How to Become Humble

How to Become Humble May 11, 2015


I saw this offered on Reddit as “How to Become an Atheist.”

One problem is that atheists sometimes turn the critical gaze they probe religions with on their own worldview, and find that it is not without those same human imperfections, shortcomings, and unanswered questions that religious worldviews have.

Using the “outsider test” (as John Loftus calls it) has turned religious people into atheists, but also into liberal religious people, and it has also turned atheists into other things as well.

If you think that rational examination leads only to your worldview, then you probably haven’t fully applied the outsider test to your current worldview. If you had, you would know that it is not without its shortcoming either.

Treating other religious views the way you want your own to be treated isn’t inherently atheistic. It is an application of the Golden Rule, and thus fundamentally – although not exclusively – Christian.

The one thing it should make you, if done fairly and honestly, is humble, whether you remain in your own tradition, or decide to try another one on for size.


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  • When I was a Christian, I would have said that Christianity was my worldview.

    Now, I am an atheist. But atheism is not my “worldview”. I am a secular humanist, and, as such, I have much in common with Christian humanists.

    • Thanks for this. It’s my understanding that atheism is simply the disbelief or lack of belief in deity, and thus it cannot comprise a whole worldview any more than theism can. Both are components of worldviews, not worldviews in themselves. I’m a Christian humanist and thus probably have much in common with you too!

  • Kevin Osborne

    Viewpoint shifting is a humbling process. Another way to accomplish it is to find a viewpoint you disagree with. This viewpoint should be held by a friend and not be a heavyweight deeply held position like abortion. Have your friend fully explain that position until you fully understand it. Then move your viewpoint over to your friend. Physically move over to your friend’s space. You should find yourself in 100% agreement with that viewpoint. Then, move back to your own viewpoint and compare the two. Done right this can be a life-changing operation and at any rate opens the door to many new things.

  • Gakusei Don

    It’s similar to the famous quote by Stephen Roberts:
    “When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

    Someone used it on me, and I responded: “It’s a faith position. So now we both understand.” 🙂

  • Ignatz

    The reason I don’t believe in Zeus is because when I contemplate the Numinous (which I am compelled to do, since the sense of it seems to be ingrained within my very being), and look “through a glass darkly,” Zeus is not what I perceive.

    Christ is what I perceive.

    Meme fail.

    The fact that other theists perceive something else isn’t really relevant, since we all see through a glass darkly.

    Those theological differences are not at all like the difference between myself and someone who declares that there is no glass, and nothing to see.

    • David Evans

      I’m genuinely curious about this. Does your perception show you a human being who was crucified in about 30 AD? How does it show that? Or does it show you the second person of the Trinity, and if so, what does that look like?

      You see the point. People in all cultures have spiritual experiences. How they describe them seems largely to be determined by the religion they grew up in. Which makes it difficult to see them as evidence for the truth of a particular religion.

      • Ignatz

        Well, yes, of course we bring our own cultures, preconceptions and very selves to the thing. As we do to everything. But it always seems to me that the argument above – which has become common to the point of cliche – misses the extremely obvious.

        The modern atheist dismisses all gods because he doesn’t believe in a spiritual dimension at ALL, but ONLY believes in the natural, material universe.

        And you’d think that a group that calls themselves “Brights” and is constantly talking about how much smarter they are than other people would not need to have such an obvious distinction explained to them.

        The theist BEGINS with the purely instinctive awareness of a spiritual dimension, and THEN tries to figure out exactly what understanding of that spiritual dimension resounds and conforms most closely with his inner perception. One theist actually has infinitely more in common with a theist of a different religion – who ALSO acknowledges that spiritual dimension – than with someone who believes ONLY in the material world. The “one less god” argument is a canard, because that “one” reflects an entirely different world view. “The difference between 1 and 0 is the same as the difference between 2 and 1!” That would work if the subject was mathematics. It’s not.

        When I see things like this, I feel like the atheist in question is saying, “I do not understand religion AT ALL, but I am going to pontificate on the subject.”

        • David Evans

          I agree that the “one less god” meme is simple-minded. But there is a serious point behind it. Let me try and explore it.

          Here are some reasons not to believe Islam:

          1 Its holy book was first collected together some time after the events it describes, by people with different agendas.

          2 Its tradition describes events which are simply incredible (Mohammed splitting the moon in two, for instance)

          3 Its view of God is internally inconsistent. Allah is “The Merciful, The Compassionate” but he has already pre-ordained who will go to Hell (the torments of which are lovingly described)

          OK, If those are good reasons, should Christians not consider whether similar reasons exist not to believe Christianity?

          Also, you didn’t really answer my point. Let me phrase it differently. What makes your spiritual experiences better evidence for your religion than other peoples’ are for their religion? I know that many Hindus claim an intimate spiritual relationship with Krishna, for instance.

  • JasonTorpy

    Challenge accepted. First though, atheists don’t believe in any gods so we’re exempt. But we can adapt a bit so we can participate, and the analogy is applying skeptical requirements to the scientific concepts we accept – evolution, gravity, cancer treatments, WiFi, etc. We assign certainty according to the weight of the evidence, if we’re doing it right. That means NEVER dogmatic acceptance independent of evidence, but it may mean less-educated acceptance of certain concepts (I haven’t done all the experiments, but I still accept the existence of quarks). But we’re ALWAYS willing to look more closely and critically if challenges arise. Can god-believers say the same? No. And believers reliably say that nothing will change their minds and that faith (belief contrary to evidence) is a critical component of their beliefs. It’s not so much certainty about their beliefs as certainty about preferring their current beliefs over any evidence they might find. Maybe that’s not everyone, but this test can ‘fix’ a certain cognitive bias – the bias of applying different standards to one’s own God than one applies to other gods. Don’t assume the outcome (atheism), just apply equal standards and see how it turns out.
    In your case, I think your solution is to recognize the inconsistency in your beliefs and just be ‘humble’ as an excuse to persist in what you know isn’t true. I think you should choose honest rather than humble.

    • As far as “applying skeptical requirements to the scientific concepts we accept” — that’s all very well, but it really doesn’t go far enough, given what James McGrath is proposing. What has to be examined are unquestioned assumptions like “scientific methods are capable of yielding all forms of knowledge.”

      • JasonTorpy

        Whom are you quoting with ‘scientific methods are capable of yielding all forms of knowledge”? I’m all for being skeptical about science. Also, scientific methods have been the quickest and most reliable route to understanding and improving the world around us. That’s no assumption, just observation. But whatever history or statement, scientific methods change. It’s important not o make up arguments or change the subject. If you’re willing to hold your God to the same standards you hold other gods, then that’s a good point of agreement.

        • Well, I wasn’t quoting anyone in particular there, just a sort of conglomeration of a particular kind of atheist thinking. No, I’m not changing the subject or making up arguments. As you said, atheists don’t believe in any gods, so you’re exempt in that regard. However, what I meant was that atheists are not exempt from questioning their basic presuppositions about the nature of reality and how we humans can know that reality. A typical atheistic assumption is that everything that exists or is real is material, and that therefore science (which is a discipline that explores the material world) can therefore (at least theoretically and eventually, as scientific methods advance) tell us everything about everything.

          I’m saying atheists should hold their presuppositions to the same standards religious people are being asked to hold their own presuppositions. That is, that we all need to recognize the things we tend to just take as read, and scrutinize them.

          • JasonTorpy

            just a sort of *prejudice* about atheist thinking… Hopefully you can set aside your misconceptions about atheists and science. Scientism isn’t science, and the atheists understand that just fine. In any case, don’t change the subject. Apply the same standards to your god that you do to other gods. See how that works out for you.

          • I just have to say that some atheists do have trouble distinguishing between science and scientism. Do most? No, not in my experience. But there are some that do.

            If I follow that meme’s instructions, if I do what you suggest and apply the same standards to God as I do to gods: I don’t become an atheist. I think the reasoning behind the meme is a bit to simplistic to be sufficient.

          • Thank you, WaterOnMars. Certainly a lot of the atheists that I have encountered online have this difficulty– though by no means all of them. As far as applying the same standards to God as I do to other gods, that’s problematic because to the extent that other gods resemble the God I believe in, I think they are the same God (just called by different names– and actually none of us really fully grasps what the limitless God is all about)– and to the extent they don’t resemble the God I believe in, seems to be the same extent to which they are anthropomorphized, limited beings. Furthermore, applying the same standards to God as I do to other gods, seems to mostly just reveal the extent to which my own grasp of God is limited and needs adjusting.

          • True. I’m seeking God. For me, Jesus Christ helps me understand who God is. But I still don’t completely know. Because of this I have to remain open-minded.

          • If my words don’t apply to you, Jason, I apologize. But this is not a misconception; it comes from my actual experience of many atheists. By no means all. You will notice that I said “a particular kind” of atheist thinking, not all atheist thinking.

          • jjramsey

            A typical atheistic assumption is that everything that exists or is real is material

            From what I’ve seen, that’s not an assumption but rather a conclusion based on observations that various theistic explanations for natural phenomena have been found either wrong or superfluous. (FWIW, after that observation has been established, one can make a methodological assumption that everything that exists is material, but that’s an assumption that both theists and nontheists alike can make when doing science, and that gets off into the territory of philosophical versus methodological naturalism.)

            Also, offhand, the statement “scientific methods are capable of yielding all forms of knowledge” seems to be a mangling of the idea that the strength of one’s beliefs should be in proportion to the evidence for them.

    • I’m not sure which of the following is your point, and so let me address both.

      (1) If your point is that the meme is a clever tactic to focus on an element characteristic of religious belief, while not including anything that might lead atheists to engage in skeptical evaluation of their own worldview, then that does seem to be a legitimate criticism of it.

      (2) If your point is to suggest that liberal religious people are like conservatives and refuse to look closely and critically at evidence, and that we persist in what we know is not true, then I would ask you to provide evidence of this claim. Liberal Protestants were pioneers in the critical/skeptical examination of the Bible. I hope you are not trying to pretend that this was an atheist invention, but if so, then that is just one example of a point at which your atheist worldview deserves to be confronted with evidence, and involves beliefs which do not relate to and are not based on evidence.

  • John Thomas

    Totally agree. Personally I am an agnostic. But I don’t frown upon both theists and atheists about what they believe as I don’t see any problem with someone choosing a worldview and leading your life based on that. But both sides should show humility when discussing about ultimate questions about reality. Hence I don’t agree when atheists say something like existence exists or universe just exists or laws of nature are so just because it is so or try to use tu-quoque argumentation like we don’t know and neither do you and therefore atheism is the right position. It might be true or it might be much beyond that. It is okay to say that I am an atheist because it seems right to me based on how I observe the reality. I believe that everyone should be humble enough to admit that there is no epistemic certainty beyond a certain point for human minds and therefore should refrain from making giant claims like reality is nothing other than naturalistic materialistic cosmos working mechanistically under natural laws as a matter of fact. The reality might be much beyond the claims we make about it. Same goes for theists also when they use their scriptures to insist that they hold true metanarrative about the reality and those who don’t agree with it are somehow arrogant or doomed to destruction, not realizing that those were written by human beings just like ourselves; whether or not they were inspired by God is something that cannot be ascertained and hence require trust on the part of the believer.

  • JD Walters

    This assumes that all gods in all religions have fundamentally the same characteristics, so that reasons to deny one are reasons to deny all. That is a thoroughly false assumption. The God of classical theism has nothing in common with the lesser, anthropomorphic deities of various folk religious traditions, so reasons to deny the latter are not reasons to deny the former. In fact, historically the monotheistic pioneers used reasons to deny the latter precisely as reasons to EMBRACE the former.

    • I’m sorry, but what could possibly be more anthropomorphic than a God who becomes human and dwells among us?

      • JD Walters

        Key word there is ‘becomes’ human. God is not human in His essence, which is immaterial, transcendent, immutable, etc.

        • The God you are describing is the result of a long process of transition from a god who probably resembled most other other anthropomorphic deities (the traces of this original deity can still be found in biblical texts). Other “gods”, ranging form Brahma to Shiva to Kami, have undergone similar transformations.

  • I heard a preacher talking on this idea and it has been helpful to me:

    “…every time you draw a line between who’s in and who’s out, you’ll find Jesus on the other side.”

    Like many memes, the one above isn’t that convincing. You can turn the tables on the author of it easily:

    1. Pick any worldview beside your own (theism, anti-theism, atheism, deism)
    2. Give reasons why you don’t believe in it.
    3. Apply those reasons to your worldview.

    • David Evans

      It’s not always so easy. I’m an atheist. So:
      1. I pick theism
      2. My reasons are (among others) the problem of evil, the fact that major religions don’t agree about God’s commands or his nature, the fact that God’s stated attributes seem to contradict each other.
      3. I’m stuck. How would I apply those reasons or any similar ones to atheism? Whereas, if they are valid reasons not to believe one theistic religion, they are (or at least point towards) valid reasons not to believe another theistic religion.

      • Theism isn’t a religion. It just means one that believes in God or gods.

        But, I understand what you are saying. That meme quickly fails for me, too. I can follow those instructions and I don’t become an atheist.

  • Bethany

    Presumably for many liberal religious folks, it’s not a case of “not believing in their God” so much as “Preferring my religion’s approach to the divine” or even “this is the cultural context in which I was raised to think of the divine and so is the one that makes the most sense to me.”

    (IIRC in one of his books Marcus Borg observed that in his opinion, asking, “Why be a Christian if Christianity isn’t better than every other religions” is like asking “Why be an American if America isn’t better than every other country.)

    • “Why be an American if America isn’t better than every other country.”
      -That’s a really excellent question. I believe America really is better than every other country; so I am an American. Switzerland is a good second-best, though, I think, even though I’ve never been there.