Like most Christian philosophers, I think David Hume (1711-76) was brilliant, but mistaken about most of the important religious topics he wrote on. Though he says some silly things earlier in the chapter, I could not help but be impressed by this powerful blast of rhetoric from chapter 11 of Hume’s Natural History of Religion (1757). He speaks with all the bitterness and bile of an Enlightenment philosopher raised in a human-reason-hating form of Calvinist Christianity. In the end it is just rhetoric; I don’t see any interesting argument here against mysterians.
But I do agree with Hume that humans have an appetite for “mysteries” – be they apparent contradictions or simply very unclear but profound-sounding claims. I’ve commented on this, I think, as far back as 2003, before reading Hume on this. Philosophical faults aside, he is always an insightful observer of human nature and human history.
I’ve added some emphases and explanations in brackets and a link below. Full text is here.
But [in contrast to polytheistic traditions,] where theism forms the fundamental principle of any popular religion, that tenet is so conformable to sound reason, that philosophy is apt to incorporate itself with such a system of theology. And if the other dogmas of that system be contained in a sacred book, such as the Alcoran [the Qur’an], or be determined by any visible authority, like that of the Roman pontif, speculative reasoners naturally carry on their assent, and embrace a theory which has been instilled into them by their earliest education, and which also possesses some degree of consistence and uniformity. But as these appearances are sure, all of them, to prove deceitful, philosophy will soon find herself very unequally yoked with her new associate; and instead of regulating each principle, as they advance together, she is at every turn perverted to serve the purposes of superstition. For besides the unavoidable incoherences which must be reconciled and adjusted, one may safely affirm that all popular theology, especially the scholastic, has a kind of appetite for absurdity and contradiction. If that theology went not beyond reason and common sense, her doctrines would appear too easy and familiar. Amazement must of necessity be raised; mystery affected; darkness and obscurity sought after; and a foundation of merit afforded the devout votaries, who desire an opportunity of subduing their rebellious reason, by the belief of the most unintelligible sophisms.
Ecclesiastical history sufficiently confirms these reflexions. When a controversy is started, some people pretend always with certainty to foretell the issue. Whichever opinion, say they, is most contrary to plain sense is sure to prevail, even where the general interest of the system requires not that decision. Though the reproach of heresy may for some time be bandied about among the disputants, it always rests at last on the side of reason. Any one, it is pretended, that has but learning enough of this kind to know the definition of Arian, Pelagian, Erastian, Socinian, Sabellian, Eutychian, Nestorian, Monothelite, etc., not to mention Protestant, whose fate is yet uncertain, will be convinced of the truth of this observation. It is thus a system becomes more absurd in the end, merely from its being reasonable and philosophical in the beginning.
To oppose the torrent of scholastic religion by such feeble maxims as these: that “it is impossible for the same to be and not to be”, that “the whole is greater than a part”, that “two and three make five”, is pretending to stop the ocean with a bull-rush. Will you set up profane reason against sacred mystery? No punishment is great enough for your impiety. And the same fires which were kindled for heretics will serve also for the destruction of philosophers.