It is most often reiterated, in an accusatory, if not an aggressive manner, that religions teach you one fundamental and gracious quality: humility. “He who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted,” preaches the new testament in Mathew 23:12. “Successful indeed are the believers, those who humble themselves in their prayers,” contends the Qur’an in 23:1-2. Those who are religious, society tells us, are the ones who exude the unwillingness to put oneself forward; therefore, in a religious context, humility sharply contrasts with pride, pretentiousness, and narcissism, so it seems.
Atheists, on the other hand, are without a doubt, deemed as ones who not only lack the virtue of humility but as a section of our society that is impoverished morally and obtrusively boastful. Stigmatization and ostracization of atheists, multiple statistics reveal, are ubiquitous all around the world, even most prominently in the land of free, the U.S. But isn’t the humility of the religious exaggerated and that of the atheists underestimated?
Some astute observers pinpointed a paradox in the notion of humility that is invariably found in religious texts and argued the opposite. In this article, I’m attempting to advance the unusual idea that religions might be in fact source of pretentiousness and arrogance, and atheism, however dark and offensive it might seem, can instill virtues like humility and self-abnegation in its adherence.
Humility, in many religious contexts, means the recognition of self in relation to a deity or deities. You have to humble yourself, so the argument goes, before the all-powerful, omniscient God, and know that there are things, however powerful and mighty you deem yourself, bigger and more prodigiously complex than you are. That is an attractive idea. But it has its consequential and eventually detrimental corollaries.
The belief in religion is enticed by a powerful promise, and that is, living eternally in heaven where there are throngs of virgins, rivers, and palaces waiting for you. Yet, across from paradise lies a dark, hellish--literally hellish-- place. It is where non-believers (who could very well believe in a religion that happens to be the untrue one) are burned and incinerated, to the point where their skin peels off and then recovers, just so that it can be burned again, and again, and again, till eternity.
Believing that some people will go to heaven-- and it so happens that those will be from your own religion-- will inadvertently mean that those who don’t will burn in hell. This creates a schism between the believer and the non-believer (who could be a believer, but in a different religion). While this believer could very well be humble before his God, who is invisible, he is nevertheless egged on to regard his fellow human being who happens to believe in a different or no religion with contempt and inferiority.
If you, as a Muslim for instance, firmly believe that you will relish in heaven in the afterlife, occasionally having sex with 72 virgins, you will also believe that your Jewish colleague will have his skin peeled off from the blistering fire till eternity. This belief, no matter how courteous you act in the presence of this colleague, will instill in you a feeling of superiority, of primacy and dominance that will otherwise be nonexistent should you believe in the same religion as your colleague. If he will burn in hell in the afterlife, and I will sit luxuriously before the river of wine, you might unconsciously reason, then there are not a plethora of reasons that will grant my regarding him as an equal as a good psychological view.
Moreover, it is also gravely egocentric to believe that there is a higher, supervising deity caring for and protecting you and those who belong to the religion you believe in, while callously neglecting and cursing those who don’t. It is also exceedingly pernicious and arrogant to believe that from the thousands of religions and teachings out there throughout history, yours happenes to be the true one.
To humble yourself is to acknowledge how much you don’t know about the world, let alone about the afterlife. It is to regard your fellow human being as another equal sentient being, not as someone who is destined to be burned in hell for eternity. Humility is not to claim that you belong to the chosen people of the creator of the universe. Humility is not claiming that the creator of the universe made the universe just for us and gave us supremacy over all animals. It is to believe that we are so insignificant on a cosmic scale. It is to acknowledge that we are living on a minuscule planet, orbiting an average-sized star, within a small galaxy, in a galaxy cluster. Humility is not religion. Humility is acknowledging not knowing.