Sources of Authority

Humanism has no authorities or leaders in the usual senses of these words, that is, individuals, texts or organisations that command obedience or universal respect.

Individual humanists seek and find knowledge, wisdom and guidance from a variety of sources, but they choose for themselves how much weight to give these sources, judging them against their own experience and how applicable these ideas might be to their own lives and times.

For their understanding of the world, humanists will look to and respect the methods and findings of science; for their values and their understanding of other people, humanists might look to philosophers and writers, ancient and modern, testing their ideas against their own. The ultimate moral authority for a humanist will be not be a text or religious authority, but his or her own conscience, though this raises questions about what the conscience is and where its intuitions come from. Most humanists would locate the conscience in the mind, and the feelings of guilt or satisfaction associated with the conscience in our understanding of and empathy with other people.

Because there is no authority, there are no obligatory practices in humanism which would express authority or respect for authority. Indeed, many humanists distrust authority and obedience per se and rely instead on reason and evidence.

Humanists acknowledge and accept the compromises and sharing and limitations on some freedoms that living alongside others entails. But they tend to be individualistic, in the sense of thinking for themselves and evaluating sources of knowledge and wisdom for themselves, though not in the sense being especially self-interested. One favourite maxim of humanism is: “Think for yourself, act for others.”

As a result, humanists tend to love discussion and debate, both amongst themselves and with religious believers. But often, despite their different and varied sources and influences, humanists share many moral values not just with each other but with religious people. Humanists attribute this to our most important values arising out of shared human nature and needs.

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Humanist worldview traditions


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