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A Natural History of Religion

Hume, The Natural History of Religion (1757): The Online Library of Liberty
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many, for aught I know; but let me observe to you there are vices of the mind as well
as of the body; and I think a wickeder mind, and more obstinately bent on public
mischief, I never knew.”1 The “establishing Atheism” was perhaps truer in a way than
the Christian critic supposed; though nothing could be more distinct than Hume’s
preliminary and repeated profession of Theism, and nothing more unscrupulous than
Warburton’s statement.
The publisher being undeterred, other steps were taken. Of the reception of “The
Natural History of Religion”, Hume says in “My Own Life”: “Its first entry was rather
obscure, except only that Dr. Hurd wrote a pamphlet against it, with all the illiberal
petulance, arrogance, and scurrility, which distinguish the Warburtonian school. This
pamphlet gave me some consolation for the otherwise indifferent reception of my
performance.” On this Hurd, with theological accuracy, writes: “He was much hurt, and
no wonder, by so lively an attack upon him, and could not help confessing it in what he
calls his ‘Own Life’ ”. The pamphlet was really in the main the work of Warburton, as we
learn from Hurd, who, as Messrs. Green and Grose observe, “tells the narrative of the
pious fraud with great simplicity”. Warburton had written certain characteristic
observations on the margins of his copy of Hume, which Hurd thought worth printing;
and the lion handed the copy over to his jackal, who, after slightly manipulating the
material, published it anonymously as “Remarks on Mr. David Hume’s Essay on ‘The
Natural History of Religion’: Addressed to the Rev. Dr. Warburton”. Hurd thought the
“thin disguise” sufficed to take-in everybody, Hume included; but Hume actually wrote
to his publisher soon after the issue: “I am positively assured that Dr. Warburton wrote
that letter to himself, which you sent me; and indeed the style discovers him
sufficiently”.1 He indicated a readiness to discuss the “principal topics of my philosophy”
with Warburton; but thought the “Remarks” not worth answering; as they certainly
were not. Warburton, of course, was incapable of efficient controversy with Hume on
philosophical questions; and indeed it would be impossible to point to any Englishman
of that period who was properly qualified for such a task. Butler had died in 1752; and,
in the words of Buckle’s note-book, “in ecclesiastical literature the most prominent
names were Warburton, the bully, and Hurd, the sneak”; which twain had, in the
fashion above-noted, sought as was their wont “to labor together in a joint work to do a
little good”, as Warburton phrased it. The “Remarks” on Hume’s work published in the
following year by “S. T.” were more courteous than Warburton’s, but even less cogent.
To a rationalist reader to - day Hume’s “Natural History” is not more remarkable for its
lucid analysis and downright criticism of the popular anthropomorphic religion of all
ages, than for its singular adoption of a system which is only anthropomorphic with a
difference. It is, in effect, a demonstration, on the lines of a now established
anthropological theory, that all religion had its rise in the attempts of primeval man to
explain natural phænomena by personified causes. Hume here, apparently without
seeking to rest his assumption on any distinct theoretical basis, adopted the view of
those ancients who, though in the dark as to cosmic history, held alike on traditional