I was surprised to realize that the attempt to come up with a new name for non-religious people—The Brights—was launched some three years ago. The reason I’m surprised is because I’ve been trying to formulate an entry on my feelings about the effort ever since I first heard about it so it still seems like a relatively new thing to me. Yes, that means I’ve had a topic I’ve been trying to come up with something coherent to say about for the past three years. Ain’t ADHD grand?
Anyway, there’s an interesting article over at the Institute for Humanist Studies website that asks The Brights: Where Are They Now?.
In summer 2003 the noun “Bright” burst into the lexicon after it appeared in a column by Richard Dawkins in the London Guardian and in a column by Daniel Dennett in the New York Times. The coiners of the term, Mynga Futrell and Paul Geisert, defined a Bright as “a person whose worldview is naturalistic (free of supernatural and mystical elements).”
Despite the term’s auspicious introduction by two world-renowned scientists, I’m still looked at quizzically by members of the general public when I use “bright” as a noun. Such confusion prompted me to research the current state of the “Brights Movement.”
After a bit of a discussion on the ideas behind the movement the article goes on to explain that since the concept was first put forward around 21,000 people have registered themselves as Brights with the organization and the growth rate of new members is about 4,500 people a year. The author goes on to wonder why, despite the steady growth, the general public aren’t familiar with the movement:
Why doesn’t the general public recognize Bright as a noun? I believe that there are two reasons for this lack of awareness. The first is the very term itself –- “Bright”—that was chosen to represent a category of people. The Brights website states “One long-term goal is to change the vocabulary of mainstream society such that bright is used in a new way, somewhat analogous to the use of the word gay.”
Unfortunately, co-opting the word “bright” has different implications than co-opting the word “gay.” The original meaning of “gay” is happy or joyous, so if you were not gay before about 1965, you were sad –- not exactly an insult. If you were gay, it simply described your temporary emotional state and made no comment upon your value as a person. However, if you are not bright in the traditional sense of the word, then you are…dumb. Describing someone as bright makes a positive statement on his/her intellectual capacity; therefore most people will not call themselves bright for fear of appearing arrogant.
I have to admit that my initial reaction when I first heard the term “Bright” used in this way was that it was kind of stupid and would only cause problems when non-Brights assumed that Brights were essentially saying they were idiots. Now I have no qualms telling people when I think they’re an idiot, but I tend to do so in a very direct manner because one of the problems with their idiocy is that indirect or sly references to their lack of mental capacity are often beyond their ability to recognize. The few of them who manage to draw the logical implication of being a non-Bright—that they’re an idiot—would probably be even more incensed by the perceived attempt at a clever insult than if I just flat out told them they were an idiot in the first place.
I understand what the folks who came up with this idea were trying to accomplish. There’s a lot of negative baggage associated with words such as “atheist” or “humanist” and there are a lot of non-religious people who aren’t necessarily agnostic or atheist. The attempt was to come up with a positive label that included all people with a naturalistic worldview that was free of the negative baggage. Alas, as is often the case with such attempts, it hasn’t exactly worked out as well as some have hoped:
Despite Futrell and Geisert’s insistence that the word as a noun has a different meaning than its use as an adjective, you cannot erase the public’s lexical memory (the Scientologists have discovered this in their effort to use “clear” as a noun to describe themselves). Therefore, many who fit the definition of a Bright have been reluctant to identify themselves as such, and those who have are often viewed as arrogant and pretentious. Brights thus face the same problem as those who identify themselves as atheists or liberals –- public opprobrium due to their use of a word that other segments of society have managed to turn into “dirty” words.
But it was this very problem –- having to use words loaded with cultural baggage –- that the term “Bright” was coined to escape! Will Brights be able to create a more positive view of the word so that others will proudly identify themselves as Brights to the public to create the awareness that is necessary to gain social and political influence?
Which brings me to my objection to using the term myself: If it’s going to take all this extra work to give the term “Bright” a more positive view among the general public then we may as well skip it altogether and work on ridding words like “humanist,” “godless,” and “atheist” of the negative implications those words have. In short, why bother with a new term if it’s going to take as much work as any of the old terms? Sure, it has a certain Big Tent appeal to it in that it refers to a wider range of people, but if no one has a friggin’ clue what you mean by it and are likely to get insulted if you use it then there’s probably not a lot to be gained by using it.
The second problem with creating awareness of the Brights as a distinct category is the frequent lumping together of Brights and atheists. Much of the public that is aware of the term believe it to be a synonym for atheist. An article in Science and Theology News that stated “These anti-religious atheists, who want us to call them “brights….” required Futrell and Geisert to reply in the magazine that “There is a rather startling spectrum of people who are Brights…atheists, agnostics, ethical culturalists, humanists, secular humanistis, freethinkers, rationalists, naturalists and skeptics….There are plenty of ‘nones’ –- the individuals who, when confronted by a questionnaire that asks ‘Religion?’ will state ‘None.’”
What seems to be getting overlooked here is the fact that, among many believers, there’s already the impression that there’s not much difference between “atheists, agnostics, ethical culturalists, humanists, secular humanistis, freethinkers, rationalists, naturalists and skeptics” to begin with—they’re all nasty evil people out to destroy America—so lumping them all under the rather pretentious sounding label of Brights is just an attempt at obfuscation in their eyes.
By the definition offered at their website I’m most definitely a Bright, but I’ve not signed up with them and I don’t use the term myself. I do consider myself to be bright in the adjective use of the word, but I don’t see much point in using it as a noun. Sure some folks are offended when I say that I’m an atheist, but the problem lies with them, not me, so I don’t see the need to try and come up with a new term to try and avoid offending those people. Especially when that new term is just as likely to offend them by implication anyway.