Recently, I've been working my way through On Religion, a collection of writings from "the greatest British philosopher," David Hume. Of course, Hume is well-known for his views on causality, even though there is debate over precisely what he thought concerning this subject…

While I do not wish to spend an inordinate amount of time analyzing my reading of Hume, I did run across an interesting passage that, at least in my reading, coheres interestingly with arguments that I have made personally, even if they are stated in a different way. In the following selection from "Of a particular Providence and of a future State," Hume recalls a "conversation" which he had with a friend who, donning the persona of Epicurus, seeks to defend the ancient philosopher's "denial of divine existence" before the "mob of Athens."

In the faux Epicurus' estimation, the philosophical necessity of the divine is unfounded in human reason because its fundamental basis is derived from a backward rationalization from the nature of the world. That is, his religious (and political…) persecutors believe in the existence of the gods because the world exists. However, their philosophical belief is not mere superstition; rather, they have made an attempt at a rational system, arguing that the nature of the divine can, in fact, be not only inferred, but moreover established on the basis of that which is germane to human experience.

Of course, the "defense" inevitably takes a very Humian turn, and Epicurus responds:

"When we infer any particular cause from an effect, we must proportion the one to the other, and can never be allowed to ascribe to the cause any qualities, but what are exactly sufficient to produce the effect."

In this, Epicurus argues that while it might be allowable to retroactively infer the nature of a cause from that of a supposed effect, the attributes and qualities which one might assign to the cause can only–by the very nature of this inferential reasoning–extend as far as the qualities and attributes which are perceived in the effect. For Epicurus, then, his religious persecutors are wholly disingenuous, for the attributes and qualities which they assign to the gods completely eclipse that which might be inferred from that which they are believed to have created. He chastises them:

"You find certain phenomena in nature. You seek a cause or author. You imagine that you have found him. You afterward become so enamored of this offspring of your brain, that you imagine it impossible, but that he must produce something greater and more perfect than the present scene of things, which is so full of ill and disorder. You forget, that this superlative intelligence and benevolence are entirely imaginary, or, at least, without any foundation in reason; and that you have no ground to ascribe to him any qualities, but what you see he has actually exerted and displayed in his productions. Let your gods, therefore, O philosophers, be suited to the present appearances of nature: and presume not to alter these appearances by arbitrary suppositions, in order to suit them to the attributes which you so fondly ascribe to your deities."

In other words, Epicurus argues that if his persecutors wish to accuse him of atheism, they must first review the philosophical basis for their own beliefs. If they wish to destroy him for refusing to acknowledge the self-evident existence of the gods-as-inferred from nature, they must themselves recant the inappropriate attributions of qualities and characteristics to the divine that they have made which cannot rationally be established by inference from reflections on nature and human experience alone–and of course, to what beyond these do we have epistemological access?

So enough of Epicurus. I find this line of reasoning interesting because, although hundreds of years old, it has particular relevance to human epistemology in the [post]modern world, especially to religious belief.

In some circles, the artifacts of the reasoning of Epicurus' imaginary interlocutors are alive and well. While they might not seek to establish this or that divine attribute on the basis of the created world, there is within many lines of thinking a driving need to attempt to root particular tenants of belief within some manner of 'proofs', whether scientific, epistemological, historical, or otherwise.

So some will make incredible claims about young "age" of the universe; others will produce tenuous evidence to support a particular "historical" event from religious history; and still others will make sweeping apologetics about the "rationality" of a particular belief. All of this is fine and good; but the real question is what the desired outcome might be?

Let's say that one can prove that the universe is only 6,000 years old, despite every indication to the contrary. Does this establish the existence of God?

And what of Noah's ark? Would a confirmed discovery of this ancient vessel establish the benevolence of God?

Or what of a philosophical argument for the existence of God itself? Would a overwhelmingly compelling argument in this vein automatically affirm the eternality and sovereignty of God?

While it could be argued that these, and an infinite number more of similar arguments might lead a reasonable person to particular conclusions, in the final analysis these attempts to establish religious belief on the basis of reason alone will inevitably fail. For even if one is able to convince a number of otherwise reasonable people that the conclusions which one suggests are valid, the understanding of the divine which is founded on the arguments will, in the reasoning of Hume, never be able to advance beyond the nature of "this offspring of your brain."

Now I am not trying to suggest that reason and rationality are unimportant or somehow opposed to religious belief. My point, rather, is that we must be INCREDIBLY careful in how far we allow our rationalizations to carry us in how we conceive of God. Faith, after all, is not opposed to rationality, but it is other-than rationality. Faith is the means by which we transcend the curious ways in which we make God into our own image; it is the mysterious encounter with the God of the universe as God is, in categories and attributes completely beyond the qualifications of human reason. In Hume's words:

"Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of [religious belief's] veracity: And whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience."