David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion had not yet been published when he died in 1776. Even though the manuscript was mostly written during the 1750s, it did not appear until 1779. The subject itself was too delicate and controversial, and Hume's dialectical examination of religious knowledge was especially provocative.
What should we teach young people about religion? The characters Demea, Cleanthes, and Philo passionately present and defend three sharply different answers to that question. Demea opens the dialogue with a position derived from René Descartes and Father Malebranche - God's nature is a mystery, but God's existence can be proved logically. Cleanthes attacks that view, both because it leads to mysticism and because it attempts the impossible task of trying to establish existence on the basis of pure reason, without appeal to sense experience. As an alternative, he offers a proof both God's existence and God's nature based on the same kind of scientific reasoning established by Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton.
Taking a skeptical approach, Philo presents a series of arguments that question any attempt to use reason as a basis for religious faith. He suggests that human beings might be better off without religion. The dialogue ends without agreement among the characters, justifying Hume's choice of dialogue as the literary style for this topic.
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Great little audio book
I used this audiobook to review Hume's important and entertaining dialogue for a class that I am teaching. I can't imagine that someone might select it for pure pleasure or to pass the time, but after giving it a listen, I can recommend it with some reservation for someone who may not have read the book before. It is a true classic, and has to rank as one of the most influential books of the 18th century and is the basis for much modern naturalist philosophy.
Theologians should also read it and be prepared to respond to the intelligent arguments against natural religion generally and intelligent design specifically.
The dialogue is between three main characters: Cleanthes, an orthodox theist who relies on a version of the teleological argument as a basis for faith; Demea, who expounds a fideist approach to theology, and Philo, a theological skeptic. Each part is played by a different actor, which keeps the dialogue interesting and holds the listener's attention.
So now the bad news. The dialogue, lets say roughly three parts, is recorded out of order. This is a near fatal flaw, as you will hear the end of the dialogue and then in the next session the three are back continuing the conversation. Audible should have the studio who produced the book fix the problem, and it's worth the fix, because the dialogue is so good!
- Jack "I listen to history, philosophy and theology books while commuting two hours a day. In my spare time, I teach philosophy and read some more"