Hume on the Origins of Religious Belief

Anders Kraal

Abstract This paper is concerned with the bearings of recent neuroscientific credi- tion research on David Hume’s influential idea in The Natural History of Religion (1757) that religious belief originates in and is sustained by a fear of misery coupled with mistaken beliefs as to the true causes of happiness. I argue that neuroscientific credition research, in particular of the sort associated with the work of Rudiger Seitz, Hans-Ferdinand Angel and their colleagues, makes it possible, in principle, to provide some degree of empirical confirmation or disconfirmation for Hume’s idea. However, I also argue that this research is incapable of confirming or disconfirming Hume’s idea conclusively. The upshot of this is that Hume-style accounts of the grounds of religious belief would do well to take this sort of research into account.

Hume’s The Natural History of Religion and the Modern Study of Religion

I begin with some words on the importance of David Hume’s work for the development of the modern study of religion. In the modern era, Hume’s Natural History of Religion has often been characterized (perhaps with some exaggeration) as “the origin of the modern science of religion” (Thomsen 1909:269), “the beginning of the modern socio-anthropological approach to the study of religion” (Bender 1968:60), “essentially modern” (Mossner 1980:333), “the first move in what might now be called the sociology of religion” (Gaskin 1988:145), and the like.

To understand why the Natural History of Religion has come to be viewed in this way, we need to take into account that prior to its publication, the standard view among European intellectuals of the originating and sustaining causes of religious belief was, by and large, the Biblical view. According to this view, God created the first human beings, Adam and Eve, in his image, and this image caused them to possess knowledge of God. But following the fall, the human race drifted further and further away from God and from the knowledge of God, ending up, for the most

A. Kraal (*)

Department of Philosophy, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it ; This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017 209

H.-F. Angel et al. (eds.), Processes of Believing: The Acquisition, Maintenance, and Change in Creditions, New Approaches to the Scientific Study of Religion 1,

DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-50924-2_15

part, as gross idolaters. But even in this fallen state, human beings maintained a certain knowledge of God (albeit confused and distorted), for “the heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1 [KJV]), and “the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” (Romans 1:20 [KJV]).

This, then, was the standard view among European intellectuals. Then came the Radical Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, and a growing number of intellectuals came to view the Biblical narrative as (in Hume’s provocative but representative words) the product of “a barbarous and ignorant people, written in an age when they were still more barbarous, and in all probability long after the facts which it relates, corroborated by no concurring testimony, and resembling those fabulous accounts, which every nation gives of its origin,” and which, on account of its many miracle reports, could only be believed by a person “conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience” (Hume 2000 [1748]:99).[1]

With the rejection of the Biblical narrative came a desire for alternative explanatory models of the phenomena that had earlier been taken care of by the Biblical narrative, models that were founded not on religious authority but on empirical research and reasoned judgment. Out of this endeavour came a number of secular accounts of the originating and sustaining causes of religious belief, the most well- known account being that found in Hume’s Natural History of Religion, which, in brief, takes religious belief to be the product of cognitive and emotional states that can be explained in wholly naturalistic terms, i.e. without the need to invoke supernatural agency. And this naturalistic approach has become, in our day, the standard approach in Western academia.

Whether Hume’s naturalistic approach, and the specific account that he offers of the originating and sustaining causes of religious belief, constitute real progress in our understanding of religion, is, of course, a matter of continued debate. With regard to Hume’s naturalistic approach, there have appeared a series of serious attempts during the last few decades to show that it betrays at the outset a deep- rooted bias towards an irreligious epistemology, and so in effect prejudges many of the crucial issues (Johnson 1999; Earman 2000). And with regard to Hume’s account of the originating and sustaining causes of religious belief, it has been urged, in particular by proponents of so-called Reformed Epistemology, that there are alternative accounts of the causes of religious belief that are equally legitimate, and which might even do a better job of explaining the relevant phenomena (Plantinga 2000, 2011).

  • [1] For a discussion of the historical influence of Hume’s biblical criticism, see Addinall (2001). Fora general survey of the Radical Enlightenment critique of Biblical Christianity, see Israel (2001).
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