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Was Hume An Atheist?
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Was Hume An Atheist? Shane Andre Hume's philosophy of religion, as expressed in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, the Natural History of Religion, and sections 10 and 11 ofthe Enquiry ConcerningHuman Understanding,1 invites a number of diverse interpretations. At one extreme are those who see Hume as an "atheist"2 or "anti-theist."3 At the other extreme are those who see Hume as some kind of theist, though not a classical or orthodox one.4 In between are others for whom Hume is an "agnostic* or "ironic skeptic."6 Still a fourth interpretation can be found, according to which Hume "seems to vacillate hopelessly" in his view ofreligion;7 in other words, no coherent philosophy ofreligion can be found in his work and so it is futile to look for one. Ofthe four alternatives, it seems to me that the fourth, being less interesting philosophically and less to Hume's credit as a major philosopher, should be rejected unless by default no coherent case can be made for one of the other three. Since I believe that Hume's views about the nature and existence of God are complex, somewhat unconventional, but still coherent, I will concentrate on the title question. Before tackling that question directly, however, we need to clarify the meaning of the term "atheist" and its cognates. While an atheist is popularly defined as one who does not believe in God, this definition is inadequate for two reasons. First, while the absence of belief is sometimes treated as a synonym for disbelief, it is clear that the two are not the same. An infant does not believe in God, but that does not make him an atheist,8 for, as yet, he does not have the linguistic competence to reflect on the question, Does God exist? Neither is the agnostic an atheist, for, though he has reflected on the question, he has not found reason to answer it affirmatively, Uke the theist, or negatively, like the atheist. For this reason, the atheist must be characterized more strongly, as one who disbelieves that God exists. But even this stronger characterization is insufficient, for, as is well-known but perhaps less widely takeninto account, there are many different conceptions ofGod, ranging from monotheism to polytheism, from beUef in a perfect being to belief in a being who shares some human limitations, from deism to pantheism, and so on. Accordingly, it has become commonplace in philosophy to recognize at least two senses ofthe term "God": a narrow sense, signifying "a supremely good being, creator of but separate from and independent of the world, omnipotent, omniscient, eternal and self-existent";9 and a wide sense, Volume XLX Number 1 141 SHANE ANDRE signifying one or more divine beings, personal or otherwise, manifesting extraordinarybut perhaps not superlative properties. For short, we could call the narrow sense the standard concept ofGod, and beliefin the existence ofsuch a being standard theism.10 And we could call the broad sense, applicable to any concept of the divine, the extended concept of God, and belief in the existence of such a being(s) extendedtheism. On this account, standard theists will alsobe extended theists, but of course someone could be an extended theist without being a standard theist. Let us call such a person (for example, Epicurus, who denied, not that the Gods exist, but that they intervene in human affairs) a limited theist. It is important to note that the limited theist rejects standard theism but is not an atheist simpliciter. How does recognition of these different forms oftheism affect our understanding of atheism? There seem to be two major possibilities. One is to characterize atheism in the narrow sense as disbeUef in standard theism; the other is to characterize it in the broad sense as disbeliefin any form of theism, including limited theism. While either option is open, it seems to me that the latter is preferable. For ifwe say that anyone who rejects standard theism is an atheist, we will end up with the paradoxical result that many distinguished theists will turn out to be atheists. For example, while Charles Hartshorne is not a standard theist, insofar as he rejects the...