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BRIGHTS BULLETIN -- JULY 2018 


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Are You Swimming Upstream?

Persistent curiosity. Logic. Skepticism. Independent reasoning. Empirical judgment

Such habits of mind as these are commonly couched under a popular rubric as “critical thinking” (CT).

Basically, a critical thinker has to “do some work” in the course of reaching conclusions, employing those aforementioned attributes, or similar ones. (CT is much desired and extensively discussed, but varyingly defined.) A critical thinker is not going to be forming opinions quickly and lazily, or just “going with the flow.”

Doing the work of employing these rational processes can lead a person onto distinctly nonconformist terrain. In fact, a consistently cogent thinker may end up holding to an array of judgments that seriously deviate from the sentiments of contemporaries.

When a route of rational and analytical discernment leads to judgments and views far outside the so-called mainstream of opinion, a person may be taking stances that strongly challenge the suppositions of fellow citizens. Reaching conclusions contrary to one’s peers can often be uncomfortable.

There can even be seriously isolating social consequences for the individual.  If that’s happens to be your situation, know that you are in good company, at least historically.  In every era there seem to live people who think freely and independently and do not conform to the mainstream. Many of these different thinkers have come forth with ideas that (while in their own times irritating to others, even perilous for themselves) have yielded impressive societal advances that, in retrospect, we celebrate today.

So, if you are “swimming upstream” these days due to your critical analysis, then at least esteem your independent and conscientious style of thinking! 

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From Commonality to Civics – Chin Up!

By enrolling in “the Brights,” we have declared (to ourselves) that we hold a naturalistic worldview, but unless we are caught in a society where personal safety is of concern, certainly more remains to be done.

We can use this quite expansive commonality – our distinctive worldview free of supernatural/mystical elements – in constructive ways within the wider society if we take up the banner of embrightenment! (That term draws from concepts of the historical Enlightenment that underpin the “Bright” label.)

Choosing an “embrightening” pathway requires our acting as best we can to further the acceptance of citizens who hold a naturalistic outlook. And why not?!  Appraising ourselves as deserving as any other citizen, we believe we ought to be able to express and live out this naturalistic stance without experiencing the slings and arrows of societal ignorance, superstition or prejudice.

Not being silenced may well mean diverging from willingness to be delineated by others’ expectations and beliefs. We, like other citizens, should be able to state our stance affirmatively without enduring narrow religion-based cataloging (or its pejorative stereotyping that so readily diminishes us by unjust portrayals of our character).

The need is for more and more of us – people already free of any supernatural or mystical worldview elements - to recognize that our naturalistic worldview is a broad-based and affirmative commonality. Within our spheres of influence, we can be plain and positive about it. Why cater to narrow or negative labeling? We can turn aside from baseless assertions about us, overcome our trepidations, and work to lift the civic status of all who hold to a naturalistic outlook.

Such a long way to go. Chin up!

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A New, New Age Now?

Yes, we have “a long way to go” toward civic acceptance of the naturalistic worldview. And, given present-day trend reports, perhaps the situation is worsening. In fact, is society perhaps going backwards?

Of late, we have reason to wonder whether “New Age” thinking might just be making a comeback!

A recent article in The Atlantic hints as much (at least within its demographic/geographical purview). 

“The New Age of Astrology” article reports on a resurgence of interest in the Zodiac and in an array of other spiritual beliefs and practices previously associated with the 1970s. This “now age phenomenon” (new age revival) is evidenced by a recent resumption of book sales and a burgeoning of websites focused on such oxymoronic entities as “mystical realness”.

Despite its prolific borrowing of terminology (especially, energy) from the physics lexicon, most of "New Age science" is dismissed as pseudo-science by academic and scientific establishments. Astrological theory has been well studied and found to be lacking empirical support. Personal acceptance of “divination results” and “personality” has been shown to be influenced by a number of factors, including “generality, perceived specificity, favorability, personality variables, and beliefs in both the procedure and the skill of the source.” Why people perceive horoscopes as being true: A review (Must request PDF).

Nonetheless, it seems that many persons who look to their horoscopes or tarot readings perceive them to be accurate and fitting descriptions.

The renewal of interest in tarot cards, healing crystals, and sound baths is especially strong among millennials, who appear to gain some consolation or solace while engaging in these practices.  As the sub-head of The Atlantic article states: “In a stressful, data-driven era, many young people find comfort and insight in the zodiac—even if they don’t exactly believe in it.”

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Anxiety and Superstition

Black cats. Knocking on wood.  Lucky charms.

Some superstitions just won’t go away. For skeptics who have a no-nonsense bent, perhaps the most ludicrous of all is the absence of a marked Floor 13 in so many tall buildings (What is the marked Floor 14, after all?) 

Despite its title, a new article entitled “The science of superstition – and why people believe in the unbelievable” doesn’t really delve much into science, but it does further the concept that false but strongly held notions about how the world works can provide reassurance and help to reduce anxiety in some people.

Although anxiety reduction may take place, research has also shown that actions associated with superstitions can themselves become self-reinforcing, leading to development of rituals and habits. Another consequence? They may also lead to occasions when a failure to perform a ritual itself produces anxiety.

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Prep Your Explanatory Shortcuts!

If you encounter questions about the Brights movement and find yourself tongue-tied, don’t forget that “the gist” of being a Bright is accessible quickly on a smart phone at the Brights’ mini-site. The brief text defines a bright and point to some principles and four key action concepts for Brights.

You can use the mini-site yourself or perhaps invite your questioner to click through the short explanations. (The QR code will take anyone to the mini-site, although the plain text is directed to persons likely to have a naturalistic worldview.)

Probably the best pages on the main site to bookmark for easy access are the home page URL (to show the featured projects), the vision statement (to show the rationale), and the movement examples page (to gloss actions).

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From Old to Now – A Refurbishing Project

Octogenarian and prolific essayist James Haught. author of 11 books, says he’s not willing to slow down yet!  In fact, this Enthusiastic Bright, the long-time editor (now editor emeritus) of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, the Charleston Gazette-Mail, has an idea and definitely wants readers for his new project.

Haught recently informed Brights Central that his efforts to “save the world” continue full force. He is issuing his previously authored magazine and newspaper pieces (perhaps tweaked?) as “new” blog postings. His invitation goes this way:

At age 86, I've jumped into a new phase of our struggle against supernaturalism.  I'm using my past 140 published essays as weekly posts on Patheos's Daylight Atheism blog. If you're interested, click on the URL to see my attempt to use the Internet to save the world.

Given that Haught recently earned a first-place “Green Eyeshade Award” from the Society of Professional Journalists, maybe his latest project will be worth a look! He was awarded “the best serious online commentary of 2017” in the regional journalism contest (southeastern US) for essays he had authored for the website of the United Coalition of Reason while serving as the group’s writer-in-residence. Those columns focused mostly on the decline of religion in modern western democracies.

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What Is the Future of Life?

According to news from Trinity College, Enthusiastic Bright and philosopher Dan Dennett is soon to peer into the future and give his answer to that question as he delivers the main lecture at the 75th anniversary of the College’s traditional Schrödinger lecture.

Dennett’s September presentation, The Future of Life”, will follow on the theme of the eminent physicist’s original “What Is Life?” lecture there in Dublin 75 years ago.

Of course, Dennett’s yet-to-be talk will be addressing the “Life” theme in a wholly modern context. A lot about Life has been revealed since Schrodinger’s day, most spectacularly the discovery of the structure of DNA.

But there’s a connection! Schrödinger's views on the topic were credited by James Watson with inspiring his research on the gene. Crick too reported being influenced by the Nobel-winning Austrian’s suppositions.

Anyone curious about Dennett’s own thoughts about the future of Life on this planet will be looking forward to the lecture’s publication. (His research spans many fields, including the philosophy of the mind, artificial intelligence and neuroscience.)

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What About Those Brights?

The persons who hold a naturalistic worldview and register into “The Brights” are characterized on Wikipedia as participants in “an intellectual movement”.

That may be so, but beware the usage if wrongly applied to the participating persons themselves.

A hasty characterization like “intellectual” or “cerebral” may fit well to some Brights, but of course we needn’t fit either depiction to be a Bright. In fact, most new registrants who add a personal note of text explaining their motivation for signing up online simply credit their agreement with the stated aims of this initiative. And those are civic aims, not cerebral ones.

If the Wikipedia entry were to attend more painstakingly to the rationale behind this movement, then it would reduce verbosity about “the word” and expand upon the more substantive civic motivations for engendering movement.

As is evident in any serious look at this initiative’s vision statement, the Brights movement was not intended to be an “intellectual” (as in scholarly, or elitist) sort of endeavor.

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Promotion Via Pet Patch

If you have a pet, here’s a nifty way to boost awareness of the Brights movement with your acquaintances. Just put a cloth patch on your pet's halter or coat. The combination naturally draws interest and curiosity and is sure to be a conversation starter for you.

Exchange Offer (expires August 15):  Cloth patches are $3 USD on the merchandise page. However, Brights Central can send you a cloth patch for free – IF in return, you will commit to email back to Brights Central a .jpg or .png photo of your pet with patch. We’d love to see the pet "dressed up" with the Brights' emblem.

You can request a 2nd or 3rd patch if you wish to decorate two or three pets and will send a photo of both/all three. (Sorry, limit is 3 due to postal rates.) If interested in this exchange, simply email your correct postal mailing address to the-brights@the-brights.net with PHOTO4PATCH in upper case letters in the subject line.

NOTE: This offer is not just for Americans. It is international as well. Also, if you want a patch to sew on an item of your own clothing, we will stretch the offer. But, do promise send the photo back!

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Morality as Natural, and the FAQs of Religion

>>Where do values come from?

In her own effort to answer this question and related morality questions, philosophy professor Patricia Smith Churchland looked to the biological sciences. Her book, Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality, was published in 2012. Its exploration of the neurobiology and the underlying mechanisms of cooperation, attachment, and pair bonding was a helpful step in detaching morality from the historical body of philosophy.

Churchland had approached morality as “a natural phenomenon—constrained by the forces of natural selection, rooted in neurobiology, shaped by the local ecology, and modified by cultural developments.” (p. 191) In doing so, she was able to suggest sources of the potent sense of absolute rightness or wrongness of classes of behavior.

Fortunately for the general reader curious about what science has to say about morality, but not “up to a full book on the topic, Churchland’s volume has been summarized recently in a review article by Farid Pazoohi. The book review (issued as an open access publication in June in Europe’s Journal of Psychology), handily depicts Churchland’s application of neuroscientific concepts to traditional philosophical issues of human morality.

>>The FAQs — How Pew Research Center Measures Religion (USA)

How does it, anyway?  A new 7-FAQ report describes how the influential Pew measures religion in America, including how it asks people about their religious identity and how it categorizes its survey respondents into groups – including Protestant subgroups such as white evangelicals and members of the historically black Protestant tradition. The report also addresses questions about the political associations of the evangelical label.

The FAQ information is helpful background for persons who want to refer to U.S. Pew data or integrate it in their projects.

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