Was Philosopher David Hume an Atheist? (Myths Debunked)

Was Philosopher David Hume an Atheist? (Myths Debunked) October 7, 2015

Allan Ramsay, David Hume, 1711 - 1776. Historian and philosopher

David Hume (1711-1776): portrait (1754) by Allan Ramsay (1713-1784) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

He was not, according to his own words, or in the opinion of many Hume scholars:

The order of the universe proves an omnipotent mind. (Treatise, 633n)

Wherever I see order, I infer from experience that there, there hath been Design and Contrivance . . . the same principle obliges me to infer an infinitely perfect Architect from the Infinite Art and Contrivance which is displayed in the whole fabric of the universe. (Letters, 25-26)

[Found in Capaldi, see below]

The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion . . .

Were men led into the apprehension of invisible, intelligent power by a contemplation of the works of nature, they could never possibly entertain any conception but of one single being, who bestowed existence and order on this vast machine, and adjusted all its parts, according to one regular plan or connected system . . .

All things of the universe are evidently of a piece. Every thing is adjusted to every thing. One design prevails throughout the whole. And this uniformity leads the mind to acknowledge one author. (Natural History of Religion, 1757, ed. H.E. Root, London: 1956, 21, 26)

Philo and Cleanthes, in the Dialogues accept the argument from design. Hume scholar Nicholas Capaldi states that:

All of the characters in the Dialogues speak for Hume, and the message of the Dialogues is that morality is independent of religion. (David Hume, Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1975, ch. 9, 188-97; Capaldi is an internationally-known Hume expert and founder of the Hume Society)

Capaldi states in the above section:

Hume believed in the existence of God. He rejected the ontological argument. He accepted in one form the argument from design. God exists, but his properties are unknown and unknowable by us . . . In none of his writings does Hume say or imply that he does not accept the existence of God. On the contrary, Hume says in several places that he accepts the existence of God . . .

Guided by basic misunderstandings of Hume’s position on causality or at the very least the negative aspects of Hume’s skepticism, most readers assume that the central question is one concerning God’s existence.

Thus we have, e.g., Sir Isaiah Berlin of Oxford falsely assert:

In 1776 he died, as he had lived, an atheist . . . (The Age of Enlightenment: The 18th Century Philosophers, New York: Mentor, 1956, 163)

This shows that “experts” (this is from a very famous series on the history of philosophy) can often get things – in this case, straightforward factual matters – dead wrong by not examining closely enough a person’s thought, and by often extrapolating their own beliefs and premises onto the other person (long one of my own contentions in discourse). It’s also a function of the over-compartmentalization of knowledge, in my opinion.

Many atheists who write on Patheos (where my own blog is posted) fall prey to the same myth:

From: James Fieser: “Hume’s Concealed Attack on Religion and His Early Critics,” Journal of Philosophical Research, 1995, Vol. 20, pp. 83-101.

Fieser is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Tennessee (see his publications):

Given Hume’s notorious reputation as an enemy of religion, it is interesting that questions remain about Hume’s precise views on the subject. Capaldi argues that Hume accepted the design argument for God’s existence.(2) O’Higgins and Gaskin argue that Hume was a qualified deist.(3) For Noxon, Hume is an agnostic.(4) Mossner and Livingston argue that Hume advanced his own humanistic religion.(5) Kemp Smith and Williams argue that Hume’s religion consisted of merely holding open the possibility of an intelligent creator.(6) Most of this debate traces back to passages in the Natural History of Religion, and the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion in which Hume seems to endorse the design argument.(7)

. . . we can never show with certainty that Hume was a strict atheist: we have no record of a direct denial by Hume of God’s existence, either anecdotally or in his philosophical writings.


2. Nicholas Capaldi, “Hume’s Philosophy of Religion: God Without Ethics,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 1970, Vol. I, pp. 233-240.

3. For [James] O’Higgins, Hume accepted the rationality of the design argument, but remained skeptical about the entire enterprise of reasoning. Hume, then, reluctantly concedes to God’s existence, yet denies that God concerns himself with governing the world. See “Hume and the Deists: a Contrast in Religious Approaches,” Journal of Theological Studies, 1971, Vol. 23, pp. 479-501. In Hume’s Philosophy of Religion (Atlantic Highlands, 1988), J.C.A. Gaskin describes Hume’s attenuated deism as a weak probability that natural order results from an intelligence remotely analogous to our own. This unites with our subjective feeling that natural order springs from a designer, hence we assent to the existence of a designer (although this being has no moral claim on us).

4. James Noxon argues that no one of the characters speaks consistently for Hume, and this expresses Hume’s view about the limits of human understanding. For Noxon, this suggests that Hume was agnostic. “Hume’s Agnosticism,” in Hume: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. V.C. Chappell (New York, 1966), and “In defence of ‘Hume’s Agnosticism,'” Journal of the History of Philosophy, 1976, Vol. 14, pp. 469-473.

5. Ernest C. Mossner argues that Hume denied all supernatural and conventional religion, but advanced a “religion of man” insofar as he optimistically believed that the enlightened determine the fate of humanity and are the measure of all things. See “The Religion of David Hume,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 1978, Vol. 39, pp. 653-663. Donald Livingston argues that Hume offers a “philosophical theism” which is an historically determined natural belief, yet one which eschews the writings and rituals of the theistic tradition. See “Hume’s Conception of True Religion,” in Hume’s Philosophy of Religion (Winston-Salem, 1986), pp. 33-73. Even if Mossner and Livingston have captured Hume’s views, it is difficult to see how this could qualify as a religion by 18th century standards, and it is hard to believe that Hume would want to classify it as such.

6. Norman Kemp Smith argues that religion for Hume consists exclusively in an intellectual assent to the proposition “God exists.” He concludes, though, that religion for Hume ought not to have any influence on human conduct (Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, p. 24). Kemp Smith bases his view on the conclusions to the “Natural History” and Dialogues, and Hume’s 1743 letter to William Mure. B.A.O. Williams argues that Hume did not reject the possibility of a creator with something like human intelligence; see “Hume on Religion,” in David Hume: A Symposium, e.d. D.F. Pears, London, 1963, pp. 77-88.

7. Although the “Natural History” is antagonistic to revealed and popular religious belief, in no less than nine passages Hume seems to defend the design argument. Although the Dialogues is antagonistic to natural religion, Cleanthes, the defender of natural religion, wins the debate, and Philo, the religious skeptic, eventually concedes that “the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence.” Thus, at face value, both the “Natural History” and the Dialogues support the belief in God through the design argument, yet destroy all other aspects of religious belief.

In another article, Hume’s Solution to the Necessitarian Problem of Evil,” Fieser states:

Although it is popular now in Hume scholarship to interpret Hume as a type of theist, I believe that we should resist this approach, principally because Hume’s contemporaries did not interpret him this way.

In the Oxford University Press publication, Introduction to Philosophy: Classical and Contemporary Readings, Third Edition, Edited by John Perry and Michael Bratman (both of Stanford), 1998, we find these remarks about Hume, in a section entitled “Hume’s Religious Orientation”:

If we take Philo’s pronouncements in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1776) as a guide, the mature Hume was a theist, albeit of a vague and weak-kneed sort. He seems to have been convinced by the argument from design of the proposition “That the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence”‘ (227). But he was also convinced that the argument does not permit this undefined intelligence to be given further shape or specificity, and certainly not the specificity that would be needed to support any inference “that affects human life, or can be the source of any action or forbearance.” Hume’s inconsequential theism was combined with an abhorrence of organized religion, which Hume saw as composed of superstitions that have had almost uniformly baneful effects for mankind.

In lecture notes from the Philosophy Dept. at the University of Durham (author not given), “Lecture 7: Interpreting the Dialogues,” we find the following analysis (completely reproduced):


Two closely related textual questions can be raised with regard to theDialogues. Firstly, who speaks for Hume (and when)? Secondly, how do the Dialogues fit into Hume’s other published discussions of religion, and what do they tell us about the reasonableness or otherwise of religious belief? One source of evidence in answering both questions is to see who comes out as the ‘winner’ in theDialogues; another is to compare the claims of Philo, Cleanthes and Demea with Hume’s own philosophy.


Commentators have taken different lines here. Let us weigh up the textual evidence for each of the main characters:

Demea puts forward relatively weak arguments, except when joining Philo in his criticism of Cleanthes. His main positive argument is thea priori demonstration of God’s existence set out in Part IX, which is swiftly demolished by Cleanthes. Cleanthes’ argument-that noparticular existence is necessary-strongly resembles a point made by Hume elsewhere, that no matter of fact is demonstrable a priori (see the Enquiry, Sections IV Part 1, and Section XII Part 3). Hume has Cleanthes quoting Samuel Clarke as the source of the kind of reasoning employed by Demea, which indicates that Demea’s argument is modelled on Clarke’s (although Demea is certainly not Clarke). The serious choice for Hume’s mouthpiece must either be Philo or Cleanthes.

Cleanthes puts forward the central argument of the Dialogues, and his views are proclaimed to approach nearest to the truth by Pamphilus in the last paragraph (note, however, that Pamphilus is Cleanthes’ pupil). Also, Cleanthes is the mouthpiece for Humean criticisms of Demea’s a priori argument (see above). Other commentators point out that although Philo consistently criticises Cleanthes’ argument, he never replies to Cleanthes’ basic point that the presence of order in the world causes the presence of a designer to ‘flow in upon you with the force like that of a sensation’ (Part III, para. 7). On these grounds, Noxon, for instance, argues that while the views of none of the interlocutors entirely represents Hume’s views, Hume intended Cleanthes to do so most closely.

Philo is the most common choice for Hume’s mouthpiece: Ayer (Hume, p.93) on the grounds that Philo says the most, Kemp Smith on the grounds that Philo’s criticisms of the design argument closely resemble Hume’s discussion in Section XI of the Enquiry, and elsewhere. Against this, we have Philo’s concession in Part XII that “A purpose, an intention, a design strikes everywhere the most careless, the most stupid thinker” (Part XII, para.2). Philo also suggests that his sceptical stance was adopted only for the sake of argument, and that he felt safe to do so only because on the subject of religion, he is never likely to ‘corrupt the principles of any man of common sense’ (Part XII, para.2). Noxon argues that Hume would not have the character representing his own views recant them in so flippant a way. Kemp Smith, however, put Philo’s admission-along with Hume’s own ritual profession of faith-down to Hume’s regard for the conventions of his time (there is evidence for this in Hume’s correspondence). Noxon replies that Hume was often happy to flout other conventions of his time, and in any case planned the Dialoguesfor posthumous publication. However, that Hume was sympathetic to Philo’s position is supported by his correspondence (see his letter of 10 March 1751).


It is unlikely that Hume’s intention was to convince readers to believe in the non-existence (or the existence) of God. Rather, Hume perhaps intended the Dialogues to invite us to reflect on the relation between our belief (either way) and: (i) any relevant evidence we have; (ii) our behaviour. Looking at the arguments presented in theDialogues (and elsewhere), it is evident (from the drubbing received by the design argument) that Hume contends that we don’t know(from the design argument) very much at all about the nature of God. We certainly should not conclude that the Designer with whom the ‘remote analogy’ of the design argument presents us can be identified with the God of any organised religion: given the available evidence, we cannot know that this Designer is omnipotent, or benevolent, for instance. Putting this together with Hume’s other arguments concerning religion: (i) his rejection of the argument a priori; and (ii) his rejection of miracles as a source of evidence for the truth of any revealed religion, we have a powerful critique of the role of reason in supporting religious belief, and a call for caution inacting on any such belief. Hume does, however, leave open the possibility that God might directly cause individual believers to have faith (see Noxon).

However, given Philo’s (and Hume’s) frequent protestations of the obviousness of God’s existence, perhaps we could (with Noxon and Penelhum) draw a parallel with Hume’s position on (for instance) induction (in the Enquiry, Sections IV and V). Reason cannot furnish us with a justification for believing: (i) that there is an external world that is independent of our perception; (ii) that past regularities of our experience will continue to hold in future; and (iii) that the senses are (usually) reliable sources of information about the world around us. However, Hume argues that only excessive (philosophical) scepticism could lead a reasonable enquirer to doubt these beliefs, for they are beliefs which underpin ordinary life, without which it would be impossible to act in the world. The parallel suggests that refusing to believe in God merely because this belief is not grounded in reason would be inconsistent (this is Penelhum’s ‘parity’ argument): belief in God just as naturally suggests itself to the human mind as belief in the external world. This interpretation is disputed by Gaskin. Firstly, belief in God is not in fact universal, and the mechanisms that produce belief in an external world and the other natural beliefs are quite different from the processes that produce belief in God (as investigated by Hume in the Natural History of Religion), for the latter belief is the product of fear of the unknown, and it may be absent in those who inhabit ‘civilised’ societies. Secondly (and crucially), belief in God is not a prerequisite for rational action in the world (see Gaskin chapters 6 and 7).

What we can conclude, however, is that it is quite wrong for religious beliefs to have the effects on behaviour, morals and politics that, according to Hume in the Natural History, they typically do have. ‘True religion’, for Hume, is plain philosophical assent, rather than self-denial or religious activism.


J. Gaskin Hume’s Philosophy of Religion (Chs. 6, 7 and 12)

J. Gaskin ‘Hume on Religion’ in D.F. Norton (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Hume

N. Kemp Smith Introduction to the Kemp Smith edition of theDialogues

G. Nathan ‘Hume’s Immanent God’ in V. Chappell (ed.) Hume

J. Noxon ‘Hume’s Agnosticism’ in V. Chappell (ed.) Hume

T. Penelhum God and Skepticism Chapters 2, 5 and 6

Mark G. Spencer, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History, The University of Western Ontario, writes in his paper, “The Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: Hume’s Response to the Dogmatic and Intolerant,” The Western Journal of Graduate Research 2000, Vol. 9 (1), 1-19:

Sorting through this ever-expanding mountain of commentary reveals that scholars have tended to read the Dialogues in two basic ways. The Dialogues is read either with the presupposition that Hume intended primarily to make a philosophical point about religion (2), or alternatively, it is read with the aim of showing that Hume’s intentions therein were primarily literary. (3)This distinct interpretive divide, moreover, is often commented on explicitly in the literature where it has become an entrenched characteristic. (4)

Proponents of both readings, however, have been of a single mind in their concern to ask one (seemingly) fundamental question: who in the Dialogues speaks for Hume? (5) In answer, most interpreters argue that Hume is represented by one of the characters in theDialogues. Many of Hume’s contemporaries and near contemporaries, for example, thought that Hume spoke through Cleanthes. As Dugald Stewart put it, “[i]t must always be remembered that Cleanthes is the hero of the Dialogues, and is to be considered as speaking Mr. Hume’s real opinions” (1854: I, 605). (6)

In 1935, Hume scholar Norman Kemp Smith challenged this “standard interpretation” of the time, arguing instead that “Philo, from start to finish, represents Hume”(1959: 47). Kemp Smith has often restated his interpretation which has remained influential, with many scholars following his lead but adding their own variations. (7) Others, however, have thought that Philo’s scepticism is different from Hume’s (Noxon, 1964). For others still, Hume is represented by Pamphilus, the Dialogues‘ narrator (Hendel, 1963). More recently, the trend is to argue that none of the characters wholly represents Hume — either because Hume is thought to be speaking wherever something intelligent is said (8), or because Hume meant the dialoguers to be “philosophical types” (Pakaluk, 1984), or because the Dialogues themselves are thought to speak for Hume (9), or finally, because the characters are thought to be part of Hume’s more basic concern with “the structures of consciousness” (Smitten, 1991; see also White, 1988).


5 See almost any of the secondary literature. Basu (1978) sums up the concern of much of the literature in his title: “Who is the Real Hume in the Dialogues?”. The ubiquitous issue is also stated clearly by Noxon (1964: 248): “Who speaks for Hume? Unless this question can be answered, Hume’s last philosophical testament provides us with no clue to his own religious convictions”; and Mossner (1977: 4): “Who, then, represents Hume in the Dialogues?”

6 Many of Hume’s contemporaries also thought Hume spoke through Philo.

7 Mossner (1977): “Hume is Philo and Philo alone”(4), “Philo and Philo alone is Hume’s spokesman”(12); Penelhum (1979: 270): “I must state at the outset that I agree with those scholars, from Kemp Smith on, who identify Hume with Philo”; Wadia (1987: 211): “Incidentally, I will assume throughout the sequel that Kemp Smith’s identification of Hume with Philo is essentially correct”. See also Coleman (1989: 179): “I will support the traditional thesis that Philo represents Hume’s views on religious belief”. Some have also tried to identify the other speakers in the Dialogues. Mossner (1936) argued that Philo is Hume’s voice, Cleanthes represents Joseph Butler, and Demea is best thought of as Samuel Clarke.

8 Bricke (1975: 17): “one must assume that, no matter who the speaker, those arguments which are presented in the most persuasive and compelling way, those arguments which seem most cogent, are probably to be ascribed to Hume”. See also Gaskin (1978): “I shall take it that Hume in the Dialogues is any speaker who appears to be making a good philosophical point”.

9 Livingston (1984 :44): “No character may be taken to represent Hume’s views”. See also Yandell (1990: 37): “None of the actual participants in the Dialogues– Cleanthes, Philo, and Demea – always represents Hume. All of them sometimes represent him”. Tweyman (1993: 174) disagrees: “That the Dialogues is filled with dramatic and literary elements is beyond question. However, that these elements can be so construed as to reveal that, in addition to Demea, Cleanthes, and Philo, there is a fourth main speaker, Hume, is extremely doubtful”.

REFERENCES (selective)

Andre, Shane, 1993. Was Hume an Atheist?, Hume Studies 19: 141-166.

Austin, W. 1985. Philo’s Reversal. Philosophical Topics 13: 103-112.

Basu, D. K. 1978. Who is the Real Hume in the Dialogues? Indian Philosophical Quarterly 6: 21-28. Bricke, J. 1975. On the Interpretation of Hume’s Dialogues. Religious Studies 11: 1-18.

Clarke, B. L. 1980. The Argument from Design. American Journal of Theological Philosophy 1: 98-108.

Coleman, D. P. 1989. Interpreting Hume’s Dialogues. Religious Studies 25: 179-190.

Gaskin, J. C. 1993b. Hume on Religion. In D.F. Norton, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Hume: 313-344. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Gaskin, J. C. 1978. Hume’s Philosophy of Religion. London: MacMillan.

Hendel, C. 1963. Studies in the Philosophy of David Hume (1st ed. 1925). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kemp Smith, N. 1947. The Argument of the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. In N. Kemp Smith, ed., David Hume: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1st ed. 1935). New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company.

Livingston, D. 1984. Hume’s Philosophy of Common Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Mossner, E. C. 1936. The Enigma of Hume. Mind 14: 335-349.

Mossner, E. C. 1977. Hume and the Legacy of the Dialogues. In G. P. Morice, ed. David Hume: Bicentenary Papers. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Mossner, E. C. 1954. The Life of David Hume. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press.

Noxon, J. 1964. Hume’s Agnosticism. Philosophical Review 73: 248-261.

Pakaluk, M. 1984. Philosophical Types in Hume’s Dialogues. In V. Hope, ed. Philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment, 116-132. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Penelhum, T. 1979. Hume’s Skepticism and the Dialogues. In D.F. Norton, N. Capaldi, and W.L. Robison, eds. McGill Hume Studies: 253-278. San Diego, California: Austin Hill Press.

Smitten, J. R. 1991. Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion as Social Discourse, in J. Dwyer and R. B. Sher, eds., Sociability and Society in Eighteenth-Century Scotland, 39-56. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, published in association with the Eighteenth-Century Scottish Studies Society.

Stewart, D. 1854. The Collected Works of Dugald Stewart. In W. Hamlton, ed. 1854-1860. Edinburgh: T. Constable and Co.

Tweyman, S. 1987. Hume’s Dialogues on Evil. Hume Studies 13: 74-85.

Tweyman, S. 1993. Hurlbutt, Hume, Newton and the Design Argument. Hume Studies 19: 167-176. Tweyman, S. 1986.Scepticism and Belief in Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. The Hague.

Wadia, P. S. 1987. Commentary on Professor Tweyman’s `Hume on Evil’. Hume Studies 13: 104-112.

Wadia, P. S. 1979. Philo Confounded. In. D.F. Norton, N. Capaldi, and W.L. Robison, eds. McGill Hume Studies: 279-290. San Diego, California: Austin Hill Press.

Wadia, P. S. 1978. Professor Pike on Part III of Hume’s Dialogues.Religious Studies 14: 325-342. White, R. 1988. Hume’s Dialogues and the Comedy of Religion. Hume Studies 14: 390-407.

Yandell, K. E. 1990. Hume’s ‘Inexplicable Mystery’: His Views on Religion. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press.

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