Atheism & Scepticism

This module looks at the 18th century debate about the relation between reason or rationality and religious belief

 Q&A Policy

Teaching Programme

Week 1 - Introduction to Online Resources (TWCS)

Week 2 - Toland and deism (JCB)

Week 3 - The deism controversy (JCB)

Week 4 - Introduction to Berkeley's Alciphron (Dr T. Jones, University of St. Andrews)

Week 5 - Alciphron IV Divine Language (TWCS)

Week 6 - Alciphron VII Non-representational semantics (TWCS)

Week 7 - Hume on a future state (TWCS)

Week 8 - David Efird defends the cogency of the Christian Mysteries

Week 9 - Hume: Atheist or Deist? (JCB)

Week 10 - Special Lecture: Dr Peter Millican (University of Oxford) on Hume's Dialogues.

Apart from Week 1, all lectures are Thursdays 3.15 to 4.45.  Friday seminar groups commence in Week 2 and run into Week 9.  Tuesday seminar groups commence in Week 3 and run into Week 10. 

There are two questions running through the texts we will study:

1. Can religious belief be based on reason or must it be based on revelation (including scripture) and miracles?

2. Is religious belief consistent with reason?

  Two things to note about these questions are (i) that claiming belief is a matter of faith not reason will not help (much) if those beliefs are inconsistent with reason, for then reason would demand we reject them; and (ii) we are not only concerned with the mere existence of God but also his attributes, including his relation to humans.  Thus many philosophers of the 18th century were concerned that the Christian Mysteries (the resurrection, the Trinity, the afterlife) were inconsistent with reason.

Why the 18th century?  Because of the Lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695.  So for the purpose of this module, the 18th century starts in 1696.

Email sent in August 2008 to all students on this module explaining the module content


Main works of relevance by the three authors:

John Toland, Christianity not Mysterious (1696) - extracts
*George Berkeley, Alciphron (1734) – Dialogues I, IV and VII
*David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) - passim

Other works to be consulted during the term:

John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690) - extracts
Charles Blount, Oracles of Reason (1693) - extracts
Peter Browne, A Letter in answer to … Christianity not Mysterious … (1697) – extracts
John Norris, An Account of Reason and Faith (1697) – extracts
John Toland, Letters to Serena (1704), Letters I and IV
David Hume, Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748), – Sections XI and XII

* - you should buy these two books.  Everything else will be in the coursepack or available freely online.

Procedural Work

As well as attendance at all lectures and seminars, and adequate preparation for seminars, students will be expected to:

  1. Write a 1000 word essay on the topic 'Is religious belief rational, irrational or arational?', to be submitted by email to James Brown by Friday of Week 5 (13th Feb).
  2. Write a one page plan of their final assessed essay, making clear how they intend to address the question and what resources they will use, in hard copy by Friday of Week 9 (13th March).

There will be individual tutorials with Tom Stoneham in Week 10 to discuss your essay plans.

What do we mean by an Essay Plan?


The module is assessed by a single essay (up to 3,000 words for 2nd years and up to 4,000 for 3rd years) to be handed in on Monday of Week 2 Summer Term 2009.



Lecture Notes - see links from Teaching Programme on left

John Humphreys on the Today Programme giving an excellent example of how to get it all wrong.  He would fail this module.

Intro Lecture to Early Modern Philosophy.  This first year lecture gives a bit of context and explains the two meanings of 'rationalism' (slides 22-4).

Past Masters online philosophy texts (York access only)

Early English Books Online (York access only)

Eighteenth Century Collections Online (York access only)

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (useful high-quality reference work - much safer than Wikipedia)

Oxford English Dictionary (York access only)

Lexicons of Early Modern English (LEME)

JSTOR - back issues of journals avaiable electronically

Metalib - the University of York catalogue of electronic resources.  Use this to access Philosophers' Index etc.

Library Guide to using electronic resources

Computing Service instructions for using the York webcache (allows access to restricted resources from off campus)

Nigel Warburton's podcast on Hume's Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (take care - this is a very basic introduction and it does not situate Hume in the historical context of the Deism debate)