Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion Context

David Hume


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is one of the most famous works criticizing some of the arguments offered by philosophers and theologians to establish the existence and nature of God. Hume, who was known as the Great Infidel in his own time, began writing the work around 1751. He showed the manuscript to several of his friends, who dissuaded him from publishing it because of its irreligious content. Over the years, he revised the manuscript many times and just before his death in 1776 made his final revisions. He was very much concerned to make sure that the work would be published shortly after his death. In his will, he first asked his friend the economist Adam Smith to arrange for the publication of the manuscript. When Smith refused, Hume next tried to get his publisher to do so, and when he also refused, Hume altered his will, instructing his nephew to take charge of the matter if the publisher had not done so within two years of his death. Finally, in 1779, the work appeared, gaining both immediate success and notoriety. It has remained one of the classic texts in discussions about the nature of the evidence presented to prove the existence of God and the character of his attributes.

Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is patterned after Roman philosopher Cicero’s work on the same subject, De natura deorum (44 b.c.e.; On the Nature of the Gods, 1683), in which a Stoic, an Epicurean, and a Skeptic discuss the arguments about the nature and existence of the gods. Both Cicero and Hume found that the dialogue form enabled them to discuss these “dangerous” subjects without having to commit themselves personally to any particular view. They could allow their characters to attack various accepted arguments and positions, without themselves having to endorse or reject any specific religious view.