Studying and Interpreting Key Thinkers
There are no sacred texts in humanism and, although some humanists do choose to get together, meetings do not involve worship or reading specific texts. (See also the page on “Worship”.) Although many humanists have their own favourite supportive texts and influences (see Bibliography below for some examples), they contain little specialist language and have no particular status or authority within humanism; indeed humanists are very likely to argue about their relative merits.
Although there is nothing in humanism analogous to a sacred text, there have been many thinkers and books either reflecting a humanist philosophy or helping to influence or develop it. Very early examples include Confucius, Democritus, Epictetus, Epicurus, Protagorus and Cicero, but it was probably the 18th century thinkers of the European Enlightenment, for example, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Thomas Paine, Voltaire, Mary Wollstonecraft, Baron D’Holbach, and Denis Diderot, who did the most to advance modern thinking about secular morality, though they would not at the time have called this humanism.
The 19th century brought developments in biblical scholarship and in science which undermined the historical accuracy and literal truth of the Bible for many people, and further influential thinking about rational, atheistic moral values, for example the Utilitarianism of philosopher John Stuart Mill.
20th and 21st century intellectuals built on these influences, to the point where humanist thinking is the implicit basis of much public discourse, though often unacknowledged. This lack of acknowledgment, and various contemporary religious reactions against humanism and secularism, are likely to have been behind the recent phenomenon of very assertive and popular defences of atheism exemplified by Richard Dawkins and A C Grayling.
It has to be stressed, however, that any thoughtful person can arrive at humanist ideas and principles by reflection alone – no reading or authority is required. Reading, for humanists, can be very supportive, demonstrating that there are, and always have been, others who share and articulate a humanist worldview, but it is not essential.
No text has any particular authority for humanists, and there is no special humanist interpretation or analysis of texts, though since the 19th century humanists from the Christian tradition have been strongly influenced by the scholarly analyses of the Bible mentioned above.
Humanists use and may be inspired by poetry and poetic and figurative language (for example, it is often forgotten that Richard Dawkins’ famous phrase “selfish gene” is a metaphor), but it has no distinctive humanist meaning.
Humanists are sceptics about revelation, and consider all texts and authorities to be human rather than divine in origin (a viewpoint that some religions might see as itself an interpretation). Humanists think that wisdom can be found in many places, but that even the most respected thinkers and books may be superseded as new evidence emerges and knowledge advances.