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94th Joint Session of the Mind Association and Aristotelian Society

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Postgraduate Sessions: Passionate Belief: Religious Practice and Social Explanation in Hume

Peter Faulconbridge (UCL)


In the essay ‘Of Superstition and Enthusiasm’, David Hume claims that superstitious religious movements are more stable than enthusiastic movements, due in part to the former’s involvement with ‘rites, ceremonies, and holy observances’. Why might such religious practices help to sustain religious belief, and why should this phenomenon be particularly associated with superstitious religion? In this paper I outline two ways of answering these questions which can be found in Hume’s work.

The first approach, drawing on well-known passages from the Treatise, invokes the transfer of force from sensory impressions generated by participation in a ritual, to associated religious ideas, via their resemblance. This provides a narrow explanation of the belief-sustaining role of practice, but I argue that it falls short in the context of Hume’s richer explanatory hypotheses in ‘Of Superstition and Enthusiasm’.

The second approach to religious practice is drawn from Hume’s Natural History of Religion, and it reserves a key role for the passions, especially fear. This passion-based approach takes a little work to unearth, but I argue that it provides a much richer explanation of Hume’s initial hypotheses concerning the dynamics of superstition and enthusiasm. It also exemplifies an important form of social explanation more generally, whereby the unintended consequences of an action are shown to reinforce the very conditions which gave rise to that action in the first place.


Peter Faulconbridge recently completed his PhD at University College London (UCL). His core research concerns how individual agents relate to their social and cultural contexts. His doctoral thesis defends a novel ontology of social conventions, and argues that attention to such ontological issues is crucial for a proper understanding of the explanatory and justificatory role of social practices more generally.

His current research focuses on clarifying the relationships between the different roles which the concept ‘social practice’ plays in a variety of fields, including philosophy, the social sciences, and political discourse. His broader research interests include philosophy of action, philosophy of mind & psychology, and philosophy of social science.


  • Pete Faulconbridge

    10th July 2020 at 5:10 pm

    Hi everyone, I just wanted to say that if anybody would like to view a text version of the slides which accompany this talk, you can find a html version on my site here: http://www.peterfaulconbridge.com/joint-session-slides.html . They don’t contain much essential information which I don’t say in the talk itself, but I thought it might be helpful to make a plain text version of them available, especially for some of the longer quotes. I hope I have succeeded in marking them up in a way that is accessible, but I will be very happy to hear feedback on accessibility. Thanks for watching!

  • Nikhil Venkatesh

    11th July 2020 at 1:57 pm

    Hi Pete! Enjoyed the talk. I’ve been struck before (in the account of how justice arises, particularly) by similarities between Hume and Marx. I wonder if there’s a link that can be drawn here between your ‘feedback loop’ idea and Marx’s notion of ideology, as beliefs that stem from and uphold certain (bad) social relations. I’m not an expert here, but I think one way of reading Marx on Christianity is that Christian beliefs are encouraged by life under capitalism (‘opium of the masses’ etc.), *and* that they help to sustain capitalism (I think because they encourage a kind of individualism). Though Marx thinks ruling classes use Christianity against the masses (like your Hume) I think he’d also think this sort of ideological loop could happen unintentionally. Have you considered thinking about this in terms of Marx’s concept of ideology? Do you think there are important differences between the two?

    1. Pete Faulconbridge

      11th July 2020 at 4:33 pm

      Hi Nikhil, thanks so much for your question!

      I should be up front in saying that I’m not sure I know enough about Marx’s discussions of ideology to be able to give a good answer to this. I’d be very interested in learning more though about possible links between Hume and Marx (perhaps via Adam Smith?), and I’d welcome any reading suggestions on this sort of topic!

      The connections you draw strike me as very interesting, though. And I’ll try to say something briefly about a couple of aspects that occur to me. One thing that your remarks highlight is the need to say a lot more about *how* exactly the social institution of the priesthood is supported by increased (superstitious) belief and practice. I am still in the process of working through this question, and I think that Hume’s answer is a complex one, which draws partly on the specific religious *content* of the beliefs (he mentions, for instance, the appeal to priests as intermediaries between lay folk and the deity) and partly on the way in which the *passions* inculcated by religious belief and practice feed into the social passions associated with authority and deference (at this point I think we find interesting connections with his discussions of political authority more generally).

      Another relevant aspect of many discussions of ideology (I think this includes Marx to some extent, but it’s prominent in other places, certainly), is the idea of ideology as involving what we might call a *deep* mystification of social reality. Roughly, I suppose, the idea that ideologies tend to form relatively-comprehensive and self-reinforcing ways of looking at the world. It’s not clear to me how much we find this aspect of ideology in Hume’s discussion of superstitious belief. At least so far as I describe it in this talk, it looks as though being caught in the superstitious loop of belief and practice doesn’t actually introduce any new *cognitive* challenges to seeing things correctly (from Hume’s point of view), although being caught in the loop might add to the difficulty (seemingly always present for Hume) of letting the correct view get a firm grip on one’s thought and behaviour. In the longer version of the paper I start to explore some ways in which superstition might end up reaching a bit ‘deeper’ into the mind of the person who gets caught in the loop, but I feel as though I risk going on too long in this reply, so I should probably leave it there for now! Happy to elaborate further though, and thanks again for the question!

      1. Pete Faulconbridge

        11th July 2020 at 5:22 pm

        Just realised that I forgot to mention one of the (plausibly) distinctive aspects of Marxist thought about ideology — the priority of the economic/material! Again this is an aspect that, according to my current reading, doesn’t seem to show up in Hume’s discussion. But it would be an interesting lens to look at his account through, and to return to your first point it might reveal some interesting connections between Hume’s accounts of religion and of justice.

  • Dave Lucas

    12th July 2020 at 12:26 pm


    Enjoyed your talk.

    Do you think you comments would help explain why people keep voting a bad government in, year after yeae?

    Would love to hear the followup talks.

    1. Pete Faulconbridge

      12th July 2020 at 3:46 pm

      Hi Dave, thanks for your question. I think it raises some very big questions which I’m not really in a position to try and answer properly, but I’ll try and say something about how the Humean framework I’m sketching here might help us to think about the stability of bad political arrangements.

      In your question you mention voting, and that is of course one of the key actions through which a given party can gain power in a democracy. And it is often said that voting is ‘habit-forming’, both in that voting in the past makes people more likely to vote in the future, and in that people often seem to vote for the same party over and over, despite significant variations in candidates, policies etc. But what’s quite interesting about this is that if voting *is* habit-forming, then it doesn’t look like the kind of activity that we normally think of when we talk about ‘habits’ in philosophy or psychology. Normally when we talk about habits, we think of activities that you might perform every day, or every week — drinking coffee in the morning, or walking a particular route to the bus stop. Many religious activities are performed frequently in this sort of way — perhaps praying, going to services, etc. And Hume’s account as I have described it looks best suited to explaining the stability of these kinds of *frequent* activities. But your example of voting reminds us that other kinds of religious or cultural activities occur much less frequently, but they might still be very stable over time. So it looks as though we might need a rather different account to make sense of the stability of these less-frequent cultural activities. Some anthropologists have addressed the different dynamics of frequent vs infrequent rituals, and I can happily suggest some references if you’re interested! Although I know that there is also a large literature directly on voting behaviour which, sadly, I am not too familiar with, which may offer greater insight on this point.

      However, we can also look at voting not as something that occurs in isolation once every few years, but instead as one expression of a set of political views, commitments, feelings, etc. which are shaped by and which find expression in all sorts of more frequent activities, too. So, I only vote every few years, but I talk politics, attend demonstrations, and do all sorts of other things relating to my political views much more often. Here I think that Hume’s story has more direct relevance. As I hint at in the paper, I think that Hume sees the cycle of passion, behaviour and belief as contributing to the power of the priesthood not just as a set of individuals, but also as a social institution. This is an institution which (especially at the time and place when Hume was writing) wields considerable political power. And I think that by drawing attention to the ways in which everyday religious or cultural activities can shape our beliefs and feelings in a way that ultimately supports powerful, enduring social institutions, Hume does point us towards an important part of the story of how it is that we can end up with remarkably stable ruling classes over a long period of time in a given society.

      Not sure if I’ve managed to properly answer your question here, but I hope it was of some interest!