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Enlightened Religion

A philosophic approach to religion that has been called “Deism” emerged in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Its main tenets were a belief in a creator God who does not interfere with the events in its creation and the denial of any form of revelation. This thinking has been largely identified with the Enlightenment in general. But there were also parallel attempts to set Christianity on a more rational footing, through alternative interpretations of some of its teachings, and a lessening of dogmatism. This latter approach was more typical of the Scottish Enlightenment. The tone of this predominant attitude towards religion was provided by Francis Hutcheson:

It was owing to Hutcheson and  him [William Leechman] that a new school was formed in the western provinces of Scotland, where the clergy till that period were narrow and bigoted, and had never ventured to range in their mind beyond the bounds of strict orthodoxy. For though neither of these professors taught any heresy, yet they opened and enlarged the minds of the students, which soon gave them a turn for free inquiry; the result of which was, candour and liberality of sentiment.[1]

Some superficial analysts have classified Hutcheson as a deist, but his writings clearly negate this:

That God governs the world by his providence we conclude from more or less the same reasons that show that God exists. It is simply not credible that a superior nature adorned with all wisdom, goodness, and power does not care about the world and its parts and especially about those parts that are endowed with reason and capable of so much happiness and misery, all of which he made with so much skill and intelligence; it is simply not credible that he has left them to the tender mercies of blind fortune.[2]

Reason itself shows that God can, if he so wills, teach many things to those who are inspired by his divinity, which would otherwise have been hidden, and share his counsels and intentions with them, and by their ministry declare to mankind laws and guidance for the conduct of life. And trustworthy historians tell us that this has really happened. And thus natural theology will lead us to the acceptance of what is called revealed theology.[3]

Hume’s Challenge

During his lifetime, David Hume was accused of being an atheist, but he should be more properly classified as a deist, as he acknowledges a creator: "The whole frame of nature bespeaks an Intelligent Author; and no rational inquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion."[4] Hume, however, believes that attempts to reconcile philosophy and theology only lead to corrupted philosophy:

But 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…but… 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.[5]

His friend Hugh Blair provides his answer to this challenge:

The doctrines of the Christian religion are rational and pure... In some articles which transcend the limits of our present faculties, as in what relates to the essence of the Godhead, the fallen state of mankind, and their redemption by Jesus Christ, its doctrines may appear mysterious and dark. Against these the scoffer has often directed his attacks, as if whatever could not be explained by us, ought upon that account to be exploded as absurd... Instead of its being any objection to revelation that some of its doctrines are mysterious, it would be much more strange and unaccountable if no such doctrines were found in it. Had every thing in the Christian system been perfectly level to our capacities, this might rather have given ground to a suspicion of its not proceeding from God...[6]

Hume's most severe criticisms are aimed at religious practices: "A superstitious man... considers not, that the most genuine method of serving the Divinity is by promoting the happiness of his creatures. He still looks out for more immediate service of the Supreme Being, in order to allay those terrors with which he is haunted… if he fast a day, or give himself a sound whipping; this has a direct reference, in his opinion, to the service of God."[7] Blair would agree with the criticism, but he objects to Hume's extending his negativity to all forms of religion: "Hence arises one of the most powerful arguments for propagating with zeal, as far as our influence can extend, the pure and undefiled doctrines of the Gospel of Christ; in order that just and rational principles of religion may fill up that room in the minds of men, which dangerous fanaticism will otherwise usurp."[8]

Hume is an honest inquirer, but for him: "The whole is a riddle, an enigma, an inexplicable mystery. Doubt, uncertainty, suspense of judgment, appear the only result of our most accurate scrutiny concerning this subject."[9] Blair, in contrast, finds in revealed religion the answers to ultimate questions that an inquiring mind seeks:

For without the belief and hope afforded by divine Revelation, the circumstances of man are extremely forlorn. He finds himself placed here as a stranger in a vast universe, where the powers and operations of Nature are very imperfectly known; where both the beginnings and the issues of things are involved in mysterious darkness; where he is unable to discover, with any certainty, whence he sprung, or for what purpose he was brought into this state of existence; whether he be subjected to the government of a mild, or a wrathful ruler; what construction he is to put on many of the dispensations of his providence; and what his fate is to be when he departs hence. What a disconsolate situation to a serious inquiring mind!... In this distressed condition, to reveal to him such discoveries of the Supreme Being, as the Christian religion affords, is to reveal to him a Father and a Friend; is to let in a ray of the most cheering light upon the darkness of the human estate…[10]


In a letter to his father, a strict Presbyterian minister, Hutcheson attempts to justify his more tolerant attitude in that neither  "the government or the external of worship are so determined in the Gospel as to oblige men to one particular way in either... All societies may, according to their own prudence choose a form of government in the church and agree upon such external order of worship as they think will do most good to promote the true end of all, real piety and virtue."[11]

In a speech at the Presbyterian General Assembly, William Robertson expresses his own thoughts on toleration:  "I had observed with pleasure, the rapid progress of liberal sentiments in this enlightened age; though I knew that science and philosophy had diffused the spirit of toleration through almost very part of Europe."[12] It should not be assumed, however, that this spirit was shared by the public at large. The above statement was part of an effort to relieve some of the stiff legal penalties that had been imposed on Catholics, but Roberson and his friends had to abandon this cause:

As soon, however, as I perceived the extent and violence of the flame which the discussion of this subject had kindled in Scotland, my ideas concerning the expedience at this juncture of the measure in question, began to alter... when I foresaw bad consequences from persisting in a measure which I had warmly approved, I preferred the public good to my own private sentiments.[13]

[1] Alexander Carlyle, Autobiography of the Rev. Dr Carlyle, Second edition (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1860), 84.

[2] Francis Hutcheson, Logic, Metaphysics, and the Natural Sociability of Mankind, 131.

[3] Ibid., 134.

[4] David Hume, "The Natural History of Religion" in The Philosophical Works of David Hume, Volume IV (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1854), 419.

[5] Ibid., 463.

[6] Hugh Blair, Sermons, Volume III (London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1818, 345-348.

[7] David Hume, "The Natural History of Religion," 487-488.

[8] Hugh Blair, Sermons, Volume II, 424.

[9] David Hume, "The Natural History of Religion," 493.

[10] Hugh Blair, Sermons, Volume II, 413-414.

[11] Francis Hutcheson, quoted in Michael Brown, Francis Hutcheson in Dublin, 1719-1730 (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2002), 93.???

[12]William Robertson, quoted in Dugald Stewart, Account of the Life and Writings of William Robertson, Second edition (London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1802), 178.

[13] Ibid., 182-186.