Accepted paper:

Towards a Humean true religion


Andre Willis (Brown University)

Paper short abstract:

This speculative argument contends that based on the broad contours of Hume's project what he calls religion’s “proper office” might be constituted by a genuine theism, calm passions, and a practical morality.

Paper long abstract:

Many philosophers of religion hold the view that David Hume was simply a devastating critic of religion. One cannot deny, however that the category "true religion" is an unexplained element in his work. Most address the presence of "true religion" by explaining it as empty and insincere, a mere "fig leaf" hiding Hume's irreligion. I take an alternative approach and track this inchoate idea for its value for contemporary religious thought. I argue that "true religion" fits neatly into Hume's philosophic schema, was a requirement of his bifurcated approach to religion (true v. false), and can be thought of as a transition between classical notions of religio (a set of virtues that stabilized the social order) and modern conceptions of religion (that aimed for epistemic truth). Hume could not escape grappling with the idea "true religion": he was an interlocutor inside of a discursive tradition that revolved around it. Reconceiving this idea in Hume's work supports generative work in the contemporary study of religion. Of course, his lush writing offered little explicit content for his notion of "true religion". Still, we might make some provisional claims about it: relieved of its claims for metaphysical legitimacy, released from morality derived from fear of Divine authority, and unrestricted by a fixed set of worship practices, religion appears quite bare. Yet, in this austerity religion could be understood as a socially beneficial convention grounded in history and community. This approach correlates with contemporary work in religious studies that refuses to treat religion as a system of beliefs or a trans-historical essence.

panel P05
'True religion' and the anthropology of the Scottish Enlightenment