The world is in need of influential Brights
An interview with Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell, founders of the Brights movement
by Florian Aigner
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.” This is how the philosopher Daniel Dennett defined the new free-thinker-movement “the Brights”. It was founded by Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell, who wanted to oppose the increasing religious fanatism in the USA by creating a rationalist, non-religious community. Little had they expected that this organization would quickly spread all over the world. To this day, rationalists from 148 nations have registered as “Brights” online.
CHiLLi : Many people see religion as a source of comfort and emotional warmth in their life. What is the harm in that? Wouldn't a rationalist have to acknowledge that for some people religion may be actually useful?
Mynga Futrell : Concerning that aspect, they would indeed. Religion IS a source of comfort and emotional warmth to many people. However, the Brights movement is dedicated to the concept of a level playing field for all worldviews. The organization’s non-aggression pact with religion means cooperating with religious organizations on topics of common interest. Such topics include the separation of religion and government and teaching of evolution in science in the public schools. There are a number of religions that support both these areas.
CHiLLi : Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are showing us that black Americans and women can play important political roles today. Do you think that openly agnostic or atheist politicians would have any chance of being elected in the US?
Paul Geisert : There is little or no chance that an openly atheist politician would have any chance of being elected to any significant office in the US. Probably there are several agnostics serving in office – quietly. When agnostics run for elective office, they do not do so openly. Rather, they usually self-identify only as "nonreligious."
CHiLLi : Do you personal ly know of any openly agnostic politicians in the US?
Paul Geisert : An exhausting search by the Secular Coalition for America for secular politicians turned up only ONE person in the entire nation who held any office higher than town council. The "secularist" the SCA identified is Pete Stark, a humanist, who publicly "came out" as an agnostic in 2007. However, after serving 30 years in his district, the o dd s are still very high he will be able to be re-elected to what has been "a very safe seat" in the San Francisco region (a very liberal electorate). We will have to wait and see.
CHiLLi : Do you think that this is changing? Will secularists play a bigger role in politics soon?
Paul Geisert : I see no reason this is changing or should change soon.
CHiLLi : Would a Muslim or a Jew have bigger chances of being elected than a secularist?
Mynga Futrell : In the past, Jews did face poor chances except in those urban locations that have high concentrations of Jewish citizens, such as in New York City. Jews still face poor o dd s in some areas of the nation. However, a great many Jews have been elected to office in the U.S., at federal, state, and local levels. Only recently, in 2004, Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, ran for Vice President with Al Gore's presidential candidacy. He had been a long serving Democratic U.S. Senator, and his religion appeared not to be of much widespread concern or interest.
CHiLLi : How about Muslims?
Mynga Futrell : Recently Keith Ellison, a Muslim convert (reared Catholic), became the first and only Muslim ever elected to Congress. There was quite a furore, especially since he chose to take his oath of office with his hand on a Qur'an instead of a Bible. Since 9/11, any Muslim candidate for any office is likely to be facing a much more difficult challenge, except in locales of very high Muslim population, such as in Dearborn, Michigan.
CHiLLi : Would you say that the Bush administration has had a major influence on the role of religion in public life in the US?
Paul Geisert : The Bush administration's nod to the Christian right in its pressing for – and funding of – faith-based services, and its favoring of religion across the board has had an awful impact on what had previously been secular services and neutral government. Even if a strong Democratic win leads to a reversal, there is much damage already done. Religion is not confined to playing a symbolic role any more, it permeates many institutions, such as the military. Also, scientific research has been injured by political manoeuvring.
CHiLLi : Do you consider religious indoctrination in public schools a serious threat?
Mynga Futrell Religious indoctrination at public schools is not permitted anywhere in the nation. It is federal law that public schools be secular. Private schools, however, can do anything they want and are springing up like tulips in springtime, as are "home schooling" situations (parents teaching children). Due to a tradition of local school control, there is no national curriculum. In homogeneous communities having a dominant Christian population, huge pressures – commercial as well as political and religious – are being brought to bear. These pressures are undermining sound secular preparation and inhibiting the academic teaching of the array of religions and philosophical systems in history, to say nothing of what is known from anthropology and other sciences about humans. The independent school boards are sometimes rife with undereducated board members. As we personal ly favor solid programs of science education for all, we also favor youth's exposure to sound academic teaching about both religion and freethought.
CHiLLi : What gave you the idea to start the Brights in the first place? Was there some "inciting incident" that made you decide to create a new movement?
Paul Geisert : Yes, there was an incident that spurred the idea. In 2002, the American Atheists organization announced that it was organizing a rally in the nation's capital, in Washington D.C., to be called, "The Godless Americans March on Washington." In fact, this was about the most self-deprecating name I could imagine. “Godless” is a pejorative term, some American dictionaries list "wicked" for it. I immediately started a search for an alternative that would be a more positive umbrella label for such a collection of citizens.
CHiLLi : You did not like the term “godless”, but you embraced the goals of this rally?
Mynga Futrell : The rally idea was itself very much a rejoinder to the fact that the overall American public response to the horrible attacks of 9/11 had been so profoundly religious in character. Prayers and religious slogans sprang up on billboards across the nation and in communities; schools posted signs of "God Bless America," and so on. The entire atmosphere of the nation seemed to shift toward the notion that religious expression equalled patriotic expression. This engendered a feeling among secularists of having become second class citizens in their own country, and perhaps even pariahs or disloyal persons. By redefining these same people – and more! - as “Brights” instead of as “godless”, we wanted to emphasize that secularists are valuable to society – and not people to be frowned upon.
CHiLLi : How did you first present your idea?
Paul Geisert : We first presented the concept of the Brights in April 2003 at an annual convention of the Atheist Alliance in Tampa, Florida. We were the last speakers of the afternoon and had been given only 12 minutes to present a concept we had proposed to the organizers – a new term and definition that could serve as an umbrella over much diversity and be more useful and forceful as a broader civic identity. In the audience were Richard Dawkins, James Randi , and Michael Shermer. They all registered as Brights right away.
CHiLLi : Was the support of such famous individuals crucial in the early stage of your project?
Paul Geisert : It was. On the strength of the signup response among those AAI attendees, we set up a website. Right after the website went live we started to receive hundreds of registrations. Richard Dawkins had written an op-ed in the Guardian about the term. Apparently, Richard had also told Daniel Dennett about the Brights movement, because a few weeks later Dan's op-ed, “The Bright Stuff,” appeared in the New York Times. We got over a thousand registrations in one day. After that, a great deal of controversy was generated by the self-identity label – “brights” - itself, and this continued to fan the fires and a steady flow of registrations resulted.
CHiLLi : Were you surprised by the success of your movement – or was that what you had expected?
Mynga Futrell : We thought it was a good idea from the start to carve out a new and broader civic identity, which is not referenced to religion, or else we would not have gone public with the proposal at the AAI convention. We did not expect to get such immediate support from internationally known individuals. Our initial proposal grew out of the civic situation in the United States, and so the su dd en registrations coming in from across the world did surprise us quite a bit. We had to immediately adapt our approach to an international interest.
CHiLLi : Is there a well-defined goal of your movement? What would have to happen, so that you sit back and think "Hooray, we've done it!"
Paul Geisert : As the Brights' tagline says, we are "illuminating and elevating the naturalistic worldview." We have introduced a term, and along with it a "fixed definition". The new meaning of the word “bright” – a person with a naturalistic worldview – is an alternative way for persons to present their worldview to others. We would like to see more and more people self-identifying as Brights in this quite decisive sense – free of supernatural and mystical. This does not necessarily cast them into such an oppositional stance with religious people. We hope the new meaning will gradually "catch on" and bring more persons into the open and into civic influence. We can say "We've done it" only to the extent that in the media we are again and again encountering correct usage of the term “bright” – in context, without further comment. Just appropriate usage without discussion. Just as people don't explain "gay" today; they have caught the meaning and are using it; no explanation necessary.
CHiLLi : Can the Brights’ struggle for public recognition be compared to early gay-pride movements?
Mynga Futrell : We must recall that it took gay pride to for homosexuals to stop concentrating on one aspect of their identity and begin to act to gain influence as part of their societies. It hasn't been easy in some ways, but gay identity and gay pride has worked wonders. “Bright” as an identity, “bright” pride – Why not unite around what we do have going for us? Can't we see the world is much in need of influential Brights?
CHiLLi : Do secularists and agnostics need more self-confidence?
Paul Geisert : Right now, by being defined, grouped, and disparaged as "nonbelievers", persons free of supernaturalism may be missing the fact that their capacity to be civically involved is being needlessly underminined in many domains. An umbrella label like "nonbeliever" sets people apart as morally and civically second-rate humans, marginalizing them as fellow citizens. Being defined only by reference to "a belief" means staying and operating at a disadvantage, as far as having decision-making power in the world is concerned.
CHiLLi : The term "the brights" has been criticized by some as being a bit "arrogant". In a way it implies that "non-brights" are in general dull and stupid. Do you, in retrospect, still think that the term "the brights" was the best choice?
Paul Geisert : Of course the noun Bright refers to the enlightenment, a time when science and reason reigned in the minds of optimistic citizens. The term has indeed received much criticism, but we still think that the term "the brights" was the best of all the choices that have been proposed to us as alternatives since. Had we chosen any of those, we doubt a news magazine would be asking questions from across the ocean. We know of no other way than having a controversial term that would have created so much press and internet discussion. We remain optimistic that the new meaning can take hold as more persons wake up to the fact that it is truly a different meaning entirely, and that eventually it will assume the same social status as the word "gay" for homosexuals.----------------------------------
Florian AignerThis interview was conducted by Florian Aigner in February 2008. www.florianaigner.at A very similar version of this interview was published (in German) in the Austrian News Magazine CHiLLi.cc on March 18, 2008, www.CHiLLi.