Toward a Humean True Religion: Genuine Theism, Moderate Hope, and Practical Morality by Andre C. Willis (review)
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Reviewed by
Andre C. Willis. Toward a Humean True Religion: Genuine Theism, Moderate Hope, and Practical Morality. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014. Pp. xii + 248. Cloth, $74.95.

Andre Willis argues that although Hume is generally credited with being a “devastating critic” of religion, it is a mistake to view Hume solely in these terms or to present him as an “atheist.” This not only represents a failure to appreciate Hume’s “middle path” between “militant atheists and evangelical theists” (8), it denies us an opportunity to “enhance” our understanding and appreciation of the positive, constructive value of religion through a close study of Hume’s views (6). Willis’s study presents Hume as committed to a “bifurcated approach to religion” that rests on the fundamental distinction between “false religion” and “true religion” (3). False religion, which includes Christianity, is a destructive force in human society. Although Hume devotes most of his philosophical energies and attention to discrediting and undermining false religion (54), his account of true religion presents a positive alternative. It is Willis’s basic aim to articulate and elaborate Hume’s understanding of “true religion” in order to reorient contemporary religious sensibilities and further develop “a moderate religious consciousness” based on Hume’s views (187–90).

There are three “cornerstones” to Hume’s true religion, constituted by “the genuine theism engendered by our feelings of basic theism; the equanimity brought by collective, calm hopes and fears; and the development of virtuous character inspired by practical morality” (181). Articulating these presents a challenge, since Hume’s writings are “inchoate” and “underdeveloped” and “offer little explicit positive content for his notion of ‘true religion’” (4, 16). Willis is undeterred by the lack of detail in Hume’s texts and proceeds to “cobble together substance for his underdeveloped idea of ‘true religion’” (19–20). His three central chapters address the three cornerstones:

Genuine theism is grounded in “basic theism,” described in terms of our (natural) sense of regularity and purposive order, which “irresistibly orients the mind to the idea of an Author of Nature” (45–46)—a “moderate claim” that is “largely uncontroversial” (47–48, 75–76) and presupposed by Hume’s entire philosophy (80, 82). Basic theism can evolve either into false or true religion, though the latter is rare (86). Textual evidence for this interpretation is thin; and Willis concedes that he may be “pushing [Hume] further than he wants to go” (49). The primary authority for Willis’s reading of Hume on true religion is Donald Livingston (84–86), whose general interpretation of Hume Willis draws on to argue that genuine theism does not aim to establish itself as true or to justify itself in terms of abstract thought, logic, or evidence. It is founded on habits, customs, and conventions—not philosophical argument.

Moderate hope constitutes a core feature of religion’s “proper office” (89) and guides us to be “confident that the future will be what it will” as we “face life’s vicissitudes” (103, 105). This “fundamental hope” provides “a sense of well-being that we might consider ‘religious’ in the broad sense of the term” (90). Willis draws heavily here on Joseph Godfrey, which arguably forces an alien framework and language onto Hume’s (very different) concerns and approach. [End Page 168]

Practical morality. According to Willis, Hume held that true religion “could have a positive impact for the development of character, the increase of personal happiness, and the stability of the social order” (132). The key instrument of this is the mechanism of sympathy. Willis concedes, however, that Hume presents much of this in non-religious terms, which raises the question, “What makes Humean true religion religious?” The last chapter addresses this issue.

The “middle path” Hume takes, Willis argues, has “the flavour of American pragmatism in the mode of William James and John Dewey” (180) in that its primary concern is “how religion functions, not about its truth-value” (180). For Hume, religion must always be “contextualized and assessed with reference to a set of symbols, beliefs, hopes, and practices that always take place in a particular community at a particular moment for particular purposes, which might remain...