Faith Ridiculed: Hume’s Bonfire of the Vanities of Christian Rationalism

The wars of faith and reason

Right back to the Middle Ages, proponents of ‘faith’ and of ‘reason’ jousted on a fine day. The twelfth-century dispute between the logician Peter Abelard and Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux is a legend. What happened between 1690 and 1740 was epic: a whole society experienced contradiction between faith and reason. Dismissal of faith and adherence to rationalism became commonplace. The turn to rationalism was engineered not by atheists or Deists but by Anglican ministers and pillars of the established Church of England. Bible miracles were taken as evidence that the Bible is God’s revelation; the doctrine of the Trinity ‘ceased being a mystery of faith and became a problem in theology’.1 The buzzwords of the epic were ‘nature’ and ‘reason’.

In the 1618-1648 ‘Wars of Religion’, European Catholics and Protestants butchered one another and savaged the credibility of faith. The English Civil War made soldiers of fanatical charismatics, who believed themselves agents of the Holy Spirit. Once in power, Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan government abolished Christmas. The Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 created a blowback against charismatic enthusiasm. The empiricist philosopher John Locke defined ‘enthusiasm’ as a human attitude

which though founded neither on reason nor divine revelation, but rising from the conceits of a warmed or over-weening brain, works yet, where it once gets footing, more powerfully on the persuasions and actions of men, than either of those two, or both together ... For strong conceit ... carries all easily with it, when got above common sense and freed from all restraint of reason ... it is heightened into a divine authority.* [1] [2]

‘Enthusiasm’ is getting overheated and acting out fantasies of direct divine inspiration. It had caused a lot of trouble in the Continental Wars of Religion and the English

Civil War. It seemed like a good idea after all that religiously instigated turbulence to tether faith tightly to reason; but it is difficult to meditate deeply on God without the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

  • [1] Philip Dixon, ‘Nice and Hot Disputes’: The Doctrine of the Trinity in the Seventeenth Century (London:T&T Clark, 2003), p. 1.
  • [2] John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Roger Woolhouse (London: PenguinBooks, 1997), IV.XIX.7, pp. 616-617.
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