The project of the Natural History of Religion To investigate the origins of religious belief in human nature (as opposed to its foundations in reason) Religious belief = belief in invisible intelligent power This belief cannot originate from a primary instinct or from experience. because not all people share it because the many who do, do not hold it in the same form (they disagree widely about the number and nature of the invisible intelligent powers) The orthodox Christian position on the origin of religious belief The single invisible intelligent power, who created the world and is supremely wise, powerful, and belevolent, revealed himself to Adam, who communicated this experience to his progeny. But people became corrupt and started to worship false Gods, making a series of subsequent revelations necessary, culminating in the Christian revelation. Hume’s contrary position “Polytheism or idolatry was, and necessarily must have been, the first and most ancient religion of mankind.” The Gods of the polytheists are not conceived as creators or designers of the universe Neither is there just one of them Nor are they represented as especially good, wise, or powerful. Hume’s Arguments • The further we go back in history, the less evidence we find of any monotheistic belief “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.” • It is implausible to suppose that people discovered the truth while they lived in a primitive state and then fell into error as their civilizations became more advanced. • It is implausible to suppose that people would form the notion of a perfect God before working through more familiar notions Special reasons why they would not be led to this notion by the design argument: • the design argument is not obvious This is because people pay no attention to what occurs naturally • had people been led to the design argument by an obvious and invincible argument, there should be no historical record of polytheistic belief But isn’t Hume ignoring revelation? A remark on the difference between “historical facts” and “speculative opinions” Historical facts cannot be transmitted intact prior to the invention of writing and a means of preserving writings. Speculative opinions can, to the extent that they are founded on an obvious and invincible argument. So even had there been a revelation to Adam, it could not have been preserved uncorrupted for any length of time worth considering. NHR II Supposing that polytheism is the primitive religion of “uninstructed” people, what causes that belief? Not an appreciation of the design in nature (because that would lead to the belief in a single being who designed the whole) Rather, a concern with particular events affecting the course of human life, over which we have no control e.g., the weather, the movement of animal herds, the irregular change of seasons, cycles of disease or pestilence, fortune in war Because these events seem to work against one another, people conceive each of them to be the province of a different power, and imagine the powers to be in conflict with one another. They then end up worshipping the particular power most responsible for their success in life. What leads people to inquire into the causes of the particular events affecting their lives? Some passion (the only thing that ever causes us to do anything) The passion is not speculative curiosity (primitive people do not have leisure or capacities to exercise that passion) Rather, fear and the desire for the necessities of life NHR III Why conceive these causes to be invisible intelligent beings? The most plausible hypothesis is that the causes of events are due to the constant operation of natural laws governing the motions of the small particles of which things are made up. But it is the work of ages to arrive at this idea and prove it. However, the need for an understanding of the causes is immediately felt. In the absence of intelligible theories based on experience, we turn to imagination We have a propensity to conceive all things to be like ourselves (i.e., to anthropomorphize) (Even philosophers have ascribed sympathies, antipathies, and other passions, such as a horror of the vacuum, to nature) Under the influence of this propensity, we conceive the unknown causes to be beings like us, only slightly more powerful. This religious impulse is greatest in those whose lives are most governed by chance. And those most subject to misfortune. Also those who are constitutionally the weakest and most timid. NHR IV Anecdotes to illustrate that polytheists do not conceive their Gods to be wise, powerful, or benevolent; and do not conceive them to be creators or designers of the universe. Conclusion: Primitive polytheism is a kind of superstitious atheism Because it does not recognize the existence of any being who ought to be considered God or is worthy of worship or veneration NHR V Anthropomorphism and Idolatry The causes of events are originally unknown and hence “invisible.” But insofar as they are supposed to be various and numerous, and identified with particular occurrences they come to be associated with particular objects and are supposed to inhabit those objects. Because they are further supposed to have limited influence, and work at cross- purposes to one another, they are conceived to interact with one another much as human beings in a society interact And because they are supposed to be so much like us, it is conceived to be possible that we could become like them so that some of us could be elevated to become Gods. Because all idolatry concurs in these general principles, the mythological systems of different countries are congenial to one another, and apt to coalesce as consequence of commerce. NHR VI-VII The origin of Theism The monotheistic belief that is dominant today does not owe its origin to the reasons on which it is properly based. It rather owes its origin to certain more trivial operations of the imagination: the desire to appease those in power with praises and flattery. Arguments for this conclusion If you ask ordinary people why they believe in God, they will not point to evidence of design in nature, instead they will cite untoward events (The sorts of things, that “with good reasoners” are actually the chief obstacles to a belief in God) If you maintain that all events in nature are the product of the operation of general laws, people will accuse you of atheism. How monotheism actually emerges A particular God is most important to a given society. So the people in that society worship that God with praises. They try to outdo one another in their praises. This results in an inflation in the nominal character of the God. (The God may still be represented as wrathful, lustful, malevolent, ignorant, etc.) (But the people tell it that is great) (Eventually they start telling it that it is the greatest of all, the only one, supremely good, supremely wise, etc.) At an extreme, they give it immortality, unity, simplicity, spirituality, etc. This turns it into something totally unlike us and perhaps even into something to which the name of an intelligence no longer applies, at least as we understand it. At some point in this evolution, popular religion intersects with conceptions of divinity recommended by philosophy. (This is when the marriage of philosophy and superstition that Hume’s friend talked about occurred.) But the difference is patent from the fact that the vulgar do not really believe what they say about their God, and continue to be convinced that it is a wrathful and malevolent demon. (Note the concluding paragraph of NHR VI, which got Hume in some trouble.) The assent of the vulgar to inflated conceptions of divinity is “merely verbal” and induced by the thought that it would be dangerous to refuse consent to more effuse praises of the God. NHR VII Cycles of Theism and Polytheism Vulgar theism is not an end-state towards which religious consciousness evolves. It is itself unstable and prone to devolve into polytheism. This happens as a consequence of the mysterianism that characterizes theistic belief. But even more as a consequence of the fear people continue to feel for the one God The fear gives them a desire to seek out intermediaries and then heap praises and flattery on those intermediaries. Church history provides ample evidence for this.