Towards a Humean True Religion

Genuine Theism, Moderate Hope, and Practical Morality

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Andre C. Willis
  • University Park, PA: 
    Penn State University Press
    , January
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Andre Willis’s Toward a Humean True Religion serves as a concise thematic intellectual history explicating David Hume’s treatment of religion in its various forms, while also dealing philosophically with the contours of traditional definitions for religion. A convincing descriptive portrait of Hume’s religious thought emerges, which Willis parlays into a useful discussion of the “generative value for contemporary religious thought” Hume’s conception of “true religion” provides (3). This work dispels the notion that Hume was an atheist, or solely a critic of religion, bringing together the constructive elements of Hume’s writings on religion and systematizing his thought in such a way that it can justifiably vie for inclusion among the panoply of existing religions. Whether or not that place is thus granted is a matter dependent upon the vicissitudes of the field of religious studies. Willis, for his part, suggests that when taken as a whole, the elements of Hume’s “true religion,” which he sketches from Hume’s extant works, can “challenge our presuppositions about religion” and enliven “discourse in the field of religious studies” (17). Indeed, Willis surmises, “affection-based worldviews that celebrate nature yet posit no worship content or those that have a broad sense of a deity with no attributes and refuse to stipulate a firm moral code can still be referred to as ‘religion’” (16).

Though Hume’s “writing offers little explicit positive content for his notion of ‘true religion,’” Willis “cobble[s] together disparate aspects of his work” to construct a three-pronged framework that describes what this a priori Humean religion might have looked like (4). This paradigmatic speculative religion includes: (1) Hume’s natural belief in genuine theism; (2) a moderate hope that “implies a belief that what we have is all we need”; and (3) a practical morality driven by sympathy, which “allows us to share the feelings of another”, thus “assist[ing] us in the development of virtuous character” (15-16). This framework, laden with meaning-saturated terms explained at length and lucidly in the book, offers a compelling vehicle for giving Hume’s work “value for thinkers in religious studies” (16). The three prongs of the Humean true religion described by Willis provide the chapter headings for the meat of his work. They are sandwiched between an introduction, an informative presentation of the historical and philosophical context within which Willis’s work is situated, and the discursive analysis in which he supplies an argument for the generative potential of Hume’s thought.

The case Willis makes for a speculative Humean “true religion” is particularly strong, coherent, and faithful to the sources. Willis successfully synthesizes the prevailing secondary material, demonstrating his continuity within the field of Humean studies while noting necessary, and useful, deviations therefrom. He simultaneously breaks insightful new ground and remains within the corpus of respected scholarship. Treading that fine line on a topic so relegated to the abstract was certainly no easy feat. Yet Willis capably makes a robust argument that the specter of Hume’s “true religion,” had it been more fully exposited by Hume, would take on a shape very much like that which Willis constructs.

The worth of Willis’s work as a thematic intellectual history is in no way destructively subsumed by the normative complications Willis eludes to in his discussion of the generative value of Humean “true religion.” In his conclusion, Willis seems to avoid the existential problems Hume’s thought evokes. As Willis highlights Hume’s utilitarian Ciceronian inheritance in the realm of religious thought, he neglects to engage directly with the importance of “epistemological and metaphysical truth claims” associated with traditional notions of religion (180). He summarily dismisses them early on in his work, explaining that “like Cicero, Hume was mostly concerned about the functional value of religion, not its epistemic ‘truth’ value” (41). For Hume, as Willis notes, true religion exists as a “disposition of the human heart that secured ‘obedience to the Laws & civil Magistrate’” (42). Tidy enough, but this assertion fails to relieve him of the necessity of taking on the objective, ontological weight borne by many religious traditions. If Hume’s “true religion” is to maintain positive force in the study of religion, Willis must demonstrate its explanatory value. If human beings are unable to know existential truth, meaning then that Humean “true religion” is incapable of supplying such truth, how could one ever justify adopting the mantle of Hume’s speculative religion? Such subjectivism leads to the inescapable tautology whereby the objective term “functional value” (Hume’s main concern in religion) is only discernible through an objective standard that cannot exist (or is at least unknowable) in Humean thought (41).

Despite the inherent complications with Willis’s discussion of the generative value of Humean “true religion,” his intellectual history of Hume’s religious thought does effectively argue for the expansion of the conventional category of religion. He develops a tremendously convincing case for recognizing the constructive elements of Hume’s writings on religion and their coherence as a concrete religious paradigm. As Willis impressively demonstrates, Hume was neither an atheist nor an opponent of all conceptions of religion. In detailing this unfurrowed truth throughout the work, Willis proves an insightful and potent guide through the mind of David Hume.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jonathan Baddley is a graduate student in the history of Christianity at Harvard Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
September 24, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andre C. Willis is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Brown University.



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