Hume’s “Natural History of Religion”

In 1757, David Hume published The Natural History of Religion. It was a radical and innovative book that constitutes the first systematic effort to explain religion without recourse to the supernatural. If this were all Hume had done, the Natural History would be justly famous. Hume, however, did much more: he laid the foundation for all explanatory and evolutionary theories of religion.

Because of the curious way in which the book is organized and written, the scope of his achievement has been obscured, if not forgotten. It’s truly surprising to read modern scholarship that simply reconfigures Hume’s ideas. This may be because scholars want their ideas to appear fresh (and thus ignore Hume), or it may be because Hume writes with a dated idiom and the book is not ideally organized. Sensing it may be the latter, I decided to rearrange Hume’s words and organize them into three sections. My parenthetical page citations are to the 1956 Stanford Press edition. While Hume makes several additional arguments, these are the three that I consider most interesting from an anthropological perspective.

With his first move, Hume explicates the cognitive operations and emotional contexts that give rise to ideas about invisible powers and agents. This is psychology (of the byproduct variety). In his second move, Hume explains how these ideas are applied or become manifest in particular kinds of environments. Here he describes animism. In his third move, Hume situates these ideas in time and space. This is developmental history. The sum is a startlingly modern account that presages evolutionary theory and has well stood the test of time.

Part I: Hume’s Psychological or Cognitive Model

Hume’s first move entails a cognitive operation (cause and effect sequencing), an emotional context (curiosity, fear, and hope), and a propensity to project and transfer human qualities onto the world (anthropomorphize):

The causes of such objects, as are quite familiar to us, never strike our attention or curiosity; and however extraordinary or surprising these objects in themselves, they are passed over, by the raw and ignorant multitude, without much examination or inquiry (24). It must necessarily, indeed, be allowed, that, in order to carry men’s intention beyond the present course of things, or lead then into any inference concerning invisible intelligent power, they must be actuated by some passion, which prompts their thought and reflection; some motive, which urges their first inquiry (28).

We are placed in this world, as in a great theatre, where the true springs and causes of every event are entirely concealed from us; nor have we either sufficient wisdom to foresee, or power to prevent those ills, with which we are continually threatened. We hang in perpetual suspense between life and death, health and sickness, plenty and want; which are distributed amongst the human species by secret and unknown causes, whose operation is oft unexpected, and always unaccountable. These unknown causes, then, become the constant object of our hope and fear; and while the passions are kept in perpetual alarm by an anxious expectation of the events, the imagination is equally employed in forming ideas of those powers, on which we have so entire a dependence (28-29).

No wonder, then, that mankind, being placed in such an absolute ignorance of causes, and being at the same time so anxious concerning their future fortune, should immediately acknowledge a dependence on invisible powers, possessed of sentiment and intelligence (30). As the causes, which bestow happiness or misery are, in general, very little known and very uncertain, our anxious concern endeavours to attain a determinate idea of them; and finds no better expedient than to represent them as intelligent voluntary agents, like ourselves (40).

By degrees, the active imagination of men, uneasy in this abstract contemplation of objects, about which it is incessantly employed, begins to render them more particular, and to clothe them in shapes more suitable to its natural comprehension. It represents them to be sensible, intelligent beings, like mankind; actuated by love and hatred, and flexible by gifts and entreaties, by prayers and sacrifices (47). Nor is it long before we ascribe to them thought and reason and passion, and sometimes even the limbs and figures of men, in order to bring them nearer to a resemblance with ourselves (30).

There is a universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object, those qualities, with which they are familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious. We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and by a natural propensity, if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice or good-will to every thing, that hurts or pleases us (29).

We may conclude, therefore, that…the first ideas of religion arose not from a contemplation of the works of nature, but from a concern with regard to the events of life, and from the incessant hopes and fears, which actuate the human mind (27).

Part II: Hume’s Description of Animism

Hume’s second move is to describe how humans apply these invisible-intelligent agent ideas to the world. This application gives rise to a worldview or cosmology that Hume calls “polytheism” or “idolatory,” but which today we can recognize as animism:

Each natural event is supposed to be governed by some intelligent agent; and nothing prosperous or adverse can happen in life, which may not be the subject of peculiar prayers or thanksgivings (28). [T]rees, mountains, and streams are personified, and the inanimate parts of nature acquire sentiment and passion. [E]ach grove or field is represented as possessed of a particular genius or invisible power, which inhabits and protects it (29).

Such limited beings, though masters of human fate, being, each of them, incapable of extending his influence everywhere, must be vastly multiplied, in order to answer that variety of events, which happen over the whole face of nature. Thus every place is stored with a crowd of local deities; and thus polytheism has prevailed, and still prevails, among the greatest part of uninstructed mankind (31).

[The polytheist] deifies every part of the universe, and conceives all the conspicuous productions of nature to be themselves so many real divinities. The sun, moon, and stars are all gods according to his system: Foundations are inhabited by nymphs, and trees by hamadryads; Even monkeys, dogs, cats, and other animals often become sacred in his eyes, and strike him with a religious veneration. And thus, however strong men’s propensity to believe invisible, intelligent power in nature, their propensity is equally strong to rest their attention on sensible, visible objects; and in order to reconcile these opposite inclinations, they are led to unite invisible power with some visible object (38). And in short, the whole mythological system is so natural, that, in the vast variety of planets and world, contained in this universe, it seems more than probably that, somewhere or other, it is really carried into execution (53).

These then are the general principles of polytheism [animism], founded in human nature, and little or nothing dependent on caprice and accident (40).

Part III: Hume’s Developmental-Evolutionary History

Hume’s third move is to situate all this in time and space. At the time Hume wrote, most Europeans believed that God had originally created a perfect society and its religious corollary, Christianity. But original sin in the Garden of Eden changed this, causing some people and societies to stray. With increasing time and distance (from the Garden initially and the Levant subsequently), these people and societies became “degenerate.” This allegedly accounted for other religions and, in some cases, no apparent religion. Hume rejects this degeneration theory and counters with an original, developmental history:

It appears to me, that, if we consider the improvement of human society, from rude beginnings to a state of greater perfection, polytheism or idolatory [animism] was, and necessarily must have been, the first and most ancient religion of mankind. Behold then the clear testimony of history. The farther we mount up into antiquity, the more do we find mankind plunged into polytheism. As far as writing or history reaches, mankind, in ancient times, appear universally to have been polytheists. The savage tribes of America, Africa, and Asia are all idolators [animists] (23).

The mind rises gradually, from inferior to superior (24). [I]t must appear impossible, that theism could, from reasoning, have been the primary religion of the human race, and have afterwards, by its corruption, given birth to polytheism and to all the various superstitions of the heathen world. If we would, therefore, indulge our curiosity, in enquiring concerning the origin of religion, we must turn our thoughts to polytheism, the primitive religion of uninstructed mankind (26). It was probably for want of arts in rude and barbarous ages, that men deified plants, animals, and even brute unorganized matter; and rather than be without a sensible object of worship, affixed divinity to such ungainly forms (40).

Hence the origin of religion: And hence the origin of idolatory or polytheism (47). The universal propensity to believe in invisible, intelligent power, if not an original instinct, [is] at least a general attendant of human nature (75).


This is but a small sample of what can be found in Hume’s Natural History. It is a brilliant little book (~60 pages) that generously rewards close study. In addition to what I have noted, Hume compares polytheism and monotheism, with the latter being bruised in the process. Several sections ring with something like Hegelian dialectic, and others clearly influenced Nietzsche’s assessment of Abrahamic religions as submissive and slavish. It’s obvious Freud read the Natural History and lifted several ideas (including wish-fulfillment) from Hume. Throughout, Hume couches his arguments with cagey rhetoric (and insincere admissions) designed to ward off religious attacks. As great books go, the Natural History deserves a place in the pantheon.

And let’s not forget the inimitable conclusion, in which Hume coyly contradicts everything he has just said:

The whole is a riddle, an ænigma, an inexplicable mystery. Doubt, uncertainty, suspence of judgment appear the only result of our most accurate scrutiny, concerning this subject.


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3 thoughts on “Hume’s “Natural History of Religion”

  1. Eric Cherry

    Unrelated: When your site loads, an audio file immediately begins. There’s no obvious media player on the page. It begins with a loud ad for Sisko (sp?) and leads into a talk about Edward Curtis. Did a media file not get embedded properly, or am I just not noticing the player?

    – emc

  2. Cris Post author

    Thanks for letting me know — one of the posts (Edward S. Curtis Ethnohistory) was an embedded video and that is what apparently plays. I’m not sure why it automatically played so I have removed it and provided a link instead.

  3. Sabio Lantz

    Thanx for the intro to Hume’s “Natural History” — it sounds too difficult to read, so your intro gave me a taste I may not have otherwise had. He does sound very ahead of his time.

    It is amazing his irreligious attitudes did not get him into more trouble. He was a sly fellow, it seems.

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