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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XIV. Philosophers

§ 10. His Theological Writings: “Of Miracles”; Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

Hume exerted a profound influence upon theology, not only by the general trend of his speculation but, also, through certain specific writings. Of these writings, the most important are the essay “Of Miracles” contained in An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, the dissertation entitled “The Natural History of Religion,” and Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. The first-named is the most famous; it produced a crowd of answers, and it had a good deal to do with public attention being attracted to the author’s works. It consists of an expansion of a simple and ingenious argument, which had occurred to him when writing his Treatise of Human Nature, but which, strangely enough, is inconsistent with the principles of that work. It regards “laws of nature” as established by a uniform experience, “miracles” as violations of these laws and the evidence for these miracles as necessarily inferior to the “testimony of the senses” which establishes the laws of nature. Whatever validity these positions may have on another philosophical theory, the meaning both of laws of nature and of miracles as conflicting with these laws evaporates under the analysis by which, as in Hume’s Treatise, all events are seen as “loose and separate.” “The Natural History of Religion” contains reflections of greater significance. Here, Hume distinguishes between the theoretical argument which leads to theism and the actual mental processes from which religion has arisen. Its “foundation in reason” is not the same thing as its “origin in human nature”; and he made an important step in advance by isolating this latter question and treating it apart. He held that religion arose “from a concern with regard to the events of life, and from the incessant hopes and fears which actuate the human mind,” and, in particular, from the “melancholy” rather than from the “agreeable” passions; and he maintained the thesis that polytheism preceded theism in the historical development of belief.

“The whole is a riddle, an enigma, an inexplicable mystery.” Such is the concluding reflection of this work. But a further and serious attempt to solve the riddle is made in Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. This small book contains the author’s mature views on ultimate questions. It is written in his most perfect style, and shows his mastery of the dialogue form. There is none of the usual scenery of the dramatic dialogue; but the persons are distinct, the reasoning is lucid, and the interest is sustained to the end. The traditional arguments are examined with an insight and directness which were only equalled afterwards by Kant; but, unlike Kant, and with insight more direct if not more profound, Hume finds the most serious difficulties of the question in the realm of morals. The form of the work makes it not altogether easy to interpret; and some commentators have held that Hume’s own views should not be identified with those of the more extreme critic of theism. Hume himself says as much at the close of the work; but his habitual irony in referring to religious topics is part of the difficulty of interpretation. All the speakers in the Dialogues are represented as accepting some kind of theistic belief; and it is not necessary to attribute expressions of this kind simply to irony. The trend of the argument is towards a shadowy form of theism—“that the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence”; and, in a remarkable footnote, the author seems to be justifying his own right to take up such a position:

  • No philosophical Dogmatist denies, that there are difficulties both with regard to the senses and to all science; and that these difficulties are in a regular, logical method, absolutely insolvable. No Sceptic denies, that we lie under an absolute necessity, notwithstanding these difficulties, of thinking, and believing, and reasoning with regard to all kind of subjects, and even of frequently assenting with confidence and security.
  • In other words, his logic leads to complete scepticism; but, just because the “difficulties” are insoluble, he claims a right to disregard them, and to act and think like other men, when action and thought are called for.