David Hume

On this date in 1711, David Hume was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. The influential empiricist philosopher was raised by his widowed mother, a strict Calvinist. He entered the University of Edinburgh at age 11 and studied there for three years, after which he was self-educated.

His first philosophical book, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), was guardedly skeptical (making references to “monkish virtues”). Critics used the book to deny Hume a teaching position at the University of Edinburgh and later at Glasgow University. Through this controversy, Hume humorously wrote a friend that he was “a sober, discreet, virtuous, frugal, regular, quiet, good-natured man, of a bad character.” (Cited in 2000 Years of Disbelief by James A. Haught.) Hume was finally granted a relatively congenial position as librarian at Edinburgh University in 1752.

In Essays, Moral, Political and Literary (1741), Hume dismissed priests as “the pretenders to power and dominion, and to a superior sanctity of character, distinct from virtue and good morals.” In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), he famously asserted that “a miracle can never be proved, so as to be the foundation of a system of religion.” Hume defined a miracle as “a violation of the laws of nature.”

His other books include The Natural History of Religion, which Hume, who was dying of cancer, arranged to be published posthumously. In The Natural History of Religion, Hume wrote: “Examine the religious principles which have, in fact, prevailed in the world, and you will scarcely be persuaded that they are anything but sick men’s dreams.” In the same work, Hume called the god of the Calvinists “a most cruel, unjust, partial and fantastical being.”

Hume also wrote The History of England (six volumes, 1754-61). The charitable and cheerful Hume was well-respected by fellow Britons, clergy excepted, and was on friendly terms with Adam Smith and Edward Gibbon. D. 1776.

Freedom From Religion Foundation