Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Humility of Atheism

One common charge I hear from theists is that Atheists are arrogant or narcissistic.  This article is a response to that charge and an effort to show that the exact opposite is true.  There is a humility about Atheism that I rarely hear discussed.

The words "arrogance" and "narcissism" are thrown around a lot, but when I look at them closely and see how people use these words, there are clearly multiple meanings of them.  For the purpose of this article, I will use the word "arrogant" to also include "narcissism".

Arrogance often describes a condescending or haughty way of talking or nonverbally acting towards others.  There are two pieces to this kind of arrogance.  The first piece is a direct or indirect message of superiority, which can be about many things, such as appearance, wealth, intelligence, status, etc.  The second piece follows the first piece, which is the implication, often tacit or subtle:  "and you're not".  It is this passive attack on the other that people find most annoying about arrogant people.

In this way, I think theists and Atheists alike can be guilty of arrogance, particularly when discussing religious topics together.  Further, in this way, there is nothing arrogant about either theism or Atheism intrinsically, as arrogance refers to the verbal or nonverbal manner of a presenter.

It is in the second meaning of arrogance that there does lie a difference between theism and Atheism.  This form of arrogance can be described as a person asserting that they know things which they actually don't know.  I see this form of arrogance as being very different from the first, which is meant to build up the narcissists self concept.  In fact, for most people, I think this second form of arrogance doesn't come originally from the person themselves, but stems from the theistic teaching they were indoctrinated with, likely when they were still very young.

This is true of much of modern Christianity, which misinforms people of how they can "know" things.  Modern Christianity teaches people that valid knowledge includes logically fallacious appeals to authority and emotion, such as knowing there is a god because others said so or attributing certain emotional states to the presence of the supernatural.  Simply because someone said something is true, does not mean the thing is true, and feeling something doesn't mean the assumtions a person makes about that feeling are valid.  In this way, I do not hold negative feelings towards theists for claims of this kind of knowledge.  I use to believe these things myself.  It is important to know however that true beliefs must be demonstrated to be true.  If an assertion of truth is not able to be demonstrably proven, then it's truth value cannot be known until there is some way for the assertion to be evaluated or proven. 

It is from this meaning of arrogance that the humility of Atheism is derived.  Atheists who are Atheists from the starting point of skepticism, do not claim to know things they do not know.  Their answer to things that they do not know is "I don't know" and this response is a humble one.  It admits ignorance instead of making up answers when answers are not truly known.  It is also from this starting point of admitting that one doesn't know, that the true search for true answers can begin, unimpeded by false and biased beliefs.

It is also humble for a person to admit being wrong when that person is wrong.  It is arrogant to do otherwise, especially when shown clear evidence to the contrary of beliefs a person holds.  As an Atheist, I am not saying that I know there is no god.  I'm saying I do not believe there is a god at this point because the burden of proof which rests on those who claim that there is a god has not been met.  If that burden of proof is met and god is validly demonstrated to exist, then I would believe in the god.  Until them, I am comfortable with the humble response, "I don't know, but I'm open to the possibility".


  1. I see the charge of arrogance flung at atheists so much that I'm bookmarking this page - a very good response, and one of the few I've come across that actually addresses the charge. Thank you :)

    I've been on the receiving end of the accusation a number of times, but in fact more so when I was a Christian than since. Whenever I had an opinion of my own that disagreed with that of my church elders and even my parents (ESPECIALLY my parents), I was shot down with 'Your arrogance is proof of your heresy' or some such similar retort. And it was always said with such emotion, such triumphant indignation, as if by making the claim they believed they had disproved everything I had said and not simply dodged the issue.

    Their complaint seemed to be that by not just accepting without question what people older than myself were telling me, I was somehow disrespecting them. And this when I myself was an adult. Funny definition of respect, is all I can say.

    I personally would consider it a greater sign of respect if someone younger than me posed me ANY question that occurred to them, and felt comfortable telling me plainly if they saw a problem with something I said or believed. For me, that would show that they saw me as an equal, as someone they could trust to be fair and reasonable. I would take it as a compliment, as an indication that they saw me as not being too proud or stuck in my ways too change my mind, I would feel pleased that they didn't feel they had to condescendingly put up with me because you can't teach an old dog new tricks.

    Maybe that's just me though.

  2. liminalD:

    I'm glad you liked the article. I hope it's useful to you the next time you're on the receiving end. I think it's funny how some people seem to think that by saying things louder and/or with more emotion, it makes what they are saying more true.

    I wish you the best in all your future talks with others!