The lecture by Nathaniel Bowditch titled Is Religion Natural? David Hume on Human Nature and Religious Belief takes a broad view at David Hume’s answer to whether religion is natural or not. Bowditch gives a short history of 18th century philosopher then goes on to refer to his treatise The Natural History of Religion where Hume comes out as presenting the two extremes; how religion is natural and how it is man-made. A relationship is drawn between morality and religion is drawn. Morality is discussed as more natural than religion.
In the first place, religion is natural because it is a result of natural human impulses that are evident when they are faced by certain conditions. Hume claims “Convulsions in nature, disorders, prodigies, miracles…impress mankind with the strongest sentiments of religion” (499). Emotions like anger, sadness, fear and uncertainty lead humans to search for a higher supernatural being to which power and responsibility can be ascribed for all the misery and pain in the world. In essence that is true when one thinks about human beings today. Regardless of religion professed, most people are at their religious best when a calamity or bad fortune hits them. One will pray and follow all the rules and conditions set out by the particular religion in an attempt to appease the god they believe in.
All the same, religion may be as a result of natural impulses, just like morality but the choice of which religious outfit to subscribe to is wholly up to the individual. This then makes religion an invention according to Hume. Morality has some sort of uniformity across the globe where everyone seems to know what is right and wrong. On the other hand, religions are numerous and varied. In addition, they keep on getting modified over the years. Something that was completely taboo in, Christianity in the medieval times could be religiously correct in the 21st century. (Hume, 500). It is almost as if religion is bent to suit contingencies of the day and keep believers in it.
This introduces the other point where religion is not natural because it is irrational. All the same, this does not necessarily mean that irrationality cannot go along with naturalness. After all, faith has been deemed to overcome reason in matters of philosophy and morality. The belief that the earth is round is quite natural because it can be explained and proved by reason. However religion cannot benefit from reason as such. When it does, it ends up raising many questions such as why God could exist as the cause of everything without having a cause himself. Religion is also unnatural as it is not absolutely necessary to all human beings. There are many people who do not subscribe to any religion all together. Why would something natural be optional?
While Hume’s theories remain in line with other contemporary ones, his psychological approach seems a bit farfetched. It is seems believable that man came up with religion to make sense of the natural complexities that he observed around him but it not right to assume that religion is all a figment of human imagination. . It is possible, through the theories that seek to prove the existence of God, to explain the naturalness of religion from the perspective of an existing God.
The fact that evolution of religion has occurred over the years does not necessarily mean that religion is an invention. In any case, human beings are said to have evolved as natural as they are. Religion is “usual enough” according to Bowditch but not as uniform as morality. Human beings have the natural capacity to feel such emotions as sympathy which gives rise to morality and character. Human character is composed of the natural inclination to superstition and blame. Hume argues that as human beings, we all have a tendency to oscillate between idolatry and theism as it suits our current needs (499). The fact that it could be an invention does not cover the high possibility that religion is necessary in a human being’s life. Surely something that is necessary must be natural?
However, religion revolves around deity, supernatural beings. One could say that it is thus unnatural but the pint here is, religion is not of God’s making. Man came up with religion. This then makes it manmade, but the factors leading to the desire to have a set of beliefs is natural. Hume points to the absurdity of religion where such elements as insanity and anger “…sink men nearest to the level of beasts, are…often supposed to be the only dispositions, in which we can have any immediate communication with the Deity” (Hume, 501). When reasoned out, religion seems undoubtedly absurd with what reason would have happen not happening.
Hume himself considers the riddle quite inexplicable due to the “frailty of human reason” (499). It is quite a good effort to explain religious beliefs on purely sociological and psychological theories but it would be better if another approach was added to complement the theory. For instance, divine intervention has been said to be the origin of religion where books like the Bible come in. Christians believe that the authors of the book were inspired by God. It is therefore important to review this approach to come up with a more conclusive theory. According to Hume, natural propensities are the reason for religion and nothing else. Using this perspective, one can all into question many elements that are present in modern religions. The adoption of elements such as rituals and doctrines without the necessary philosophical and logical study means that it is possible that the form of worship or elements of the religion are entirely synthetic. Hume approaches the topic by offering little gray area such that if religion is natural then it is an inherent state of man but if it is man-made then it can be interpreted as manufactured or made to suit certain needs and emergencies.
In conclusion, religious beliefs could be natural in a certain sense but also manmade in another. The fact that they are not common to everyone is proof. It is not uncommon for someone to wake up one morning with a whole new different religion that will not lack followers. The believers themselves also make a conscious decision to believe in a certain religion. Reflection is necessary because they are no original principles guiding one to believe in a certain way, only what the religion has to offer. Religions across the globe may have begun with a certain view of deity as the God of a particular tribe which has evolved into the creator of everything; a God who is omnipotent and many other things. However, it is clear, Hume believed that religion was natural drawing from the natural propensities that drew man to believe in invisible power.
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