natural history of religion

Jackson Pollock, Landscape with Steer, c. 1936–37


Presentation of the translator and introduction of the author of the newly edited book.

Presentation [Jaimir Conte]

Author of great philosophical works such as treatise on human nature (1739-40), Inquiry into human understanding (1748) and Research on the principles of morals (1751), David Hume (1711-1776) is also the author of several writings on religion, in which he opposes, on practically all points, the predominant religious ideology of his time. The most penetrating, philosophical and substantial of his works on the subject are the Dialogues on Natural Religion, written between 1751 and 1755, whose publication only took place after his death, in 1779.

The postponement of the publication during his lifetime of this work, which questions the rational foundations of religion, was due to the recommendation of some friends who had read the manuscript and who feared that the criticisms contained therein would further increase the accusations of infidelity leveled against Hume, who had already had provoked the ire of religionists by undermining belief in miracles and divine providence in the essays “Of Miracles” and “Of a Particular Providence and a Future State” published in 1749 as part of the work Inquiry into human understanding.

A natural history of religion was published in January 1757 in a volume entitled Four Dissertations (four dissertations). Before that, in 1756, it had been printed in a volume entitled Five Dissertations (five dissertations), containing the essays “On Passions”, “On Tragedy”, “On Suicide” and “On Immortality of the Soul”. However, faced with some reactions and the prospect of ecclesiastical condemnation, Hume decided to withdraw the last two essays from publication.

Like the copies of five dissertations had already been printed, editor Andrew Millar had to literally cut out the pages containing the essays on suicide and on immortality, and insert a new essay, "On the Standard of Taste," in the volume instead. Hume also took the opportunity to alter some of the most offensive paragraphs in the natural history of religion. The essays were then bound with the new title of four dissertations, and the book was published in 1757.

In the dissertation on natural history of religion, Hume deals with the origins and causes that produce the phenomenon of religion, its effects on human life and conduct, and the cyclical variations between polytheism and monotheism. One of his concerns is also to draw attention to the effects of different kinds of religion on tolerance and morality. In short, in this work, Hume develops an investigation into the “natural” principles that give rise to religious belief, as well as an anthropological and historical study of the social effects of religion.

Here, Hume is one of the first authors to examine religious belief purely as a manifestation of human nature, without presupposing belief in the existence of God. This work presents a story natural of religion as opposed to a history guided by religious assumptions. Questioning religion more radically than his predecessors, Hume treats all religious beliefs as a mere product of human nature.

He begins the work by mentioning two distinct explanations of the origin of religion. On the one hand, the thesis that states that people are led to religious belief by rational contemplation of the universe. On the other hand, the thesis that religion is based on psychological factors completely independent of a rational foundation.

Hume defends the second explanation and argues that all popular religions begin not with an attempt at a rational understanding of the universe, but with more primitive and basic human passions, with natural instincts such as fear and hope. The central psychological concept he presupposes is that religious experience is governed by the passions. Religion stems from fear of unknown influences on human society and thrives in dire situations of fear and ignorance of the future.

The convulsions of nature, catastrophes, prodigies and miracles, although to a great extent refuting the idea of ​​a plan drawn up by a wise director, imprint the strongest religious feelings on man, since the causes of events then appear further away than never of all knowledge and all explanation.


Introduction [David Hume]

Although all investigation concerning religion is of the utmost importance, there are two questions in particular that call our attention, namely: that which concerns its rational foundation, and that which refers to its origin in human nature. Fortunately, the first question, which is the most important, admits of the most obvious or, at least, the clearest solution. The whole plan of nature evinces an intelligent author, and no rational investigator can, after serious reflection, suspend for a moment his belief in regard to the first principles of pure monotheism and pure religion.

But the question of the origin of religion in human nature is exposed to a greater difficulty. The belief in an invisible and intelligent power has been widespread among the human race, in all places and at all times, but perhaps it has not been so universal as to admit of no exceptions; nor was it, in any measure, uniform in the ideas it gave birth to. If travelers and historians are to be believed, some nations have been discovered that do not harbor any religious sentiments; and no two nations, and scarcely two men, exactly agree on the same sentiments.

It appears, therefore, that this prejudice does not arise from an original instinct or a primary impression of human nature, such as gives birth to self-love, attraction between the sexes, love of children, gratitude, or resentment, for It has been found that every instinct of this kind is absolutely universal in all nations and at all times, and that it always has a precise and determined object which it inflexibly pursues.

The first religious principles must be secondary, to such an extent that they can easily be perverted by various accidents and causes, and, in certain cases, even their operation can be completely prevented by an extraordinary concurrence of circumstances. What are those principles which engender the original belief, and what are those accidents and causes which regulate its operation, is the subject of our present inquiry.

* Jaimir Conte é Professor at the Department of Philosophy at the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC).

*David Hume (1711-1776) was philosopher, historian and essayist. Author, among other books, of history of england (Unesp).


David Hume. natural history of religion. Translation, presentation and notes: Jaimir Conte. São Paulo, Unesp, 2020, 160 pages.


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