Essay 10

Superstition and Enthusiasm

by David Hume

A maxim states that the corruption of the best things produces the worst things. This is true in the corruptions of true religion into superstition and enthusiasm.

These two kinds of false religion are both pernicious, yet very different and even contrary. Human minds are subject to many terrors and apprehensions coming from:

  • the unhappy situation of affairs,
  • ill health,
  • a gloomy and melancholy disposition, or
  • the concurrence of all these circumstances.

In such a state of mind, infinite unknown evils are dreaded from unknown agents whenever the real objects of terror are lacking. In this case, the soul falls victim to its own prejudice. This leads it into imaginary causes to whose power and malevolence it sets no limits.

These enemies are entirely invisible and unknown, and so the methods to appease them are equally unaccountable, It consists in ceremonies, observances, mortifications, sacrifices, presents, or any practices recommended by a blind and terrified credulity. Weakness, fear, melancholy, together with ignorance, are, therefore, the true sources of Superstition.

But the mind of man is also subject to an unaccountable elevation and presumption, arising from:

  • prosperous success,
  • luxuriant health,
  • strong spirits, or
  • a bold and confident disposition.

In such a state of mind, the imagination swells with great, but confused conceptions, to which no sublunary beauties or enjoyments can correspond. Everything mortal and perishable vanishes as unworthy of attention.

The fancy creates a full range of the invisible regions or world of spirits where the soul can create anything to suit its present taste and disposition. Hence arise raptures, transports, and surprising flights of fancy which are altogether unaccountable. These then are attributed to the immediate inspiration of that Divine Being, who is the object of devotion.

Soon, the inspired person comes to regard himself as a distinguished favourite of the Divinity. When this frenzy once takes place, which is the summit of enthusiasm, every whimsy is consecrated. He rejects reason and even morality as fallacious guides. The fanatic madman delivers himself over blindly and without reserve to the supposed illapses° of the spirit and to inspiration from above.

Hope, pride, presumption, a warm imagination, together with ignorance, are, therefore, the true sources of Enthusiasm.

These two species of false religion have the following influence on government and society:

  1. Superstition is favourable to priestly power, and enthusiasm is rather contrary to it, than sound reason and philosophy.

Superstition is founded on fear, sorrow, and a depression of spirits. It shows man as despicable to himself. It makes him unworthy, in his own eyes, of approaching divinity. Thus, he must recourse to any other person who is favoured by Divinity either by sanctity or impudence and cunning. The superstitious entrust their devotions, petitions, sacrifices, and prayers to him.

Hence the origin of Priests who are an invention of superstition. They are diffident of itself, dares not offer up its own devotions, but ignorantly thinks to recommend itself to the Divinity, by the mediation of his supposed friends and servants.

Superstition is a considerable ingredient in almost all religions. Only philosophy can entirely conquer these unaccountable terrors. Hence:

  • the stronger the mixture of superstition, the higher the priesthood’s authority
  • the stronger the mixture of superstition, enthusiasts become free of the ecclesiastics and instead devote themselves to a contempt of forms, ceremonies, and traditions.

The quakers are the most egregious and innocent enthusiasts.

  • They are the only sect, that never had priests.

The English sect called Independents approach nearest to the quakers in fanaticism and freedom from priestly bondage.

The presbyterians follow after, at an equal distance in both.

Enthusiasm arises from a presumptuous pride and confidence.

  • It thinks it can approach the Divinity directly without any human mediator.
  • Its rapturous devotions are so fervent as to imagine being able to approach Him by contemplation and inward neditation. This makes them neglect all those priests whom the superstitious need for their outward ceremonies and observances.

The fanatic consecrates himself, and bestows on his own person a sacred character, much superior to what forms and ceremonious institutions can confer.

  1. The enthusiastic religions are initially more furious and violent than the superstitious ones.

But in time, they become more gentle and moderate. Their initial violence is excited by novelty and animated by opposition. This is seen in:

  • the anabaptists in Germany
  • the camisars in France
  • the levellers and other fanatics in England
  • the covenanters in Scotland

Enthusiasm is founded on strong spirits and a presumptuous boldness of character. Thus, it naturally begets the most extreme resolutions especially after it rises to that height as to inspire the deluded fanatic with the opinion of divine illuminations, and with a contempt for the common rules of reason, morality, and prudence.

Thus, enthusiasm produces the most cruel disorders in human society.

But its fury is like that of thunder and tempest, which exhaust themselves in a little time, and leave the air more calm and serene than before.

When the first fire of enthusiasm is spent, men naturally, in all fanatical sects, sink into the greatest coolness in sacred matters. There being no body of men among them, endowed with sufficient authority, whose interest is concerned to support the religious spirit. No rites, no ceremonies, no holy observances, which may enter into the common train of life, and preserve the sacred principles from oblivion.

On the contrary, superstition:

  • steals in gradually and insensibly
  • renders men tame and submissive
  • is acceptable to the magistrate and seems inoffensive to the people until the priest, having firmly established his authority, becomes the tyrant by his endless contentions, persecutions, and religious wars.

How smoothly did the Roman church advance in her acquisition of power? But into what dismal convulsions did she throw all Europe, in order to maintain it? On the other hand, our sectaries,° who were formerly such dangerous bigots, are now become very free reasoners; and the quakers seem to approach nearly the only regular body of deists in the universe, the literati, or the disciples of Confucius in China.

  1. Superstition is an enemy to civil liberty, and enthusiasm a friend to it


  • destroys all ecclesiastical power
  • is the infirmity of bold and ambitious tempers
  • is naturally accompanied with a spirit of liberty.

On the contrary, superstition:

  • groans under the dominion of priests.
  • renders men tame and abject
  • fits them for slavery.

During the English civil wars, the independents and deists had opposite religious principles, yet were united in their political aim for a commonwealth.

Since the origin of whig and tory, the whigs’ leaders have either been deists or latitudinarians (friends to toleration, and indifferent to any particular sect of christians)

While the sectaries, who have all a strong tincture of enthusiasm, have always, without exception, concurred with that party, in defence of civil liberty.

The resemblance in their superstitions long united the

  • the high-church tories and
  • the Roman catholics, in support of prerogative° and kingly power.

Though experience of the tolerating spirit of the whigs seems of late to have reconciled the catholics to that party.

The molinists and jansenists in France have so many unintelligible disputes, which are not worth thinking about.

But what principally distinguishes these two sects, and alone merits attention, is the different spirit of their religion.

The molinists of the jesuits, are great friends to superstition. They are rigid observers of external forms and ceremonies, and devoted to the authority of the priests, and to tradition.

The jansenists are enthusiasts, and zealous promoters of the passionate devotion, and of the inward life; little influenced by authority; and, in a word, but half catholics. The consequences are exactly conformable to the foregoing reasoning.

The jesuits are the tyrants of the people, and the slaves of the court.

The jansenists preserve alive the small sparks of the love of liberty found in France.


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