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Anthony Kenny on Humility and Agnosticism

The Unknown God: Agnostic Essays (Continuum: 2004), pp. 106-9.

Humility is a virtue which concerns one’s assessment of one’s own merits and defects in comparison with others. The virtues, as Aristotle taught us, concern particular passions; they assist reason to control these passions. The relevant passion in this quarter is the raging tempest of self-love: our inclination to overvalue our own gifts, overesteem our own opinions and place excessive importance on getting our own way. Humility is the virtue that counteracts this prejudice. It does so not by making the judgment that one’s own gifts are lesser than others, or that one’s own opinions are falser than others — for that, as St Thomas says, would often lead to falsehood. It does so, rather, by making the presumption that others’ talents are greater, others’ opinions more likely to be right. Like all presumptions, the presumption of humility is rebuttable; it may be that for a particular purpose one’s own gifts are more adapted than those of one’s neighbours; on a particular topic it may be that one is right and one’s neighbour wrong. But only by approaching each conflict of interest and opinion with this presumption can one hope to escape the myopia that magnifies everything to do with oneself by comparison with everything to do with others.

Humility is itself a humble virtue. It is easy enough to see the ugliness of the contrary vice of pride. Every day we notice people defending theses that are indefensible, taking on jobs they are unsuited for, taking offence at imagined slights. But if a person has humility, it often takes an effort for others to realize this. It takes observation to notice that it is so-and-so who always takes the lowest jobs; that whoever is thrusting into the limelight, it is not her but someone else. Not that humility necessarily means an avoidance of the public eye; it takes a certain humility to be willing to stick one’s neck out and place oneself in a position to make a public fool of oneself.

Humility, thus understood, can be seen to be a moral virtue without any appeal to Christian doctrine or to specifically religious premises. None the less, it is one of the great gifts of Christianity to the human race to have identified and exalted this virtue. It has done so by presenting heroes and patterns of imitation who humbly placed and degraded in the eyes of the world: a crucified son and a mother whose only extant work is a hymn to the Lord who put down the mighty and exalted the lowly. Even the pride of Christians expressed itself in the language of humility: so that if a man claimed to be the spiritual lord of Christendom, he gave himself the title “servant of the servants of God”.

As befits a Christian saint, Aquinas himself displays great humility in his writings. If anything he is too willing to defer to the opinions of others, too ready to interpret benignly the writings of his predecessors. As has been said, he was unable to make a wholly convincing attempt to reconcile Aristotle’s teaching on magnanimity with Christian preaching of humility. None the less, we can recognize not only in Aquinas but also in aristotle himself the virtue which it took Christianity to canonize. Among all the philosophers who, throughout the ages, have displayed genius of the first rank, the two whose works display least attachment to their own ego are Aristotle and Aquinas.

While praising the characteristic Christian virtue of humility, I have expressed reservation about the other Christian attribute of faith. The recitation of a creed, I claim, is incompatible with the true humility which Christianity so rightly prizes. This may seem surprising, as faith is so often held up as an exercise of humility: the abasement of the human reason before the mysterious power of God. Now of course if God has indeed revealed some truths, it would be insane folly not to accept them. The difficulty is in the knowing first that there is a God; and secondly that he has revealed certain doctrines. For my part I find the arguments for God’s existence unconvincing and the historical evidence uncertain on which the credal statements are based. The appropriate response to the uncertainty of argument and evidence is not atheism — that is at least as rash as the theism to which it is opposed — but agnosticism: that is the admission that one does not know whether there is a God who has revealed himself to the world.

There is, beyond doubt, a virtue — let us call it rationality — which preserves the just mean between believing too much (credulity) and believing too little (scepticism). From the viewpoint of an agnostic both the theist and the atheist err by credulity: they are both believing something — the one a positive proposition, the other a negative proposition — in the absence of the appropriate justification. On the other hand, from the point of view of theism, the agnostic errs on the side of scepticism: that is, he has no view on a topic on which it is very important to have a view. Internally, there is no way of settling whether it is the agnostic who errs on the side of scepticism, or the theist who is erring on the side of credulity.

But if we look at the matter from the viewpoint of humility it seems that the agnostic is in the safer
position. … The theist is claiming to possess a good which the agnostic does not claim to possess: he is claiming to be in possession of knowledge; the agnostic lays claim only to ignorance. The believer
will say he does not claim knowledge, only true belief; but at least he claims to have laid hold, in whatever way, of information that the agnostic does not possess. It may be said that any claim to possess gifts which others do not have is the same situation, and yet we have admitted that such a claim may be made with truth and without prejudice to humility. But in the case of a gift such as intelligence or athletic skill, those surpassed will agree that they are surpassed; whereas in this case, the theist can only rely on the support of other theists, and the agnostic does not think that the information which the theist claims is genuine information at all. Since Socrates philosophers have realized that a claim not to know is easier to support than a claim to know.