David hume died in his native Edinburgh, Scotland, two hundred years ago this month. His writings, like those of Kant, are a watershed in the history of philosophical theology. The bicentenary of his death offers an occasion for taking another look at some of his views.
Hume’s ideas on religion are found primarily in the last three sections of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Section X being his famous essay on miracles), several shorter essays on such subjects as the natural history of religion, suicide, and immortality, and his classic Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Hume acceded to the urging of several friends (including some clergymen) that he have publication of the Dialogues delayed until after his death. They contain a profound and influential analysis of the empirical arguments for God’s existence, especially the argument from design.
Much of the notoriety Christians usually associate with Hume’s name results from a less than careful reading of his works. Hume is commonly believed to have attacked the foundations of Christianity, such as the existence of God, personal survival after death, and miracles. While it is true that his personal beliefs about many of the doctrines of orthodoxy were anything but reflective of the Calvinism that surrounded him in his early youth, what Hume intended in his writings is often quite removed from what his interpreters have thought.
Hume’s writings on religion cover more topics than can be surveyed in one short essay. One can easily find competent discussions of his views about the theistic arguments, miracles, and survival after death. My conviction is that Hume’s major threat to Christianity today comes not from the theories for which he gained notoriety but rather ...1
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