When writing about religion, I encounter a problem in describing the various forms of it. One form consists of that favored by theologians and sophisticated religious apologists who move in academic circles where they encounter deep critiques of religion. They usually speak in abstract terms about god, as a first cause, a prime mover, and so on. They do not anthropomorphize god by ascribing human passions and qualities to their deity. The second type of description is by those who see god as much like a human except that their deity also possesses superhuman attributes and is perfect in every way. Their deity intervenes in the world in response to prayers and can override the laws of nature in order to do so.
The problem is what label to assign to these two groups that will capture the difference accurately so that we know what we are talking about without having to go into tedious descriptive detail. The use of the term ‘fundamentalist’ Christian does not properly describe the second group because that label connotes people who go well beyond the description given above and consists of people who have a strong fidelity to ancient religious texts and a literal interpretation of them that leads them to restrict their clothes, food, and behavior and also adopt strongly condemnatory attitudes towards those groups of people whom they think are acting in contradiction to the religious dictates.
But in reading the works of philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), I came across an article that discusses his own religious views and the author of the article uses the terms ‘thin theism’ and ‘thick theism’ that serves this purpose almost perfectly.
Hume wrote quite extensively outlining a skeptical and naturalistic view of the world but in his earlier writings he deliberately excluded religion from the scope of his study because he seemed to be afraid of offending the orthodox. He applied his overall philosophical perspective to religion in two later books, Natural History of Religion (1757) and Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), the latter published posthumously. Both these works are entirely taken up with philosophical issues concerning religion.
Where Hume stood with respect to religion is not easy to pin down and many people claim him for their own. It is possible to do so because he seemed to say contradictory things and one can cherry pick from his writings. An additional problem is that Dialogues puts words into the mouths of three different characters and thus makes it hard to be sure which represent his own beliefs. For example, Hume seemed to feel that arguments for the proof of god’s existence were not plausible, writing that, “there is an evident absurdity in pretending to demonstrate a matter of fact, or to prove it by arguments a priori. Nothing is demonstrable, unless the contrary is a contradiction. Nothing, that is directly conceivable, implies a contradiction. Whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent. There is no being, therefore, whose non-existence implies a contradiction. Consequently there is no Being whose contradiction is demonstrable.” (Dialogues, Part IX).
But in The Natural History of Religion, he wrote “The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion” and quotes with seeming approval Francis Bacon saying “A little philosophy makes men atheists: A great deal reconciles them to religion.” As J. C. A. Gaskin writes in the introduction to the 1993 Oxford World Classics publication of the above two works, “He was brought up as a Presbyterian, denied being a deist, expressed surprise that anyone should be an atheist, and yet seemed to undermine religious belief at every point.”
This article by Paul Russell in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy looks at his views on religion as based on his writings. The article says that the hostile climate towards atheism that existed in Hume’s time means that we have to be cautious about interpreting his views.
One of the most hotly debated issues arising out of Hume’s philosophy is whether or not he was an atheist. Two methodological and historical caveats should be briefly noted before addressing this question. First, as already noted, many of Hume’s own contemporaries regarded him in these terms. Our own contemporaries have tended to dismiss these claims as coming from religious bigots who did not understand Hume’s philosophy. While there may be some basis for these concerns, this is not true of all of Hume’s early critics (e.g. Thomas Reid) and, even if it were, it would not show that his critics were wrong about this matter. Second, and related to the first point, Hume lived and wrote at a time of severe religious persecution, by both the church and the state. Unorthodox religious views, and more especially any form of open atheism, would certainly provoke strong reactions from the authorities. Caution and subterfuge in these circumstances was essential if difficulties of these kinds were to be avoided. (For this reason it is especially ironic to find many religious apologists who confidently read Hume’s professions of orthodoxy as entirely sincere but who never mention the awkward conditions in which he had to express his views.) While conditions of suppression do not themselves prove a writer or thinker such as Hume had a concealed doctrine, this possibility should be carefully considered and sympathetically appreciated.
A later section of the article provides the distinction that I was seeking.
One way of assessing Hume’s position on this issue is to begin with Hume’s suggestion that “genuine theism” involves the minimal claim that there exists some (invisible) “supreme intelligence” that is the origin, creator and governor of this world (NHR, 4.2). So described, genuine theism involves what we may call a “thin” conception of God. There is, on this account, no commitment to some further, more specific, set of attributes. In contrast with thin theism, “thick” theism presupposes a richer set of attributes, such as infinity, omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection. Whether one is judged an atheist or not may depend, not only on whether the standard of theism is thick or thin, it may also depend on what particular set of “thick” attributes are considered essential for belief in God.
Clearly orthodox religion (e.g. Christianity) requires a thick conception of God (i.e. of an anthropomorphic kind).
I like the idea of thin and thick theism and will be using it more frequently in future.