. 6
( 8)


ogy, that the causes also resemble, and that the Author of Nature is
somewhat similar to the mind of man, though possessed of much
larger faculties, proportioned to the grandeur of the work which he
has executed. By this argument a posteriori, and this argument alone,
do we at once prove the existence of a Deity and his similarity to
human mind and intelligence.65

The argument relies on two main principles. The ¬rst of these is that
“[f]rom similar effects we infer similar causes.”66 More precisely:

Cause-and-Effect Principle: The degree to which the causes of x and
y are similar to each other is directly proportional to the degree to
which x and y are similar to each other.
God and the Reach of Reason

The second principle is this one:

Superiority Principle: If being A is the designer of x, and being B is
the designer of y, then A is superior to B to the same degree that
x is superior to y.67

Cleanthes™s argument can be formulated this way:

Cleanthes™s Argument from Design

1. The universe is (i) very similar to machines that are the result of
human intelligence and (ii) far superior to such machines.
2. If (1), then the cause of the universe is (i) very similar to human
intelligence and (ii) far superior to human intelligence.
3. Therefore, the cause of the universe is very similar to human
intelligence but far superior.

Suppose x = the universe, and y = some man-made machine. The
¬rst premise tells us that x and y are quite similar. Applying the
Cause-and-Effect Principle, we can infer that the cause of the uni-
verse is similar to human intelligence (as this is the cause of the
man-made machine). So, A = the intelligence that designed the uni-
verse, and B = human intelligence. The ¬rst premise also tells us that
the universe is far superior to any man-made machine. Applying the
Superiority Principle, we can infer that the intelligence that produced
the universe is far superior to human intelligence.
This argument appears in Part II of the Dialogues. In the remainder
of that part, as well as in the subsequent six parts, the argument is
subjected to a bewildering variety of objections, the majority of which
are suggested by Philo. We will not examine all of these objections.
The project at hand is the tricky one that I mentioned but brushed
aside in Chapter 1: to determine Hume™s position on the argument
from design. We will begin by considering Philo™s ¬rst criticism of
Cleanthes™s argument as well as Cleanthes™s response to that criticism
in Part III.
Philo™s immediate reaction to Cleanthes™s argument is to ques-
tion its ¬rst premise. He rejects the claim that that there is much

Faith, Design, and True Religion

resemblance between the universe and man-made machines at all:
“The dissimilitude is so striking that the utmost you can here pre-
tend to is a guess, a conjecture, a presumption concerning a similar
cause.”68 Philo goes on to offer an argument against the similarity
of the universe to a man-made machine, the details of which do not
concern us here. What is important is that Cleanthes clearly takes
Philo™s main objection to be directed against the similarity claim. This
is evident from Cleanthes™s opening speech in Part III of the Dialogues,
where he remarks: “[I]t is by no means necessary that theists should
prove the similarity of the works of nature to those of art, because
this similarity is self-evident and undeniable.”69 Cleanthes follows
up this remark by describing two imaginary cases in which it is sup-
posed to be obvious that intelligent design is at work, arguing that
design is similarly obvious in the case of the actual universe. Again,
the details of these cases do not concern us here. What does concern
us is an important and much-discussed argument that immediately
follows Cleanthes™s presentation of the two examples. This is the so-
called irregular argument, which appears in these lines, spoken by
Cleanthes to Philo: “Consider, anatomize the eye; survey its structure
and contrivance, and tell me, from your own feeling, if the idea of
a contriver does not immediately ¬‚ow in upon you with a force like
that of sensation. The most obvious conclusion, surely, is in favor of
The exact nature and function of this irregular argument in the
Dialogues is a matter of some debate. Some commentators suppose
that it is a new kind of argument from design, distinct from Clean-
thes™s earlier Part II argument.71 Others suggest that it is not an
argument at all but simply a feeling that ultimately adds nothing
to the debate.72 I favor a third possibility: that this irregular argu-
ment is not an entirely new and distinct design argument but rather
is intended to support Cleanthes™s Part II argument. I believe that
the irregular argument is designed to get Philo to recognize that the
natural universe (or at least some of its parts) is obviously similar to
a man-made machine. The context in which Cleanthes presents the
irregular argument supports this interpretation; Cleanthes has spent

God and the Reach of Reason

all of Part III up to this point trying to establish the obviousness of
this resemblance. It would be odd for him suddenly in midstream to
offer an entirely new kind of design argument.
If this interpretation is right, then what exactly is the irregular
argument? How are Cleanthes™s remarks supposed to get Philo to
recognize the obviousness of the similarity between the human eye
and man-made machines? To answer this question, we must return
once again to Hume™s example involving nourishing bread and his
views on custom.
Suppose that I enter a restaurant, starved for nourishment. Shortly
after I am seated a waiter brings me a bowl of bread. The bread is
of a variety I have not previously encountered. Almost immediately
I form the belief that this bread will nourish me; indeed, the belief
¬‚ows in upon me with a force like that of sensation. What exactly
has happened here?
Here is a Humean account of what has gone on in this exam-
ple. My observation of the bread triggers the operation of a host of
innate cognitive faculties. These cognitive faculties operate largely
outside of my conscious awareness.73 The bread on the table, while
of a variety I have not previously encountered, resembles bread that
I have encountered in a variety of ways. The resemblance is, in fact,
obvious. This resemblance is registered by my cognitive faculties,
though I do not necessarily form the conscious belief that the new
bread resembles bread I have previously encountered. Registering
the resemblance, my cognitive faculties cause me to form the belief
that this new bread will nourish me, thus clearing the way for the
bread-eating frenzy that inevitably follows. Custom, that “great guide
of human life,” has led me to an important piece of knowledge. The
knowledge that the bread will nourish me is rooted in its resem-
blance to bread I have previously encountered, but I did not engage
in a chain of reasoning that began with premises about bread I have
previously encountered and ended with the conclusion that this new
bread would also nourish me. Indeed, as I am a careful reasoner, I
am aware that there is no such adequate chain of reasoning, so, were
it not for custom, I would ¬nd myself sitting helplessly at the table,
wondering whether this new bread would nourish me after all.74
Faith, Design, and True Religion

Here is the crucial feature of the example: The fact that the belief
that the bread will nourish me rushes in on me with such force should
tell me (if I think about it) that I recognize, at least implicitly the
strong similarity between this new bread and bread I have previously
encountered. Given the way my cognitive faculties work (when
functioning properly), the belief in question would not have rushed
in with such force if there were not a strong resemblance between
bread familiar to me and the new bread. This is because my faculties
would not have produced the belief in question had they not reg-
istered the resemblance in question (again, assuming that they are
functioning properly).
At this point, a question arises: There are plenty of other conclu-
sions I might reasonably have drawn on the basis of the resemblance.
Why, for instance, did not the belief that this bread contains ¬‚our
rush in on me? The Humean answer, I think, is that which of the
many beliefs that might have been formed on the basis of the resem-
blance actually is formed depends on my interests at the time. In the
example, I was very hungry, so naturally I wondered whether the
bread would nourish me rather than what its ingredients were or
how it was made.
With all of this in mind, let us return to Cleanthes and Philo. When
Cleanthes asks Philo to re¬‚ect on the eye and “survey its structure,”
he assumes that such surveillance will trigger Philo™s automatic cog-
nitive faculties to produce in Philo “the idea of a contriver.”75 The
point of this is to get Philo to recognize that, despite his fancy philo-
sophical arguments against the similarity of the universe to man-
made machines, the workings of his own cognitive faculties suggests
that he himself implicitly recognizes the similarity. Of course, there
is the possibility that the idea of a contriver is a result not of Philo™s
properly functioning cognitive faculties but rather of some sort of
error or bias. Still, the presence of the idea of a contriver consti-
tutes at least a prima facie case for signi¬cant similarity between
the universe and man-made machines. In this way, Philo™s excessive
skepticism is challenged by custom. The irregular argument, then, is
not an argument in the traditional sense. It is not a series of propo-
sitions standing in certain logical relations to each other intended to
God and the Reach of Reason

support a conclusion. Instead, it is a thought experiment posed by
Cleanthes intended to bring Philo to the realization that he implicitly
accepts the very similarity he has previously denied.
After presenting this irregular argument, Cleanthes says:

It sometimes happens, I own, that the religious arguments have not
their due in¬‚uence on an ignorant savage and barbarian; not because
they are obscure and dif¬cult, but because he never asks himself any
question with regard to them. Whence arises the curious structure of
an animal? From the copulation of its parents? And these whence?
From their parents? A few removes set the objects at such a distance
to him that they are lost in darkness and confusion; nor is he actuated
by any curiosity to trace them farther.76

Our innate cognitive faculties are quietly and continuously clicking
away, registering the countless similarities and differences between
the various objects we encounter. The similarities and differences
these faculties register provide the materials for countless bits of
knowledge, the vast majority of which we never acquire. Which bits
of knowledge we do acquire at any given time is determined largely
by our concerns at that time. The ignorant savage fails to form the
belief that the eye is a product of intelligent design for much the same
reason that I fail to form the belief that the bread before me contains
¬‚our.77 I am not interested in the ingredients of the bread; the savage
is not interested in the origin of the eye. Philo, however, is different.
For one thing, he is in the midst of a discussion of the ultimate ori-
gin of the universe. For another, he has, according to Cleanthes, a
“sifting, inquisitive disposition.”78 Thus, Cleanthes is con¬dent that
Philo™s cognitive faculties can be counted on to produce the idea
of a designer, thereby forcing Philo to acknowledge the similarity
between the eye and man-made machines. And, since Philo™s only
objection to Cleanthes™s argument at this point is directed against the
similarity claim, once Philo acknowledges the similarity he will have
nothing left to say against Cleanthes™s original argument. He should
be rendered speechless “ at least temporarily.
And this is exactly what happens. When Cleanthes stops speaking,
Pamphilus (who, you will recall, recounts to Hermippus the entire

Faith, Design, and True Religion

discussion involving Cleanthes, Philo, and Demea) observes that
Philo is “a little embarrassed and confounded.”79 This is a signi¬-
cant development; as William Sessions points out, “[t]his is one of
those rare moments of (reported) action in the Dialogues, and we
are obliged to take it most seriously.”80 My theory about the cause
of Philo™s silence is that Philo has in fact carried out the thought
experiment Cleanthes asked him to carry out. Philo has re¬‚ected on
the eye, and the idea of a designer has rushed in on him with some
force. Cleanthes has been successful in forcing Philo to recognize the
similarity between “the works of nature” and “those of art.”81 Hume
has Philo fall into embarrassed silence at this moment to signal that
Cleanthes has scored a victory. This is good evidence, I think, that
Hume himself is at least somewhat sympathetic to Cleanthes™s simi-
larity claim.
This is just one piece of the puzzle that is the Dialogues. To deter-
mine Hume™s ultimate verdict regarding Cleanthes™s design argument
we must examine some other sections of the Dialogues, particularly
the ¬nal part, Part XII. Some background information will be useful
before we consider Part XII itself.
Throughout Parts II“VIII, Philo presents a bewildering array of
possible alternative explanations for the natural universe other than
Cleanthes™s favored intelligent designer hypothesis. Among these are
the hypotheses (i) that the world is an animal body and God is its
soul (rather than its designer), (ii) that the world is a kind of veg-
etable and hence was produced by “vegetation” (growth?) rather
than by intelligent design, and (iii) that the universe contains a
¬nite number of atoms moving at random and the present con¬g-
uration arose by chance.82 At the end of Part VIII, Philo offers the
following verdict on the various “religious systems” that have been

All religious systems . . . are subject to great and insuperable dif¬culties.
Each disputant triumphs in his turn, while he carries on an offensive
war, and exposes the absurdities, barbarities, and pernicious tenets
of his antagonist. But all of them, on the whole, prepare a complete
triumph for the skeptic, who tells them that no system ought ever

God and the Reach of Reason

to be embraced with regard to such subjects . . . A total suspense of
judgment is here our only reasonable recourse.83

Throughout much of the Dialogues, Cleanthes argues for anthropomor-
phism, the view that the universe is the product of a divine Mind that
is both signi¬cantly similar to, and comprehensible by, the human
mind. Demea argues for mysticism, the view that the universe is the
product of an in¬nite and perfect divine Mind that is utterly beyond
the grasp of human reason. And Philo, for his part, pushes a kind of
skepticism, according to which human reason is incapable of acquir-
ing any determinate knowledge about the cause (or causes) of the
At the end of Part XI, Demea is scandalized by Philo™s suggestion
that in light of the mixture of good and evil in the universe, the
most probable hypothesis is that the cause of the universe is morally
indifferent (and hence not perfectly good, as Demea and traditional
Christianity would have it). He storms out, leaving Cleanthes and
Philo to ¬nish the discussion. Philo™s ¬rst speech in Part XII contains
the following startling apparent reversal of his earlier endorsement
of skepticism:

Cleanthes, with whom I live in unreserved intimacy; you are sensible
that, notwithstanding the freedom of my conversation and my love of
singular arguments, no one has a deeper sense of religion impressed
on his mind, or pays more profound adoration to the Divine Being,
as he discovers himself to reason in the inexplicable contrivance and
arti¬ce of nature. A purpose, an intention, a design strikes everywhere
the most careless, the most stupid thinker; and no man can be so
hardened in absurd systems as at all times to reject it.84

This unexpected apparent revelation that Philo in fact accepts Clean-
thes™s basic position is followed not too long after by a speech in
which Philo essentially restates and endorses Cleanthes™s original
design argument from Part II.85
What are we to make of Philo™s apparent display of his true anthro-
pomorphic colors? This reversal is one of the central stumbling blocks
to discerning Hume™s views in the Dialogues. In his introduction to
the Dialogues, J. C. A. Gaskin reports the comment of a colleague who
Faith, Design, and True Religion

had just read the work for the ¬rst time: “What does the dashed fel-
low actually believe in the end?”86 Many commentators agree that
Demea™s departure immediately prior to Philo™s apparent reversal is
signi¬cant but disagree about just what it signi¬es. David O™Connor
suggests that Philo™s speech at the start of Part XII is “less about the
truth and falsity of the design hypothesis than about re-establishing
an amiable and social atmosphere,” remarking that the two “seem
to be acting in a way that is fairly common among friends . . . when
a conversation has become too sharp.”87 In O™Connor™s view, the
friendship that exists between Philo and Cleanthes gives us reason
to doubt the sincerity of Philo™s abrupt adoption of Cleanthes™s views.
William Sessions takes a somewhat different view:

[S]o long as Demea is present . . . we cannot credit his arguments as
conveying Philo™s true views, either in their (mostly negative) con-
clusions or in their (generally skeptical) bent. Thus, in particular, the
details of Philo™s controversial starting of cavils and objections in Parts
2“11 against Cleanthes™ design argument must be taken with a grain of
salt; they do not necessarily represent Philo™s own true views. . . . Philo
can speak his true mind only when, in Part 12, he is in non-combative
conversation alone with his old friend Cleanthes.88

Well, such is the way of philosophy. This much is clear: Demea™s
departure and the friendship between Cleanthes and Philo does not,
by itself, tell us whether Philo™s reversal is sincere. We must look for
other clues as to Philo™s actual view.
O™Connor and Sessions agree that Philo™s reversal, sincere or not,
is followed by a series of quali¬cations that greatly waters down
his initial apparent complete acceptance of Cleanthes™s anthropo-
morphism. Much of this “hollowing out” of Cleanthes™s anthropo-
morphism occurs in a long speech by Philo in which he argues that
the debate between theists and atheists is a purely verbal dispute.89
Philo claims that theists and atheists agree that the cause of the uni-
verse resembles the human mind to some degree but disagree about
how strong this resemblance is.90 He claims that honest theists and
atheists will make certain concessions to the other side. The the-
ist, for her part, ought to admit that “there is a great and immea-
surable, because incomprehensible, difference between the human
God and the Reach of Reason

and the divine mind.”91 The atheist, for her part, ought to recognize
that there is “a certain degree of analogy among all the operations
of nature . . . whether the rotting of a turnip, the generation of an
animal, and the structure of human thought.”92 Since all known
natural processes resemble each other to some extent, the atheist
should make the further concession that it is probable that “the prin-
ciple which ¬rst arranged and still maintains order in this universe
bears . . . some remote inconceivable analogy to the other operations
of nature and, among the rest, to the economy of human mind and
The concessions Philo describes would yield a position that is closer
to Philo™s original skepticism than it is to Cleanthes™s anthropomor-
phism. The compromise position includes the claims (i) that the dif-
ference between the divine mind and the human mind is incompre-
hensible and (ii) that the similarity between the human mind and the
divine mind, while existent, is inconceivable. Philo also insists that the
moral attributes of the divine mind are quite unlike the virtues of
benevolence and justice, as those virtues are understood by human

I must also acknowledge, Cleanthes, that, as the works of Nature have
a much greater analogy to the effects of our art and contrivance than
to those of our benevolence and justice; we have reason to infer that
the natural attributes of the Deity have a greater resemblance to those
of men than his moral have to human virtues.94

Philo is here alluding to his earlier presentation of the problem of pain
in Parts X and XI. During that discussion, Philo was quite con¬dent
that the presence of suffering in the universe blocks any inference
from the universe to a just and benevolent Designer: “Here, Clean-
thes, I ¬nd myself at ease in my argument. Here I triumph.”95 Philo™s
later remarks during the “hollowing out” of his concession to Clean-
thes indicate that he stands by his earlier claim to victory. The hol-
lowing out culminates near the end of Part XII (and of the Dialogues)
with Philo suggesting that “the whole of natural theology . . . resolves
itself into one simple . . . proposition, That the cause or causes of order
in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence,”
Faith, Design, and True Religion

and that this proposition is “not capable of extension, variation, or
more particular explication.”96
Further evidence that the compromise position is closer to Philo™s
skepticism than it is to Cleanthes™s anthropomorphism can be seen
by re¬‚ecting on this question: Suppose that skepticism about natu-
ral religion (as expressed by Philo™s remarks at the end of Part VIII)
were true; what practical implications would natural religion have
for how we should live? The answer is clear: essentially none, other
than perhaps that we should not try to use human reason to under-
stand God. According to Philo, the compromise position has exactly
the same lack of practical relevance. He suggests that it “affords no
inference that affects human life, or can be the source of any action
or forbearance.”97
In light of all this, I think that the following argument captures
Philo™s ¬nal position:

Philo™s Hollowed-Out Argument from Design

1. The universe is (i) somewhat similar to machines that are the
result of human intelligence and (ii) contains a lot of suffering.
2. If (1), then the cause of the universe is (i) somewhat similar to
human intelligence but (ii) not benevolent or just in the same
sense that just or benevolent human beings are.
3. Therefore, the cause of the universe is somewhat similar to
human intelligence but not benevolent or just in the same sense
that just or benevolent human beings are.98

The conclusion of this argument is vague. This is intentional; Philo
remarks that the conclusion suggested by natural theology is “some-
what ambiguous.”99
The purpose of this discussion has been to determine the nature
of Hume™s own views on the argument from design. I believe that
Hume™s own views do not perfectly match the views of any one char-
acter in the Dialogues. I mentioned in Chapter 1 that Hume worked on
the Dialogues off and on for roughly thirty years. I think the Dialogues
is Hume™s attempt to work out the implications of three ideas.
God and the Reach of Reason

The ¬rst of these is that it is important to delineate the limits of
human reason. As we saw earlier in this chapter, ¬nding the lim-
its of human reason was one of Hume™s central goals. In that same
discussion I noted that Hume was concerned to put a stop to bad phi-
losophy, much of which he thought was produced by thinkers who
attempt to push human reason beyond its limits. Hume was partic-
ularly skeptical of the idea that human reason can be used to deter-
mine much of interest about the existence and nature of God. In the
Dialogues, Philo presses skepticism about natural religion to extremes.
The character of Philo gives Hume an opportunity to develop the best
arguments for skepticism about natural religion that he can.
However, Hume was, I think, also deeply cognizant of the fact
that the universe certainly seems to be a product of intelligent design.
Hume felt the naturalness of this view quite strongly. In the ¬rst
paragraph of The Natural History of Religion, he remarks that “[t]he
whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author.”100 He makes
similar claims no less than nine additional times through that same
work.101 And we saw earlier that Hume even has the skeptical Philo
temporarily rendered speechless in the face of the apparent obvious-
ness of design. The character of Cleanthes gives Hume an opportunity
to develop the best design argument that he can and to evaluate it.
Finally, Hume felt the force of the problem of evil, particularly
evil in the form of suffering. In Natural History, Hume tells us that
“with good reasoners,” unexpected evils “are the chief dif¬culties in
admitting a supreme intelligence.”102 We saw in Chapter 1 that two
of the twelve sections of the Dialogues are devoted to the problem of
evil, and I noted in the present section that Philo views suffering in
the world as the basis of his strongest criticism of Cleanthes™s design
argument. The character of Philo (and to a lesser extent Demea)
provides Hume with the opportunity to examine the implications
that suffering has for natural religion.
The in¬‚uence of these three ideas (skepticism, design, and suffer-
ing) is evident in the compromise position described by Philo in the
¬nal section of the Dialogues. Skepticism manifests itself in the vague-
ness and the minimalist nature of that position. Design manifests
itself in the fact that the compromise includes the notion that the
Faith, Design, and True Religion

cause of the universe is something like the human mind. And the
problem of evil manifests itself in the fact that, according to the com-
promise position, the moral attributes of the cause of the universe
are the least comprehensible to us of all its attributes. There may in
fact be a God with a much richer and more determinate nature than
the vague cause of the universe depicted by the compromise posi-
tion, but the nature of such a God lies beyond the reach of human
reason. As Susan Neiman puts it, “it is reason, not God, that was the
primary target of Hume™s work.”103
Ultimately, therefore, I believe that the best guess about Hume™s
own views on the design argument is that they are captured by Philo™s
compromise position. This position represents the culmination of
Hume™s efforts to work out the implications of skepticism, design, and
evil. Indeed, there is reason to believe that Hume grappled with these
issues intermittently throughout his entire adult life. In a letter writ-
ten on March 10, 1751, Hume reports that he has just recently des-
troyed a manuscript on natural religion that he wrote before he was
twenty years old. He describes the destroyed manuscript this way:

It begun with an anxious Search after Arguments, to con¬rm the com-
mon Opinion; Doubts stole in, dissipated, return™d, were again dissi-
pated, return™d again; and it was a perpetual struggle of a restless
Imagination against Inclination, perhaps against Reason.104

This same “perpetual struggle” continues in the Dialogues, and Philo™s
¬nal compromise position at the end of the work represents the
closest Hume ever got to a clear, decisive resolution of the struggle.105

4.3.2 Lewis on Design
We considered Lewis™s view on the argument from design early in
Chapter 2, so we need only remind ourselves of that view here.
Lewis™s position on the design argument is captured by Philo™s assess-
ment of it in Part XI of Hume™s Dialogues that “however consistent the
world may be, allowing certain suppositions and conjectures with the
idea of such a Deity, it can never afford us an inference concerning
his existence.”106 In Mere Christianity, Lewis says that if we had to base
our knowledge about God™s nature exclusively on what we know of
God and the Reach of Reason

the observable physical universe, “we should have to conclude that
the He was a great artist (for the universe is a very beautiful place),
but also that He is quite merciless and no friend to man (for the
universe is a very dangerous and terrifying place.)”107
Consider the following proposition:

Hume™s Conditional: If all our knowledge of God must be based
entirely on the observable physical universe, then we cannot know
that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good.

Lewis and Hume both accept this conditional. Hume also af¬rms the
antecedent of the conditional and hence holds that we cannot know
that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good. Lewis, by
contrast, rejects the antecedent. His case for a good God rests not on
the observable physical universe but rather on human nature. For
Hume, the argument from design lies at the very heart of natural
religion. For Lewis, it is a red herring.

4.3.3 Russell on Design
Russell also endorses Hume™s conditional. Furthermore, in at least
some places, he seems to support the conditional by much the same
reasoning that Philo and Lewis do: “[I]f you are going to judge of the
Creator by the creation you would have to suppose that God also is
partly good and partly bad, that He likes poetry, music, art, and He
also likes war and slaughter.”108 Russell was fond of suggesting that
a perfect God could (and would) have done much better than the
universe we ¬nd ourselves in:

When you come to look into this argument from design, it is a most
astonishing thing that people can believe that this world, with all the
things that are in it, with all its defects, should be the best that omnipo-
tence and omniscience have been able to produce in millions of years.
I really cannot believe it.109

At different points in his life, Russell held different views on whether
the evil we ¬nd in the universe is consistent with the existence of an
omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good God. In 1939, he wrote
that the existence of this sort of God “can be actually disproved,”
Faith, Design, and True Religion

and the basis of the proof seems to be the existence of evil.110 In
1944, he allowed that the creation of a universe containing some
evil by an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good God “is logically
possible.”111 However, he never wavered in his endorsement of the
thesis that arguments from design cannot by themselves establish
the existence of the traditional God of Christianity. Like Hume and
Lewis, Russell saw evil in the universe as one of the major stumbling
blocks for such arguments.
Many have pointed to Darwin™s theory of evolution as putting a
dagger through the heart of the argument from design, and in some
places Russell endorses this view. For instance, in “Why I Am Not a
Christian,” he writes:

[S]ince the time of Darwin we understand much better why living
creatures are adapted to their environment. It is not that their envi-
ronment was made to be suitable to them but that they grew to be
suitable to it, and that is the basis of adaptation. There is no evidence
of design about it.112

To the extent that evolutionary theory is plausible, it does make trou-
ble for certain versions of the design argument. However, there are
other versions that the theory does not touch. For instance, Clean-
thes™s design argument from Part II of Hume™s Dialogues is untouched
by evolutionary theory. This is because that argument is based on
the similarity between the entire universe and man-made machines.
Evolutionary theory does not (and is not intended to) explain all the
order in the universe; it is only intended to explain how all currently
existing species might have arisen from a single simple organism,
and perhaps why all currently existing species are so well suited to
the environments in which they live. But there are other features of
the universe about which the theory simply has nothing to say. For
example, contemporary ¬ne-tuning arguments take as their starting
point the observation that the values of the constants in the funda-
mental laws of physics all fall into the tiny range required for life
to arise, even though there appears to be a huge range of possible
values these constants might have had.113 Evolutionary theory does
not provide an explanation for these “anthropic coincidences.”
God and the Reach of Reason

Later, Russell championed a different kind of objection. This one
focuses on omnipotence:

Design implies the necessity of using means, which does not exist for
omnipotence. When we desire a house, we have to go through the
labor of building it, but Aladdin™s genie could cause a palace to exist
by magic. The long process of evolution might be necessary to a divine
Arti¬cer who found matter already in existence, and had to struggle
to bring order out of chaos. But to the God of Genesis and of orthodox
theology no such laborious process was needed.114

It is likely that Russell got this objection from John Stuart Mill, who,
as it happens, was Russell™s godfather. In Part II of his essay “Theism,”
Mill writes:

It is not too much to say that every indication of Design in the Kosmos
is so much evidence against the Omnipotence of the Designer. For
what is meant by Design? Contrivance: the adaptation of means to an
end. But the necessity for contrivance “ the need of employing means “
is a consequence of the limitation of power. . . . A man does not use
machinery to move his arms. If he did, it could only be when paralysis
had deprived him of the power of moving them by volition. . . . The evi-
dences, therefore, of Natural Theology distinctly imply that the author
of the Kosmos worked under limitations.115

This is a clever attempt to turn the argument from design on its head.
The idea is that the very features of the universe that suggest the exis-
tence of an intelligent designer also suggest that the designer is not
omnipotent. The presence in nature of means to ends indicates intel-
ligent design, but the use of means to achieve ends simultaneously
indicates a lack of power in the designer. An omnipotent designer
would simply bring about his ends directly, without using any means
at all, as in Mill™s example of moving one™s arms and Russell™s exam-
ple of building a house. The implication is that a design produced
by an omnipotent designer would be devoid of any indication that it
had been designed at all.
The argument relies on the following principle:

Mill™s Principle: The use of means to achieve an end always indicates
a lack of power in the being who uses the means.
Faith, Design, and True Religion

This principle is false for at least two reasons. First, there is the simple
point that an end is a goal, and it is possible to have as one™s goal the
attainment of a particular end by a particular means. For instance, it
is perfectly conceivable to have as one™s goal moving one™s arm using
complicated gadgetry. One may have this as one™s goal even if one is
capable of moving one™s arm in the usual more direct fashion. An
inability to move one™s arm directly is one possible reason one might
use complicated machinery to effect the move, but it is not the only
possible reason. Applying this point to Russell™s earlier remarks, we
can say that while it may not have been necessary for the God of
traditional Christianity to use evolution to create human beings, it is
possible that God™s goal was not merely that there be human beings
but that human beings come into existence via evolution.
A second reason the principle is false is that some ends are impos-
sible to bring about directly. Recall Lewis™s view (discussed in Chap-
ter 1) that omnipotence does not include the ability to do absolutely
anything. Some things are simply impossible (in Lewis™s terminol-
ogy, they are “intrinsically impossible”).116 If there are ends such
that bringing them about directly is intrinsically impossible, then the
fact that a given being uses a means to achieve them does not imply
a lack of power in that being. Lewis provides a plausible example
of such an end. In Chapter 1 we also considered Lewis™s idea that
one of God™s main goals for humanity is that human beings come to
love Him freely. Because of the nature of free will, this is not a goal
that can be directly brought about by God. It can be attained only
by somewhat indirect means (recall Screwtape™s remark that “[God]
cannot ravish. He can only woo”).117 Thus, Mill™s principle is false,
and Russell™s Mill-inspired argument fails.
We also ¬nd in Russell yet another way of arguing for Hume™s
conditional. This argument must be carefully distinguished from the
approach taken by Philo in Part XII of the Dialogues and by Lewis in
Mere Christianity. They argue that if all our knowledge of God must
be based entirely on the observable physical universe, then we must
conclude that God is not perfectly good. Hume™s conditional follows
immediately from this claim. Another strategy, however, is to argue
that there are many hypotheses about the nature of the Designer
God and the Reach of Reason

that explain the observable physical universe equally well. If all we
have to go on is the observable physical universe, there is no reason
to favor any one of these hypotheses over the others. This also leads
to Hume™s conditional. Russell presents the argument this way:

There would seem . . . to be no evidence that the course of events has
been planned either by an omnipotent or by a non-omnipotent Deity;
there is also no evidence that it has not been planned. Nor, if there
be a Deity, is there any evidence as to his moral attributes. He may
be doing His best under dif¬culties; He may be doing His worst, but
be unable to prevent the accidental emergence of a little bit of good
now and then. Or, again, His purposes may be purely aesthetic; He
may not care whether His creatures are happy or unhappy, but only
whether they provide a pleasing spectacle. All these hypotheses are
equally probable, in the sense that there is not a shred of evidence for
or against any of them. . . . Of possible hypotheses there is no end, but
in the absence of evidence we have no right to incline toward those
that we happen to ¬nd agreeable.118

With a little imagination, it is not hard to add hypotheses to those
Russell lists. Russell™s 1903 essay “A Free Man™s Worship” opens with
an imagined Creator who creates our universe simply for the drama
and spectacle of it all.119 Hume gets into the act as well, letting his
imagination run wild by way of Philo™s speculations:

This world, for aught [one] knows . . . was only the ¬rst rude essay of
some dependent, inferior deity who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed
of his lame performance: It is the work only of some dependent, infe-
rior deity, and is the object of derision to his superiors: It is the pro-
duction of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity; and ever
since his death has run on at adventures, from the ¬rst impulse and
active force which it received from him . . . .120

Science ¬ction abounds with further hypotheses. In Kurt Vonnegut™s
The Sirens of Titan (spoiler coming!), earth and all life on it exist
entirely for the sake of manufacturing a replacement part for a
stranded interstellar traveler™s spaceship.121 In the fourth book of
Douglas Adams™s Hitchhiker™s Guide to the Galaxy series (another spoiler
coming!), God™s Final Message to His Creation is revealed to be: “We
apologize for the inconvenience.”122
Faith, Design, and True Religion

Lewis, Hume, and Russell all identi¬ed a fundamental weakness
common to all design arguments: The furthest such arguments can
take us is to the existence of some intelligent designer or other. If
the universe is indeed an artifact of some sort, it is an artifact about
which we know relatively little. We cannot be sure which parts are
the important parts in the eyes of the designer and which, if any, are
merely the means to some end, or accidental by-products. We are cer-
tainly in no position to judge the ultimate purpose or purposes of
the artifact. Given our current state of knowledge, ascertaining the
purpose of the universe is about as likely as inferring a clock from
knowledge of one of its springs. Given this, it is hard to see how we
could arrive at any determinate conclusions concerning the nature
of the designer if all we have to go on is the physical universe.
Contemporary debate about intelligent design tends to focus on
evolutionary theory. But the demise of evolutionary theory would,
at best, eliminate one part of one alternative to the traditional Chris-
tian version of the design hypothesis. Countless alternatives would
remain untouched. The fact that few in the West defend (or even
consider) such alternatives is irrelevant to this point. Perhaps con-
temporary critics of intelligent design would do well to emphasize
its ultimately disappointing results: It leads directly to Philo™s com-
promise position, a position that “affords no inference that affects
human life, or can be the source of any action or forbearance.”123
Recall Paul the Apostle™s claim that God™s nature can be “understood
and seen through the things he has made.”124 The dream that this
remark is often understood as representing, the dream of inferring
the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good God
from the existence of the observable physical universe alone, is dead.
The murderer of that dream was not Darwin but Hume.125


4.4.1 Hume: True Religion and Sick Men™s Dreams
William Sessions suggests that the Dialogues contains a distinction
between theology and piety, where piety is “practical religion, how
God and the Reach of Reason

one lives as well as thinks and feels.”126 Recall Philo™s suggestion that
the results of natural religion amount to the following proposition:
“That the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some
remote analogy to human intelligence.”127 Shortly after reaching
this conclusion, Philo re¬‚ects on its practical implications. Using Ses-
sions™s distinction, we can say that Philo offers the following account
of piety to go with his theology:

[W]hat can the most inquisitive, contemplative, and religious man
do more than give a plain, philosophical assent to the proposition
[just given], as often as it occurs, and believe that the arguments on
which it is established exceed the objections which lie against it? Some
astonishment, indeed, will naturally arise from the greatness of the
object; some melancholy from its obscurity: Some contempt of human
reason that it can give no solution more satisfactory with regard to so
extraordinary and magni¬cent a question.128

All that unaided reason can tell us about the cause of the universe
(which we call “God”) is that it probably is something like a human
mind. The proper emotional response to this result is to feel a mix-
ture of astonishment (at God™s mysterious greatness), melancholy
(at the disappointingly meager fruits of human reason in this area),
and contempt (for human reason for not doing better with respect
to such an important issue). This sums up Hume™s views on true
religion “ the beliefs and attitudes that properly executed natural
religion yields. Humean true religion has almost no implications for
how we ought to act in everyday life. It includes no claims about
an afterlife; in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume
argues that natural religion fails to establish the existence of an
afterlife.129 He writes: “No new fact can ever be inferred from the
religious hypothesis; no event foreseen or foretold; no reward or
punishment expected or dreaded, beyond what is already known by
practice and observation.”130
In light of all this, the following remark by Philo is puzzling: “A
person, seasoned with a just sense of the imperfections of natural
reason, will ¬‚y to revealed truth with the greatest avidity. . . . To be a
philosophical skeptic is, in a man of letters, the ¬rst and most essen-
tial step towards being a sound, believing Christian.”131 Read literally,
Faith, Design, and True Religion

the passage suggests that recognition of the disappointing results of
natural religion will eventually lead the re¬‚ective thinker to Chris-
tianity in the following way: Noticing the many defects of human
reason in general and its inability to produce much of anything of
interest in the particular area of religion, a re¬‚ective thinker will turn
to revealed religion for knowledge of God. The substantial gaps in
our knowledge of God left by human reason are to be ¬lled in by the
word of God as contained in the Christian Bible. Thus, recognition
of the failings of the human mind is the ¬rst step in conversion to
There is good reason, however, not to take Philo™s remarks at face
value. These remarks at the very end of the Dialogues are connected
with Part I, the topic of which is the proper method of educating the
young. There, Demea outlines a curriculum aimed at instilling ¬rm
and unshakeable religious belief in its students. The study of religion
is to be saved for last; all other subjects are to be examined ¬rst.
Throughout the study of the other subjects, the imperfection and
de¬ciency of human reason is repeatedly emphasized. In a university
run on Demea™s principles, each course would end with the professor
remarking, “And so we see from our study of (calculus, or geology,
or chemistry, or sociology, etc.) how prone to error human reason
is.” The goal is to instill in the students doubt about their ability to
think through much of anything on their own, particularly when it
comes to the existence and nature of God. Once this self-doubt is in
place, they are ready to be exposed to something in which they can
have con¬dence “ the word of God:

Having thus tamed their minds to a proper submission and self-
dif¬dence, I have no longer any scruple of opening to them the greatest
mysteries of religion, nor apprehend any danger from that assum-
ing arrogance of philosophy, which may lead them to reject the most
established doctrines and opinions.132

The same distrust of human reason that makes the students recep-
tive to revealed religion in the ¬rst place insulates their religious
beliefs from philosophical refutation; after all, philosophical argu-
ments against God™s existence or goodness are products of human
God and the Reach of Reason

reason, and the students have learned all too well how unreliable
that particular faculty is.
Toward the end of Part I, Philo offers a devastating criticism of
Demea™s approach. Philo points out that religious believers in differ-
ent ages use different apologetic strategies, sometimes extolling the
virtues of human reason, sometimes emphasizing its shortcomings.
He explains the contemporary (i.e., eighteenth-century) strategy as

[A]t present, when the in¬‚uence of education is much diminished
and men, from a more open commerce of the world, have learned to
compare the popular principles of different nations and ages, our saga-
cious divines have changed their whole system of philosophy and talk
the language of Stoics, Platonists, and Peripatetics, not that of Pyrrhonians
and Academics. If we distrust human reason we have now no other principle
to lead us into religion.133

The last line of the passage strikes at the heart of Demea™s system
of education. Globalization has made it clear that there are multiple
incompatible alleged words of God: How are we to know which of
these, if any, is genuine? Philo™s point in the ¬nal sentence is that
we must rely on reason to evaluate the various texts and determine
which, if any, constitutes genuine divine revelation. If we cannot rely
on human reason at all, then we will have no good way of deciding
which alleged revealed religion to believe. Therefore, in the context
of globalization, Demea™s method of education contains the seeds of
its own failure.
A consequence of this is that if becoming a philosophical skep-
tic is the ¬rst step toward becoming a Christian, the skepticism in
question must not be too extreme, or no step past the ¬rst one can
be taken. Any additional steps toward Christianity must be based
on an evaluation of the various religious texts by human reason.134
And Hume™s essay “Of Miracles,” discussed in the previous chapter,
contains Hume™s views on the results of that project: “[N]o human
testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and make it a
just foundation for any system of religion.”135

Faith, Design, and True Religion

At the start of Part X of the Dialogues, Demea suggests that the
best way to instill religious belief in people is to get them to recog-
nize their own misery and imbecility. In response to this proposal,
Philo remarks, “I am indeed persuaded . . . that the best and indeed
the only method of bringing everyone to a due sense of religion is by
just representations of the misery and wickedness of man.”136 What
Philo says here is, strictly speaking, something he believes; never-
theless, the statement is misleading. Philo thinks that recognition of
human misery should lead to doubt about God™s goodness, but he
knows that Demea will misunderstand Philo™s remark so as to think
that Philo agrees with him. I believe that Philo™s remark at the very
end of the Dialogues that becoming a philosophical skeptic is “the ¬rst
and most essential step towards being a sound, believing Christian” is
much like his earlier remark in Part X.137 It is, strictly speaking, some-
thing Philo (and perhaps Hume as well) believes. However, Hume
at any rate also believes that no further steps toward Christianity
can be taken by human reason. The only way to get from Philo™s
compromise position to Christianity is by way of an irrational leap
of faith.138 It may be a psychological fact about human beings that
skepticism causes them to turn to revealed religion, but the move
from skepticism to revealed religion is not a reasonable one. Philo™s
remark may in fact be intended as a kind of warning against pre-
cisely this irrational move.139 Hume may also be warning the reader
not to expect Philo™s compromise position to become widely believed
simply because it happens to be the most reasonable position. Like
Lewis and Russell, Hume is well aware of the fact that humans are
not simply rational truth seekers.
When we consider all of Hume™s writings on religion, we see that
his overall view is that human reason can take us no further than
Philo™s compromise position. Acceptance of this compromise posi-
tion, together with the astonishment, melancholy, and contempt
described earlier, constitutes true religion. True religion has no impli-
cations for ordinary life. There is no need to separate the church of
true religion from the state, because true religion has no political
implications whatsoever. Hume of course recognizes that his true

God and the Reach of Reason

religion has few adherents, and he is careful to distinguish it from
popular religion, “religion as it has commonly been found in the
world.”140 In Part XII of the Dialogues, Philo criticizes popular religion,
noting its “pernicious consequences on public affairs,” which include
“civil wars, persecutions, subversions of government, oppression,
[and] slavery.”141 He suggests that it is the prevalence of popular
religion that makes the separation of church and state such a good
idea: “Is there any maxim in politics more certain and infallible than
that both the number and authority of priests should be con¬ned
within very narrow limits, and that the civil magistrate ought, for
ever, to keep his fasces and axes from such dangerous hands?”142
Hume™s other writings make it clear that his own views on this
issue are close to those of Philo. In The Natural History of Religion,
he writes: “Survey most nations and most ages. Examine the reli-
gious principles, which have, in fact, prevailed in the world. You
will scarcely be persuaded, that they are any thing but sick men™s
dreams” or “playsome whimsies of monkeys in human shape.”143
In his essay “Of Superstition and Enthusiasm,” Hume distinguishes
two “corruptions of true religion.”144 The two corruptions are, natu-
rally, superstition, which is rooted in terror, and enthusiasm, which
is rooted in elation. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages,
but Hume™s view concerning their value in comparison to true reli-
gion is made by clear by the fact that he presents them as evidence
for the claim that “the corruption of the best things produces the
We have seen that Hume thinks that reason does not lead to
Christianity; but does he count it too as a corruption of true religion,
nothing but a sick man™s dream? He has no qualms about includ-
ing Catholicism in this category: “[T]here is no tenet in all pagan-
ism, which would give so fair a scope to ridicule as this of the real
presence.”146 Of course, the doctrine of transubstantiation is one that
is explicitly rejected by reformed Christianity, so this remark leaves
us without a verdict concerning the status of that kind of Christianity.
We know that Hume had good reason to suppress any overt criticism
of reformed Christianity, but there are two passages in the Natural

Faith, Design, and True Religion

History that suggest that he considers all versions of Christianity to
be corruptions of true religion. The ¬rst passage is this one:

Were there a religion . . . which [sometimes painted the Deity in the
most sublime colours, as the creator of heaven and earth; sometimes
degraded him nearly to the level with human creatures in his pow-
ers and faculties;] while at the same time it ascribed to him suitable
in¬rmities, passions, and partialities, of the moral kind: That religion,
after it was extinct, would also be cited as an instance of those con-
tradictions, which arise from the gross, vulgar, natural conceptions of
mankind. . . . Nothing indeed would prove more strongly the divine
origin of any religion, than to ¬nd (and happily this is the case with
Christianity) that it is free from a contradiction, so incident to human

Despite the disingenuous disclaimer in parentheses here, it is clear
that in the passage in brackets Hume is alluding in a not-so-subtle
way to the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. This is made even
clearer by the fact that in an earlier proof of the Natural History the
text apparently read as follows:

Were there a religion. . . . which [sometimes degraded him so far to
a level with human creatures as to represent him wrestling with a
man, walking in the cool of the evening, showing his back parts,
and descending from Heaven to inform himself of what passes on
earth] . . . 148

A second tell-tale passage occurs at the end of a section in which
Hume observes that when it comes to religious controversies the
most absurd opinion typically prevails. He writes: “To oppose the
torrent of scholastic religion by such feeble maxims as these, that it
is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be, that the whole is greater
than a part, that two and three make ¬ve; is pretending to stop the ocean
with a bullrush.”149 Note the third of Hume™s “feeble maxims.” Hume
selects a mathematical truth as an example of an obvious truth with
which certain popular religions con¬‚ict. But what popular religion
con¬‚icts with the claim that 2 + 3 = 5? It is likely that Hume is again
not-so-subtly alluding to Christianity; in this case, it is the doctrine
of the Trinity that seems to be Hume™s target. With its three Persons

God and the Reach of Reason

of the Trinity but just one God, this doctrine may be thought to run
afoul of the obvious mathematical truth that 1 + 1 + 1 = 3 (rather
than 1).150
We can conclude, therefore, that Hume does consider reformed
Christianity to be a kind of popular religion, to be counted among
“sick men™s dreams” or “playsome whimsies of monkeys in human
shape.”151 It is one of many widely accepted doctrines which lie
beyond the boundaries of rationality but which humans are never-
theless drawn to believe. Hume™s view of Christianity is much the
same as that of the teenage Lewis: It is “a kind of endemic nonsense
into which humanity tend[s] to blunder.”152

4.4.2 Lewis and Russell: True Religion as the Conquest
of Sel¬shness
Russell™s best-known writings on religion give the impression that
he saw religion in all its forms as an evil with almost no redeeming
value. Recall the opening lines of his essay “Has Religion Made Useful
Contributions to Civilization?”: “My own view on religion is that of
Lucretius. I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold
misery to the human race.”153 Russell admits only two contributions
to civilization made by religion: the ¬xing of the calendar and the
chronicling of eclipses.154 The essay concludes with these lines:

Religion prevents our children from having a rational education; reli-
gion prevents us from removing the fundamental causes of war; reli-
gion prevents us from teaching the ethic of scienti¬c co-operation in
place of the old ¬erce doctrines of sin and punishment. It is possible
that mankind is on the threshold of a golden age; but, if so, it will be
necessary ¬rst to slay the dragon that guards the door, and this dragon
is religion.155

It may come as a surprise, then, to discover that in some of his earlier
writing, Russell maintained that there are elements of religion that
are worth preserving. Russell™s 1912 essay “The Essence of Religion”
is a careful attempt to isolate those elements of religion that are ben-
e¬cial and can survive the “decay of traditional religious beliefs.”156
Russell argues that what is both good about and essential to religion
Faith, Design, and True Religion

are not the traditional “dogmas” (belief in God, immortality, the
divinity of Christ, etc.) but rather a certain outlook on the universe
and corresponding emotional attitude:

The dogmas have been valued, not so much on their own account, as
because they were believed to facilitate a certain attitude towards the
world, an habitual direction of our thoughts, a life in the whole, free
from the ¬niteness of self and providing an escape from the tyranny
of desire and daily cares. Such a life on the whole is possible without
dogma, and ought not to perish through the indifference of those to
whom the beliefs of former ages are no longer credible.157

Russell distinguishes the ¬nite self and the in¬nite self. The ¬nite self
“sees the world in concentric circles around the here and now, and
itself as the God of that wished-for heaven.”158 The in¬nite self, on
the other hand, “shines impartially” and “aims simply at the good,
without regarding the good as mine or yours.”159 These two selves
are naturally in con¬‚ict, and the essence of religion is the conquest of
the ¬nite self by the in¬nite self. This conquest “requires a moment of
absolute self-surrender,” a moment “which to the ¬nite self appears
like death.”160 Upon the “death” of the ¬nite self, “a new life begins,
with a larger vision, a new happiness, and wider hopes.”161
Then, the author of the infamously scathing “Why I Am Not a
Christian” has this to say: “There are in Christianity three elements
which it is desirable to preserve if possible: worship, acquiescence,
and love.”162 Worship is a combination of “contemplation with joy,
reverence, and sense of mystery.”163 There are two types of wor-
ship worthy of preservation: worship of ideal goodness and worship
of what actually exists. These together yield a desire to mold what
actually exists into the ideal good “ that is, to make the world as
good as possible. Acquiescence is acceptance of “evil which it is not
within our power to cure.”164 This frees us from fruitless anger; “the
realization of necessity is the liberation from indignation.”165 Finally,
there is love. According to Christ, the two greatest commandments
are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all
your soul, and with all your mind,” and to “love your neighbor as
yourself.”166 The ¬rst sort of love depends on dogma. Accordingly,
God and the Reach of Reason

Russell suggests that “[i]n a religion which is not theistic, love of
God is replaced by worship of the ideal good.”167 But love for one™s
fellow human beings can and should be preserved despite the loss of
dogma. This love is “given to all indifferently” and “does not demand
that its object shall be delightful, beautiful, or good.”168 It “breaks
down the walls of self that prevent its union with the world,” and
“[w]here it is strong, duties become easy, and all service is ¬lled with
What we have here is what might be described as a Russellian
account of true religion, religion that is worth preserving. This true
religion is grounded in the conquest of the ¬nite self by the in¬nite
self. Such conquest yields a desire to make the world as good as pos-
sible, a calm acceptance of the evils that one cannot eliminate, and
universal love for one™s fellow human beings. These three elements
of religion are “intimately interconnected; each helps to produce the
others, and all three together form a unity in which it is impossi-
ble to say which comes ¬rst.”170 And “[a]ll three can exist without
On May 20, 1946, Lewis gave a talk to the Oxford Socratic Club
called “Religion without Dogma?” He said: “[T]he essence of reli-
gion . . . is the thirst for an end higher than natural ends; the ¬nite
self™s desire for, and acquiescence in, and self-rejection in favour of,
an object wholly good and wholly good for it.”172
This account of the essence of religion is strikingly similar to Rus-
sell™s. Even the language the two use is similar. Compare Lewis™s
remark to this one by Russell: “The essence of religion . . . lies in the
subordination of the ¬nite part of our life to the in¬nite part.”173
Moreover, a careful examination of Lewis™s understanding of Chris-
tianity reveals that Lewis sees the struggle against the ¬nite self as
lying at the heart of Christianity.
One illustration of this is Lewis™s interesting take on the Fall of
Man. In the Genesis account of the Fall, the Fall is motivated by a
desire on the part of humans to be like God with respect to know-
ledge. The serpent tempts the humans by telling them that if they eat
the fruit from the forbidden tree, they will “be like God, knowing

Faith, Design, and True Religion

good and evil.”174 Lewis puts forth a different proposal. In his version
of the Fall, the humans want to be like God with respect to power
rather than knowledge. They want a kind of self-suf¬ciency and
independence: “[T]hey desired to be on their own, to take care for
their own future. . . . They wanted some corner in the universe of
which they could say to God, ˜This is our business, not yours.™”175
(Compare this to Russell™s account of the ¬nite self as the self that
“sees the world in concentric circles around the here and now, and
itself as the God of that wished-for heaven.”)176 Lewis identi¬es the
¬rst human sin as an act of sel¬shness “ it is a “turning from God
to self.”177 This act fundamentally alters human nature: “[A] new
species, never made by God, had sinned itself into existence.”178
As a result, “[w]e are not merely imperfect creatures who must be
improved: we are . . . rebels who must lay down our arms.”179 Russell
describes the conquest of the ¬nite self by the in¬nite self as a kind
of death for the ¬nite self, remarking that this conquest “requires a
moment of absolute self-surrender,” a moment “which to the ¬nite
self appears like death.”180 Lewis similarly suggests that “to surrender
a self-will in¬‚amed and swollen with years of usurpation is a kind
of death.”181 Moreover, it is a death that must be endured not just
once but over and over: “Hence the necessity to die daily; however
often we think we have broken the rebellious self we shall still ¬nd it
Screwtape describes the result of this self-conquest as follows:

The Enemy [God] wants . . . man . . . to be so free from any bias in his
own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and
gratefully as in his neighbour™s talents “ or in a sunrise, an elephant,
or a waterfall. . . . He wants to kill their animal self-love as soon as
possible; but it is His long-term policy . . . to restore to them a new
kind of self-love “ a charity and gratitude for all selves, including their

This is the impartial love for all human beings commanded by Christ
and praised by Russell. Despite their disagreement about the status
of Christian dogma, it turns out that Russell and Lewis hold similar

God and the Reach of Reason

views on the essence of religion. Lewis sees acceptance of Christian
dogma as they key to preserving this essence, whereas Russell seeks
to abandon the dogma but preserve the essence.
A number of recent writers have endorsed a turn to mysticism
as a way of preserving the bene¬ts of monotheistic religions like
Christianity while avoiding the sometimes violent con¬‚icts that arise
over disagreements about dogma.184 The essence of this move is the
one proposed by Russell: Abandon the divisive dogma while pre-
serving the positive emotional bene¬ts, most notably the conquest
of sel¬shness. Lewis, by contrast, supports the conquest of sel¬sh-
ness through acceptance of Christianity. Yet Lewis was aware of the
needless violence, intolerance, and persecution that often accom-
pany religious belief, including Christian belief. In a letter written
in 1961, he refers to “the ghastly record of Christian persecution”
which “had begun in Our Lord™s time.”185 And in The Four Loves, he
speaks of “Christendom™s speci¬c contribution to the sum of human
cruelty and treachery,” observing that “[w]e have shouted the name
of Christ and enacted the service of Moloch.”186 Lewis thought that
the way to solve the problem of religious violence is not to abandon
Christian dogma altogether but rather to understand it correctly and
to recognize the proper roles of government and organized religion.
Lewis™s views on this and related matters are the focus of the next
section, which is also the ¬nal section of the book.

4.4.3 Lewis on Disputes about Dogma and the Separation
of Church and State
In the Preface to Mere Christianity, Lewis likens mere Christianity to “a
hall out of which doors open into several rooms.”187 The rooms rep-
resent the various denominations of Christianity. The Preface ends
with the following paragraph:

When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have
chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they
are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your
enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of
the rules common to the whole house.188

Faith, Design, and True Religion

This captures Lewis™s straightforward view on interdenominational
Christian violence: Such violence is at odds with mere Christianity,
which is common to all denominations. Prayer and kindness are to
take the place of violence. In “Answers to Questions on Christian-
ity,” Lewis goes even further, remarking that “[d]ivisions between
Christians are a sin and a scandal, and Christians ought at all times
to be making contributions toward re-union.”189
What about Christian violence against non-Christians? In a 1952
letter, Lewis offers much the same prescription regarding how Chris-
tians ought to treat those who reside outside the mansion of Chris-
tianity altogether:

I think that every prayer which is sincerely made even to a false god or
to a very imperfectly conceived true God, is accepted by the true God
and that Christ saves many who do not think they know Him. . . . But
of course anxiety about unbelievers is most usefully employed when
it leads us, not to speculation but to earnest prayer for them and the
attempt to be in our own lives such good advertisements for Chris-
tianity as will make it attractive.190

A common source of religious violence and persecution is the attempt
by the state to impose a particular religion on its citizens. Lewis
opposes any attempt by the state to impose Christianity. This is not
to say that Lewis is opposed to the existence of a Christian society;
indeed, in Mere Christianity he offers some suggestions about what
such a society might be like.191 But he believes that the proper way
to bring about such a society is from the bottom up rather than from
the top down. The way to achieve such a society is to convince all
the citizens of the truth of Christianity and have them implement
Christian principles on their own rather than for a Christian gov-
ernment to impose Christian principles on a non-Christian citizenry.
For instance, Lewis rejects the idea that the clergy should “put out a
political programme,” describing this idea as “silly.”192 He says that
the clergy are simply not quali¬ed for politics; in asking them to put
forth a political program, we would be “asking them to do a . . . job
for which they have not been trained.”193 While Lewis defends a
traditional conception of Christian marriage in which the husband is
God and the Reach of Reason

the “head” and divorce is permitted only in very rare circumstances
or not at all, he also says this:194

A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself
you should try to make divorce dif¬cult for every one. I do not think
that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mohammedans
tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine. My own view is
that the Churches should frankly recognize that the majority of the
British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected
to live Christian lives.195

He goes on to suggest that there ought to be two kinds of marriage,
one kind governed by the state, the other governed by the church.196
In “On the Transmission of Christianity,” Lewis argues against the
notion that the British government ought to attempt to instill Chris-
tianity in the young by way of education. Much of Lewis™s argument
is aimed at showing that such a program would be futile and hence
leaves it unclear whether he would support such a program if he
thought it could succeed. But he also says this: “Where the tide ¬‚ows
towards increasing State control, Christianity, with its claims in one
way personal and in the other way ecumenical and both ways anti-
thetical to omnicompetent government, must always in fact . . . be
treated as an enemy.”197 This suggests that Lewis sees Christianity
itself as placing de¬nite limits on the legitimate power of the state,
and the context of the remark suggests that he sees government-run
Christian education as lying beyond these limits (though he does go
on to support the establishment of private Christian schools).198
In a 1958 letter, Lewis expresses his views on the legitimate limits
of government rather more forcefully. The topic is whether homo-
sexual acts should be made illegal:

[N]o sin, simply as such, should be made a crime. Who the deuce are
our rulers to enforce their opinions about sin on us? “ a lot of profes-
sional politicians, often venal time-servers, whose opinion on a moral
problem in one™s life we should attach very little value to. . . . We hear
too much of the State. Government is at its best a necessary evil. Let™s
keep it in its place.199

Faith, Design, and True Religion

And in “Answers to Questions on Christianity,” he says, “I detest
every kind of religions compulsion.”200
Finally, let us consider Lewis™s essay “Meditation on the Third
Commandment.” The third commandment says: “You shall not make
wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.”201 The topic of the
essay is whether there ought to be a Christian political party. Lewis
opposes the idea. The main danger he sees with a Christian party is
that it will inevitably represent at most one part of Christianity. The
problem with this is that it “will be not simply a part of Christendom,
but a part claiming to be the whole.”202 And this, in turn, may have very
bad consequences:

If ever Christian men can be brought to think treachery and murder
the lawful means of establishing the regime they desire, and faked trials,
religious persecution and organized hooliganism the lawful means of
maintaining it, it will, surely, be by just such a process as this.203

Lewis™s essay has the title it does because he believes that a Christian
party would violate the third commandment. His understanding of
that commandment is made clear in these lines: “On those who add
˜Thus said the Lord™ to their merely human utterances descends the
utter doom of a conscience which seems clearer and clearer the more
it is loaded with sin. All this comes from pretending that God has
spoken when He has not spoken.”204
If the development of a Christian party is a violation of the third
commandment, how, then, can Christians exert political in¬‚uence?
Lewis™s answer to this question is: “He who converts his neighbor
has performed the most practical Christian-political act of all.”205
Despite their many disagreements we have seen that there are sig-
ni¬cant and sometimes surprising areas of agreement among Lewis,
Hume, and Russell. All three reject the view that we can reason
from the nature of the observable physical universe to the existence
of a perfect God. All three recognize organized religion™s potential
for explosive violence and are aware of Christianity™s sins in this
regard. Hume and Russell see Christianity as rooted in irrational
emotions rather than reason, a sick man™s dream from which Western

God and the Reach of Reason

civilization ought to awaken, and see the rejection of its ridiculous
doctrines as the way to avoid the violence it sometimes engenders.
Lewis sees Christianity as rooted in reason; he thinks that we can
come to know God by ¬rst knowing ourselves. He sees the key to
avoiding Christian violence as understanding Christianity correctly
and preventing its misuse politically.
One of the most important areas of agreement among our three
thinkers concerns how humans ought to go about forming their
beliefs. All three thinkers share a common prescription: Follow the
evidence!206 And all three see that among the many obstacles to fol-
lowing this prescription is governmental interference. If people are
to be able to exercise the virtue that Lewis calls “faith” and Russell
calls “veracity,” they must live under a political system that permits
its citizens to believe in accordance with the evidence. Lewis identi-
¬es democracy as such a system: “[A]s long as we remain a democ-
racy, it is men who give the State its powers. And over these men,
until all freedom is extinguished, the free winds of opinion blow.”207
But political interference is not the only obstacle to following the
evidence. Culture can also be an obstacle. If one lives in a culture
in which careful attention to evidence and intellectual honesty are
devalued, this can make it dif¬cult to exercise the virtue of faith.
Unfortunately, government alone can only put in place a structure
that allows for intellectual honesty; it cannot make its citizens value
such honesty. Concern for honesty must come from within.
Within the writings of Lewis, Hume, and Russell, you will ¬nd
arguments made, reasons offered in support of the positions put
forth, and objections acknowledged. You will ¬nd a burning pas-
sion for the truth and respect “ indeed reverence “ for evidence. This
shared passion and reverence not only unites these three intellectual
giants; it makes them exemplars we would all do well to emulate.


1. Plato, Phaedo, trans. G. M. A. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1977), 12,
2. Michel de Montaigne, “That to Philosophize Is to Learn to Die,” in
Michel de Montaigne, Essays (Chicago: The Great Books Foundation,
1966), 2.
3. David Hume, “My Own Life,” in E. C. Mossner (ed.), The Forgotten Hume
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1943), 9.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., 183.
6. Walter Hooper (ed.), Letters of C. S. Lewis, revised edition (Orlando, FL:
Harcourt, 1993), 509.
7. Ibid., 45.
8. Remarkably, Aldous Huxley also died on this day.
9. Bertrand Russell, Autobiography (London: Routledge, 2000), 726.
10. Ibid., 727. Although Russell wrote these words when he was eighty
years old, he lived for an additional eighteen years.
11. Ibid., 728.
12. Bertrand Russell, “How to Grow Old,” in Portraits from Memory (New
York: Simon & Schuster, 1965), 52“3.
13. James F. Sennett and Douglas Groothius (eds.), In Defense of Natural
Theology: A Post-Humean Assessment (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity
Press, 2005), 9. For a prominent recent example of Hume™s in¬‚uence,
see Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mif¬‚in,
2006). The central atheistic argument of the book, the “Ultimate 747
Gambit,” owes much to Part IV of Hume™s Dialogues Concerning Natural
14. Peter van Inwagen, “Quam Dilecta,” in God and the Philosophers: The
Reconciliation of Faith and Reason, ed. Thomas V. Morris (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1994), 33.
15. Ibid.

Notes to Pages 6“14


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