Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Hume, David - The Natural History of Religion


  1. Introduction
    1. Two major questions regarding religion:
      1. What is its foundation in reason?
      2. What is its origin in human nature?
    2. Foundation in reason is the intelligent design of nature
    3. Origin in human nature is more difficult to determine
      1. Religion is not found universally
      2. Even where it is found, religious ideas are not uniform
    4. Therefore, it seems that it does not come from "original instincts or primary impressions of nature" such as self-love, gratitude, resentment, sexual attraction.
    5. It must come from secondary principles of human nature that are more variable and can even be suppressed in some circumstances.
    6. Aim of work is to explore what these secondary principles are and what causes them to vary
  2. Section I: That Polytheism was the primary religion of men
    1. Polytheism was prior to monotheism. There was no originary monotheism that was widespread. He offers a number of arguments for this view:
      1. The records we have from the most remote past show that polytheism was widespread, we have no evidence of an originary monotheism
      2. Its unreasonable to think that further back in the past, when people were more barbarous, they would be monotheists, only to lose their monotheism when they became more civilized
      3. Experience with primitive tribes shows that primitive people are more likely to be polytheists.
      4. Just as in the arts and sciences we see that humanity has progressed from more primitive ideas to those that are more complex, purer, so too, it makes sense to reason, in matters of religion. Humanity progressed from the more primitive, polytheism, to the more sophisticated, monotheism.
      5. The uniformity of nature, the best proof for monotheism, is something that would not have caught the attention of more primitive man as it concerns that which is most familiar to him, the orderliness of nature.
      6. If monotheism was first, how could polytheism have developed?
        1. If the proofs for monotheism were easy enough for monotheism to be widespread, it would have never been lost.
        2. If the proofs for monotheism were too difficult, it would have never been widespread.
  3. Section II: Origin of Polytheism
    1. Contemplating the uniformity of nature would lead to monotheism, that one God created this uniformly designed structure is a more likely answer than that several gods cooperated to create it.
    2. What lead to polytheism?
      1. Not the uniformity of nature, but the "various and contrary events of human life."
      2. If we suppose the conduct of ordinary events to have been ordered by intelligent beings, it makes more sense to posit a number of beings with different intentions.
      3. Humans try to influence these events by performing certain rites and sacrifices in order to gain the favor of the god that controls them.
        1. This is why in polytheistic religions each god has its own area of control.
      4. Disinterested reflection would have led to monotheism, the ordinary affections of human life, the attempt to explain and control the tumult of life, leads to polytheism.
  4. Section III: The same subject continued
    1. Human beings try to make sense of things.
    2. Nature confronts us with events which we cannot explain and control, but which effect us in significant ways.
    3. If we could understand things thoroughly, we would probably come to the conclusion that nature is an orderly and uniform mechanism.
    4. But when humanity was primitive this thought was beyond their reach, yet they still needed to explain things.
    5. Human beings have a natural propensity for anthropomorphism.
    6. Thus, they posited human-like beings as the unknown causes for the "various and contrary events of human life."
    7. Because these beings are limited, they must be multiplied in order to explain all different events.
    8. Fear and anxiety are the most prominent emotions which cause people to seek explanations and ways of controlling events.
  5. Section IV: Deities not considered as creators of formers of the world
    1. The only uniform point of theology is that there is an invisible, intelligent power in the world.
    2. However, there is a such a large gap between monotheism and polytheism that polytheism should justly be considered a kind of superstitious atheism.
      1. This is because the central feature of true religion is that there is a supreme government and administration of the world.
      2. According to polytheism, the gods did not create and do not control the world as a whole, they are just various powers within it.
        1. This can be seen in the irreverent and even hostile way that polytheists related to their gods.
        2. They are never described as creators of the world and they are even subject to chance or fate.
  6. Section V: Various forms of polytheism: allegory, hero-worship
    1. The most vulgar form of polytheism unites the invisible power with a visible object, seeing physical objects as inhabited by Gods.
    2. Allegory also enters into the development of polytheism, so gods of certain activities are given characters that correspond to those activities. Elaborate narratives are worked out that add by explaining the gods' characters. This activity can even be very sophisticated.
    3. Vulgar polytheism also creates gods by elevating heroes to the status of gods, corrupted stories about actual people might be the true source of some mythologies about the gods.
  7. Section VI: Origin of theism from polytheism
    1. Theism was not spread because of the rational support that it has, most people are really stupid.
    2. The vulgar bring "the various and contrary events of human life," the very reasons that support polytheism, as proofs for God.
    3. Regularity and uniformity of nature, the denial of "various and contrary events of human life," are really the best support for monotheism, though many of the vulgar consider it heresy and even atheism.
    4. Monotheism often arises from polytheism by one god being singled out and lavished with praises until it possess almost the same attributes that rational monotheists ascribe to God.
      1. We see a similar process even today where saints and angels begin to appear godlike or even equal to god in the eyes of the devotees.
      2. Evidence of the process of promotion to supreme divinity can be seen where claims that God is the most sublime being coexists with more vulgar claims, like that he wrestled with man.
      3. Being free of such contradictions is an indication that the religion is of divine origin - like Christianity.
  8. Section VII: Confirmation of this doctrine
    1. Hume supports his theory that monotheism arises from more and more lavish praises being heaped on one particular god of polytheistic pantheon by more examples of religions in which sublime praises of God coexist with vulgar notions about what God wants.
  9. Section VIII: Flux and reflux of polytheism and theism
    1. Human beings have feeble apprehensions and natural terrors. These two features of their lives cause shifts over time backwards and forwards between polytheism and monotheism.
    2. Polytheism arises first and monotheism from it in the way described above.
    3. But monotheism increasingly becomes too abstract for vulgar comprehension, thus God is supplemented with angels and saints who perform the same function that the various gods did.
    4. The angels and saints are then treated as polytheistic gods and their physical representations are worshipped.
    5. But this new polytheistic religion eventually becomes so vulgar that it eventually causes the process to be started anew, a Supreme God is distinguished from among the gods and promoted by praises.
    6. The cycle repeats.
  10. Section IX: Comparison of these religions, with regard to persecution and toleration
    1. Polytheism
      1. Disadvantage - may authorize any corrupt or barbarous practice, thus destroying morality
      2. Advantage - Tolerant, many gods, you worship yours, I'll worship mine
    2. Monotheism -
      1. God is the perfection of reason and goodness, thus encouraging morality
      2. Disadvantage - Intolerant , there is one God, his is mine, you must worship Him as I do
        1. This disadvantage might worse than all of the disadvantages of polytheism
  11. Section X: With regard to courage or abasement
    1. General rule: the corruption of the best things give rise to the worst, so:
      1. True monotheism is better than polytheism
      2. But polytheism is better, than vulgar monotheism
    2. If God is seen as infinitely superior to man, monkish virtues (which are bad) and passivity are engendered.
    3. If God is seen as only a little better than man, activity, spirit, and courage are engendered.
    4. Unfavorable comparison between the Greek heroes and the Catholic saints and Muslim Sufis.
  12. Section XI: With regard to reason or absurdity
    1. Polytheism is not absurd, in fact it is quite reasonable in some instances,
      1. The only thing against it is that it is not ascertained by any positive reason or traditional authority
    2. Monotheism as part of a popular religion draws philosophy to reconcile itself with its theology
      1. Philosophy ends up being yoked to theology, justifying all theological doctrines
      2. Popular theology tends to embrace mysticism and the absurd so philosophy is forced to pervert itself.
      3. In fact, it is a good guess that in any religious controversy the more unreasonable doctrine will be pronounced orthodox and the more reasonable doctrine condemned as heresy
  13. Section XII: With regard to doubt or conviction
    1. The tenets of Catholicism are no less absurd than those of polytheism, everyone's religion seems doubtful to those of an opposed faith, just like everyone's clothing looks strange to someone from another culture.
    2. If showing an absurdity in another religion justified one's own, every religion would have a justification.
    3. It is strange that people declare such conviction in things that are so doubtful.
    4. In truth, most religious people doubt more in the heart then they admit in speech and deeds.
    5. Polytheism though might tolerate more doubt as it is traditionary as opposed to scriptural and therefore did not have determined dogmas.
    6. Monotheism seems more intolerant of doubt, you either believe the doctrine or you do not
    7. In sum, "the greatest and most observable differences between a traditional, mythological religion, and a systematical, scholastic one, are two: The former is often more reasonable, as consisting only of a multitude of stories, which, however groundless, imply no express absurdity and demonstrative contradiction; and sits also so easy and light on men's minds, that though it may be more universally received, it happily makes not such deep impression on the affections and understanding."
  14. Section XIII: Impious conceptions of the divine nature in popular religions of both kinds
    1. The primary religion of mankind arises chiefly from an anxious fear of future events.
    2. Therefore, devotees of religion often ascribe vengeful, frightening, even seemingly wicked attributes to their God
    3. At the same time, they praise their God with all sorts of excellences and virtues.
    4. Thus, there is a contradiction between the two different principles of human nature that enter into religion: terrors leads to a malicious and devilish God, our propensity to adulation leads to an excellent God
    5. Brings evidence from other religions that are more up-front about the fear/evil side of the divinity.
    6. While affirming both of these aspects, Hume definitely thinks the fear/evil side is more true to people's actual sentiment an that the praise of God's excellent virtues is a type of hypocrisy.
  15. Section XIV: Bad influence of popular religions on morality
    1. Popular religion always subordinates morality to frivolous observances, mysteries and ecstasies.
    2. Why is this?
      1. Its not because of anthropomorphism because everyone esteems moral qualities, so God should too
      2. It is not because morality is more difficult than superstitious practices, some of them are really hard
      3. Hume proposes that popular religion enjoins pointless activities precisely because they are pointless. Human beings are drawn to do moral action by their natural sentiment. Also, they see how they benefit themselves, others, and society. The religious person looking at these activities doesn't see anything in them that might gain him the favor of his/her divinity. The religious person reasons that he must distinguish his devotion by it being purely for the sake of the divinity; therefore, it must be pointless.
  16. Section XV: General corollary
    1. A universal design is evident in all of nature.
    2. Even the "various and contrary events of human life," which initially seem to support polytheism, support monotheism by being found everywhere. (?)
    3. Good and evil are always mixed. That is why the best is found in true monotheism, while the worst is found in popular monotheism.
    4. The widespread idea that there is an invisible and intelligent power is like mark of the divine workman on his work (most likely a tongue-in-cheek comment).
      1. At the same, the different religious conceptions found throughout the world show what heights religion can ascend to as well as the depths to which it can fall.
    5. Religion is entirely doubtful, it would be best if we could just suspend our judgment. But we cannot maintain this suspension. The best thing to do is to set the different opinions against each other and occupy ourselves with philosophy.

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