David Hume (1711—1776) was a philosopher and historian of the Enlightenment. His major philosophical works are A Treatise of Human Nature (1739—1740), Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding (1748), and Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), as well as his posthumously published Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779).
David Hume is sometimes called “The Scottish Skeptic” because he was Scottish and because he was skeptical of anything that could not be empirically verified. Hume believed that most of our central beliefs about reality are impossible to support by means of reason. Religious claims are based on faith, not knowledge. Hume is most famous for his rejection of miracles and his rejection of the argument from design for God’s existence. This rejection was revolutionary for its time, but it is common today, and in this way Hume has had a significant impact on our culture.
Hume did not argue that miracles are impossible, but that miracles could never be empirically verified and therefore it makes no sense to believe that one has ever happened. He believed that it is much more likely that someone would lie about a miracle than that a miracle would actually happen; thus, there is no reason to take seriously the New Testament reports (or any other reports) of miracles.
Hume believed that it was normal and natural to believe in God’s existence but that the believer must realize that this belief cannot be supported by rational evidence (like the argument from design). Dogmatic theological claims must be rejected because they go beyond what can be empirically verified from human experience.
On the other hand, Hume did not believe that the existence of God could be disproved on rational grounds. He was less skeptical than the modern atheist in that he thought that the dogmatic religious believer and the dogmatic unbeliever were being equally non-rational in their dogmatism. In this sense, he helped to lay the groundwork for what would become known about two centuries later as postmodernism.
Hume did not deny the possibility of God’s existence, but he did deny the possibility of supernatural revelation. God might exist, but it is impossible for Him to communicate and any claims of supernatural communication should be rejected as unlikely, so we cannot really know anything about God and should not make dogmatic claims. In this sense, Hume is a precursor to theological liberalism. Theological liberalism keeps much of the religious pomp and circumstance while fully admitting that it is not based on divine revelation. Dogmatism is a vice, and “courageous ignorance” is a virtue. This trend has also found fruition in postmodernism, although the current generation of postmodernists is rapidly shedding all religious trappings. If there is neither rational underpinning nor divine mandate for all of the rituals and moral obligation, why should anyone bother?
Hume’s influence upon Christianity has been to weaken it among those who follow his line of thinking. He did not deny Christianity but simply tried to remove reliance upon divine revelation or any rational basis for it. However, a non-rational faith such as Hume described is not the faith of the New Testament. The New Testament is set firmly in the world of history where events, including miracles, could be empirically verified:
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1).
“Many have undertaken to compose an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by the initial eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, having carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:1–4).
“Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30–31).