A Natural History of Religion HTML version

Hume, The Natural History of Religion (1757): The Online Library of Liberty
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and on common-sense grounds that mankind had risen from a state of savagery.
Cudworth, writing a hundred years before, brought immense learning to the work of
showing that all the non-Christian religions exhibited a degeneration from the
monotheistic truth originally revealed to men by the creator; the attempt being
motived, of course, by the belief in creation and revelation with which Cudworth set out.
Hume, despite his avowed Deism, must have given up the ordinary doctrine of the
creation of man, whatever theory he may have held as to the creation of the world. He
offers, however, no hypothesis as to the actual origin of human life; and his notion of
the rise of religion would seem thus to rest on an unfixed conception of human
beginnings, of which we cannot now even guess the details. It is now pretty clear that
Butler’s main fulcrum with the thinkers of his day was the inveterate assumption that
there must have been at some point of time a positive creation of men and animals.
This habitual belief, as it were, tied men down to Deism; and it doubtless operated in
the case of Hume. He, however, could never have been convinced by such an argument
as Butler’s, which, resting the truth of an admittedly perplexing religion on the
perplexity of the theistic system of nature, went as far to prove Mohammedanism as to
prove Christianity. To say as does Professor Huxley,1 that “the solid sense of Butler left
the Deism of the Freethinkers not a leg to stand upon”, is like arguing that if Darwinism
could not be fully proved, Genesis must needs be true. Hume argued less rashly. What
he appears to have done was to leave his conception of cosmic history in the vague,
figuring men to himself as indeed somehow created, but first emerging in trustworthy
history as “barbarous, necessitous animals”, who framed religious systems conformable
to their poor capacities.
From this point, Hume’s argument is a process of acute deduction; that is to say, he
sees that ignorant savages must have been polytheists, and goes on to show how, even
after monotheism has been broached, ignorant minds—“the vulgar”, as the phrase then
ran—will always reduce the “spiritual” notion to an anthropomorphic form, and
monotheism to polytheism. Mr. Leslie Stephen has somewhat strangely argued,2 as
against Buckle, that Hume’s argument is not deductive inasmuch as it asserts at the
outset “the observed fact that monotheism is a recent growth”. But in point of fact
Hume assumes the inevitableness of primeval polytheism, and goes on to make his
historic statement, loosely enough, as part of the proof. The historic proposition is
indeed so inaccurate as to imply that Hume at this particular point was temporising,
since he must have known the facts were not as he said. “It is a matter of fact
incontestable”, he writes in the second paragraph of his first section, “that about 1,700
years ago all mankind were polytheists.1 The doubtful and sceptical principles of a few
philosophers, or the theism, and that, too, not entirely pure, of one or two nations, form
no objection worth regarding.” Now, all that can be said as to the “impurity” of the
monotheism of the ages B.C. applies to the alleged “monotheism” of Christianity itself,
as Hume later rather broadly hints; and the “about 1,700 years ago” is thus a blind. The
esoteric monotheism even of the Egyptian priesthood, not to speak of the Jewish, was
theoretically “purer” than the quasi-monotheism of orthodox Christianity, which made