[Editor's Note: The following two articles appeared at almost the same time on opposite sides of the Atlantic. "The Future Looks Bright" by Richard Dawkins was published in The Guardian on June 21st. "The Bright Stuff" by Daniel C. Dennett was published as an Op-Ed Page article in The New York Times on July 12th. They will be printed together in the October/November issue of Free Inquiry magazine.]
future looks bright
Language can help to shape the way we think about the world. Richard Dawkins welcomes an attempt to raise consciousness about atheism by co-opting a word with cheerful associations
I once read a science-fiction story in which astronauts voyaging to a distant star were waxing homesick: "Just to think that it's springtime back on Earth!" You may not immediately see what's wrong with that, so ingrained is our unconscious northern hemisphere chauvinism. "Unconscious" is exactly right. That is where consciousness-raising comes in.
I suspect it is for a deeper reason than gimmicky fun that, in Australia and New Zealand, you can buy maps of the world with the south pole on top. Now, wouldn't that be an excellent thing to pin to our class- room walls? What a splendid consciousness-raiser. Day after day, the children would be reminded that north has no monopoly on up. The map would intrigue them as well as raise their consciousness. They'd go home and tell their parents.
The feminists taught us about consciousness-raising. I used to laugh at "him or her", and at "chairperson", and I still try to avoid them on aesthetic grounds. But I recognise the power and importance of consciousness-raising. I now flinch at "one man one vote". My consciousness has been raised. Probably yours has too, and it matters.
I used to deplore what I regarded as the tokenism of my American atheist friends. They were obsessed with removing "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance (it was inserted as late as 1954), whereas I cared more about the chauvinistic nastiness of pledging allegiance to a flag in the first place. They would cross out "In God we Trust" on every dollar bill that passed through their hands (again, it was inserted only in 1956), whereas I worried more about the tax-free dollars amassed by bouffant-haired televangelists, fleecing gullible old ladies of their life savings. My friends would risk neighbourhood ostracism to protest at the unconstitutionality of Ten Commandments posters on classroom walls. "But it's only words," I would expostulate. "Why get so worked up about mere words, when there's so much else to object to?" Now I'm having second thoughts. Words are not trivial. They matter because they raise consciousness.
My favourite consciousness-raising effort is one I have mentioned many times before (and I make no apology, for consciousness-raising is all about repetition). A phrase like "Catholic child" or "Muslim child" should clang furious bells of protest in the mind, just as we flinch when we hear "one man one vote". Children are too young to know their religious opinions. Just as you can't vote until you are 18, you should be free to choose your own cosmology and ethics without society's impertinent presumption that you will automatically inherit your parents'. We'd be aghast to be told of a Leninist child or a neo-conservative child or a Hayekian monetarist child. So isn't it a kind of child abuse to speak of a Catholic child or a Protestant child? Especially in Northern Ireland and Glasgow where such labels, handed down over generations, have divided neighbourhoods for centuries and can even amount to a death warrant?
Catholic child? Flinch. Protestant child? Squirm. Muslim child? Shudder. Everybody's consciousness should be raised to this level. Occasionally a euphemism is needed, and I suggest "Child of Jewish (etc) parents". When you come down to it, that's all we are really talking about anyway. Just as the upside-down (northern hemisphere chauvinism again: flinch!) map from New Zealand raises consciousness about a geographical truth, children should hear themselves described not as "Christian children" but as "children of Christian parents". This in itself would raise their consciousness, empower them to make up their own minds and choose which religion, if any, they favour, rather than just assume that religion means "same beliefs as parents". I could well imagine that this linguistically coded freedom to choose might lead children to choose no religion at all.
Please go out and work at raising people's consciousness over the words they use to describe children. At a dinner party, say, if ever you hear a person speak of a school for Islamic children, or Catholic children (you can read such phrases daily in newspapers), pounce: "How dare you? You would never speak of a Tory child or a New Labour child, so how could you describe a child as Catholic (Islamic, Protestant etc)?" With luck, everybody at the dinner party, next time they hear one of those offensive phrases, will flinch, or at least notice and the meme will spread.
A triumph of consciousness-raising has been the homosexual hijacking of the word "gay". I used to mourn the loss of gay in (what I still think of as) its true sense. But on the bright side (wait for it) gay has inspired a new imitator, which is the climax of this article. Gay is succinct, uplifting, positive: an "up" word, where homosexual is a down word, and queer, faggot and pooftah are insults. Those of us who subscribe to no religion; those of us whose view of the universe is natural rather than supernatural; those of us who rejoice in the real and scorn the false comfort of the unreal, we need a word of our own, a word like "gay". You can say "I am an atheist" but at best it sounds stuffy (like "I am a homosexual") and at worst it inflames prejudice (like "I am a homosexual").
Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell, of Sacramento, California, have set out to coin a new word, a new "gay". Like gay, it should be a noun hijacked from an adjective, with its original meaning changed but not too much. Like gay, it should be catchy: a potentially prolific meme. Like gay, it should be positive, warm, cheerful, bright.
Bright? Yes, bright. Bright is the word, the new noun. I am a bright. You are a bright. She is a bright. We are the brights. Isn't it about time you came out as a bright? Is he a bright? I can't imagine falling for a woman who was not a bright. The website http://www.celebatheists.com/ suggests numerous intellectuals and other famous people are brights. Brights constitute 60% of American scientists, and a stunning 93% of those scientists good enough to be elected to the elite National Academy of Sciences (equivalent to Fellows of the Royal Society) are brights. Look on the bright side: though at present they can't admit it and get elected, the US Congress must be full of closet brights. As with gays, the more brights come out, the easier it will be for yet more brights to do so. People reluctant to use the word atheist might be happy to come out as a bright.
Geisert and Futrell are very insistent that their word is a noun and must not be an adjective. "I am bright" sounds arrogant. "I am a bright" sounds too unfamiliar to be arrogant: it is puzzling, enigmatic, tantalising. It invites the question, "What on earth is a bright?" And then you're away: "A bright is a person whose world view is free of supernatural and mystical elements. The ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic world view."
"You mean a bright is an atheist?"
"Well, some brights are happy to call themselves atheists. Some brights call themselves agnostics. Some call themselves humanists, some freethinkers. But all brights have a world view that is free of supernaturalism and mysticism."
"Oh, I get it. It's a bit like 'gay'. So, what's the opposite of a bright? What would you call a religious person?"
"What would you suggest?"
Of course, even though we brights will scrupulously insist that our word is a noun, if it catches on it is likely to follow gay and eventually re-emerge as a new adjective. And when that happens, who knows, we may finally get a bright president.
· You can sign on as a bright at http://www.the-brights.net/.
Richard Dawkins FRS is Charles Simonyi professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford University. His latest book is A Devil's Chaplain.
[First published in The Guardian, June 21, 2003]
Bright Stuff [7.23.03]
The time has come for us brights to come out of the closet. What is a bright? 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.
The term "bright" is a recent coinage by two brights in Sacramento, Calif., who thought our social group -- which has a history stretching back to the Enlightenment, if not before -- could stand an image-buffing and that a fresh name might help. Don't confuse the noun with the adjective: "I'm a bright" is not a boast but a proud avowal of an inquisitive world view.
You may well be a bright. If not, you certainly deal with brights daily. That's because we are all around you: we're 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. Wanting to preserve and transmit a great culture, we even teach Sunday school and Hebrew classes. Many of the nation's clergy members are closet brights, I suspect. We are, in fact, the moral backbone of the nation: brights take their civic duties seriously precisely because they don't trust God to save humanity from its follies.
As an adult white married male with financial security, I am not in the habit of considering myself a member of any minority in need of protection. If anybody is in the driver's seat, I've thought, it's people like me. But now I'm beginning to feel some heat, and although it's not uncomfortable yet, I've come to realize it's time to sound the alarm.
Whether we brights are a minority or, as I am inclined to believe, a silent majority, our deepest convictions are increasingly dismissed, belittled and condemned by those in power -- by politicians who go out of their way to invoke God and to stand, self-righteously preening, on what they call "the side of the angels."
A 2002 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life suggests that 27 million Americans are atheist or agnostic or have no religious preference. That figure may well be too low, since many nonbelievers are reluctant to admit that their religious observance is more a civic or social duty than a religious one -- more a matter of protective coloration than conviction.
Most brights don't play the "aggressive atheist" role. We don't want to turn every conversation into a debate about religion, and we don't want to offend our friends and neighbors, and so we maintain a diplomatic silence.
But the price is political impotence. Politicians don't think they even have to pay us lip service, and leaders who wouldn't be caught dead making religious or ethnic slurs don't hesitate to disparage the "godless" among us.
From the White House down, bright-bashing is seen as a low-risk vote-getter. And, of course, the assault isn't only rhetorical: the Bush administration has advocated changes in government rules and policies to increase the role of religious organizations in daily life, a serious subversion of the Constitution. It is time to halt this erosion and to take a stand: the United States is not a religious state, it is a secular state that tolerates all religions and -- yes -- all manner of nonreligious ethical beliefs as well.
I recently took part in a conference in Seattle that brought together leading scientists, artists and authors to talk candidly and informally about their lives to a group of very smart high school students. Toward the end of my allotted 15 minutes, I tried a little experiment. I came out as a bright.
Now, my identity would come as no surprise to anybody with the slightest knowledge of my work. Nevertheless, the result was electrifying.
Many students came up to me afterwards to thank me, with considerable passion, for "liberating" them. I hadn't realized how lonely and insecure these thoughtful teenagers felt. They'd never heard a respected adult say, in an entirely matter of fact way, that he didn't believe in God. I had calmly broken a taboo and shown how easy it was.
In addition, many of the later speakers, including several Nobel laureates, were inspired to say that they, too, were brights. In each case the remark drew applause. Even more gratifying were the comments of adults and students alike who sought me out afterward to tell me that, while they themselves were not brights, they supported bright rights. And that is what we want most of all: to be treated with the same respect accorded to Baptists and Hindus and Catholics, no more and no less.
If you're a bright, what can you do? First, we can be a powerful force in American political life if we simply identify ourselves. (The founding brights maintain a Web site on which you can stand up and be counted.) I appreciate, however, that while coming out of the closet was easy for an academic like me -- or for my colleague Richard Dawkins, who has issued a similar call in England -- in some parts of the country admitting you're a bright could lead to social calamity. So please: no "outing."
But there's no reason all Americans can't support bright rights. I am neither gay nor African-American, but nobody can use a slur against blacks or homosexuals in my hearing and get away with it. Whatever your theology, you can firmly object when you hear family or friends sneer at atheists or agnostics or other godless folk.
And you can ask your political candidates these questions: Would you vote for an otherwise qualified candidate for public office who was a bright? Would you support a nominee for the Supreme Court who was a bright? Do you think brights should be allowed to be high school teachers? Or chiefs of police?
Let's get America's candidates thinking about how to respond to a swelling chorus of brights. With any luck, we'll soon hear some squirming politician trying to get off the hot seat with the feeble comment that "some of my best friends are brights.
Daniel C. Dennett, a professor of philosophy at Tufts University, is author, most recently, of Freedom Evolves.
[First published as an Op-ed Page article in The New York Times, July 12, 2003]
I've had a version of this conversation with Dan Dennett before. It goes like this.
Dan: "We should be more public, proud atheists. Even if some of us get a little extreme about it, those individuals will serve as sacrificial anodes, and help the mainstream shift over a little towards accepting atheism."
Me: "You have to sacrifice a lot of anodes to change an ocean."
An ocean is what we are facing. Naturalism is flunking out in the contest to win the hearts and minds of humanity. Empirically informed medicine is commonly described as merely "Western", angels and flying saucers populate public discourse, and religious violence is the greatest immediate menace. Why? Humanity not good enough? No one wants to believe that, and for good reason. What harm is there in expecting the best from ourselves, and what good can come from not expecting the best? Alright, then, it must be that naturalists have opponents who are more media savvy. Well, yes, religions have had a few millennia to get their acts together.
But then there's another possibility, which is that we naturalists shoot ourselves in our collective feet. Is it possible that there's a trace of power mongering when a scientists who studies nature promotes absolute naturalism? Do we deliberately annoy in order to get attention once in a while? (Oh come on Richard, you know you do!)
Isn't the cult of victimhood feeling sort of nineties yet? Naturalists made good victims back in Galileo's day, and he remains an enduring martyr figure in naturalist education for children, but today scientists and technologists are enormously rich, powerful, and influential. Non-technical people are in awe and terror of us.
If the Bright position is that the public must believe there is no life after death in order to enter into a pact of rationality (in which, say, desperately needed stem cell research can take place unmolested), you are setting yourselves up to be noble, beautiful losers, at least in the eyes of your sympathizers; Ralph Naders of science.
My aspiration is to be "Bright", but as an alternating current light bulb*.
As an alternating current light bulb I hope I can serve as an existence proof that a bright dualist can exist. I might appear either fully dark or light to those who aren't very observant. If the use of "Gay" is an inspiration for "Bright", then don't forget "Bi".
An AC light bulb practices disciplined agnosticism: Celebrate and defend naturalism to its limits, respect those who see differently beyond the limits of foreseeable experiments, and don't let anyone get away with superstitions that intrude on the results of experimentally accessible questions. Unobtrusive superstitions, when held by others, are not trampled by polite, respectful people. That's the very heart of being respectful and polite. Give the poor non-scientist a viable fall-back position.
As far as beliefs, my sense is that the battlefield of faith has shifted. It used to be about whether God exists, or whether there's life after death. Now I think it's about whether the other person you're talking to is really there; that old consciousness question. I know, we've all talked ourselves blue over that territory, and what's delightful is that we can now talk about other things politely even though we probably don't agree about the limits of doubt. Our bright vs. AC dialog can even be pleasant and unobtrusive to the practice of science.
Let's be happy about our difference on this point. The public finds happiness seductive.
Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist and musician, is a pioneer of virtual reality, and founder and former CEO of VPL. He is currently the lead scientist for the National Tele-Immersion Initiative .