March 26, 2006

Brights Generate More Heat than Light

Aiming to legitimize and popularize atheism, the brights offer little for living or relating to others and are already guilty of tribalism characteristic of their religious rivals

By George Dvorsky, October 13, 2003

Björk is one. John Malkovich, Noam Chomsky, Angelina Jolie and Annika Sörenstam are too. So are Eddie Vedder, Jack Nicholson, Howard Stern, Linus Torvalds and Camille Paglia.

Atheists. Dirty, godless atheists, every last one of them. And there are many more. So many more. Worse, many of them are actually open about their atheism—even proud of it. How could this have happened?

For the sarcasm impaired: I'm being facetious. But let's face it, the word "atheism" is still fairly risqué for most social contexts, and is a downright profanity in some circles. I can certainly relate. Although currently agnostic, I recently went through a phase of being a born-again atheist. But I was a regular church-goer and there was a time when I couldn't bring myself to even say the word.

Indeed, for many the term carries considerable spiritually and socially negative connotations. It's for this reason that a number of atheists have recently come out in favor of the term "bright" instead—a bright being an atheist, agnostic or, more simply, a person with a naturalistic worldview.

The hope is that the more positive label will take off and permanently usurp the word "atheist." Moreover, a key goal of the brights movement is to bring together atheists and agnostics to form a culturally distinct and influential demographic—one that could pose a legitimate political and cultural challenge to currently overwhelming religious influences, particularly those of the religious right in the US.

At first glance this seems like a good idea. For those with sympathetic philosophical and political persuasions it is certainly seductive. In fact, when I initially decided to write on this topic, I was going to write in favor of the idea. As I learned more and thought deeper about it, however, I became quite torn about the whole thing, and I still am. But ultimately, I came to the conclusion that it's a rather empty idea, and one filled with all the old traps.

Aside from the superiority and elitism that the term "bright" evokes, the brights represent yet another unnecessary manifestation of tribalism. They have positioned themselves in a dichotomous and defensive relationship with their rivals, forcing each camp to further stratify and polarize.

And as for the brights themselves, while they claim intellectual superiority over their religious and supernaturally minded opponents—legitimately or otherwise—they are conspicuously quiet on the nuts-and-bolts issues of how to live and relate to others, and how to deal with the overwhelming totality of existence. Atheism for the sake of atheism is a rather empty and unfulfilling modus operandi, and the brights, should they hope to stand the test of time, must realize this and seek to become more than what they initially appear to be.

Introducing the brights

A number of atheists have recently decided to come out of the closet. This metaphor is hardly accidental; as with gays before them, atheists aim to engage in some memetic engineering.

Prior to the 1960s and 1970s, gays were pretty much referred to in the pejorative. Labels such as homosexual, queer or fairy were hardly flattering, leading some gay activists to conclude that a new, uplifting and positive term was needed to replace the old labels. Thus, the word "gay" was co-opted, and the rest is history.

Inspired by this, two Californians, Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell, recently coined the term "bright" to refer to atheists and agnostics. The word was carefully chosen (whether Geisert and Futrell will admit it or not) as one that could perform double duty as both a noun and an adjective. "Bright" evokes images of cleverness and intelligence. And, of course, those who are not bright are, well, you get the picture.

This past summer, efforts to propagate the new meme got a huge boost from two famous and outspoken atheists, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and consciousness theorist Daniel Dennett—Dawkins writing "The Future Looks Bright" for the Guardian and Dennett writing "The Bright Stuff" for The New York Times.

Dennett explains that "a bright is a person with a naturalist as opposed to a supernaturalist world view. We brights don't believe in ghosts or elves or the Easter Bunny—or God. We disagree about many things, and hold a variety of views about morality, politics and the meaning of life, but we share a disbelief in black magic—and life after death."

Brights, proclaims Dennett, are all around us. They are "doctors, nurses, police officers, schoolteachers, crossing guards and men and women serving in the military. We are your sons and daughters, your brothers and sisters. Our colleges and universities teem with brights. Among scientists, we are a commanding majority."

What atheists "want most of all," Dennett says, is "to be treated with the same respect accorded to Baptists and Hindus and Catholics, no more and no less."

Since the Dawkins and Dennett articles, the official brights Website has experienced considerable volume and a slew of new member signups. Articles both in support and in condemnation of the new term have littered the media. The meme appears to be taking off, prompting critics such as the Southern Baptist Albert Mohler to comment, "This is, no pun avoidable, a diabolically brilliant public relations strategy."

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em

Don Hirschberg once said, "Calling atheism a religion is like calling bald a hair color." Unfortunately, too many atheists have lost sight of the meaning of Hirschberg's insight.

Dennett's claim that brights just want to be treated with the same respect accorded to other religious groups is as disingenuous as it is revealing. Dennett, after all, has made a career arguing for the cultural health of the meme pool, one in which supernatural beliefs are segregated or eliminated altogether. I question the sincerity of this newfound tolerance, as it would seem that the raison d'être of the brights is to legitimize atheism so that it can be a cultural and political force to rival theistic influences.

Moreover, the bright strategy smacks of quasi-religious overtones. The fact that Dennett would compare the brights to Baptists, Hindus and Catholics exposes the true nature of the movement. It would seem that the brights are trying to defeat the enemy at its own game. By creating a distinctive club with specific metaphysical convictions, the brights have essentially created their own religion, and that is unfortunate. It is for this exact reason that I have rejected atheism in favor of agnosticism; both theists and atheists are profoundly guilty of taking monumental and irrational leaps of faith.

Orson Welles was once quoted as saying, "I have a great love and respect for religion, great love and respect for atheism. What I hate is agnosticism, people who do not choose." This is utter nonsense, and utterly dangerous. It is this mentality that has caused so much suffering and fanaticism in the name of religion, and it is the same mentality that compels people to think that they must choose one or the other, lest they be labeled a fence sitter or as lacking convictions.

As far as I'm concerned, the skeptical and responsible thinker, when it comes to making grand proclamations about the true nature of the universe and existence, will at best posit a series of hypotheses and declare that one cannot know given limited amounts of data. As Clarence Darrow said during the Scopes trial, "I do not consider it an insult, but rather a compliment to be called an agnostic. I do not pretend to know where many ignorant men are sure—that is all that agnosticism means." Now that's what I call being bright.

As a result, there is a part of me that resents the brights including agnostics amongst their flock. I consider agnosticism to be in a different category altogether from atheism and theism.

Atheist evangelism

Atheist activism—or evangelism, depending on your taste—has a time and a place. Without question, the struggle against pseudoscience, misinformation and psychologically damaging worldviews is an important and noble cause, as is the struggle against religious impositions. Ellen Johnson's leadership of American Atheists has had important results in the US; they have been instrumental in several rulings against Alabama judge Roy Moore and they have crusaded successfully against many faith-based initiatives.

But I've learned from friend, outspoken atheist and Gravity Lens blogger Jeff Patterson that there is a general reactionary undercurrent among many atheists today, one that has manifested itself in the belief that the primary role of an atheist is to be an activist.

Patterson, who attended last year's American Atheist convention in Boston, observed that far too many attendees were discussing the "conversions" of their friends, the relative success of their letter-to-the-editor or the next protest that they were attending. "What was absent," says Patterson, "was any talk of what was going on in their lives, what was making them happy. What was missing from the convention itself was any program content about Life as an Atheist. No celebration of the guilt-free flavor of happiness that one can achieve with a godless worldview." Ultimately, the event reminded Patterson of an unsuccessful Star Trek convention. "A few hundred folks in a poorly lit hotel talking almost exclusively about how much better they were than everyone else," he says. "I left there mildly depressed and thoroughly uninspired."

At its outset the bright movement showed promise as an antidote to the rather stoic joylessness that seemed prevalent on the surface of atheism. The concept of defining one's self by a positive instead of an omission was philosophically sound. The high profile faces of the brights embraced an ebullience rarely seen in the atheist movement—with exceptions such as Carl Sagan, Penn Jillette and George Carlin (who once quipped, "atheism is a non-prophet organization").

Patterson's problem with the brights "is that they are falling into the same sinkhole as the folks at the atheist convention. They espouse a wonderful path to happiness, but when it's time to actually walk the path they simply point and say, 'there y'go, have a nice trip.'"

More to life than disbelief

What the bright movement needs, argues Patterson, is an affirmation that the dismissal of long-irrelevant superstitions and guilt-driven moral codes is a requirement for true happiness, that living with a sincere and well-deserved smile on your face cannot be accomplished through systems of penance and damnation and that concepts such as original sin and sacrificing for the sake of virtue have no place in the mind of an intelligent being.

"More than that," he says, "happiness is what fuels productivity, imagination, creativity and morality. Happiness is at the core of our sense of good, in our love and in our desire to think. It drives us to perform great acts. It defines our taste in art. It encourages camaraderie. It defines, for lack of a better word, our soul."

Indeed, the organized atheist movement, with its letter-writing and hand-wringing, has lost sight of this. Patterson fears that the brights, as open-minded and all-inviting as they claim to be, may be falling into the same trap.

The bright meme looks set to take off as intended, creating a more open and accepting atmosphere for atheists. But it's what the brights do with this newfound acceptance, rather than the marketing success itself, that will matter in the long run. Brights have to realize that if they're going to proselytize, a considerable responsibility goes along with this. Convincing people that supernatural phenomena don't exist is only part of the story, and just the first step.

Copyright © 2003 George Dvorsky

This column originally appeared on Betterhumans, October 13, 2003.

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