What are David Hume's views on religion versus those of Volitaire, and how would he judge Voltaire's interpretation of religion as Hume expresses himself in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In terms brief enough to guide and fit within eNotes space and objectives, Hume would find some agreement with Voltaire. In Dialogues, Hume explores questions of the proofs of the existence of God and the quality of and proof of His attributes. Critics generally agree that Hume voices his personal stance through the voice of Philo and gives a summary of his beliefs in Philo's Part 12 summary.

Essentially, Hume holds that all nature shows evidence of intelligent design (a concept re-emergent today in Dembski's intelligent causation/design theory), an intelligent that is increasingly confirmed by scientific discovery, but that from humankind's point of view--that of seeing the finished work, not the work in progress--there is no way to identify either the cause of the design or the source of the intelligence. In other words, proving causation and intention from an earthbound perspective is, for Hume, not possible (Dembski addresses this same point but comes to a different conclusion through different scientific reasoning). Hume rejects the analogy of intelligent to the human mind since there are too many paradoxical and absurd problems with such an analogy. In addition, Hume through Philo makes the point that this leaves determining the moral nature of the designer--if such an intelligence could be identified--indeterminate. Hume's final stance is that nothing of God, immortality of the soul, truth of miracles, can be proven, thus Hume is a skeptic of the highest order, and his views outraged people of his time and resulted in the denial of a position for him as a professor at Edinburgh University, Scotland.

Voltaire is a deist like others such as Toland, yet he was distanced from typical deist thought by the particulars of his philosophical system. His deistic belief defined God as a "supreme Intelligence, a Workman infinitely able." Voltaire's great concerns were determinism and materialism. He held that humans are mechanistic, responding only to matter in motion. As a consequence, Voltaire embraces free will, free choice for humans. Yet he recognizes the natural order that governs the natural world and humankind. Thus he argues against materialism and determinism while recognizing the ordering structure of the nature of the world. Voltaire emphasizes reason while asserting the individuals have different levels of reasoning power. Thus, for Voltaire, religion is a valuable recourse for humanity as those who cannot reason their way to self-knowledge, which engenders moral and ethical and socially right decisions and choices, must be guided, and religion fills that necessity. Others who have the reasoning capacity to attain self-knowledge and make moral, ethical and socially right decisions (decisions right for society's advancement) do not need the governance of religion though they may acknowledge the presence of a deity.

Two ways Hume accords with Voltaire:

  • an intelligent presence exists, though defined with variance between them
  • confidence in reasoning power in matters of knowing or not finding God

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