David Shatz - December 2015 Meeting Topic

Is Humility Always A Virtue?: The Case of Religion

David Shatz, Yeshiva University

There is a fairly large secular literature on humility. My project asks: what does the study of religious traditions add to the discussions of humility that are found in the secular literature? And how do the secular discussions afford us a sharpened perspective on the religious value of humility? There are numerous aspects to this topic; this paper explores a few of them, as a beginning.

The paper’s first point is historical-sociological: there has been a shift in how philosophers view the religious personality. No longer are adherents viewed, a la Nietzsche, as humble and weak. Rather,  the charge is that religious believers are too strong—religion is a repository of dogmatism, epistemic recalcitrance, intolerance, and refusal to yield, all of which seem antithetical to humility. On the other side of the same coin, humility is now prized in secular circles and is associated with concepts such as openmindedness, responsive to contrary rational argument, tolerance, pluralism, and pluralism, and “the humble desire to know.” Some theologians side with these secular critics and develop their religious models accordingly.

The rest of the paper is devoted to philosophical questions that grow out of these developments.  I argue, in particular, that it isn't clear whether to view religious dogmatism and religious epistemic recalcitrance, nor the secular use of reason, as arrogance or instead humility. These features could be analyzed as either humble or arrogant, depending on one’s perspective. Likewise, trust in one’s reason can be viewed as either humble or arrogant. And some religious thinkers have argued that religious figures do not all fit the sterotype of them as dogmatic and unyielding. It is worth considering as well the position that the questions of whether to call a personality humble or arrogant is not all that important. The paper will sort through these complexities, and hopefully will refine and deepen our understanding of the traits involved and what value we should assign to them.