, Volume 70, Issue 1, pp 61-83
Date: 18 Oct 2010

A more dangerous enemy? Philo’s “confession” and Hume’s soft atheism

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Abstract

While Hume has often been held to have been an agnostic or atheist, several contemporary scholars have argued that Hume was a theist. These interpretations depend chiefly on several passages in which Hume allegedly confesses to theism. In this paper, I argue against this position by giving a threshold characterization of theism and using it to show that Hume does not confess. His most important “confession” does not cross this threshold and the ones that do are often expressive rather than assertive. I then argue that Hume is best interpreted as an atheist. Instead of interpreting Hume as a proto-logical positivist and arguing on the basis of Hume’s theories of meaning and method, I show that textually he appears to align himself with atheism, that his arguments in the Dialogues on Natural Religion support atheism, and that this position is most consistent with Hume’s naturalism. But, I hold that his atheism is “soft” and therefore distinct from that of his peers like Baron d’Holbach—while Hume really does reject theism, he neither embraces a dogmatically materialist position nor takes up a purely polemical stance towards theism. I conclude by suggesting several ways in which Hume’s atheistic philosophy of religion is relevant to contemporary discussions.