Does humility make sense in a world without God?

by Mike Austin

Does humility make sense in a world without God?

Consider Erik Wielenberg’s naturalized version of humility, as described in his Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe.[1] Wielenberg explores the implications for ethical character in a universe without God when humans know that the universe is naturalistic in this sense. That is, he constructs an account of humility grounded in the assumption that we know that naturalism is true.

On a Christian analysis, according to Wielenberg, the humble person neither underestimates nor overestimates her own value or abilities, but instead recognizes that these are gifts from God. She also acknowledges her dependence on God, and knows that much of what contributes to her flourishing is not within her control, but God’s. Hence, the humble theist is grateful for her flourishing in light of this dependence, and gives credit to God. On naturalism, however, Wielenberg claims that there is also room for an acknowledgment of dependence on something outside of ourselves, because so much of what contributes to our success—psychological constitution, physical health, family background, where and when we are born, and economic factors—is outside of our control. On naturalism, these factors are not under God’s control; they are under no one’s control. Given this, no one gets the credit. Sheer chance and good fortune should receive the majority of the credit. As Wielenberg puts it, “It is the dependence of human beings and their actions on factors beyond their control—dependence that is present whether God exists or not—that makes humility in some form an appropriate attitude to have.”[2]  In either kind of universe, naturalistic or theistic, “…taking the balance of credit for one’s accomplishments is foolish.”[3] Like the humble theist, the humble naturalist can and should acknowledge her dependence on something outside of herself, substituting good fortune for God.

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Wielenberg may be right that there is space within a naturalistic view of the universe for an attitude of humility. Perhaps we should generally expect that there will be somewhat plausible naturalistic versions of many particular virtues if Christianity is true. This is because according to Christianity, the structure of reality reflects aspects of God’s nature. Given this, even if one seeks to remove God from the picture, as it were, there will still be latent theistic features of reality which can make sense of the virtues. However, if Christianity is true then a Christian account of the virtues will be superior to any account available to naturalists, and the virtues themselves will ultimately possess better metaphysical fit with our understanding of the rest of reality, both of which we should expect if Christian theism is true.

For example, and as a way to compare naturalistic humility with theistic humility, consider the relationship between humility and gratitude. Of course the Christian can be humbly grateful to God and other people, for what he and they have done on her behalf. But the naturalist, given that dumb luck and blind chance are the ultimate causes of most of the factors contributing to his success—psychological constitution, physical health, family background, where and when he was born, and economic factors—has no good reason to be grateful for these things because there is no one to be grateful towards. Even the other human beings who have benefited our fortunate naturalist only do so primarily (or solely?) because of dumb luck and blind chance. On naturalism, no person, human (or, of course, divine), is ultimately responsible for anything, and so it becomes very difficult to see what reasons exist for gratitude towards persons, at least. Moreover, what it means for one to be grateful towards dumb luck or blind chance is at best quite mysterious, and at worst incoherent…

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