Atheist Humility

Atheist Humility August 21, 2014

Christians will often say that being an atheist means “thinking you’re your own god” or “acknowledging no higher power than yourself“. Christians obviously think that God is our all powerful and perfectly good creator and that we as humans are merely his creations. He didn’t need to create us. There’s nothing He requires us to do that He cannot do Himself. He creates us purely out of a free decision. Since he’s so much greater than us in both power and goodness, it should put in perspective how relatively weak and morally imperfect we humans are. Since we utterly depend on Him to exist at all or to have or exercise any of our human powers, we must gratefully trust in His grace. For without Him we are nothing. And so Christians talk about how they humbly know that they can do nothing of their own power. And so we atheists must be the opposite. We must be the polar opposite of humble. We must arrogantly believe we are all powerful gods who know everything and who may do whatever evil things we want.

But of course that’s not true. Some atheists are arrogant or think they’re smarter than other people of course. But the same goes for some Christians and for some anything. That’s not an atheist problem, it’s a human problem. But what I want to look at is specifically the run of views and values that representatively make up atheistic humanism and point out the thread of humility in what we actually say and actually think.

We do not think we’re the most powerful beings in the universe. Christians reveal they know this when they employ an opposite and contradictory talking point that says we atheists are a bunch of nihilists who think we just crawled up from the ooze and there’s no point to anything and then we die.

Atheistic humanists are neither narcissists nor nihilists. We do believe there are things more powerful than us as individuals. There’s collective humanity. There are institutions. There are the laws of the universe which we can only learn to obey to our own purposes but never change ourselves. And we know that we’re fragile beings made of countless constituent molecules made of further constituent particles that we depend on for our being.

We think it’s not only more humble but a lot more honest to admit that the universe is billions of years old and countless billions of light years big, and that all this means that we’re not the center of importance, i.e., the universe probably was not all created with us in mind and it probably didn’t originate from a being curiously like us in personality (one obsessed with our sex lives and willing to become one of us, die for our sins, and grant us eternal life). In other words, we think that Christian accounts of reality that make the entire universe a cosmic play centered around humanity, to be arrogant and false. We think it’s humbler to not think this was all created by a being who thinks curiously like us and lovingly designed the whole shebang around us.

At the same time, we celebrate human potential. Not because we are so ignorant to think we can make ourselves perfect gods. But rather because we recognize that human brains and cultures are so remarkably plastic that in the past they have been capable of amazing improvements. We believe we can continue to make such improvements if we focus on reason, compassion, and mutual empowerment.

We know as well as anyone else the lessons of history that humanity is capable of equal evil as it is goodness. But we do not blow that fact up into a slander against human nature by saying we suffer from “Original Sin” or “total depravity” or a “sin nature”. We reject the idea that we’ve been made fundamentally corrupted and evil by a curse. We reject the language that says everything human is pathetic and all the glory for our goodness must go to a God beyond us. This is all too extreme.

What we believe in, instead, is acknowledging that, through no fault or credit of our own, we evolved to be the way we are through a process of natural selection. Our failings are not because an ancient ancestor transgressed or was proud. They’re because our brains were imprecisely shaped by evolutionary forces to live in conditions that predate the ones we live in now.

There are some remarkable capacities we wound up with. Perhaps none is more wonder-inducing than our brains’ amazing plasticity by which we can accelerate our own evolution culturally and technologically as no other animals could, rather than wait at the mercy of nature. But there are also some terrible evils we’re capable of. Possibly none is worse than our propensities for violently bigoted tribalism and shortsighted selfishness that sometimes underestimates how much our individual good is bound up with the good of others.

We were not perfectly designed. But we have resources (such as natural capacities for empathy, a rational grasp of basic concepts like fairness and goodness, basic skills for rational apprehension of the world, etc.) that can be cultivated and harnessed in amazingly progressive ways. We are not perfect but we can improve ourselves. We do improve ourselves. And we do it not by denigrating human nature and relying on external sources to save us, but in tangible terms by reaching within and humbly submitting to the lessons of science, psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, and philosophy. It is not by holding ourselves to unrealistic standards. It’s by empowering people as much as we can and responding when we fail with constructive compassion, education, and innovation. It’s about encouraging proactive attitudes rather than waiting on supernatural aid or sitting around in ashes and sack cloth, pummeling ourselves and others with blame and guilt over our inadequacies.

And ultimately it’s about cultivating an ethics that is responsive to real world conditions. One that is empirical and evolves with what we learn about what actually conduces to human flourishing. We refuse to dogmatically accept that any one ancient tribe’s moral prejudices from thousands of years ago are the absolute truth about morality. This doesn’t make us relativists about morality. It makes us moral thinkers who keep an eye on what morally matters and figure out the best ways to actually attain that under changing circumstances. The changes to moral understanding and practice we recommend are no more a denial of the reality of morality than suggestions of changes in technology or political structure, in light of new evidence or discoveries of better techniques or practices, are somehow denials of science or justice.

Experimentalism is not the enemy of ethics. The lesson of science is that learning from experience improves our thinking. Conscientious, humble, people don’t remain stubbornly intransigent in their views on what is right and wrong for fear that a change of mind or a change of application in response to new circumstances will somehow betray all of morality as somehow arbitrary and void.

We do not arrogantly say, “humans can do it by ourselves”, we responsibly admit that humans must do it by ourselves. We have no other choice. We may yet fail. We may drive ourselves extinct. We may deplete our resources too fast. Shortsightedly, we might irreparably destroy Earth’s habitability for ourselves if we are not careful. We may fail to keep nuclear weapons out of the wrong hands. We may build artificial intelligences that spell the end of our species.

But whatever happens, it’s on us. And appeals to God are an evasion of that real responsibility. They’re either presumptuous attempts to give our own views an authority they don’t deserve (that of a supernatural creator) or, in believers with misplaced humility, they’re an overly deferent belief in the words of other human beings.

Too often I hear smart, humble, conscientious Christians insist that they’re just not smart enough to think about theology or philosophy for themselves and so they rely on their pastors and their theologians to tell them what to believe and they avoid opening their minds to what those outside the church say. This kind of modesty is not only an underestimation of their own intelligence (which the church should be ashamed for regularly encouraging in people) but an immoral abdication of responsibility. Proper humility does not run from the responsibility to assess authorities. Letting anyone have pretensions to speak for God–be they a biblical author, a church tradition, or a pastor–and to defer to them as an absolute source of authority is to put us all in perilous trouble.

It is precisely because atheists are humble about human potential that we don’t trust any other humans to speak for God.

As to the claim that we want to be gods unanswerable to anyone else? That’s just false. We’re only humans. We’re answerable to reason, to standards of fairness and consistency, and to our empathetic connection to other people. Most of all, we’re answerable to the larger human community. What we’re not answerable to is those humans who try, with no real credibility, to invoke a divine authority to tell us to do things that violate our conscientious autonomy. Just because we rebuff human individuals or institutions that have god complexes doesn’t mean we have no humility, it’s that we have morally straight backbones against those who lack humility in the worst possible way.

Atheists trust in science not because we overestimate human intelligence but precisely because we appreciate the myriad ways that human intelligence goes wrong. What science is about is scrupulously figuring out how to correct for human bias and bad guesses. It’s about figuring out ways to separate what we desperately want to believe or what merely sounds good from what is actually true. It’s about setting up tests that unreliable humans can’t fudge. It’s about coming up with the kind of results that people feel compelled to admit are undeniable in spite of their wishes.

Sometimes Christians will try to point out the ways that scientists have changed their minds over time as a kind of gotcha, as if to say, “See! Science is fallible!” What such attempts to embarrass science miss is that that’s the strength of science. It’s self-correcting. It’s never so far been corrected by a theological discovery. It’s been corrected by better science. And the wonderful thing about science is that scientific institutions reward mind-changing discoveries. They incentivize it. You can win a Nobel Prize if you prove something thought fundamental in science is wrong! If you prove that something is wrong in the Bible or in theology, you’re more likely to be thrown out of the church.

And even though philosophy is less conclusive and generates less universally compelling conclusions than science at its best does, philosophy still is about training ourselves to be rigorous. It’s not about pretending to understand all mysteries. It’s about subjecting our concepts about the blurry things to as critical scrutiny as we can so that we can think more clearly and with less prejudice. It’s about making sure our beliefs are logically consistent and that they cohere well, both with each other and with what we know from the natural sciences, social sciences, and history.

Quite often, in both science and philosophy, the excitement in the intellectual life is in appreciating what we don’t know and exactly why we don’t know it. Seemingly with every riddle we solve, there open up new and fascinating ones to move onto next. This is why philosophers for 2,400 years have celebrated Socrates and introduced the practice of philosophy to novices by starting with his example. Long before the story of Jesus being unjustly killed for challenging the powers that be, there was Socrates’s martyrdom. In his trial, being prosecuted for bogus charges, he argued that what made him the wisest person on Earth was that he was the only one who knew that he knew nothing. Philosophers are as typically as willing as anyone to highlight the limits of human understanding.

Reliance on science and philosophy, rather than faith is the opposite of thinking humans have it all figured out. It’s a matter of embracing the reality of uncertainty, with both the patience to not cheat by making up simplistic or comforting answers and the impatience to diligently work hard in figuring out the truest answers out there, the ones that can best withstand the scrutiny of our best tools for testing thoughts objectively.

We think that when Christians suppose that God or other supernaturalistic entities like immaterial souls are the answer to all our hard scientific and philosophical puzzles—the origin of the universe, the origin of life, the relationship between mind and matter, the ultimate source of morality’s legitimacy—that they’re neither actually answering the questions nor humbly embracing the limits of the human intellect. They’re trying to wave away the questions and stop struggling with them in the kinds of scientific or philosophical ways that can actually make progress. “God” is not a profound answer to these questions that simply exceeds human intellect. It’s a giant anthropomorphic projection of human personality into a supernatural placeholder concept. As John Shook writes in The God Debates“Throwing god at a natural mystery doesn’t really help much. It amounts to explaining a serious mystery with a convenient miracle.”

Science and philosophy have vigorously progressed for centuries by precisely not settling for those kinds of pat answers that humans from preliterate times dreamt up. It’s not our arrogance that makes us think we can do better than the ancients in answering these questions. It’s that in the intervening centuries other humans slowly figured out how to have better humility and better methods for weeding out the true from the false than our trailblazing ancient forebears had. And we’ve learned the least humble thing is to take the word of our more ignorant and superstitious forebears as Gospel. The idea of a personal God behind all reality is not an idea that’s above our heads, it’s one that’s beneath what our tools of science and philosophy can actually figure out if we’re humble enough to let them correct our natural errors.

Relatedly, Christians often think that when atheists reject a Christian teaching for not making sense to us that that’s our uncomfortability accepting mysteries. But, again, atheists are accepting of many mysteries. There’s just a difference between a real mystery and a pseudo-mystery. A real mystery is when there are two or more things we know are true but we don’t know exactly how to reconcile how they can both be true given our currently available facts, formulas, categories, and theoretical frameworks. These real mysteries are not the kinds Christians ask us to accept.

Rather, what usually happens is that an atheist will point out something apparently illogical, self-contradictory, or scientifically undermined within a Christian teaching. Or two different Christian teachings will seemingly contradict each other. In such cases, the Christian teachings only originate in the first place from the Bible or from Christian theology or from general ancient religious beliefs that were incorporated into Christianity.

Regardless of the specific way these ideas came about, they didn’t by any means come from an unimpeachable source. They’re not verifiable. They’re not falsifiable. They’re not logically necessary. They don’t explain anything important. They are not things we simply must accept, despite their strangeness, in order to make sense of reality. They’re not even plausible beliefs.

Christians are taught over and over again to refuse to abandon these beliefs even when they’re rationally undermined and instead just claim that it’s just a “mystery”. But that’s simply bad reasoning. That’s treating pseudo-mysteries as real mysteries. The rational thing to do when your beliefs contradict each other or are undermined by the facts is to revise them or (at least) weaken your confidence in them. It’s not rational to double down with a volitional act of faith, a decision to believe in the teeth of refutation. It’s not rational to insist on continuing believing them to be true and just calling it a “mystery” as to why they’re true. Genuine mysteries are when things which we must believe for powerfully good reasons nonetheless are not easily reconciled. It’s not when someone who claimed to “just know” what God thought or wanted is shown to have been illogical.

When Christian teachings that are not independently knowable conflict, there’s no rational reason to assume that Christianity is right and these teachings must each be true. It’s more likely that the fallible humans who wrote the Bible or developed Christian theology simply were making things up than that any of these individually unprovable claims are actually true. Christians believe in all sorts of things–heaven, hell, angels, demons, blood atonement for sins, a morally perfect deity who told Old Testament peoples to commit genocides and enslave people, etc., etc.–purely on the word of ancient peoples who can’t back up most anything they say with evidence.

Ancient peoples, not just Jews and Christians but countless pagans too, believed there existed entire realms in the sky and outer space where gods and other spiritual forces tangibly lived like we do down here on earth. Their whole view of what is up literally in the clouds and literally just above them in space was completely made up and has been completely debunked now that we’ve been to the clouds and been to space ourselves and looked all over the universe with extraordinarily powerful telescopes. We’ve soundly debunked the whole cosmological view of the world in which angels and demons and devils and God himself were supposed to have lived. To go on believing in these beings, in the literalistic ways most Christians believe in them, during an age of space exploration is just an absolute stubborn obstinacy among Christians. Christians can’t talk about humility until they learn to admit when they and their Scriptures and their traditions are flat out wrong.

Specifically look at the belief in the resurrection and divinity of Jesus (accepted even by some more sophisticated believers who claim to be see through other parts of the Bible as “obviously non-literal”). Jesus was reputedly a man who also believed in demons and who supposedly also flew up into the sky after he allegedly resurrected from the dead. As though if you could only go up there high enough in the sky you would literally find heaven and not just outer space. This is just as preposterous and debunked a belief as any other in the Bible or from Greek mythologies which Christians without hesitation see are clearly just made up.

And Jesus purportedly cast out demons left and right while never curing any neurological maladies we now know about like epilepsy or schizophrenia. The simplest explanation is that Jesus lived in an age when people with neurological disorders were probably superstitiously diagnosed as demon possessed and he apparently couldn’t tell the difference. Either that or we have to believe he had no interest in “miraculously healing” mental illnesses or neurological disorders but only demon possessions. And that conveniently he was surrounded by way more actually and manifestly demon possessed people than we are in the modern world where (just coincidentally?) we know how to diagnose all these distinct neurological disorders and mental illnesses.

The ancient peoples who generated their religious beliefs under such ignorant circumstances are not credible. When they contradict each other that’s not a sign of a mystery that properly intellectually humble people would just accept. It’s simply a further confirmation that they had no idea what they were talking about.

For more on ancient cosmology about demons and outer space, et al., I highly recommend Elements 30-43 (pgs. 164-214) of Richard Carrier’s book On the Historicity of Jesus, in which he synthesizes a wealth of information about ancient philosophical and religious cosmology that one usually finds in only fragmentary forms into a coherent and eye-opening picture of ancient thought.

We atheists find it problematic also, Christians, when you claim not to know things when in philosophy arguments but then proceed to act like your beliefs are absolutely certain religiously. A lot of Christians will posture as humble by saying, “we are honest to admit that we only believe by faith” but then turn around and live (and insist others live) like your Christianity is 110% certain to be true. Your urgency in spreading the Gospel, your arrogant insistence that gay people abandon their very loves and sexual longings on account of a handful of Bible verses, your pushiness about wanting secular laws to conform to your idiosyncratically religious values, your taunts towards atheists that we’re fools and rebellious liars who must surely deep down know God exists but be trying to run away from Him, all reveal a lack of humility and an attitude of certitude that in other moments you admit is actually unwarranted.

And when pressed for actual justifications for their beliefs Christians will constantly evade the questions, change the subjects, attack our characters. When confronted with arguments you can’t answer you resort to insisting on believing “mysteries” and believing by faith because “no one really knows anyway”. But all this “nobody knows” pseudo-humility is gone the second you presume to talk on and on imperiously about what you’re certain God says and wants. When you’re knee deep evangelizing unintellectual non-believers, or nominal believers, your focus is not on what you don’t know and how “no one really knows anything, so let’s all be humble”. Rather what you have to say is all about how Jesus changed your life and what the Bible teaches and the Bible’s 100% truth like these are things that are absolutely written in stone certain. You typically demonstrate close to no humility whatsoever about meddling with other people’s beliefs or their lives or their kids’ minds when it comes to trying to get them to become a Christian (or more Christian than they are already).

But, some Christians will say things like “You atheists are the ones who are smugly overconfident and certain! You say there certainly is no God! But you’d have to be God to be so all knowing as to know that!”

But that’s not true. First of all, no atheists I’ve ever met claim certainty about these things. Many don’t even say they know there’s no God but rather than in lieu of evidence they lack belief in God. That’s an attempt to be as humble as possible. Their mindset is that, “Look, humans get a lot of stuff wrong, so we can’t believe in everything that is appealing to us, we need to restrain our beliefs to what there is evidence for. Without good evidence for the Christian God, I’m just not going to believe such a being exists anymore than any of us believe in plenty of other gods there’s no evidence for–like Zeus or Thor.”

Me, I go further than those kinds of atheists. do say I can know there’s no Christian God. Which isn’t the same as saying I know how the universe came to be. Again, humility. I don’t know such things. But that doesn’t magically make the Christian God into a plausible explanation any more than it makes Zeus into one. I’m not any more arrogant than you Christians are when you would say you know Zeus or Thor are not real. I’m just applying the same consistent standard to your god that you apply to other people’s gods. I’m just as justified. I think were it not for the overwhelming cultural prejudice that we grow up with in the West, you’d have no trouble whatsoever seeing through the Christian God just as easily as you see through Zeus and Thor. None has any claim to reality.

Am I certain? No. But I don’t have to be certain to know things. We all know plenty of things without absolute certainty. And the evidence against the Christian God is really that stupendously good for anyone who looks with an open mind and heart to discover it. I say this as someone who was once sold out for Jesus, living my entire life to spread the Gospel, and who tried to research the arguments against the faith with full intentions of rebutting them. This was my life’s mission and passion. Coming to let go of my belief in Jesus and in God was not at all an act of arrogance. It was the most humbling thing I ever had to do. You’ll know it only if one day you have to face the reality that everything you’ve been insisting everyone believe for the last 10 years of your life is a total lie. It’s a terrible feeling. And I knew it would cost my entire church community and my entire Christian identity which had oriented all my life endeavors for me so far. All my accomplishments for the Gospel were worthless since the Gospel was worthless.

My realization that atheism was the most rational position was nothing like “I am a god! No one can understand anything above my intellect!” It was a realization that I knew nothing and that the people I had trusted to give me supernatural truth—from the Biblical authors to contemporary believers–all knew less than nothing. The only thing that made me any wiser than them was that I, like Socrates, at least knew that I knew nothing. And I humbly spent years and years painstakingly working out my beliefs, trying to make sure I didn’t jump to any more rash and unjustified conclusions. And my life as a philosopher is one of constantly being humbly open to revise what I think.

And in this context, over and over I see the arrogance of grossly uneducated Christians who mock my years of education and full life investment in philosophical toil. They dismiss me as a sinner. They treat me with contempt like someone who “just doesn’t get it”, like someone who just needs a drive by shouting at in my blog’s comments section–one more proclamation of a boiler plate Gospel script, one more chest thumping insistence that I’m going to hell because THEIR GOD IS REAL (as though the caps lock is all the proof I need to finally see the light). They don’t come to me with arguments. They rarely do me the courtesy of addressing any of the substance of the ideas I’ve spent years refining. They come to me dripping with arrogance and condescension and threats and so much bluster about what they’re just certain they know.

Your Thoughts?

Related: The Harmony of Pride and Humility and Will Power, Humility, and Discipline

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