosophy over religion as a guide to speculation (THN 22.214.171.124/271-72) [7.3]. More explicitly, An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding begins by
taking as its central purpose the chasing of religious “superstition” from its lair in philosophy; proceeds by drawing from its account of probable reasoning and causation a set of irreligious consequences concerning free will, miracles, and providence; and concludes with a call to commit volumes of “divinity or school metaphysics” to “the ﬂames” as containing “nothing but sophistry and illusion.” An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals criticizes religious conceptions of the proper allocation of property and famously attacks “the monkish virtues” [1.4, 8.6], while giving religion no positive role to play in moral epistemology or moral motivation. “Of Immortality” and “Of Suicide,” the two suppressed essays originally intended for what became Four Dissertations [1.5], argue against the immortality of the soul and against a religious (or other general) duty to preserve one’s life. The Natural History of Religion, analyzes the psychology of religious belief (as does the essay “Of Superstition and Enthusiasm”) and traces the dynamics of polytheism and monotheism, while the History of England repeatedly highlights the dangers of religion and religious conﬂict in the political life of the nation. Hume’s ﬁnal work, Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, remains one of the most inﬂuential and widely read works ever written in the philosophy of religion.