Atheist of the Month for March 2016: David Hume

There are very few intellectual heavyweights who could go toe-to-toe with David Hume.

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland on May 7, 1711, he had a Presbyterian upbringing, which is why it became such a shock to both friends and family when Hume rejected theism and supernaturalism in favor of empiricism and naturalism.

David Hume
David Hume

In 1739, the first volume of his book, “Treatise of Human Nature” was published. Today, it is considered to not only be Hume’s most important work, but it is also viewed as one of the most important works in all of Western philosophy. During Hume’s time, however, it was rejected as a failure, even by Hume, himself. Many of Hume’s contemporaries subscribed to theism and firmly held the belief that not only was God responsible for the existence of morality but, also, that the human mind came with innate ideas already “pre-loaded” by the same God.

Hume rejected these concepts in their entirety. He contended that human minds were “blank slates” at birth and that empiricism – the theory that knowledge comes primarily through experience, especially sensory experience, and evidence – was responsible for the formation of ideas, instead of divine revelations or various traditions. It was due to his inability to keep his atheistic views a secret that Hume saw his attempts to pursue a career as a university scholar derailed. He tried, and failed, to acquire positions at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Glasgow.

Eventually, he would become the librarian at the Advocate’s Library which was the national deposit library of Scotland until 1925. It was here that started his work on “The History of England“,  a massive 6-volume work which would take 15 years to complete and would gain him both the financial and critical success that he had sought. His major passion remained philosophy, however, and he continued his writings regarding empiricism, skepticism, and naturalism. Due to the blowback he regularly received due to his reputation as both an atheist and a skeptic, he was convinced by his friends to delay publishing his more “controversial” writings until after his death in 1776, such as “Dialogues concerning Natural Religion”.

His writings would be heavy influences on such notable figures as Immanuel Kant, Jeremy Bentham, and Charles Darwin. In fact, Darwin credited Hume’s work as central to his development of the Theory of Evolution.

Today, Hume is easily and widely regarded as one of the most important figures in the history of Western philosophy.