A recent post by Bruce Charlton argues that only the religious are capable of true humility.
For Christians the ideal is humility before God. But humility before God is compatible with – indeed often demands – resisting any amount of consensus or social pressure.
However, for atheists there are but two options – selfish arrogance or submissiveness. If an atheist resists social consensus (perhaps a consensus of peer groups, or managers, or society at large) then this can only be on the basis of selfish arrogance.
Well, of course this is not really true – because it may be that the atheist is making a principled stand on the basis of natural law – on the principle of their own convictions of what ought to be right behavior. But these convictions are subjective, and if everyone else’s convictions are different (or if everyone else claims that their convictions are different) then a stand on the basis of principle is indistinguishable from a stand on the basis of personal whim, motivated by selfish or malicious goals. For the atheist, there is no external ground for appeal.
I’m not so sure that the situation is any different for a Christian than for an atheist. I know in theory a Christian’s convictions are supposed to come directly from God, but God’s will isn’t a given any more than the scientific truth is. In practice, one’s idea of God’s will comes either from the doctrine and traditions of a church (a social consensus) or from one’s own conscience (subjective convictions). God is not in any practical sense an “external ground for appeal.” You can’t say, “Well, I think this, and the church says that; let’s see what God has to say about it.” The only way to bring God into the question is to simply assume that one’s conscience, or the church, reflects God’s will. This allows one to be either arrogant or submissive, according to taste, and still claim the moral high ground. (Atheists can of course do the same thing, since “the scientific truth” can mean either the consensus of the experts or one’s personal interpretation of the evidence.)
The atheist arrogantly stands by his personal convictions. The Christian, in contrast, humbly submits to God’s will — which he arrogantly assumes must coincide with his personal convictions. Is there really any difference in practice?