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390 HUME'S DIALOGUES AND THE COMEDY OF RELIGION Laughter is the key to Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Indeed, I would suggest that if the Dialogues have not made one laugh, and if one has not experienced the sheer delight of Hume's rhetorical excesses and gaiety, then one hasn't really understood this work at all. From this perspective, the usual questions are irrelevant — Is Hume Cleanthes or Philo? Is Philo a mitigated sceptic or a Pyrrhonian? Such debates are sterile and miss the point, for however consistent or inconsistent the characters may be, the actual drama of the text has an intention and a direction all of its own, destroying the religious hypothesis not so much by 'serious' calculated argument as by ridicule and excess. Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion are the expression of a healthy and cheerful malice which strives at every turn to intensify the sense of the absurdity of religion. Hence their flavour is primarily rhetorical, and it would be a mistake to consider them as merely a collection of paraphraseable proofs directed against the possibility of rational theology. This is not to say, however, that Hume did not take religion seriously; on the contrary, he uses all of the devices of comedy in order to overwhelm it — rather as Nietzsche was to argue: "Not by wrath does one kill but by laughter. ml In this paper, I will consider the rhetorical aspect of Hume's Dialogues to show how the literary mode — the elaboration and contrast of characters, the use of parody and sudden turns in the plot, etc. — enables Hume to make a far more compelling assault on the religious hypothesis than the plain recital of 391 'reasonable' objections would ever achieve. I will focus my discussion on three central themes: First, the professed acceptance of God by all of the participants, and the consequent need for an oblique attack upon religion; second, Hume's comic perspectives on the argument from Design; and third, Hume's development of an 'antinomies of religion,' whereby the various religious arguments are used to undermine each other. 1. The Belief in God No man; no man, at least of common sense, I am persuaded, ever entertained a serious doubt with regard to a truth so certain and self-evident. The question is not concerning the being but the nature of God. Ostensibly, the one thing that is never questioned in the Dialogues, the one thing that all the participants remain agreed upon, is that God exists. Indeed, it seems that however limited the scope of natural theology may turn out to be, the actual being of God can never be in dispute, for in the Dialogues, belief in God is often presented as if it were an unchallengeable 'given' of human experience. Cleanthes, for example, apparently follows Locke in arguing for the reasonableness of theism; and yet, when he is pressed he defends the Design hypothesis in terms of its psychological irresistibility, appealing to a natural sentiment of belief rather than the claim of any argument: Consider, anatomize the eye: Survey its structure and contrivance; and tell me, from your own feeling, if the idea of a contriver does not immediately flow in upon you with a force like that of sensation .... it requires time, reflection and study, to summon up those frivolous, though 392 abstruse, objections, which can support infidelity (D 154). According to Cleanthes, the Design hypothesis is so self-evident that it really does not need any philosophical justification at all. It is simply the articulation of what we all already knew to be true: The comparison of the universe to a machine of human contrivance is so obvious and natural, and is justified by so many instances of order and design in nature, that it must immediately strike all unprejudiced apprehensions, and procure universal approbation (D 216). Demea also denies that religion is based upon argument. He claims that each man is brought to feel the truth of religion within himself through the consciousness of his own complete ignorance and misery. And in this respect, 'reason' can only hamper religious belief. Finally, at the end of the Dialogues, even Philo...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 390-407
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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