The back cover of the second book proclaims the works it contains are "the most formidable attack upon the rationality of religious faith ever mounted by a philosopher."
I also have a copy of the Hume entry in Oxford's "A Very Short Introduction Series," whose author claims that "In my view, indeed, the discrediting not only of theism but any form of religious belief was one of the principal aims of Hume's philosophy." And I have no doubt that this is the case, that the author takes the view he claims to take.
It is worth asking how effective Hume's corpus as a whole functions as a critique of religion. Certainly he made many good individual points. But I shall argue that, taken as a whole, his philosophy in this area is a "miserable failure," to borrow a phrase that was so popular in 2004.
Those unfamiliar with philosophy should know that Hume was a skeptic (or sceptic, as he spelled it) in the old philosophical sense of someone who challenges all claims to knowledge whatever, or at least a broad area of things which we normally think we know quite certainly, say that the sun will rise tomorrow, to take an example strongly associated with Hume's memory. He explains the function of this skepticism in his Enquiry, Section V, Part I:
The passion for philosophy, like that for religion, seems liable to this inconvenience, that, though it aims at the correction of our manners, and extirpation of our vices, it may only serve, by imprudent management. to foster a predominant inclination, and push the mind, with more determined resolution, towards that side which already draws too much, by the bias and propensity of the natural temper. It is certain that, while we aspire to the magnanimous firmness of the philosophic sage, and endeavour to confine our pleasures altogether within our own minds, we may, at last, render our philosophy like that of Epictetus, and other Stoics, only a more refined system of selfishness, and reason ourselves out of all virtue as well as social enjoyment. While we study with attention the vanity of human life, and turn all our thoughts towards the empty and transitory nature of riches and honours, we are, perhaps, all the while flattering our natural indolence, which, hating the bustle of the world, and drudgery of business, seeks a pretence of reason to give itself a full and uncontrolled indulgence. There is, however, one species of philosophy which seems little liable to this inconvenience, and that because it strikes in with no disorderly passion of the human mind, nor can mingle itself with any natural affection or propensity; and that is the Academic or Sceptical philosophy. The academics always talk of doubt and suspense of judgement, of danger in hasty determinations, of confining to very narrow bounds the enquiries of the understanding, and of renouncing all speculations which lie not within the limits of common life and practice. Nothing, therefore, can be more contrary than such a philosophy to the supine indolence of the mind, its rash arrogance, its lofty pretensions, and its superstitious credulity. Every passion is mortified by it, except the love of truth; and that passion never is, nor can be, carried to too high a degree. It is surprising, therefore, that this philosophy, which, in almost every instance, must be harmless and innocent, should be the subject of so much groundless reproach and obloquy. But, perhaps, the very circumstance which renders it so innocent is what chiefly exposes it to the public hatred and resentment. By flattering no irregular passion, it gains few partisans: By opposing so many vices and follies, it raises to itself abundance of enemies, who stigmatize it as libertine, profane, and irreligious.All of this sounds wonderfully noble: encouraging a love of truth, discouraging harmful passions that have caused strife in the world (which no doubt includes religious sentiment). Furthermore, Hume goes on to explain that there is no danger that this philosophy will turn everyone to vegetables:
Nor need we fear that this philosophy, while it endeavours to limit our enquiries to common life, should ever undermine the reasonings of common life, and carry its doubts so far as to destroy all action, as well as speculation. Nature will always maintain her rights, and prevail in the end over any abstract reasoning whatsoever. Though we should conclude, for instance, as in the foregoing section, that, in all reasonings from experience, there is a step taken by the mind which is not supported by any argument or process of the understanding; there is no danger that these reasonings, on which almost all knowledge depends, will ever be affected by such a discovery. If the mind be not engaged by argument to make this step, it must be induced by some other principle of equal weight and authority; and that principle will preserve its influence as long as human nature remains the same.Similar themes appear again at the end of Hume's enquiry, where skepticism is advocated as an antidote to dogma and wild speculation:
129. There is, indeed, a more mitigated scepticism or academical philosophy, which may be both durable and useful, and which may, in part, be the result of this Pyrrhonism, or excessive scepticism, when its undistinguished doubts are, in some measure, corrected by common sense and reflection. The greater part of mankind are naturally apt to be affirmative and dogmatical in their opinions; and while they see objects only on one side, and have no idea of any counterpoising argument, they throw themselves precipitately into the principles, to which they are inclined; nor have they any indulgence for those who entertain opposite sentiments. To hesitate or balance perplexes their understanding, checks their passion, and suspends their action. They are, therefore, impatient till they escape from a state, which to them is so uneasy: and they think, that they could never remove themselves far enough from it, by the violence of their affirmations and obstinacy of their belief. But could such dogmatical reasoners become sensible of the strange infirmities of human understanding, even in its most perfect state, and when most accurate and cautious in its determinations; such a reflection would naturally inspire them with more modesty and reserve, and diminish their fond opinion of themselves, and their prejudice against antagonists. The illiterate may reflect on the disposition of the learned, who, amidst all the advantages of study and reflection, are commonly still diffident in their determinations: and if any of the learned be inclined, from their natural temper, to haughtiness and obstinacy, a small tincture of Pyrrhonism might abate their pride, by showing them, that the few advantages, which they may have attained over their fellows, are but inconsiderable, if compared with the universal perplexity and confusion, which is inherent in human nature. In general, there is a degree of doubt, and caution, and modesty, which, in all kinds of scrutiny and decision, ought for ever to accompany a just reasoner.Finally, there is the famous finale to the enquiry:
Another species of mitigated scepticism which may be of advantage to mankind, and which may be the natural result of the Pyrrhonian doubts and scruples, is the limitation of our enquiries to such subjects as are best adapted to the narrow capacity of human understanding. The imagination of man is naturally sublime, delighted with whatever is remote and extraordinary, and running, without control, into the most distant parts of space and time in order to avoid the objects, which custom has rendered too familiar to it. A correct Judgement observes a contrary method, and avoiding all distant and high enquiries, confines itself to common life, and to such subjects as fall under daily practice and experience; leaving the more sublime topics to the embellishment of poets and orators, or to the arts of priests and politicians. To bring us to so salutary a determination, nothing can be more serviceable, than to be once thoroughly convinced of the force of the Pyrrhonian doubt, and of the impossibility, that anything, but the strong power of natural instinct, could free us from it. Those who have a propensity to philosophy, will still continue their researches; because they reflect, that, besides the immediate pleasure, attending such an occupation, philosophical decisions are nothing but the reflections of common life, methodized and corrected. But they will never be tempted to go beyond common life, so long as they consider the imperfection of those faculties which they employ, their narrow reach, and their inaccurate operations. While we cannot give a satisfactory reason, why we believe, after a thousand experiments, that a stone will fall, or fire burn; can we ever satisfy ourselves concerning any determination, which we may form, with regard to the origin of worlds, and the situation of nature, from, and to eternity?
When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.The philosophy professor I have had for the past two semesters is convinced that Hume meant to destroy all theology; I think, based on reading the dialogues, that here Hume was only after the more metaphysical arguments and conceded that empirical theology had to be dealt with on its own terms. In any case, it would be a significant blow to religious thought, especially the dominant tradition of Hume's day.
Unfortunately, all of this is painfully, obviously, fallacious. The reason is expressed clearly by Hume himself, written to defend himself from the charge of irreligion, included with my copy of the enquiry:
And must not a Man be ridiculous to asser that our Author denies the Principles of Religion, when he looks upon them as equally certain with the Objects of his Senses? If I be as much assured of these Principles, as that this Table at which I now write is before me; Can any Thing further be desired by the most rigorous Antagonist?Experienced readers of Hume will detect his standard ironic assertion of religious principles, but the problem is he was absolutely right. If the fact that the sun will rise tomorrow is completely uncertain, how can any dogma be any less certain or reasonable? This applies no more to the existence of God than to the most absurd claims made by any cultist. If one is to dogmatically believe regarding one's desk, why not dogmatically believe anything at all?
I think that the only really sincere and consistent Humean I have ever seen is William Lane Craig, who joyfully abandons reason (for analyzing his own beliefs, not persuading others) on the old skeptical grounds, and declares his doctrines above all rational critique. Such a position is at least as logical a deduction from Hume's principles as what Hume actually said. His skepticism is no reason to be cautious in matters of religion.