Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Natural history

To think I almost dropped David Hume's 1757 Natural History of Religion from the Theorizing Syllabus! Returning to its subtle and not-so-subtle subversions this week has been great fun.

NHR was infamous and important in its time for upsetting the narrative, accepted in the breach by all, that human history must have started in monotheism - didn't Adam and Eve know their God? Hume's argument that polytheism must have been the earliest form of religion seems intuitive now, along with the idea that we must be able to tell a story about how monotheism emerged out of it. (Nobody mentioned that one could accept the former but think the latter the result of revelation.) Current students also aren't shocked at the idea that there is no progress in religious history, just an enless "flux and reflux" of polytheism and monotheism, human needs and ignorance by turns anthropomorphizing the forces of unpredictable nature and then exalting one of these projections to the infinite without end.

What is counterintuitive is the claim that religion, nevertheless, isn't a universal feature of human life, that it's the constantly variable result of the concatenation of human nature and (resolutely thisworldly) experience. Hume's 18th century sense of human nature seems quaint to us: "self-love, affection between the sexes, love of progeny, gratitude, resentment"? It's a richer, more interesting list than self-love and altruism, but of course the point in context is that it lacks anything like a universal penchant for religion. The variety and non-ubiquity of religion means that "[t]he first religious principles must be secondary."
Hume claims to be able to account for every aspect of religion out of thisworldly human need and ignorance. And while he doesn't think religion is likely to disappear, he does suggest that some forms of religion meet human needs better than others - the polytheistic ones! Contrary to the instincts of some of my students he didn't think polytheism a live option; he was more concerned to talk people down from overweening forms of monotheism. In closing he puts it this way:
This didn't sit so well with the class. Was Hume really encouraging "insensibility"? I explained that he shared the view of the ancient skeptics. Since human minds are ever going beyond the available evidence to form opinions which, when inevitably disconfirmed by experience, frustrate us and make us angry and defensive, it's better not to have strong opinions about things like religion. This is more easily said than done, but one way is to use the method of counterposition: when you feel yourself going too far in the direction of one opinion, counterbalance it with a strategically selected piece of evidence for the other side. Is monotheism more rational than polytheism? Maybe. But polytheists are more reasonable. Wisest of all are those who can see both sides - perhaps through an extended study of human history - without getting sucked into either: philosophers. 

I'm not convinced that Hume gets the landscape of human needs right - is there really no need for a relationship with, well, the whole of nature and its God? But I do appreciate the daring of his approach, and the wisdom of his skeptical method. (You can buy into it while still being very religious, witness Hume's predecessor and inspiration Pierre Bayle who, inspired in turn by Maimonides, employed it to clear a space for grace to speak.) I guess it also resonates with my "inconvenient truths" pedagogy, but today it was sounding sort of Buddhist, too. Human beings cling to certainties they cannot have (like "I am..." or "I believe..."), producing suffering for themselves and for others. Modern understandings of religion, as something private and pure, separate and separable from thisworldly human life with others, encourages attachment to false images and judgments of ourselves, too, as well as of others. 

I could tell some of the students thought me, like Hume, too concerned with mere "safety." Is greater "happiness ... not to be dreamed of"? Perhaps they're right... it's fun to be engaging in these debates again!

David Hume, Principal Writings on Religion (Oxford, 1993), 134, 184

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