Nixing "Nonbelief"—The Brights
Adapted from "Nonbelief in a New Light"
an article by Mynga Futrell and Paul Geisert
appearing in the Fall 2003 issue of Humanist Living
"A Bright is a person whose worldview is naturalistic free of supernatural and mystical elements." This simple phrasing has resulted in major articles in the New York Times and London Guardian, a nascent international movement, and thousands of Internet hours spent in discussions of the word and the concept the word represents.
Who are the Brights? Persons under this umbrella term tend to self-identify by varied labels, among them humanist, agnostic, atheist, skeptic, rationalist, freethinker, secular humanist, Unitarian, secular Jew, igtheist, objectivist, ethical culturist, or perhaps apatheist (uninterested in religion).
What is the concept behind the Brights? The movement seeks unification of these many persons into an Internet constituency that will grow to have significant social and political influence. The conception has garnered wide acceptance and drawn almost no criticism (which is not true of the word itself). The Brights’ concept generated immediate international interest and in two months has blossomed until (at this writing) there are many thousands of Brights in 65 nations.
The Brights’ movement asks those with a naturalistic worldview to join hands (in a metaphorical sense) and to begin to view themselves and speak in civic situations as Brights. If they do so, there is the possibility of developing a constituency of sufficient size to perk up the ears of movers and shakers, and maybe eventually develop some movers and shakers who are Brights.
For a number of years, various individuals and groups in the community of reason have attempted to form alliances out of member organizations. After years of trying, there is still no clear unified freethought voice speaking to the politicians and public of the nation. In the electorate, the only recognition that we exist is in the negative sense, such as “those atheists and secular humanists are trying to take God out of schools and ruin OUR pledge.”
Socially our worldview is marginalized. In the civic arena, where decisions are made and elections held, the single facet of nonbelief defeats open participation. A candidate might run on a comprehensive platform, yet be totally nullified if identified as a nonbeliever. This situation must change.
We must make a united stand against such prejudice.
However, even if one combines the membership of all the freethought organizations, the numbers simply aren’t there. It is to unaffiliated naturalists that we must look for numbers that can matter. Together, affiliated and unaffiliated naturalists actually outnumber all other non-Christian segments of the population, and also many ethnic segments. We should have influence comparable to our numbers.
We can judge our status in society by the label media use to refer to us collectively: nonbelievers. Some freethought publications employ the same term, thereby acceding to a negative name that sum us up as persons who not only have no deity-belief, but who seemingly having no beliefs at all, period.
Our personal frustration regarding labels reached culmination last fall when we were invited to join a march on Washington as "Godless Americans." The causes of the march were worthy, and the march itself well planned and conducted. However, to unite for common interests under a disparaging term like godless (it also means “wicked”) seemed ludicrous! Why accept and utilize the very derogatory language that so clearly hampers our own capacity to play a positive and contributing role in our communities and in the nation and world?
We decided to attend the march, but fired up, we set about to reverse the social lexicon. We wanted to introduce a positive neologism, complete with its definition, and to call for a broad “coming out” around a multifaceted and positive agenda, with the ultimate idea to help society better achieve its highest ideals. We sought a definition that could potentially encompass a broad segment of diverse actors. We envisioned a broad and ambitious movement, somewhat reminiscent of how activists in Europe once formed a union to counter the multitude of religious abuses of the 17 th and 18 th centuries (the Enlightenment). Using terminology we now have at hand, what we foresaw within our own society would be a type of “Enbrightenment” via the Brights, who would lead the way. We confess a certain blend of optimism and naiveté. Nevertheless, we forged ahead.
Paul, who coined the final term in October 2002, sought as key attributes simple with good connotations, easy to say and spell. The term was to lend itself to symbolism (Enlightenment) and to evoke radiant light—something larger than Carl Sagan’s candle in the dark!
Bright’s first three meanings in our dictionary all deal with what in Chaucer’s day was bryght (shining, clear, vivid). Another meaning is cheerful (as in a bright smile). Not bad for our intent. Its fifth, though, invokes mentally quick, smart, clever, and witty, and it is that connotation which seems to be a bone of contention regarding the invented noun, bright.
In contrast to the welcoming acceptance of the overall Brights concept, the coined noun itself has garnered heated discussion in freethought newsletters, on Internet blogs, along with some acknowledgement in mainstream U.S. media, such as in the New York Times, St. Petersburg Times, Cleveland Plain Dealer, and Sacramento Bee. The word has brought forth vitriolic reactions from some atheists, and prayers for our souls from a few Christians. The response from existing freethought organizations has been tepid, or “let’s wait and see.” (The Institute for Humanist Studies has generously provided a server for our Web site.)
Some insist Bright is an arrogant term. They probe for antonyms of Bright, failing to see there are no antonyms of Thursday or Hispanics. Until Webster’s provides a definitive designation for this invented noun, our Web site offers the only “official” source for a definition of the word, Bright. And that definition involves worldview, not “intelligence.”
The underlying concepts of the Brights’ Network are actually mirrored in the previous issue of this newsletter, in an article on “Junior Humanism” by August Brunsman. He describes Camp Quest as a non-discriminating umbrella for persons of varied attributes and intellect. Budding atheists, humanists of all kinds, skeptics, freethinkers, and Unitarians from any nation are freely and equally embraced there. Campers are individuals, not members of an organization (all of which parallels the Brights’ constituency). And both stand for positive values and actions. Camp Quest offers an accomplished version of the adult vision the Brights’ constituency. Camp Quest provides at a campground what the Brights’ Net offers on the Internet. Both give hope for a national and international “Enbrightenment.”
There is now a positive, uplifting umbrella term for naturalistic individuals Brights. We, as Brights, reject entirely the set of distasteful negative labels provided us (unbelievers, godless, irreligious).