David Hume and The Illusion Of Religious Vocabulary

Eighteenth century philosopher David Hume provides one of the most difficult challenges to the intelligibility of theological beliefs. In his work, David Hume characterizes different types of knowledge and discusses whether they are real ways to know truth. Hume’s boldest move was to declare any synthetic a priori knowledge empty and hollow. This stems from his belief that without being able to trace an impression to an idea it is empty. It is a shocking claim, especially when applied to religious belief. When considering Hume’s argument, it is true that the vocabulary of religion is inherently empty of content and does not describe any sort of reality.

To start, it is critical to discuss what an empty claim means. This means that we can not say anything meaningful about it, and it does not directly translate into real experience or real rational claims. This does not inherently mean that an empty idea is a false idea. Rather, it is one that might be true, but our human minds are completely unable to say anything adequate about it. Religious vocabulary is an example of empty claims.

The language of religion is an empty vase with a hole at the bottom. It does not serve any practical or real purpose because any sort of concrete thought that goes into is not held, and the vase becomes mere decoration, rather than anything that lends itself to practical use.

That may seem hard to swallow, but it is important to remember that although Hume considered statements of metaphysics or theology as nothing but sophistry and illusion, he was only discussing the statements themselves, not any sort of underlying truth that they are describing. Hume himself seemed to believe in a higher power, even though he was highly critical of contemporary theological claims. Thus, to analyze his statement that theological vocabulary is sophistry and illusion, it is important to realize that he is not setting out to disprove religion or God. He is just looking to show that the statements we make about them are empty.

Hume’s viewpoints are not that farfetched. Since most religions believe that God is a higher power that is beyond our grasp, it is odd to believe that we can make definitive statements about him. Since nobody has actually experienced God in his full majesty and power (even religious theophanies include language describing that the viewer was somehow changed before viewing God) it is impossible for religions to make any definitive statements about his character. Rather, a religious person is using language that they can comprehend to describe a concept that they cannot. In any other circumstance people would be uncomfortable with making statements about reality that nobody has actually observed, and God is no different.

More specific to Latter Day Saints is concepts like the Spirit and revelation. Nobody really is able to describe what an interaction with the Holy Ghost actually is. All the descriptions of a Holy Ghost experience come with convoluted metaphors and twisted analogies. It is anybody’s guess what these descriptions are actually talking about, since they are so vague that they transfer absolutely no knowledge. Like David Hume says, they are empty.

However, a religious person (especially one of LDS belief) might argue that ideas such as the Holy Ghost are in fact a posteriori since they involve real feelings that occur for the person having a religious experience. If people are actually experiencing the Holy Ghost, then it must mean that it cannot be synthetic a priori. Else, nobody would join the church. David Hume would have to consent that this religious experience is knowable and traced to an actual impression.

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As real as an experience of God or the Holy Ghost may feel, it is still synthetic a priori. Here is why. Certainly a person is having some sort of experience when they feel the Holy Ghost, but we cannot know if that is exactly what the person is feeling. There are various other possibilities. If a person is among friends and listening to powerful sacred music, they will certainly feel good or comfortable. That does not necessarily mean that they are experiencing the presence of a divine being.

Rather, church goers have assigned the idea of feeling the Holy Ghost to feelings of comfort or goodness, but it is fundamentally impossible to know if that is exactly what the person is feeling. What has happened is that Christian theology has assigned the concept of good feelings and comfort in a church setting the title “feeling the Holy Ghost.” Those words themselves do not mean anything. They do not have the same reasonable connection as claims such as “I am sitting at a desk” or “My shirt is red.”

As mentioned above, this is not proof that something called the Holy Ghost does not exist. It just means that when we talk about him we have no clue what we are talking about. We are making words and forming thoughts, but they are thoughts around an empty concept. One day we may truly experience the Holy Ghost face to face, but until then we must concede that any statement about him is synthetic a priori.

This applies to all the language of religion. Open any theological dictionary and you will see that them full of statements and definitions that are not tied to any sort of impression. Thus they are not tied to experience and cannot be proven. One must not go as far as David Hume and throw them all out, but it is critical to realize that the vocabulary of religion is not tied into any objective experience. It is a convenient set of terms agreed upon by a religious community to describe things that they will never experience and are inherently unknowable.

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