The Virtues: Be Humble

The sixth of the Virtues is humility. In many religious traditions, humility is considered the very highest of virtues, and while I think it is an important and desirable quality to practice, I wouldn’t go quite so far. Furthermore, as we’ll see, my idea of what constitutes humility differs somewhat from the theistic view.

What I advocate is not the humility enshrined in many religious texts, the aim of which is to abase oneself and think of oneself as lowly and worthless, in order to avoid swift vengeance from jealous and insecure deities. In the classic conception of many religions, the worst crime one can possibly commit – worse than murder, worse than war, worse than rape – is to think of oneself as like God. (On the other hand, these same religions often insist that people should try to be like God – “Christlike”, in the Christian tradition, for example – through following the norms of behavior they claim he has laid down and reenacting rituals that are supposed to create a sense of divine presence. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that religions want people to act like God, but only through the “correct”, officially approved methods.)

What I advocate is something different. There is nothing in this humanist humility that forbids one to take pride in a job well done, nor does it demand false modesty in the face of achievement, nor does it ask us to abstain from seeking recognition through merit. Instead, what I propose is a spirit of selfless competition, one that strives to outdo others in virtue and achievement yet takes the same satisfaction no matter who the winner is. Being humble means valuing the deed itself, and not using it as a vehicle for fame or self-aggrandisement.

Being humble means being realistic about our own fallibility. Since we are human beings, we make mistakes. That is an obvious truth, one acknowledged by every religion on the planet. Yet most of them fall short of taking it to its logical conclusion, namely that human intuition and “common sense” cannot be trusted unless they are supported by evidence. Instead, many religious people believe that their own subjective conviction that something is true constitutes sufficient evidence that it is true, and their religions praise and encourage that. A true humility would not rest such unjustified confidence in the ability of humans to directly discern truth, and would insist that we justify our decisions with facts to which anyone can appeal; nor would it ever claim that our knowledge is perfect or our conclusions infallible.

Being humble means recognizing our true place in the cosmos. Again, many religions, despite their claimed exaltation of humility, picture the entire universe – galaxies, nebulae and all – as little more than scenery, created as a backdrop for the drama of the salvation of humankind. Such a ridiculously anthropocentric view stems from the imagination of small and arrogant minds, myopically imagining themselves as the center of all that exists. Views that hold the Earth to be only a few thousand years old, its origin and fate linked inextricably to the origin and fate of humanity, are more absurd and arrogant still. Being humble means recognizing the vast sweep of cosmic time and our own, insignificant by comparison, place within it.

Being humble means seeking out other opinions and other viewpoints. When we arrogantly claim that our culture, our scripture, our way of life is the only one that is good or worth knowing about, not only do we look ridiculous and ignorant, we miss out on the true wonder and diversity of thought waiting to be experienced. The humble person knows that every meeting with another, every deep and meaningful interaction between minds, broadens and enriches both lives in a way that is not otherwise possible. Being humble does not mean considering all cultural beliefs to be of equal value or moral worth, nor does it mean that some ideas and practices are not morally superior to others, but it does mean that we should take the initiative to seek out for ourselves what is good and not assume that we already possess it.

Other posts in this series:

On the Importance of Firebrand Atheism
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
Atlas Shrugged: The Rapture of the Capitalists
A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 11
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • anti-nonsense

    excellent post Ebonmuse, I must admit that this is one of the things I struggle with, I have a hard time sometimes keeping things into perspective and reminding myself that just because people don’t agree with me about the way things ought to be doesn’t mean they are bad people or stupid.

    I think it’s good for all of us to be reminded on occasion that the universe existed for a long time before our planet did, and that our planet existed for a long time before our species did, and our species has existed for quite a while before we did, and all these things will exist for a long time after we are dead (hopefully) so we shouldn’t feel like the universe exists for our sake because it doesn’t exist for any reason, it just is.

  • BlackSun

    Everything else I agree with. This statement seems self-contradictory:

    I propose is a spirit of selfless competition, one that strives to outdo others in virtue and achievement yet takes the same satisfaction no matter who the winner is.

    What is the point of good and friendly competition, if not to win? And when winning, what is the point if not to take pride, and even gloat a little bit?

    This process creates the incentive for the guy you beat to win the next time. If everyone feels good when they win, we all ultimately win.

  • Ebonmuse

    The point of competition is to win, yes, and to prize that winning when it occurs. I don’t think the point is to gloat. Unless the competitors are so mismatched as to make the outcome a foregone conclusion, in which case there’s no reason to take pride in winning, there will be an unavoidable element of contingency in every victory. However the contest turned out, it could have gone differently. That alone, I believe, is sufficient reason both for the victors not to congratulate themselves too extravagantly, as well as for the losers not to take their loss too badly. And when the contest is to achieve something of importance – a scientific breakthrough, say – then everyone has a reason to be glad about the outcome, even if they’re not the ones who directly brought it about.

  • Erich Vieth

    Good post, Ebonmuse. With a bit more humility of the type you describe, those around us would lose the justification for much of the religious violence in which they engage.

    Your concept of “selfless competition” reminds me of one of the “cardinal virtues” presented by Walter Kaufmann in his (now out-of-print) book, Faith of a Heretic. He calls it “humbition”:

    “The first lacks any single name but is a fusion of humility and aspiration. Humility consists in realizing one’s stark limitations and remembering that one may be wrong. But humility fused with smugness, with complacency, with resignation is no virtue to my mind. What I praise is not the meekness that squats in the dust, content to be lowly, eager not to stand out, but humility winged by ambition. There is no teacher of humility like great ambition. Petty aspirations can be satisfied and may be hostile to humility. Hence, ambition and humility are not two virtues: taken separately, they are not admirable. Fused, they represent the first cardinal virtue. Since there is no name for it we shall have to coin one-at the risk of sounding humorous: humbition… Meekness says: Judge not, that you be not judged! . . . Humbition replies: Judge, that you may be judged!”

    I wrote more about Kaufmann’s ideas regarding morality at Dangerous Intersection:

  • Contest Winner

    I agree with Blacksun. If winning isn’t everything, they wouldn’t keep scores :)