Tag Archives: hume

Hume, Penn Jillette, and faith v reason

I mentioned I’d been reading Hume the other day. He characterises “religious people” in a slightly well-poisoning way in the midst of his discussion in Dialogues on Natural Religion

“And here we may observe, continued he, turning himself towards DEMEA, a pretty curious circumstance in the history of the sciences. After the union of philosophy with the popular religion, upon the first establishment of Christianity, nothing was more usual, among all religious teachers, than declamations against reason, against the senses, against every principle derived merely from human research and inquiry… The Reformers embraced the same principles of reasoning, or rather declamation; and all panegyrics on the excellency of faith, were sure to be interlarded with some severe strokes of satire against natural reason.”

This characterisation has become a bit of a meme. It treats all religious belief as outside of human reason, a case Hume attempted to make in his seminal ‘Of Miracles’ in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. There, Hume argues that because miracles don’t happen, because they are outside of nature, and are almost impossible to verify using a naturalistic framework (a somewhat circular approach to the supernatural), religious belief operates in the world of faith, not reason. He pushes a form of fideism. The belief that reason and faith are in conflict. He does this because he needs to maintain some veneer of being an orthodox Christian, because not being an orthodox Christian in 18th century Scotland is pretty difficult – fideism is a cop out, Hume probably didn’t hold to it – given that his entire academic program contradicted it, and it’s pretty sloppy arguing, on behalf of modern atheists to characterise faith in this way.

Fideism is dumb. Faith might be the belief in things unseen or hoped for (Hebrews 11:1), but it is also based on experience and observation, and not a little reason. That’s pretty consistently been the Christian approach to faith and knowledge since, well, forever. That’s why science was a product of Christians trying to read and understand God’s world better. Seriously. Google Francis Bacon. And it’s why atheistic naturalism’s sweeping claims are devoid of anything that looks like history or philosophy

It’d be great for the thinking, intellectually honest, atheists out there to break free of the group think shackles of this meme, and start admitting they don’t have a monopoly on reason.

But no. It continues. Enter Penn Jillette’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times. Penn’s a smart guy. He’s funny. He’s been reasonably nice about Christians in the past – while clearly disagreeing with people of faith. But this article perpetuates a false meme. To be fair, he’s answering an equally annoying meme from our side – the claim that atheism is a religion…

Here’s what he says…

Religion is faith. Faith is belief without evidence. Belief without evidence cannot be shared. Faith is a feeling. Love is also a feeling, but love makes no universal claims. Love is pure. The lover reports on his or her feelings and needs nothing more. Faith claims knowledge of a world we share but without evidence we can share.

Faith is a hypothesis, as is atheism, about the question of God’s existence on the basis of evidence – like revelation, history, philosophy, and not a little bit of reasoning on the basis of our own existence.

It’s a positive hypothesis, while atheism is a negative hypothesis. There are plenty of less than good systems of religion built on varying types of faith – but faith itself should never be maintained contrary to actual evidence. It’s just that the evidence that naturalists put forward is so dissatisfying on anything but a purely material level, and in its modern form (possibly since Hume) it fails to consider any alternative frameworks and anything that has come before it. Hume was pretty good at characterising or ignoring the people who made good arguments against what he was saying, his whole project in Dialogues and Enquiry essentially ignores 1,700 years of Christian thought that is relevant to the natural theology exercise. Christians have something to say on how we read nature based on the Bible – and I’m not talking about accounts of human origins, but accounts of human nature, and the application of a Christian anthropology to the scientific endeavour had been serving us pretty well since Christians kicked the scientific process off because they believed God supplied a guarantee that the natural order would continue in the way that he created it to operate.

That is all.

The old atheism: why it’s more dangerous than the “new”

I don’t want to suggest Richard Dawkins and his other two horseman friends (following the very tragic demise of Christopher Hitchens) aren’t effective in their campaigns against religion, and for atheism… but I’ve been reading some David Hume (Dialogues on Natural Religion) for the Philosophy subject I’m taking at college this year, and he’s much more interesting and engaging, and therefore more dangerous, than today’s $2 shop atheists like Richard Dawkins. He makes some of the bilious rhetoric these modern guys employ seem very cheap indeed, not because the substance of his argument is all that different – in many ways Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins have all simply been developing Hume’s arguments in line with modern knowledge, but because he is all style. He’s just so winsome, and gentle, it’s like one of those kung-fu moves from the B-Grade movies out there, where you don’t know he’s actually started hitting you until it’s too late – unless, you are familiar with kung-fu.

I can’t help but make comparisons with Dawkins as I read Hume (By the by, Hume’s Dialogue, while it was said to undermine “natural theology” and the argument from design pretty much assumes the conclusions it then sets out to prove, by essentially ruling out divine revelation by looking for natural causes of both nature and religion, and then admitting that such revelation is probably necessary to know anything about the nature of God).

Hume is wrong because he essentially fails to engage with the question of who Jesus is – God made incarnate. God made subject to empirical observations. God made man – a man who was real, historically verifiable, and whose death and resurrection didn’t just legitimise his claim to be king – but all the stuff he said was written to point to him from beforehand – the Old Testament, and the testimonies that are written about him are the empirical evidence offered to support his claims. Written documentation of history – Hume was a history writer himself, so it’s surprising he’s so dismissive of history’s ability to contain and describe truth.

But back to the comparisons…

I like how at times Hume, in contrast to Dawkins, will engage with some of the big theological questions that present themselves in the course of his argument (lets not forget how Dawkins chooses not to engage with where hard Christian thought is happening), here he is highlighting the dangers of trying to draw an analogy from the creation to the creator:

“But as all perfection is entirely relative, we ought never to imagine that we comprehend the attributes of this divine Being, or to suppose that his perfections have any analogy or likeness to the perfections of a human creature. Wisdom, Thought, Design, Knowledge; these we justly ascribe to him; because these words are honourable among men, and we have no other language or other conceptions by which we can express our adoration of him.”

At that point he presents a much bigger picture of God than he seems to employ throughout the book, where his God, if he exists at all, is a neutered, deistic god, who has no influence on natural events, and potentially even less interest. It’s a bigger picture of god than some modern Christians are willing to conceive. God is so far beyond comparison to man that drawing analogies is largely futile… unless, of course, you have something that claims to be the word of God which essentially establishes a comparison between God and man (Gen 1:26-27) right off the bat…

Anyway, like I say, I’ve enjoyed reading Hume because he seems genuine in grappling with the issues he’s writing about – though you’re never really sure, at this point, how much legitimacy he’s giving to opinions other than his own when he writes, his Christian character, Demea, who promises to indoctrinate her children before they’re taught any “scientific” enquiry, is pretty much a caricature with very little of substance to contribute.

Where Dawkins is shrill, Hume is gentle. Where Dawkins is bombastic, Hume presents with doubt and not a little epistemic humility. Where Dawkins is brash and intolerant, Hume is empathetic and questioning. Where Dawkins is filled with smug certitude and self-righteousness, Hume is a little bit charming and self-effacing. Where Dawkins can’t see much good in any religious people, Hume was enamoured with the leading Christians of his time (he used to go to see Whitfield preach, not because he believed what Whitfield was saying, but “because he [Whitfield] does.” Where Dawkins seems to want the quick victory, Hume amassed a pretty comprehensive case against Christianity almost by stealth – with snippets in all sorts of publications that almost needed to be put together posthumously.

This article in the New Yorker comparing the atheists of old with the new atheists has a nice little para on Hume…

“Yet his many writings on religion have a genial and even superficially pious tone. He wanted to convince his religious readers, and recognized that only gentle and reassuring persuasion would work. In a telling passage in the “Dialogues,” Hume has one of his characters remark that a person who openly proclaimed atheism, being guilty of “indiscretion and imprudence,” would not be very formidable.

Hume sprinkled his gunpowder through the pages of the “Dialogues” and left the book primed so that its arguments would, with luck, ignite in his readers’ own minds. And he always offered a way out. In “The Natural History of Religion,” he undermined the idea that there are moral reasons to be religious, but made it sound as if it were still all right to believe in proofs of God’s existence. In an essay about miracles, he undermined the idea that it is ever rational to accept an apparent revelation from God, but made it sound as if it were still all right to have faith. And in the “Dialogues” he undermined proofs of God’s existence, but made it sound as if it were all right to believe on the basis of revelation. As the Cambridge philosopher Edward Craig has put it, Hume never tried to topple all the supporting pillars of religion at once.”

What’s particularly interesting to me, given my recent penchant for all things Ciceroesque, is how much Hume follows Cicero. Deliberately and unabashedly. While there’s a fair bit of overlap in philosophical approach and the questions both men asked, there’s a style comparison as well. It’s, I think, a testimony to the quality of the communication advice and approach to life that Cicero laid out for communicators (believe in your cause, live for it, speak eloquently and passionately, write often, etc). This too, is why I think Dawkins and his ilk, though they persuade some, will eventually fade away into insignificance – their “rhetorical triangle” is not particularly balanced, they’re heavy on the pathos, with not much logos, and not a whole lot of conduct worth imitating or being convinced by…