Thin versus thick theism


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.

Comments

  1. says

    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.”

    Falsifiability.
    Hume was awesome.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Ah, but in this context, do “thin” and “thick” refer to density or width?

    Nit-picking minds have got to know!

  3. Mano Singham says

    Marcus,

    I don’t think Hume was proposing an early form of falsification. He was instead seeing how far pure logic can take you and his argument is against such attempts at logical proofs of god.

    Fr example, we can prove that the square root of two is not a rational number by making the assumption that it is and seeing how far it takes us. It takes in fact to a logical contradiction. Since the square root of two must be either rational or not rational, and since assuming it is rational leads us to a contradiction, it must be not rational.

    Similarly god exists or does not exist. But assuming god does not exist does not lead to a contradiction and hence we cannot assume that god exists.

    He argues, by extension, that the existence of any entity cannot be proved by logic.

  4. Reginald Selkirk says

    “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).

    Meh.
    1) The word choice “genuine” makes it sound like a “no true Scotsman” argument.
    2) If it gets too thin, it begins to resemble deism, not theism. And two additional centuries of scientific inquiry have made it thinner and thinner. I recall one of the characters in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion actually arguing that no species of animal had ever gone extinct. Hoo boy is that outdated.

  5. says

    Mano@#3:
    I don’t think Hume was proposing an early form of falsification. He was instead seeing how far pure logic can take you and his argument is against such attempts at logical proofs of god.

    I may have mis-parsed something; that’s a common experience I have with Hume.

    Nothing is demonstrable, unless the contrary is a contradiction.

    This appears to be an observation that you can’t prove/demonstrate something without being able to formulate something that would disprove it, as well.
    E.g.: “All cats are grey” is not provable, though, “this cat, an orange tortie, is not grey!” is the contradiction.
    I can’t prove that all cats are grey but I can disprove the premise by falsifying it with my orange tortie.

    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.”

    Whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent

    So, we can imagine god may exist, and we can imagine that god may not exist.

    There is no being, therefore, whose non-existence implies a contradiction. Consequently there is no Being whose contradiction is demonstrable.”

    I thought he was heading toward falsifiability with this: that you cannot imagine a way of proving that god does not exist, consequently you cannot establish a proof of god’s existence that is not falsifiable. The obvious piece is that you can observe god to exist, which would be a way of falsifying the position “god does not exist” if someone offered that argument.

    I should have read the Hume quote a few dozen more times. He makes my thinkum hurt.

  6. fentex says

    This sounds a bit like it’s about the meaning Huxley had in mind when he coined “Agnostic” – not anything about belief in the existence of gods but the irrelevance of believing people could know anything about such a being should it exist.

    And in that distinction you could divide those who address the concept of agency in the universe academically and those who pretend to understand such a thing by anthropomorphising it.

    It annoys me that the term has been thoroughly corrupted because others didn’t see the value in Huxley’s subtlety.

  7. Holms says

    Is it known whether Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion was an intentional nod towards Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems? Both the name and the framing – as a conversation between characters – bear a strong resemblence to Galileo’s work.

  8. Owlmirror says

    It is perhaps worth remembering that Thomas Aikenhead was hanged for blasphemy in Edinburgh in 1697, a little more than a decade before David Hume was born in Edinburgh in 1711.

    It is not impossible that Hume had Aikenhead’s fate in mind when tempering his words.

  9. Mano Singham says

    Holms,

    Using dialogues as a rhetorical device was well known in Hume’s time and before as it provided a means for an author to distance themselves from opinions that might be controversial and even dangerous. There is no question that Hume, being a highly educated person, was aware of Galileo’s dialogues.

    But he was a classicist and, according to Gaskin, it appears that his model for his dialogues was actually Cicero’s De Natura Deorum (Concerning the Nature of the Gods) because he admired the balanced way that Cicero presented the differing points of view. Hume was anxious, as he put it in a letter to Gilbert Eliot, “that vulgar Error would be avoided, of putting nothing but Nonsense into the Mouth of the Adversary.”

    This stacking of the deck that Hume found distasteful is undoubtedly present in Galileo’s dialogues and also in Plato’s dialogues involving Socrates.

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