True Religion and Hume's Practical Atheism

In V. R. Rosaleny & P. J. Smith (eds.), Sceptical Doubt and Disbelief in Modern European Thought. Cham: Springer. pp. 191-225 (2021)
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The argument and discussion in this paper begins from the premise that Hume was an atheist who denied the religious or theist hypothesis. However, even if it is agreed that that Hume was an atheist this does not tell us where he stood on the question concerning the value of religion. Some atheists, such as Spinoza, have argued that society needs to maintain and preserve a form of “true religion”, which is required for the support of our ethical life. Others, such as D’Holbach have argued that religion is not only false it is pernicious and it should be eradicated. This paper argues that Hume rejected both these proposals, on the ground that they rest, in different ways, on excessively optimistic assumptions. The sensible, practical form of atheism that Hume defends has a more modest and realistic aim, which is simply to restrict and limit the most pernicious forms of religion. Understood this way, Hume’s practical atheism is very different from the forms of “old” atheism associated with Spinoza and D’Holbach, as well as from the “new atheism” of thinkers such as Dawkins and Dennett. Reprinted in Paul Russell, "Recasting Hume and Early Modern Philosophy: Selected Essays" (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021): 340-383.

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Paul Russell
Lund University


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