Hume’s Battle Against Superstition – Theology Informal Essay
I often see David Hume shaking his head as he imagines island dwelling volcano worshippers or a procession of self-flagellating medieval monks. I see him sad, but with a chuckle of amusement as he contemplates what is, in his view, a useless and frivolous waste of human energy and effort.
Hume is essentially a rational deist, and gives, in his work The Natural History of Religion, a brazen but brilliant account of the progress and regress of religion in the history or mankind. Although he spends a great deal of time on the development of polytheism into monotheism and its accompanying causes, he finally ends with a very strong stand on the influence of religion on morality. Hume believes that there is a rather universal principle-based morality that governs the correctness or incorrectness of the actions of men and that religion has used its various traditions to influence the stupid irrational man to superstitious and wasteful behavior.
Although Hume obviously was not a strong supporter of religion per se, there is no doubt that he saw a god as the author of the universe. This conclusion, he says, he arrived at by the application of his reason—in other words, he viewed the design and order of the world and saw it as nothing else but the structured conception of an intelligent Creator with a definite plan and purpose. He was a deist—he did not necessarily believe that God was involved in His creation any longer, but that he certainly did create it. However, his conclusion, he emphasizes, is an extension of his reason—quite different than the fear that inspired mankind to believe in polytheism or even traditional monotheism.
It is evident that Hume comprehended the existence of moral principles. He mentions a few of them as “virtues” in his work: “public spirit, filial duty, temperance, integrity” are, of course, not the offspring of religious tradition (181). The problem, he explains, is that, in the irrational religious view a man will do these virtuous things, but these they are not accredited to him as true goodness or morality on the account that it is simply his duty to do them. However, let him show extensive religious piety, such as whipping himself or fasting for days on end and he is a man of extensive moral fiber. Let it not be known that while doing so he deserted his family and let them starve, or even killed a man of another color in the name of his god.
Such is Hume’s great objection to religious morality, and, in essence, the origin of the modern view of the negative effects of religion as a whole. The superstitions and traditions of religion often contradict or fly in the face of what we may comprehend as universal moral principles—such as the virtues Hume described, which are simply the natural products of honesty and love. These things—honesty and love—are two of the major universal principles from which all true morality derives.
Now, one must honestly ask oneself, “What is this true morality?” Well, religionists may tend to think it is the will of God. They may think that whatever God says is moral, and whatever he objects to is immoral. Now, this may be true—but only in the reverse sense. In other words, God says what he says because it is moral. The will of God cannot be the only dictates of morality, or else what we are really saying when we say, “God is good,” is that “God happens to like himself.” Thus, God himself must be following these principles and they must be above Him. However, when those who submit themselves to a “god” who does not follow these principles begin to justify themselves morally by simply pleasing their deity rather than acting according to the eternal principles of love, honesty, etc., they ironically begin to act immoral—they follow the superstitions of their god’s priests rather than submit to their reason, which would lead them to the true morality.
A perfect example of this abandon of rational moral principles in the modern era was the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center by Islamic terrorists. These men, according to Hume, would be subjugating the principles of love to the radical superstitions of their “religion” that Americans are evil and deserve to die. Thus, they would be acting immoral and completely opposite to the virtues Hume emphasized—especially filial duty. On the other side, we have the Christian Crusades in the early part of the second millennium A.D. These men, under the flag of their religion and the idea that the followers of Islam did not deserve to live in Israel, completely forsook the principle of filial duty and love and killed countless Muslims. The September 11 tragedy shook the world and certainly caused a negative view of Islam. Many prominent figures had to repeatedly tell the world that the actions of the terrorists were not in accordance with the true principles of Islam, but still, the damage had been done, and regardless of what school of thought the terrorists embraced, they still took their actions under the name of their god.
Although he may be incorrect about the existence of a god who is involved in the affairs of men, Hume is right about many things. The god who created this world is a rational, perfect being who never goes against the eternal principles by which he is God. The negative view of religion in the world is a direct reaction stimulated by the teachings and creeds of many stupid men who hold their superstitions dearer than their integrity and their love. For those who wish to be involved in a religion, then, the most important thing is to find the eternal principles (such as love and honesty) through reason, and then seek out that god who does not defy them—a god unlike Jupiter, who sleeps with any woman he chooses, and a god unlike he who directed the terrorists of last year to kill thousands of virtuous people. Certainly, Hume would find solace in a religion that defies irrational human behavior and places true and reasonable principles above any foundationless tradition or superstition.