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Hume and Smith on Natural Religion

  • Gordon Graham


The prominence of David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion in contemporary philosophy of religion has led it to overshadow his other short work, The Natural History of Religion, and thus obscure the fact that the social psychology of religion was in many ways of greater interest and more widely debated among the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment than philosophical theology. This paper examines and compares the social psychology of religion advanced by Hume and Adam Smith. It argues that Hume's account of the psychological sources and social significance of religion is less satisfactory than Smith's.



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1 Thomas Ahnert, The Moral Culture of the Scottish Enlightenment 1690–1805 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014).

2 James A Harris defends the common view of Hume's relation to the religion of his time in ‘Hume's Use of the Rhetoric of Calvinism’, Impressions of Hume ed. Marina Frasca-Spada and P. J. E. Kail (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005). In his magisterial study Hume: an Intellectual Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), Harris modifies his view a little, but observes in a footnote that if Ahnert is right, a major revision is required.

3 Hume: an Intellectual Biography, 230.

4 Alvin Plantinga, Knowledge and Christian Belief (Grand Rapids Michigan and Cambridge UK: Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 68.

5 Annette C Baier Death and Character: Further reflections on Hume, Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, 2008), 96.

6 David Hume, ‘Of Superstition and Enthusiasm’, Essays, Moral, Political and Literary (Oxford University Press, 1963), Essay, page 75

7 Andre Willis, Toward a Humean True Religion (University Park PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014), 188–9

8 David Hume, Natural History of Religion, ed. J C A Gaskin (Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 1993),  (hereafter NHR), 135

9 NHR, 166

10 David Hume to Andrew Stuart of Torrance, reprinted in  Philosophy and Religion in Enlightenment Britain ed. Ruth Savage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 257

11 NHR, 139

12 Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason ed. Allen Wood and George di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 39

13 Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, (Oxford: Glasgow Edition, Oxford University Press, 1976), II/II V i.g.8 (hereafter WN)

14 David Hume, Essays, Moral, Political and Literary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963), 75 emphasis original.

15 NHR, 184

16 On this see Garrett, Don, ‘What's True about Hume's ‘True Religion’, Journal of Scottish Philosophy 10.2 (2012)

17 David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge and P.H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978) Book II, Part III, sect.3

18 David Hume, The History of England in 6 Volumes (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1983) Vol. 4, 119–20

19 Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Oxford: Glasgow Edition, Oxford University Press, 1976) III.5.4, hereafter TMS.

20 WN II/II.V.i.g

21 TMS V.1

22 TMS III.V.2

23 Heydt, Colin, ‘The Problem of Natural Religion in Smith's Moral Thought’, Journal of the History of Ideas (forthcoming)

24 TMS III.II.9, emphasis added

25 TMS II.II.12

26 WN V.i.g.38

27 Ibid. V.i.g.41

28 TMS VI.III.25



31 TMS II.V.13

32 ibid.

33 Earlier versions of this paper were given as lectures at the International Christian University, Tokyo, Japan, and at the University of Antwerp, Belgium. I am grateful for the opportunity that these invitations gave me to think further about a concept – ‘true religion’ – that I employed in setting the context for my exploration of Wittgenstein and Natural Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

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  • ISSN: 0031-8191
  • EISSN: 1469-817X
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