Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Hume's Religion

I have indicated that the debate over Darwinian conservatism shows the tension between metaphysical or transcendentalist conservatism and evolutionary or empirical conservatism. The metaphysical conservatives look to the tradition of Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Russell Kirk. The evolutionary conservatives look to the tradition of David Hume, Adam Smith, and Friedrich Hayek. Metaphysical conservatives like Carson Holloway and Peter Lawler, for example, reject Darwinian conservatism because they fear that it denies the religious belief in a transcendent moral order that is required for any healthy morality. By contrast, those on the "secular right" look to Hume for a conservative view of moral order that does not require religious belief. Some of my posts on these issues can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

My graduate seminar on Hume this past semester has helped me to think through Hume's position in this debate. In particular, I have benefited from reading a paper on Hume's view of religion by one of my students--Ben Gross.

Hume is a vigorous critic of biblical religion. He elaborates the reasoning for rejecting any belief in miracles, divine providence, immorality of the soul, eternal rewards and punishments, and the argument from design for God's existence. He denigrates Christian moral teaching for its life-denying "monkish virtues." And he laments the violence and intolerance of Catholic superstition and Protestant enthusiasm. It is not surprising, therefore, that many people have concluded that Hume was an atheist who hoped for a future society without religious belief. That explains why all of Hume's writings were put on the Catholic Church's Index of Prohibited Books.

But even as he denies that there are any rational proofs for the supernatural doctrines of biblical religion, Hume indicates that reason cannot deny an appeal to faith beyond reason, which suggests that reason cannot refute revelation. And while he generally attacks the argument from design as proof for the biblical God, he sometimes suggests that the intelligent order of the universe might well point to some divine First Cause as the basis for a philosophical theism or "true religion."

Moreover, Hume's History of England shows this same ambivalence about biblical religion. He scorns the violence and foolishness of religious fanaticism in English history. But he also recognizes that Protestantism in general and the Puritans in particular promoted the English spirit of liberty.

In Hume's "Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth" in his Essays, Hume sketched a plan for the most perfect form of government. (Douglas Adair surveyed the evidence for concluding that James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were decisively influenced by this plan in their conception of the United States Constitution.) His plan includes an established Presbyterian religion. His likely reason for doing this is indicated in his History: during the period of the English Commonwealth, the Presbyterians were moderates who were opposed to the episcopal authority of the Anglican Church, on the one hand, but also opposed to the religious anarchy of the Puritan independents. This suggests the importance for Hume of a moderate form of Protestant religious authority.

In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (section 11), Hume criticizes the biblical doctrines of immortality with eternal rewards and punishments from a providential God. He indicates that morality does not require such religious beliefs for those who reason well about nature. But he also notes that such religious beliefs might be necessary to reinforce morality for the multitude of human beings who do not reason well.

Metaphysical conservatives like Lawler and Holloway who appeal to Tocqueville's account of religion in America fail to see how close Tocqueville is to Hume on this issue. Speaking of "religion considered as a political institution," Tocqueville in Democracy in America indicates that the moral and political effects of religious beliefs are important for social order regardless of whether those beliefs are true or not. Tocqueville's reasoning about the salutary political effects of religious belief conforms largely to Rousseau's teaching about the importance of "civil religion."

Thus do Hume and Tocqueville belong to a long conservative tradition--stretching from Cicero to Burke to Hayek--that recognizes the political importance of religious belief for the multitude of human beings whose morality might be reinforced by such belief.

Charles Darwin belongs to that same tradition, because he saw the influence of religious habits and teachings in shaping moral experience. But Darwin also saw that morality was rooted in an evolved human nature that provided a natural ground for morality independent of religious belief.


Dave said...

Could you give the passage where Hume rejects the "immorality of the soul"?


Larry Arnhart said...

In his essay "Of the Immortality of the Soul" and in section 11 of the ENQUIRY CONCERNING HUMAN UNDERSTANDING.

Dave said...

Sorry, I was being to subtle. I was trying to give you a gentle correction. You left out the first 't' in your original text, as in my quoted matter, and it created an amusingly Freudian typo.

Larry Arnhart said...

Oh, you see. My Freudian slips never become conscious until someone forces me to see them.

Sensible Knave said...

Dr. Arnhart-

This is Mr. Tolhurst from your Hume seminar.

I've been catching up on a few of your blog posts and I had a few thoughts.

1) Both Tocqueville and Hume seem to endorse the political practicality of religion because of its role in supporting common morality. (which, for De Tocqueville, is key for preserving democratic liberty) However, can such a institution serve its purpose unless its underlying theology is seen as true?

After all, in an age of rising education many question the foundations of such institutions and as such they may be seen to cease to be viable sources of moral instruction in proportion as their metaphysical claims are denied.

What alternative church or institution of moral education would Hume (or Tocqueville) put in its place to serve the practical political goal of preserving morality, and yet not advocate and put forward claims that they would regard as false?

(What would 'Humean Theology' or a 'Darwinian Church' look like?)

And, as in Hume's 'Perfect Commonwealth' would such institutions, ultimately, only be able to derive their authority from the state?

2) It strikes me that a morality based on natural sentiment cannot give us much guidance in what we ought to do.

Why, after all, should the enterprising transhumanist endorse the set of moral emotions and human mental capacities given to him by the outcome of an evolutionary process, and not attempt to take charge of this process himself? (and attempt to make himself or his offspring something 'more than human'?)

So while 'metaphysical' conservatism might be rightly regarded as suspect given its past history, might such a conception perhaps provide extra grounding to the need to attend to the human tradition and the natural human functioning? (how do we generate the command 'Thou shalt not meddle with the results of evolution and human society in a capricious manner!')

3) While many of your posts note a distinction between 'metaphysical' and 'naturalist' conservatism and tend to place religious conservatism in the realm of the 'metaphysical,' what are we to make of the Christian doctrine of the incarnation? This strikes me as a instance of the 'metaphysical' becoming the natural in a very curious fashion! I'm not quite sure of it's final significance, but could this potentially provide a bridge between 'metaphysical' and 'natural' conservatism?

All the best, and thanks for your time,