Humanism: Sources of Wisdom and Authority

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Social Contract Theory: Humanity as its own Authority

Claims to Wisdom and Authority are important because they are what give shape to a society. The theology that informs a system determines which voice is seen as authoritative and upon what their legitimacy lies. Humanism argues that we make our own society, based on appeals to legitimacy that are internal to humanity. Humans are divine, therefore humans themselves are the source of truth and authority.

No other authority, outside of humanity, exists. This is a pragmatic statement more than anything, because being humanist does not mean that a person believes no authority but humanity exists, or no divinity but humanity exists. Instead, being humanist means that a person believes that other authorities or divinities are either unable or unwilling to be a suitable source of truth for humanity. Their truth would simply not hold any relevance for humans. Humans must and should be their own source of truth, wisdom and authority.

But how do you build a society among equals when societies require hierarchies and inequalities of power. How are the inequalities justified? In Theological traditions that maintain a power and divinity higher than humanity the solution is simple: the leadership is decided by an appeal to the higher power. For Humanists this problem is more acute, because this solution is not an option. 

This is where Social Contract Theory comes in. Another product of the European Enlightenment, this is a way of perceiving society that allows for imbalances and hierarchies provided there are conditions attached. In its most basic form the theory argues that the members of a society are thought to implicitly accept the power structure that they are a part of and the position they hold within it because of the benefits that they gain from the system itself. 

It is important to note that this means Democracy, the rule of the people, is not necessarily the socio-political result of Humanist theology. It is a discussion of this point that will be the main focus of this section. 

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Democracy and Humanism

Democracy is found to greater and lesser extents in all theological traditions, however it is justified and conceptualized in different ways. Most commonly it is found in other theological traditions through the emphasis on providing care for those in a society who lack it. Indeed, if we understand Democracy to be minimally the idea that it is valuable and good to listen to and address the needs of all people, then this principle exists to varying extents in all theological traditions. The difference is that other theological traditions argue, not all the time, that the divine voice which is the source of wisdom and authority is found amongst the people; humanism instead argues that the divine voice and the people’s voice is one and the same.

In Humanist theology democracy is born directly from the divinity of humanity and therefore placing humanity as the source of all wisdom and authority. This is human self-determination on the cosmic scale. As a result of this, all Humanist systems make an appeal to ‘the people’ when legitimising a particular system of government. However, as with Humanist theology in general, this central tenet of faith immediately becomes complicated through interpretation and practical application. The idea that Humanity is the source of its own wisdom and authority and the idea that every human is worth listening to do not follow from each other. Human self-determination could be used to justify a huge variety of socio-theological systems depending on concepts that are by no means universally agreed by Humanists: things like individualism, freedom, and equality. Humanism as a tradition has violently struggled with how to balance these various goals as they come into conflict with each other.

Subsequently, just as with any other theological tradition, Humanism is diverse, and while some place a premium on equality, not all do. It depends how the Humanist defines humanity. A key central point to make about humanism is that full equal participation and protection is offered as far as humanity is recognised. A dark undercurrent of thought since the enlightenment has been the attempt to scientifically prove that different arbitrarily defined groups of people are somehow less human or even not human. This is also part of the humanist tradition, and should not be brushed over.

A good example of this is seen in the American Constitution. While the constitution recognises the inalienable right of each person to choose their own government, in reality it was assumed to not apply to women or black people, who were considered in different ways, less than. This resulted in democratic traditions and institutions which seek to limit some people’s voice while privileging others. Many of these institutional features have been removed as the US theological system evolved slowly over time. But some remain: The Electoral College. And others remain not so much as institutions, but as sentiments and common practices: for example limiting voter registration for Black American citizens.

The Americans aren’t alone in this. The point to make is that belief in the inherent divinity of humanity is a broad starting point which can be interpreted in various ways. The Chinese System is a syncretistic mix of Humanism and its own unique theological tradition; from this developed the idea of the Mass-line. Where the Chinese people are divinised and the Communist Party is believed, according to Chinese theology, to be the appropriate interpreter of the divine will. This makes elections unnecessary because the Party knows what the people want and need and will provide it for them. It is a model built on democratic ideals, that others in the Humanist tradition would not recognise as democratic.

The conclusion to take from a study of Democracy and Humanism is that beyond broad and ill-defined ideals, there is little agreement in the tradition. Perhaps because the tradition is splintered and turned against itself. Each socio-theological system has its own rules with its own imagined history, community, and theology. However, commonalities in practice remain in the tradition, and it is to these that we now turn.  

Constitutionalism: Parochial Scriptures

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Usually, when talking about appeals to Wisdom and Authority in a Theological system a major part of the conversation is the Scripture of that Theological tradition. Scripture is a central text that, while often interpreted in various, contradictory ways, offers a point of unity for the tradition as a whole. A physical touchstone in the cosmic narrative that gives the theology shape. As we have discussed, no single text exists for the humanist tradition. But this does not make the concept of Scripture irrelevant. Instead, reflecting the various ways that Humanist is defined and organised, Humanist socio-theological systems are built by appeals to Constitutionalism. There are strong links here to Social Contract Theory, the overarching way that this page has been framed.

Constitutionalism is built on the principle of a limited government. The logic behind this fits perfectly with Humanist theology. If all humanity is divine, then it becomes difficult to justify any inequalities in power, unless that power is limited. All systems of government in this tradition, must have clearly defined and limited powers. All power must be well justified, because all powers of the government ultimately belong to ‘the people’ and therefore there must be high standards for justifying when it can be taken from the people and for what purpose.

Constitutions, as a Humanist construction, may be justified by appeals to their internal logic and consistency; checks and balances, etc. But in reality such things are never the true basis for a society. The strength of a constitution, and subsequently the society that it supports, relies on the theology or mythology surrounding it. Constitutions themselves are no protection against social upheaval and revolution, as with any theological system the determining factor is the level of adherence, of belief, in the system. All action is determined by belief.

One of the most successful constitutions in terms of longevity, the British, is not the logical product of a few great minds, but a collection of rules and practices that are not properly codified but persist in the imagination of the British people and their governing class due to the simple weight of tradition. The oldest fully codified constitution, the US constitution, was thought even by its writers to be full of contradictions and weaknesses, the overcoming of which has defined a large chunk of US history. Meanwhile countless well-crafted and thought out constitutions from across the world have come and gone.

As with any theological system, the difference between success and failure does not lie in the skill and rationality that went into crafting the central scripture, but the narrative that it represents. Theologies are stories we tell to make sense of reality; who are we, where are we, how should we act. The most successful constitutions in history have been those which are the richest mythologization of history. Ones that have captured the imaginations of ‘the people’ in such a way that they see themselves as characters in the living narrative that the Constitution represents. Each society has a story, a theology, and the Founding Father, Heroes, Villains, and messages that these stories represent shape the society. Humanism does the same thing here that any theological tradition. Countless scriptures, theologies, and priesthoods have emerged in the Humanist tradition reflecting the diversity of the tradition itself. The rest of this section will be dedicated to looking at some of the key strands of thought that can be picked out despite this diversity.

Rival Priesthoods: The Judge, the Politician, the Expert, and the Businessman

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If a theology is a narrative, and scripture is the touchstone where people come to know that narrative, then the Priesthood are those people who are in control of the narrative. In a conventional priesthood this means having a monopoly on the acceptable interpretation of the text and its implications for how we should act. But Humanism does not offer a conventional theology. In the previous section we talked about how Constitutions act as parochial scriptures in Humanist theology. But the narrative that they refer to is almost never contained within the constitution itself, and the people who own it are not a unified and well-defined group. 

As with all socio-theological systems education is a tool used to replicate society, primarily by training a priesthood, a leadership class, who can defend and improve the system as it exists. We see this in the Monastery schools of Buddhism, the Medieval Church schools and universities of Christendom, and the Islamic legal schools of the Muslim world. Humanism, as a largely European tradition, inherited the school systems of Christendom, but transformed it almost beyond recognition. Alongside this multiple other strands have opened for people to climb the socio-economic ladder. This diversity is reflective of a unique facet of Humanist systems: the multiple and sometimes rival priesthoods. 

This is also consistent with Humanist theology which is built on encouraging the ‘best’ in Humanity. The best is discovered through competition, and the fields of contest are numerous in Humanist societies: Politics, Business, Academia. Each of these overlapping fields represent different strands of Humanist thought which blend together to form complex socio-theological systems. All of these appeal to Human reason as a source of wisdom and authority, but the method for gathering the human wisdom is different in each case. 

Success in any of these fields provides power over the narrative theology that lies at the heart of the society, and therefore opportunity to change it. The Judges hold power over interpretation of the scripture. The Politician is able to amend the scripture. Academics and Artists are encouraged to imagine new ways to improve and adapt the system. Meanwhile Business and Corporate leaders accrue and apply funds to directly shape the world as they see fit.

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The reason this subsection is entitled rival priesthoods is not just because these priesthoods disagree about the theology, that’s normal in any priesthood, it is because these priesthoods are often operating in seperate, but overlapping, theological systems. We talked before about the diverse theological positions that are taken up in the Humanist tradition: Humanism is compatible with globalism, imperialism, nationalism, etc. The fact is that Humanist theological systems allow for the operation of priesthoods at these various levels simultaneously. 

In Humanism there are various priesthoods depending on the method for pursuing truth. Various overlapping priesthoods that rely on different sources of legitimacy and therefore represent different interpretations or strands of Humanist theology. Should we be led by those who dedicate themselves to political institutions, or academic ones. Should we admire the leadership offered by corporate and business leaders, or should we shun them. The narrative strands of Humanist theology are diverse and often contradictory; and the disagreements in theology are profound, which makes Humanism a fascinating tradition to study. On the next page we will look at how this fractured, yet overlapping, priesthood translates into fractured, yet overlapping, rituals and festivals. The Practices and Expressions of Humanist theology are as varied as the theological tradition itself; it is to them that we now turn.

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