Hume’s Inferno: The Fiery Judgment of Secular Exclusivism

Posted on: June 28th, 2013 by Thaddeus Williams 3 Comments


Religion has long been criticized for making one way of seeing things the only way of seeing things. Sadly, some religious exclusivity has led to some indefensible gnarliness throughout history (the kind of things that made Jesus' guts turn and ought to have the same effect on us).  Yet as a certain brand of secularism points this finger at religion, it finds three fingers pointing back at itself. There is such a thing as secular exclusivism.

For example, one way of seeing a flower is through the botanist’s microscope, to see the chlorophyll that colors its leaves, the photosynthesis that fuels its growth, the pollen that powers its reproduction, and so on. Some would have us believe that once we’ve seen the flower in this one way we’ve seen all there is to see of the flower. Romantic poet, William Wordsworth, famously said that, “There’s more to the flower than the botanist can study.” To disagree with Wordsworth, secularism must claim for itself an exclusive access to reality in which science is not a way, but the only way of knowing anything about anything.

This exclusivism was enshrined by Bertrand Russell and A.J. Ayer in the early 20th century with such academic movements as logical positivism and emotivism. For Russell and Ayer, any statement that wasn’t a matter of science or math didn’t even rise to the dignity of being false. Any non-mathematical, non-scientific statement was instead deemed meaningless, emotional gibberish, no more worthy of the titles true or false than the caterwauling of a wounded cat. If you say, “That daffodil is beautiful” your statement carries no more truth-value than Fluffy’s “Mrrroooooow!” It is only if you say something like, “That daffodil stands ten inches and has yellow petals” that you’ve said anything more worthwhile than a feline.

The 20th century exclusivism of Russell and Ayer can be traced back to another Brit, David Hume, of the 18th century. Listen to Hume’s advice:

"When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume—of divinity or school of metaphysics, for instance—let us ask, does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can be nothing but sophistry and illusion."

Do you understand Hume’s advice? Anything not math (“abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number”) or science (“experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence”) is “mere sophistry and illusion,” worthy of the flames.

Let us enter the library, take volumes in our hands, and apply Hume’s pyromanic advice to quotes below. Which statements survive math-and-science standards and which works must we cast into the sophistry-consuming furnace?


Let your hand represent fire, and lay it over the left half of your screen. The Analects of Confucius, The Bible, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “The Geneva Convention of 1949,” “The Hippocratic Oath,” “The Declaration of Independence,” “The Humanist Manifesto III,” and Coleridge’s poem, “Dejection: An Ode” now form one big heap of charred "sophistry." (We can add to the ash heap Hume's own book, Dialogues Concerning Human Understanding, since his statement above is neither math nor science). Now turn to the statements on the right, the science-and-math statements that survive Hume’s flames, and look for meaning, a reason to live. Really look.

You will find none. You can scavenge every math and science tome in history, discover all kinds of fascinating facts about how things work, but you will never find an answer to the why questions of our existence.

This is the real tragedy of making one way of seeing things the only way of seeing things, the sad effect of secular exclusivism: It leaves our meaning-craving species wandering as in a post-apocalyptic wasteland in which every possible answer to our nagging why questions has been incinerated. We trod through the ashes, reciting our times tables, machine-like and meaningless.

There is a better way.

  • Billy Unger

    “You can scavenge every math and science tome in history, discover all kinds of fascinating facts about how things work, but you will never find an answer to the why questions of our existence.”

    How doesn’t this imply a reliance on god-in-the-gaps?

    • AIMBooks

      Thanks for the honest question Billy! The quote you asked about isn’t trying to stuff God into some explanatory gap. It’s simply a comment about the nature of math and science as disciplines focused on how questions (e.g., how does this element behave when put under a flame, how do stem cells work, how do heavy elements form in the core of a collapsing star, how can we prove Fermat’s Last Theorem, etc.). The how-disciplines of science and math aren’t focused on questions like, ‘Why are we here?’ ‘Why do we suffer?’ ‘Why should we go on living? ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ and so on.

      So if we take Hume’s advice (advice he had a hard time keeping himself) and limit our epistemology to only math and science as the only ways to know anything about anything, then it’s only a matter of time until the universe starts looking totally meaningless (like Camus, Schopenhauer, Sartre, Byron, Wilde, and a slew of other atheists have argued). It’s a little like using a dowsing rod to find oil, and when all you find is water, you conclude that oil must not exist. Science seeks answers to how questions the way a dowsing rod seeks water. The fact that a purely scientific view only leads to physical facts rather than transcendent values in the universe doesn’t prove there are no true, good, and beautiful answers to our why questions any more than a dowsing rod that fails to find oil proves that water is all that exists.

      Hope that helps, brother. Thanks again for the thoughtful question.


  • john appleseed

    Hmmm…Re. Hume’s statement–if it’s not mathematical or scientific, throw it into the fire–that statement is not mathematical or scientific, it’s philosophical, so throw it into the fire.