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HUME'S DIALOGUES CONCERNING NATURAL RELIGION

Edited by Albert A. Anderson

David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion had not yet been published when he died in 1776. Even though the manuscript was mostly written during the 1750s, it did not appear until 1779. The subject itself was too delicate and controversial. What should we teach young people about religion?

The characters Demea, Cleanthes, and Philo passionately present and defend different answers to that question. Demea opens the dialogue with a position derived from René Descartes and Father Malebranche — God's nature is a mystery, but God's existence can be proved logically. Cleanthes attacks that view, both because it leads to mysticsm and because it attempts the impossible task of trying to establish existence on the basis of pure reason, without appeal to sense experience. As an alternative, he offers a proof of both God's existence and God's nature based on the same kind of scientific reasoning established by Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton. Taking a skeptical approach, Philo presents a series of arguments that question any attempt to use reason as a basis for religious faith. He suggests that human beings might be better off without religion. The dialolgue ends without genuine agreement among the characters, justifying Hume's choice of dialogue as the form of presentation.

SAMPLE:

"Cleanthes: No matter how corrupt religion may be, it is better than no religion at all. The doctrine of life after death is so strong and necessary as an assurance for morals that we should never abandon or neglect it. If finite and temporary rewards and punishments have so great an effect as we find every day, think of how much more can be expected from rewards that are infinite and eternal!

Philo: If superstition is so beneficial to society, then how does it happen that history abounds with accounts of its pernicious consequences for public affairs? Factions, civil wars, persecutions, subversion of governments, oppression, and slavery are dismal consequences that always accompany the dominance of religion over people's minds. If the religious spirit is ever mentioned in any historical narrative, we are sure to find details of the miseries that go along with it. No period of time is happier or more prosperous than those in which the spirit of religion is never seen or heard."

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