Reply To: What is humility?


    Posted on behalf of vandermude


    My apologies, but I have a number of responses to this thread. I would like to break them up into digestible segments.

    I like what you had to say about humility when I brought it up in the postings: “RN/language for social change”:

    You and I have spoken about humility before. I think humility (as I understand it) is essential to any kind of growth or learning. I don’t equate humility with humiliation. Humility’s antonyms include arrogance and pretentiousness. So when you see me use “humility,” please read it as the opposite of arrogance, or as a willingness to learn from one’s mistakes rather than doubling down on them, a willingness to deeply listen to different views, rather than dismissing them unheard. It’s nothing like self-abasement or groveling. It’s a form of courage.

    This post is not going to address your observations directly – I will answer soon. But your comment made me think about when we had spoken about it before. So I diligently searched through the Religious Naturalism email starting July 26, 2017 and going to the present.

    Three hours later, here is what we have discussed on the subject through the years. There were 565 posts with the word “humility”. The leaders in humility are: Michael Cavanaugh, JD Stillwater, Terry Findley and Stan Klein. Michael especially.

    It is interesting to note that the concept of humility is mostly discussed in terms of a humility of knowing – myself included. We seem to be fixated on intellectual humility.

    Without further ado, here are the major citations:

    Who is a Religious Naturalist?

    The spiritual axis entails exploring inward religious responses to the Epic, including awe and wonder, gratitude, assent, commitment, humility, reverence, joy, and the astonishment of being alive at all.

    On Mar 15, 2017, at 9:59 AM, Michaelcav via RNAnet<> wrote:
    But turning to the epistemological, our understanding of thought processes and knowledge processes is more productive, provided only we write “know” with a small “k” and have an attendant attitude of humility.  Of course language-use (and semantics) is part of this, because articulating what we “know” is equally as difficult as knowing it, and intimitately intertwined.  Once we have this humility, however, I think we can say quite a lot about what we know, at least what we know beyond a reasonable doubt (claiming to know absolutely would seem to get us back into the ontological arena, which is why fundamentalisms are so dangerous and so off-putting).

    On 14 Sep 2017, at 7:49 AM, michaelcav via RNAnet<> wrote:
    Colin, Great question.  In legal negotiations one is always looking for middle ground, and I’d suggest one here.  That is to look for the big picture, propose whatever big picture one believes is accurate, even be somewhat evangelistic about one’s (or one’s subculture’s) big picture. But never never believe in it adamantly or absolutely.  Humility is key, by which I don’t mean some sort of milque-toast wishy-washness or even postmodernism, but rather a robust modernism which knows it might be wrong.

    Michael Cavanaugh
    Religious Naturalist Association Newsletter
    October, 2017

    Growing up without religious naturalism, surrounded by other belief systems, my discomfort (I’m not sure I’d call it “danger” at that point, since I had a basically secure life) came from an internal dissonance, a conviction that my various beliefs did not fit into a well-integrated understanding of the world or myself.  My word for this is integrity, though “cohesive worldview” would also work.
    Does that protect me? Does it “save” me? Well, I think it does, at least from the dangers of dissonance and/or sloppy thinking.  Maybe a more humble way of saying it is that a religious naturalist worldview “orients” me.  It gives me nature as the touchstone from which to live and breathe and have my being.  Maybe thinking of it as an orientation rather than as salvation also avoids the offsetting danger of smugness.  It allows what some religious thinkers call humility (and I always try to remember the common root of humility, human, and the humus I mix in my gardening soil – they all start with a search for earthy reality, with taking nature to heart).

    Steven McQuitty:
    > “The Humanist tradition holds that we must act in accordance with our common humanity, realizing the dignity AND humility inherent in that position.”

    Humanist Manifesto II

    Humanist Manifesto 2

    Humanist Manifesto II

    But reason must be tempered by humility, since no group has a monopoly of wisdom or virtue.

    Terry Findley 171206
    Hopeful Values
    Meaning Need = Humility – our place in nature

    On Sept. 28, 2016, JD Stillwater wrote:
    • We accept the inherent ambiguities and paradoxes that often accompany truth, and allow them to lead us into contemplation and humility, even reverence;

    On Friday, May 25, 2018 at 12:06:33 PM UTC-4, tmcalster wrote:
    In recognizing that, alongside the many things we’ve learned and accomplished, there remains a lot that we don’t yet understand (and, that some of what we think we know may be later be shown to be partly or wholly incorrect)

    On Thu, Jul 26, 2018 at 2:53 PM, Jeremy Sherman <>wrote:
    Obverse psychology: Every move has its obverse (opposite, e.g. scorn/tact, carrots/sticks, confidence/humility, offense/defense, firmness/receptivity). No one really abandons any of these. They just pretend they do when it helps. Pretending they do stunts growth on the question we’re all dealing with really, when to do which to achieve the best consequences for some mixture of me and we.

    On 6/5/2019 10:17 AM, michaelcav via RNAnet wrote:
    I do realize this beginning place could open the door for a dogmatism we’d desperately like to avoid. But to me that should be done directly, by acknowledging that “foundations” are themselves subject to re-working, and by acknowledging our humility in using them in the first place. We aren’t making a claim of certainty, but only trying to start our structure with someplace that seems firm.

    Tony Van der Mude
    Quotation by Bertrand Russell
    Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays:
    The good which it concerns us to remember is the good which it lies in our power to create—the good in our own lives and in our attitude towards the world. Insistence on belief in an external realisation of the good is a form of self-assertion, which, while it cannot secure the external good which it desires, can seriously impair the inward good which lies within our power, and destroy that reverence towards fact which constitutes both what is valuable in humility and what is fruitful in the scientific temper.

    This is the most important reason why I want to use statistics. Not just as a tool for comparison, but as a reminder of humility. We will never reduce morality and wellbeing to a single metric. We will also never achieve certainty in our meta-theory. Just like science, we can accumulate understanding, but never certainty.

    Colin Offerment
    I think “humility” is an important word here. An event like this is a challenge to human pride, and I hope the global village will lean humility from it.

    Michael Cavanaugh RNA Newsletter December 2020
    That said, what might 2021 bring? An effective vaccine is of course our first wish, and an economy that recovers our second. But there is so much more we need, which may come of this destruction if we choose wisely. Our human institutions need re-visiting and re-furbishing and in some cases re-working entirely. Our understanding of such concepts as xenophobia and humility and cooperation need deepening.

    Chris Paige
    8/3/2021 – 8/6/2021
    Yet, I believe that both the climate crisis and Religious Naturalism would benefit from more of a focus on non-dogmatic approaches to “belief,” an emphasis on non-linear practices, and a devotion to humility in relationship with all that is (including living humans). I believe that there is a longing in many of us who emerge from Western epistemologies for something more non-dogmatic that better integrates mystery.

    But to me, the power isn’t in the experiment. It’s in the humility and in shifting from a supremacist modality around  “possession, control, and mastery” toward a modality that is more around story and relationship.

    The destination for this RNA bridge seems itself like a kind of process. To my mind,  this process (needs to) emphasizes scientific humility, religious humility, and cultural humility which allows for some vulnerability and uncertainty in our midst.

    JD and Tony
    > The bottom line for me is summed up nicely in this cartoon, except the speech bubble might say “Just keep innovating and all will be well.” In the absence of any sense of “enough,” ever-larger waves of destruction will continue to visit until we learn humility or go extinct.
    —> No, I will never be satisfied with enough. And I don’t consider humility a virtue (neither is hubris a virtue for that matter). For me, true virtue is a realistic appraisal of what we can do and what we can’t and that is not humility by any means: that is a radical honesty. And I don’t expect that we will face destruction. I expect that we will honestly face our problems and fix them. That may lead to other problems, but – and I can’t emphasize this enough – the advances and conveniences will far outweigh the problems.

    Ursula Goodenough
    One can have an honest appraisal of one’s strengths/abilities without exaggerating their importance in the grand scheme of things and hence experiencing humility wrt such abilities/strengths. I believe this was Janet’s meaning.

    Denigrating the creative egotistical individual is not the answer. To create, you have to believe in yourself. That is inconsistent with humility. It is, at best, a false humility.
    I agree – don’t exaggerate your own importance or abilities. But false humility is just as bad. Be humble about your weaknesses, but not your strengths.
    Be honest about yourself. Neither arrogance nor humility. Know yourself.

    > To create, you have to believe in yourself. That is inconsistent with humility.
    I don’t see humility and self-esteem as zero-sum. Ursula addressed this well: “One can have an honest appraisal of one’s strengths/abilities without exaggerating their importance in the grand scheme of things and hence experiencing humility wrt such abilities/strengths.” I’d say humility comes with an accurate assessment of one’s place in the universe. It’s the opposite of arrogance, but completely compatible with a healthy ego/self-esteem.

    Mark Iredell
    For me it’s enough to leave the undetected as a mystery for which someday we can have an explanation. Accepting the mystery for the moment can be part of our humility. 😉

    On Thu, Aug 26, 2021 at 8:28 AM JD Stillwater <> wrote:
    Tony mentioned awe. Psych researchers who study the feeling of awe assert that it (often? always?) includes an experience they call “the small self.” I made an in-depth study of the awe literature last fall for a chapter in my book. Here are some notes I took then, some of which are relevant to humility and others of which are just, well, awesome. I haven’t curated them; they are raw notes:

    Allen/Templeton/GGSC 2018: “The science of awe“
    People who are less comfortable with ambiguity, on the other hand, appear to be less likely to experience awe. Other studies suggest that wiser people may also experience more awe, and one’s tendency to experience awe is correlated with a number of other positive character traits, such as appreciation of beauty, creativity, and gratitude.“
    The study of awe only began in 2002. It is a very recent field of study for psychologists.
    Effects of awe:
    Increased parasympathetic response (rest & digest), except for increased respiration, which is sympathetic (fight or flight)
    Decreased inflammatory response (Interleukin-6)
    Small self

    Mark Hoelterr
    I like Brian Swimme’s title: “The Universe Is a Green Dragon.” At first it seems meaningless or absurd. Then he explains (paraphrasing): “Well, it is, but my point is that all our models are partly right, partly wrong. Take any of them, even the best, very, very, very seriously. But not too seriously.” This involves humility, yes, and/or Jeremy Sherman’s favored word: fallibilism. I might be wrong.

    Jeremy Sherman
    To me, the core religious naturalist question is how to humbly humble people who will do anything to avoid humility. This book is my attempt to address that question.

    Michael Cavanaugh
    RNA newsletter July 2022
    So what exactly is an open mind? According to the OpenMind website, an open mind is one that:
    – has a basic understanding of its own workings and limitations
    – recognizes how differing opinions and beliefs are formed
    – has a sense of humility regarding its own beliefs and opinions
    – welcomes diverse perspectives …

    Michael Cavanaugh
    How do you distinguish between various concepts, or do you hold them all in equal humility?

    Merrill Hawkins
    I think I might have reason right there next to the phrase, “reality based inspiration.” Reason is essential to that. And faith could be one of those concept words in the inner circle, along with humility. Maybe faith/trust as an attitudinal response (as opposed to cynicism/despair).

    I was also big on alliteration, thus “Dogma/Doubt” and “Hubris/Humility.” That horizontal spectrum does indeed reflect my bias against unwarranted or premature certainties. But it’s definitely time to revisit that in a less biased way.

    On Tue, Dec 20, 2022 at 8:40 AM ‘Michael Cavanaugh’ via RNAnet<> wrote:
    JD, I propose that a one-word substitute for “embraces ambiguity” is “humility.”

    ChatGPT 230603
    In embracing religious naturalism, we find ourselves on a path of constant inquiry, seeking to understand the world around us and our place within it. It encourages a sense of humility, recognizing that we are but a small part of the vast cosmic tapestry.

    JD 230607
    Tony mentioned awe. Psych researchers who study the feeling of awe assert that it (often? always?) includes an experience they call “the small self.” I made an in-depth study of the awe literature last fall for a chapter in my book. Here are some notes I took then, some of which are relevant to humility and others of which are just, well, awesome. I haven’t curated them; they are raw notes: