Adam Smith's Genealogy of Religion

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This paper has three main aims. First, to make good on recent suggestions that Adam Smith offers a genealogy of the origins of religious belief. This is done by offering a systematic reconstruction of his account of religion in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, demonstrating that Smith there offers a naturalized account of religious belief, whilst studiously avoiding committing himself to the truth of any such belief. Second, I seek to bring out that Smith was ultimately less interested in the truth of religious beliefs than in evaluating and understanding the place of religion in healthy ethical living. Third, I put Smith’s account into contrast with the more famous treatment offered by Nietzsche (as well as Bernard Williams’s later, Nietzschean, reflections), and suggest that Smith offers us the more plausible picture of both religion and morality, a finding of both historical and contemporary philosophical import.
Original languageEnglish
JournalHistory of European Ideas
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 15 Sept 2020


  • Adam Smith
  • Genealogy
  • Religion
  • Nietzsche


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