Book: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, by David Hume

Bored with new atheism? Why not try the old school? David Hume‘s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is a classic refutation of the Argument from Design. These days, evangelists are again turning to design arguments, notably the Fine-tuning Argument. Perhaps this argument is enjoying its day in the sun because it embraces and extends physics, in the way discussed previously, rather than suffering from the lack of respectability which attends arguments from design in biology. In any case, Hume’s book is as relevant as it ever was.

The book is quite short, and the text is freely available online, but still, I prefer the old-fashioned dead trees format. The Penguin classics edition only costs a few quid and has a handy forward and footnotes explaining what’s going on.

Talking about religion down the pub

The book is a dialogue between three friends: Philo, a sceptic, whose arguments many commentators identify with Hume’s own views (although exactly what Hume did think about religion isn’t clear, as in the 1700s you still had to be a bit careful about criticising religion); Cleanthes, a design proponentsist; and Demea, who believes God is beyond human understanding and is unimpressed with both Philo’s scepticism and Cleanthes’s anthropomorphisation of the deity. In modern terms, Philo sounds like an atheist (albeit a closeted one), Cleanthes an orthodox Christian who is persuaded by the design argument, and Demea a sophisticated theologian.

These three have a wide-ranging conversation, observed by Pamphilus, the narrator, a young man staying with Cleanthes. It’s fun to watch: John D over at Philosophical Disquisitions writes: “I always like to imagine myself a participant at the after dinner conversation imagined therein. Nothing can beat that: good food, congenial surroundings, intelligent companions and intelligent debate”. Once you’ve got the hang of the slightly antiquated language, the rhythm of it is itself enjoyable to read. Hume can write, a talent not common to all philosophers.

Designed by who?

As Alex Byrne’s article says, Hume’s arguments on cosmology are stronger than Dawkins’s in The God Delusion, though Hume was at the disadvantage of not knowing about biological evolution. Erik Wielenberg’s Dawkins’ Gambit, Hume’s Aroma and God’s Simplicty (which I first saw either at Common Sense Atheism or over at ex-apologist, so thanks to whoever it was) compares them in more detail, paying particular attention to Dawkins’s Ultimate 747 argument, and also favours Hume.

The arguments themselves are neatly summarised by John D. To be even briefer, Hume casts doubt on both the inference that the universe is designed, and on the inference to the identity of the designer (or designers: as Philo says, if we’re basing our argument on an analogy to human design, don’t many builders make a house?). In a diversion into the argument from evil, he also questions how someone could come to know that God is maximally good: certainly not by observing the world, it seems.

But to get the full effect of the book, you should read it (otherwise, you might find, like me, that your arguments from summaries are riposted by a counter-argument that Hume himself anticipated). Recommended.

One thought on “Book: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, by David Hume”

  1. It’s true, Hume is quite a clear writer, though I often find very slow to get to the point. Still, sometimes he points out some great sights along the way.

    (There’s a typo in ‘cdesign proponentsist’… your rendering is too “correct”!)

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