Friday, October 17, 2014

Hume's gap and its consequences in the church today

As outlined by Nash in his book The Word of God and The Mind of Man, a common misconception about the philosopher David Hume is that Hume was an atheist outright to disprove the existence of God. In reality, according to Nash, Hume was not an atheist. In fact, Hume actually denied the supremacy of the human reasoning. To a certain extent, I agree with Hume that our human reasoning has definite boundaries.

Unfortunately, Hume went too far to the extent to say that in the metaphysical realm, in religion as well as in ethics, our human reasoning is subservient to our non-rational nature or our “passion”.  Hume believed that man couldn’t possibly have any knowledge about the transcendence.  Nash called this “the Hume’s gap”.

To quote Nash,
“According to Hume, we should ignore the arguments of the rationalists and trust our instincts. He believed that investigation ought to be limited to areas, such as mathematics, where knowledge is possible. Speculative knowledge-claims about certain topics in metaphysics, theology and ethics should be avoided; such matters should be accepted on the basis of faith, not knowledge.”

Hume’s own preference seems to have been for a non-rational faith in a god unsupported by reason, revelation, miracles or evidence of any kind.

Hume’s Gap is the rejection of the possibility of a rational knowledge of God and objective religious truth. Hume was a precursor of those philosophers and theologians who insist that religious faith must be divorced from knowledge and who believe that the impossibility of knowledge about God will in some way enhance faith.”

Unfortunately, I believe, this kind of dichotomy has serious consequences to the church today.

1. The dichotomy between reason and faith results in spiritual laziness in the church

The creeping of Humean philosophy in the church promotes a sense of inertia among Christians to engaging their minds with reasons. After all, if God cannot be known through reason and knowledge, why should we even be bothered to try anyway? This leads to spiritual laziness among many Christians. As a result, many Christians would say that they should just accept these metaphysical assertions “by faith”. Unfortunately, when such Humean philosophy is cemented as a form of dogma, some churches would even say that to doubt and reason is a sign of a lack of faith. Just accept it by faith!

Furthermore, our ideas have consequences. If a Christian believes that he can’t possibly integrate faith and reason, then he is threading down a slippery slope that would lead him to a “god-of-the-gaps” belief.  The “god-of-the-gaps” belief is the tendency to invoke the concept of “God” to plug the holes where science is incapable yet to explain. Unfortunately, the “god-of-the-gaps” is not the God of the Bible because as scientific discoveries increase, increasing number of phenomena can be explained naturalistically, thus, the role of “God” diminishes accordingly. It is a caricature that is spineless that would lead to increasing skepticism.

2. The dichotomy between reason and faith results in spiritual abuse in the church

As a consequence of the spiritual laziness as delineated above, the dichotomy between reason and faith results in a lot of subjectivism in the church. Many christians may delegate the onus of their Christian education to their pastors, church leaders, etc. They put their church leaders on a pedestal and depend on them to tell them what is right, what is wrong, what is God’s will for them, etc.  This can open to all sorts of spiritual manipulation, deception and abuses. This is especially so for Christians who are gullible in seeking for miracles, emotionalisms and signs.  Those who seek for the gifts more than the Giver without a firm foundation of the reasonableness of their faith would risk being deceived and manipulated. This is so unlike the early Berean church in Acts 17:11 where they diligently studied the Word of God to see if what they had been taught by Paul is true.

I strongly believe that the effect of Hume’s philosophy is compounded in the juvenilization of Christianity, as expounded in an article titled “When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenilization of American Christianity” by Thomas E. Bergler, in the June 2012 issue Christianity Today. In that article, Bergler defines juvenilization as “the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for adults”.  The positive side of juvenilization of Christianity was the rejuvenation of church attendance in the 1970s and 1980s when young people began to enjoy attending church services.

According to Bergler,
“[Juvenilization contributed to increased church attendance among young people]…by making the Christian life more emotionally satisfying. Passion was in, duty was out. This kind of individualized, emotional connection to God sustained religious interest in a changing society in which custom, tradition, and social pressure would no longer motivate people to care about faith or attend church.”
Unfortunately, to further quote Bergler,
 “Juvenilization tends to create a self-centered, emotionally driven, and intellectually empty faith. In their landmark National Study of Youth and Religion, Christian Smith and his team of researchers found that the majority of American teenagers, even those who are highly involved in church activities, are inarticulate about religious matters. They seldom used words like faith, salvation, sin, or even Jesus to describe their beliefs. Instead, they return again and again to the language of personal fulfillment to describe why God and Christianity are important to them…Teenagers learn these beliefs from the adults in their lives. It is the American cultural religion. Teenagers are "moralistic" in that they believe that God wants us to be good, and that the main purpose of religion is to help people be good. But since it is possible to be good without being religious, religion is an optional tool that can be chosen by those who find it helpful. American Christianity is "therapeutic" in that we believe that God and religion are valuable because they help us feel better about our problems. Finally, American teenagers show their "deism" in that they believe in a God who remains in the background of their lives—always watching over them, ready to help them, but not at the center of their lives.”

3. The dichotomy between reason and faith results in skepticism and apostasy

The divorce between faith and reason as a consequence of this Humean philosophy results in increased skepticism.  One way many Christians deal with this is to keep their faith compartmentalized and private, away from our public life in schools and workplaces. However, as Timothy Keller pointed out, ultimately it is impossible to keep our faith completely compartmentalized because we derive the convictions of our conducts in the public square from our faith.

That is why, in 2011, in a five-year project headed by Barna Group president David Kinnaman to explore the challenges of faith development among young people from 18 to 29 years old, it is found that 3 out of 5 Christians (60%) leave church, either permanently or for a long period of time after the age of 15 years old. According to this research, one of the six reasons why young people felt disconnected from church is because of the tension they see between Christianity and science. The most common of the perceptions in this arena is that “Christians are too confident they know all the answers” (35%), “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” (29%) and “Christianity is anti-science” (25%).


In conclusion, to reiterate what Nash said about Hume, Hume did not directly attack Christianity by denying the existence of God. Rather, Hume said that metaphysical topics such as the existence of God cannot possibly be studied through reason and knowledge. But this proposition is far more damaging like a malignant cancer that grows subtly and slowly. To quote Nash again,
"The threat to Christianity today from the legacy of David Hume is not a full-fledged frontal assault upon Christian theism with all the troops advancing in full light of day. This kind of attack would fail because it would arouse Christians to a rational defense of their faith. David Hume's legacy is more insidious. It undermines the faith not by denying it but by directing our attention away from the importance of its knowledge-claims and its truth-content."

  1.     Nash, Ronald H. The Word of God and the Mind of Man. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Pub., 1992.
  2.     Bergler, Thomas E. “When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenilization of American Christianity” Christianity Today. June 2012. 56(6).
  3.     Keller, Timothy J. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Dutton, 2008.
  4.     Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church. In: The Barna Group website. Available at: Accessed 17 Oct 2014

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