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The atheist saint for all sceptics

05 May 2011

David Hume gives Christians the tools to argue against atheists, says Nicholas Turner.

“ST DAVID”? You and I think: 1 March, patron saint of Wales, ascetic and bishop. This month, however, we may hear of another “St David”, the ironic title for the patron saint of atheists, David Hume.

On 7 May, it is the 300th anni­versary of the birth of the philo­sopher David Hume, the bright­est jewel of the Edinburgh Enlight­en­ment, and one-time atheist-in-chief. In the 1770s, one of his young disciples, Nancy Orde, wrote in chalk on his house: “St David’s Street”, and he is still affectionately referred to by that title. Is he the secular saint of all those who seek to dismantle our Christian heritage, or a fine Chris­tian gentleman-scholar who lost his faith?

He died, probably of bowel cancer, facing his last days with great cheer­fulness and resignation, and stead­fastly refusing to believe in any kind of afterlife. The learned and virtuous atheist dying at peace may to us be a commonplace, but, in 1776, it was a sensation. It was a shock to many Christian believers, and a happy boast for would-be atheists.

Indeed, so much of an affront was it to orthodox sensibilities that an apocryphal story was conceived, sup­posedly based on the testimony of his housekeeper, many years later, that he died screaming with fear at the unknown fate that awaited him. Not so; his was an exemplary death of contented non-belief.

Annoyingly for the orthodox, he not only died well: he also lived well. He never attained the honours his intellect might have deserved, he was consistently attacked by a whole host of writers, and yet he remained re­markably calm and polite. And, while his philosophical works were not at first well received (he sensibly re­wrote his main work to make it easier to understand), his History of England was a runaway success, and cemented his literary reputation.

HUME’s greatest legacy — and we should not doubt that he was one of the finest of all philosophers — was the quality of his scepticism. Des­cartes set out to doubt everything, until left with only his “I think, therefore I am,” from which he went on to rebuild the full structure of world and sense, in a scheme of almost-mechanical certainties. Des­cartes doubted for a while, then put it aside and returned to conviction.

Hume’s very British style of ques­tioning observation managed to grasp the limitations of reason, and so offers what might be called a method of scepticism, which is more productive. He shows great aware­ness of what is assured and certain, and what is only likely and probable.

Hume — humane and urbane — offered scepticism as a style and method, not a doctrine or ideology. True, he famously fulminated against the notion of miracles, but he never set up a rival system to the Chris­tianity that he rejected. He remained sceptical, unlike many of his dis­ciples.

Hume’s massive contribution to the progress of science was to remove agency from the observable world. Cause and effect, he insisted, is not a power, the action of an agent, but merely the observed conjunction of two events. “We have no other notion of cause and effect, but that of certain objects, which have been always conjoin’d together, and which in all past instances have been found inseparable.”

If we keep to what we observe, namely the two conjoined events (cause and effect), we can devise laws of prediction and explanation. Keep things simple, and they make sense; but try to discover what he called “secret connexions”, which are be­yond what can be observed, and we lose our ability to make sense of the world.

Occult powers, God principally among them, must be entirely dis­pensed with, Hume argued. Science should get on with the job in hand, without worrying about unobser­v-able agents. Its task is to discern laws in nature, based on the observed conjunctions of events. Miracles (and, by extension, all divine inter­ventions) by their own definition have no place in this reliable and predictable world; they defy explana­tion, and should be ignored.

Part of me, therefore, does not wish to celebrate the philosophical grand­father of contemporary atheism. The creation of a natural world devoid of agency has done wonders for science, but impoverished our own moral and theological culture. On the other hand, Hume’s scepticism is still one of the best tools available against his atheist successors and their in­fluence.

Hume came close (and his dis­ciples closer still) to defining neces­sity as an occult form of agency — what is now often called deter­min-ism, whereby we are somehow com­pelled to do what we do, with no free will. So he was wrong; but even great men make mistakes.

The point is that his own scep­ticism allows us to see that the doc­trines of determinism and necessity, so often derived from his writings, are just as unprovable as all the other notions of cause which he so vigor­ously questioned.

If we remember him for his method rather than his conclusions, and for his scepticism rather than his atheism, we, too, can celebrate the most famous British philosopher. It is true that he vigorously challenged the claims of Christianity, but he also gave us the tools to do the same to the atheists.

He is one of the few people whom I would not want to persuade out of atheism: somehow, it would deny the glorious power of our God-given reasoning — one of the surest signs of the divine presence in our world.

David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (1739) and its reworking in An Enquiry concerning Human Nature (1748) are widely available in a variety of editions.

The Revd Nicholas Turner is Rector of Broughton, Marton, and Thornton, in the diocese of Bradford.

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