Monday, April 5, 2010

Humble Pie

There is one thing that many of my religious friends generally accuse atheists of; that thing is an intrinsic lack of humility. “How can you be humble if you claim to know god does not exist?” they ask. To me the question “How can you claim humility when you suggest that you have received special knowledge about life the universe and everything?” is a more valid question. Unfortunately a world where one cannot, by definition, be humble if you either do or do not believe in a theist god lacks an essential quantity of humility.

Both the claim “I am right” and the claim “you are wrong” require a minimum level of arrogance. When talking about theist matters the level of proof needed to motivate either statement is lower than that required for more mundane statements. I have been told that proof is not reasonably possible for theist statements; belief is used in place of proof. I have even been told, more than a handful of times, that one has to be truly humble to accept belief as proof. Those that disagree with someone’s beliefs accurately describe that process as being arrogant. Again there is an impasse in the mutual acknowledgment of even the possibility of humility.

Many atheists believe, and rightly so, that they sidestep the humility impasse by examining the nature of proof and belief. The idea is that proof can be quantified and a convincing amount of proof can be amassed. Instead of saying “I know that your god does not exist”, like theists of different flavors say to one another, the atheist says: “The god you describe almost certainly does not exist”. This sounds like a more humble statement since it does not insist on special knowledge for accuracy. Unfortunately humility is usually used as synonymous with belief in the “correct” god not a measured approach to belief.

In the Abrahamic religions humility is very important since you get prizes for being extra humble:
2 Chronicles 7:14 (New International Version)
If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
Matthew 23:12 (King James Version)
And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.

Defining humility as: “Belief in the correct god” is another example of oversubscribing a definition. Oversubscribing definitions was examined by this blog before when it looked at the statement: “god is love”. This oversubscribing of humilities’ definition is not a direct replacement. Humility has a meaning in addition to the “correct god belief” definition. The theist amalgam of two definitions is a Frankenstein’s monster of a deffinition. There is no reason to accept the “correct god belief” portion of humility’s definition in order to understand and practice humility in one’s life. The two elements can, and should, be separated.

So what is the core definition of humility and why would one want to practice humility anyway?

“To be humble to superiors is duty, to equals courtesy, to inferiors nobleness.”
Benjamin Franklin

Humility is a consciousness of one’s failings, a modest attitude, and the showing of deferential respect where it is deserved. This facet of humanity is needed for people to fit together in working groups. The requirement for humility is so acute that one would think a humility deficient person would be easy to spot by simply looking at their life. Do they make the same mistakes over and over? Are they always right regardless of evidence to the contrary? Do they believe things more strongly the more proof they are supplied with? Do they resent help? Are they flamboyant and derogatory? Each of these is a simple test for the lack of humility in a person.

Some of these tests appear tailor-made for atheists. The ability to change one’s point of view in response to proof is one of the most important tests to an atheist. For Adult Onset Atheists this pathway of unfettered thought is what made them atheists. There will be a time when Adult Onset Atheists are rare or non-existent. This will never happen while religions are a significant feature in the world because the path to type II atheism is impossible to completely destroy. Adult atheists who are the children of atheist parents often do not make an adult choice to be an atheist. When most of the parents in the world are atheists the future generations will not need to wait till adulthood to experience the freedom that comes with the onset of atheism. These atheists will look at humility differently than our generations.

Most atheists have a belief threshold. There are several, even minor, biblical miracles that would cause most atheists to believe. Even an easy one, like turning Lot's wife into salt, would do for me. I would be skeptical that the miracle had really occurred, but given incontrovertible proof (not just an inability to figure out the illusion), I would believe. Since the bible that I am supposed to believe is truth states this type of miracle is possible, I do not think this is an unreasonable demonstration. That I might be hesitant to accept that the miracle was genuine has to do with the rich history of faked miracles that has dogged Christianity. From photo-shopped fossil proof that dinosaurs co-existed with humans, to faked cross splinters sold en-masse to provide curative benefits, I doubt that any potentially counterfeit miracle has not been attempted.

I could potentially be duped if a sufficiently convincing illusion were to be created. I am not the most gullible of people so I postulate that there are more high-profile and less anonymous atheists that could also be duped by such an illusion. This would provide a great set of quotes for Christians to “prove” their god. If they were able to convince someone as high profile as Christopher Hitchins that a sufficient miracle had occurred I'm sure he would provide a cornucopia of belief supporting quotes. For many Christians the end (converting Hitchins) would be worth the means (creating faked miracles). Should Hitchins discover the ploy and renounce his conversion there would be many who would refuse to believe it. To many a discredited miracle is easier to believe in than nothing.

Experiments have been performed where a demonstratably random group of individuals are asked their opinion on a subject they are unfamiliar with. Only a small part of the group will have an opinion in the absence of information. If the group is presented with a reasonable-sounding argument containing facts and figures then a large portion of the group will formulate an opinion on the basis of this evidence. If the, now more opinionated, group is then told that the presentation was completely made up only a small number of the group will change their minds. Why do they have more of an opinion simply because they have been given evidence that they know is false?

Once people have tasted the fruit of knowledge they find it difficult to go back to not knowing. There is a human bias to base judgment on knowledge, even when one knows that the knowledge is wrong. Knowledge that is simply suspect can be as effective as knowledge in which one has great confidence.

This is, of course, where humility comes in. Are we humble enough to accept the limits to our knowledge? Are we humble enough to seek authoritative advice to test our confidence in the truths we cling to? Are we humble enough to admit we do not know and act as if we do not know when it is appropriate?

No comments: