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Hume's "Inexplicable Mystery"

His Views on Religion

Keith E. Yandell

The eighteenth-century Scottish empiricist David Hume has been regarded as a notorious enemy of religion. Still, his discussion of religion is systematic, sophisticated, and sustained. Focusing mainly on two of Hume’s works, the relatively neglected Natural History of Religion and the more widely read Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Keith Yandell analyzes Hume’s treatment of a subject that he described as "a riddle, an enigma, an inexplicable mystery." In so doing, he explores the relationships between Hume’s philosophy of religion and his general philosophy.

Hume’s "evidentialism," applied to religion, can be summed up by saying that it is unreasonable to accept a religious belief unless one has evidence for it. Since it is also Hume’s view that there is no evidence for any religious belief, he concludes that no one is ever reasonable in accepting a religious belief. Yandell examines the explanations that Hume gave for such acceptance in Natural History of Religion. Addressing the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, he compares Hume’s views to those of such authors as Herbert of Cherbury and Bishop Joseph Butler, traces changes in Hume’s theory of meaning, and discusses the ontological and cosmological arguments and Hume’s treatment of the problem of evil. Yandell then considers other lesser known writings by Hume that are relevant to his philosophy of religion.

Reviews

"Yandell has put us all in his debt for the care with which he has examined the writings of one of the most influential critics of religion." —Journal of Theological Studies

"(Yandell) offers an interpretation of Hume's philosophy of religion and examines its foundations critically. The sweep of coverage and the author's control of his material are impressive. This is a readable and informative study which no one interested in Hume's views on religion can afford to neglect." —James King, Northern Illinois University

"(Yandell) has unearthed the underlying philosophical significance of (the Natural History). That by itself is an important achievement and a valuable scholarly contribution. Yandell's discussion of the issues in Hume's better known writing is intrinsically important as well as constitution a significant deepening of our approach to issues in Hume's philosophy of religion. It is a tribute to Yandell's stature as a philosopher that he is able to return to ground which has been so frequently ploughed and still give us new insights and a more perceptive understanding of Hume's method and his results.... It is an original and illuminating reading of a number of major issues in Hume's philosophy." —Marvin Fox, Brandeis University

About the Author(s)

Keith E. Yandell is Professor of Philosophy and South Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.