David Hume was born in 1711 to a moderately wealthy family from Berwickshire Scotland, near Edinburgh. His background was politically Whiggish and religiously Calvinistic. As a child he faithfully attended the local Church of Scotland pastured by his uncle. His widowed mother educated Hume until he left for the University of Edinburgh at the age of eleven. His letters describe how as a young student he took religion seriously and obediently followed a list of moral guidelines taken from The Whole Duty of Man, a popular Calvinistic devotional.

Leaving the University of Edinburgh at around age fifteen to pursue his education privately, he was encouraged to consider a career in law, but his interests turned to philosophy. During these years of private study he began raising serious questions about religion, as he recounts in the following letter: Although his manuscript book was destroyed, several pages of Hume's study notes survive from his early twenties. These show a preoccupation with the subjects of proof of God's existence and atheism, particularly as he read on these topics in classical Greek and Latin texts and in Pierre Bayle's skeptical Historical and Critical Dictionary. During these years of private study, some of which was in France, Hume composed his three-volume Treatise of Human Nature, which was published anonymously in two installments before he was thirty (1739, 1740). The Treatise explores several philosophical topics such as space, time, causality, external objects, the passions, free will, and morality, offering original and often skeptical appraisals of these notions. Although religious belief is not the subject of any specific section of the Treatise, it is a recurring theme. Book I of the Treatise was unfavorably reviewed in the History of the Works of the Learned with a succession of sarcastic comments. Although scholars today recognize it as a philosophical masterpiece, Hume was disappointed with the minimal interest his book spawned.

In 1741 and 1742 Hume published his two-volume Essays, Moral and Political. The essays were written in a popular style and met with better success than the Treatise. In 1744-1745 Hume was a candidate for the Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. The position was to be vacated by John Pringle, and the leading candidates were Hume and William Cleghorn. The Edinburgh Town Council was responsible for electing a replacement. Critics opposed Hume by condemning his anti-religious writings. Chief among the critics was clergyman William Wishart (d. 1752), the Principal of the University of Edinburgh. Lists of allegedly dangerous propositions from Hume's Treatise circulated, presumably penned by Wishart. In the face of such strong opposition, the Edinburgh Town Council consulted the Edinburgh ministers. Hoping to win over the clergy, Hume composed a point-by-point reply to the circulating lists of dangerous propositions. It was published as A Letter from a Gentleman to his Friend in Edinburgh. The clergy were not dissuaded, and 12 of the 15 ministers voted against Hume. Hume quickly withdrew his candidacy. In 1745 Hume accepted an invitation from General St Clair to attend him as secretary. He wore the uniform of an officer, and accompanied the general on an expedition against Canada (which ended in an incursion on the coast of France) and to an embassy post in the courts of Vienna and Turin.

In 1748 he added to the above collection an essay titled "Of National Characters." In a lengthy footnote to this piece, Hume attacks the character of the clergy, accusing this profession of being motivated by ambition, conceit, and revenge. This footnote became a favorite target of attack by the clergy. Given the success of his Essays, Hume was convinced that the poor reception of his Treatise was caused by its style rather than by its content. In 1748 he published his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, a more popular rendition of Book I of his Treatise. The Enquiry also includes two sections not found in the Treatise and which contain fairly direct attacks on religious belief: "Of Miracles" and a dialogue titled "Of a Particular Providence and have a Future State."

In 1751 Hume published his Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, which recasts in a very different form parts of Book III of his Treatise. Although this work does not attack religion directly, it does so indirectly by establishing a system of morality on utility and human sentiments alone, and without appeal to divine moral commands. Critics such as James Balfour criticized Hume's theory for being Godless. However, by the end of the century Hume was recognized as the founder of the moral theory of utility. Utilitarian political theorist Jeremy Bentham acknowledges Hume's direct influence upon him. The same year Hume also published his Political Discourses, which drew immediate praise and influenced economic thinkers such as Adam Smith, Godwin, and Thomas Malthus.

In 1751-1752 Hume sought a philosophy chair at the University of Glasgow, and was again unsuccessful. In 1752 Hume's employment as librarian of the Advocate's Library in Edinburgh provided him with the resources to pursue his interest in history. There he wrote much of his highly successful six-volume History of England (published from 1754 to 1762). The first volume was unfavorably received, partially for its defense of Charles I, and partially for two sections, which attack Christianity. In one passage Hume notes that the first Protestant reformers were fanatical or "inflamed with the highest enthusiasm" in their opposition to Roman Catholic domination. In the second passage he labels Roman Catholicism a superstition which "like all other species of superstition... rouses the vain fears of unhappy mortals." The most vocal attack against Hume's History came from Daniel MacQueen in his 300 pages Letters on Mr. Hume's History. MacQueen combs through Hume's first volume of the History, exposing all the allegedly "loose and irreligious sneers" Hume makes against Christianity. Ultimately, this negative response led Hume to delete the two controversial passages from succeeding editions of the History.

At about this time Hume also wrote his two most substantial works on religion: The Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and The Natural History of Religion. The Natural History appeared in 1757, but, on the advice of friends who wished to steer Hume away from religious controversy, the Dialogues remained unpublished until 1779, three years after his death. The Natural History aroused controversy even before it was made public. In 1756 a volume of Hume's essays titled Five Dissertations was printed and ready for distribution. The essays included (1) "The Natural History of Religion," (2) "Of the Passions," (3) "Of Tragedy," (4) "Of Suicide," and (5) "Of the Immortality of the Soul." The latter two essays made direct attacks on common religious doctrines by defending a person's moral right to commit suicide and by criticizing the idea of life after death. Early copies were passed around, and someone of influence threatened to prosecute Hume's publisher if the book was distributed as is. The printed copies of Five Dissertations were then physically altered, with a new essay "Of the Standard of Taste" inserted in place of the two removed essays. Hume also took this opportunity to alter two particularly offending paragraphs in the Natural History. The essays were then bound with the new title Four Dissertations and distributed in January 1757.

In the years following Four Dissertations, Hume completed his last major literary work, The History of England. In 1763, at age 50, Hume was invited to accompany the Earl of Hertford to the embassy to Paris, with a near prospect of being his secretary. He eventually accepted, and remarks at the reception he received in Paris "from men and women of all ranks and stations." He returned to Edinburgh in 1766, and continued developing relations with the greatest minds of the time. Among these was Jean Jacques Rousseau who in 1766 was ordered out of Switzerland by the government in Berne. Hume offered Rousseau refuge in England and secured him a government pension. In England, Rousseau became suspicious of plots, and publicly charged Hume with conspiring to ruin his character, under the appearance of helping him. Hume published a pamphlet defending his actions and was exonerated. Another secretary appointment took him away from 1767-1768. Returning again to Edinburgh, his remaining years were spent revising and refining his published works, and socializing with friends in Edinburgh's intellectual circles. In 1776, at age 65, he died from an internal disorder, which had plagued him for many months.

After his death, Hume's name took on new significance as several of his previously unpublished works appeared. The first was a brief autobiography, My Own Life, which many have praised as the best short autobiography in English. Even this unpretentious work aroused religious controversy. As Hume's friends, Adam Smith and S.J. Pratt, published affectionate eulogies describing how he died with no concern for an afterlife, religious critics responded by condemning this unjustifiable admiration of Hume's infidelity. Two years later, in 1779, Hume's Dialogues appeared. Again, the response was mixed. Admirers of Hume considered it a masterfully written work, while religious critics branded it as dangerous to religion. Finally, in 1782, Hume's two suppressed essays on suicide and immortality were published. Their reception was almost unanimously negative.

Hume is our Politics, Hume is our Trade, Hume is our Philosophy, Hume is our Religion." This statement by 19th century British idealist philosopher James Hutchison Stirling reflects a unique position that David Hume holds in intellectual thought. Hume profoundly impacted all of the disciplines noted by Stirling, not only during Hume's own life, but also for generations after and on to our own day. Part of his fame and importance owes to his boldly skeptical approach to a range of philosophical subjects. He questioned common notions of personal identity, and argued that there is no permanent "self" that continues over time. He dismissed standard accounts of causality and argued that our conceptions of cause/effect relations are grounded in habits of thinking, rather than in the perception of causal forces in the external world itself. He argued that it is unreasonable to believe testimonies of alleged miraculous events, and, accordingly, hints that we should reject religions that are founded on miracle testimonies. Against the common belief of the time that God's existence could be proven through a design or causal argument, Hume offered compelling criticisms of standard theistic proofs. Also, against the common view that God plays an important role in the creation and reinforcement of moral values, Hume offered one of the first purely secular moral theories, which grounded morality in the pleasing and useful consequences that result from our actions.