Monday, March 23, 2009

Baggini on Hume on False Religion and Immortality

Baggini has more posts at Comment is Free on Hume. I don't have much to say on the posts about skepticism(#4 and #5), but I do have some comments on the more recent ones, #6 and #7. In #6, on the Natural History of Religion, he says,

But perhaps the most important feature of Hume's argument is how, no matter how intellectually respectable religion can be, as a matter of fact, most devotees end up believing intellectually disreputable versions. "The corruption of the best things begets the worse," he says, which doesn't entirely let the beggetter off the hook. If, as a matter of fact, most religion is of the "barbarous" and "idolatrous" varieties, then defending more refined versions is often besides the point.


But I have difficulty finding any way to interpret this that makes it both Humean and coherent. Hume holds that there is such a thing as "true religion" -- he is very insistent upon that fact, in fact, and not only in the Natural History, despite the fact that it's very difficult to make out what, precisely, it is supposed to be. But there seems no rational way to make the fact of false religion reflect badly on any true religion there might be, any more than the fact of pseudoscience reflects badly on the practice of science, or the existence of sophistry makes philosophy "besides the point." Either one holds that all religion is contaminated by something of this disreputable barbarism -- in which case we deviate from Hume by denying the existence of some sort of acceptable religious attitude -- or we deny that all religion is 'on the hook' for the disreputable varieties -- in which case we seem to deviate from Baggini's claim here. It's hard to read this argument as anything more than an attempt to create a lose-lose situation for religionists: if you accept a barbarous religion, you are barbaric, and if you accept a refined religion, you are still barbaric, just more indirectly. And this is not part of Hume's argument, for all that he is very critical of certain religious views.

Incidentally, Baggini accepts what I often call the Hume-was-incompetent interpretation of his religious writings. As he summarizes it:

We have to remember that criticising the religion of the day directly would not have been a wise move. Instead, Hume attacks what he describes as idolatrous and superstitious forms of belief, saying that, of course, the true religion of our place and time is nothing like this. Readers have to spot for themselves that, actually, the differences are not so clear.


The problem is that if we gloss Hume in this way, we are attributing extreme stupidity to him. Nobody was fooled, and there was never reason to think that anyone would be fooled, by such transparent criticism as Hume uses. Baggini calls it 'subtle', but it's not subtle at all. For instance, anyone with any knowledge of Christianity can spot the criticism of theology if you blandly say that a "traditional, mythological religion" is more rational than the "systematical, scholastic religion", and anyone who can read will begin to wonder if you are being quite serious about not warranting the quality of the reasoning of Chevalier Ramsey if you quote long, extended passages by him on the subject of how barbaric the Calvinist doctrine of predestination is, especially in a work that is elsewhere sharply critical of barbarism. Hume is not so utterly dimwitted as to think that these indirections aren't transparent. On the contrary, we should see them for what they are: clever and very rhetorical moves by which Hume tries to draw on the anti-Catholic and anti-pagan prejudices of his Protestant readers in such a way as to turn those prejudices against Protestantism itself. Nor is this last strategy subtle; all of Hume's major critics on the subject of religion, from Warburton to MacQueen to Campbell saw exactly what he was doing. But that is partly where it gets its force; it would be pointless if no one could draw the connection.

Likewise, in #7 Baggini thoroughly misses the fact that Hume's move in the discussion of the immortality of the soul, in which he rejects the philosophical arguments for immortality and says that "'tis the Gospel and the Gospel alone, that has brought life and immortality to light," is not unique to Hume. It is simply a restatement of the Lockean position -- indeed, in precisely the same terms that Locke, Masham, and other Lockeans use. (The Lockeans believed in immortality of the soul; they denied it could be proven philosophically.) Hume is simply taking Locke's position and developing it by looking at particular philosophical arguments. To be sure, it is highly doubtful that Hume agrees with this full position. But it isn't clear that there's any doublespeak here; Hume doesn't always speak in propria persona in his essays, and here he's just not going to get into the question of revelation, because he's doing philosophy rather than theology, and Locke's way of separating the two is a way of doing it that doesn't require defense by Hume (since it had already been defended by the Lockeans). And while Baggini recognizes that Hume is echoing Locke in one of his arguments against metaphysical arguments for immortality, he fails to note that this is only one of many, many Lockean echoes throughout the essay (arguably one of the most Lockean things Hume ever wrote). And Hume actually does press the claims of others into service even when he is speaking in his own person; he doesn't start from scratch if he can build on others (cf. the extensive use of Malebranchean arguments in ECHU Section VII Part II, or the extensive use of Berkeley in Treatise 1.4.2, or the weird use of criticisms of Spinoza in Treatise 1.4.4).

But Baggini, even if only quasi-Humean, is nothing if not honest, and he recognizes that one of Hume's arguments for the mortality of the soul is the 'inferiority' of women's minds.

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