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Shedding light on brights

A spectrographic scrutiny of brights reveals a rainbow of attitudes about religion*

By Mynga Futrell and Paul Geisert (August 4, 2006)

*This article was originally published in the July/August issue of Science and Theology News. Posted here with permission of the publisher.

Editor's Note: The authors, who coined the term brights three years ago, are responding to recent Science & Theology News articles regarding brights.

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BRIGHT IDEA: The neologism was developed to foster communications between people with a naturalistic worldview.

Being a bright is easy. The requisite characteristic is “a worldview that is free of supernatural and mystical elements.” What is more difficult is understanding that there are many different types of brights.

A common misconception is that brights are atheists. This misconception was illustrated in “A timeless philosophy: Atheism through the ages,” a timeline created for stories about atheism in the December 2005 Science & Theology News. The copy describes the neologism “bright” as an alternative term for “atheist.” An accompanying “Primer on atheism” mentions rightly that some atheists wish to be known as brights, but fails to mention that so do many members of the other groups listed — such as skeptics and agnostics.

The misleading “brights are atheists” notion is further perpetuated in Science & Theology News’ April 2006 editorial. There, editor Karl Giberson takes “A dim view of brights.” He does so after commenting on three scientific celebrities — Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker — who are atheists as well as brights. The editorial wraps up with a very broad implication about brights: “[They] are in for a long, discouraging tenure if they presume to study religion as a pathology, constantly ridiculing the faithful and their faith.”

There’s a need for some spectrographic analysis here. One cannot map brights’ attitudes toward religion in any specific way. Instead, think spectrum. Think diversity. If you can imagine “a rainbow of brights,” you’ll be moving onto the right track.

A bright worldview

We coined the noun “bright” a little more than three years ago as part of a broad cultural endeavor. Our thought was to institute, via the Internet, a communications network to nurture the development of a group of people whose worldviews are naturalistic. Our impetus was the dismal social and civic milieu that exists in the United States for such people.

We intended that brights would focus on their social and electoral circumstances, not their — or others’ — beliefs. A number of studies have shown clearly that while a great many people do have supernatural-free worldviews, the American public does not consider these persons to be passable fellow citizens who are just as moral as anyone else. Thus, we wanted to bring the fullest diversity of people out of the woodwork and have them seek social acceptance and civic clout in proportion to their numbers. Our brights idea was specifi cally aimed toward enhanced civic participation. Criticizing religion was far from our minds and has never been an organizational goal.

Who, then, are brights? Answer: anyone who has a naturalistic worldview. When applied to individual people, it’s a term of self-identity. Taking it upon oneself to designate other people as brights is impertinent and quite likely erroneous. The noun can also be used generically, of course, to indicate the category of people whose notions about the world incorporate no supernatural or mystical ingredients whatsoever. This means that while many brights may be atheists, atheists who have supernatural beliefs in astrology or who wear magnets to ward off disease are not brights.

An Internet site for Brights

The Brights’ Net — www.the-brights.net — which we co-direct, is a communications and action hub for brights. We have posted a clear statement of aims and principles. Since the launch, the idea has burst the U.S. boundaries initially envisioned. Now thousands of people in 138 nations have registered as Brights — uppercase, to indicate their registration into a formal constituency.

These are people who think the definition of a bright fits them to a T. Most who register endorse the definition one finds in The Skeptic’s Dictionary: “The term is a pragmatic civic identity term rather than a philosophical belief term.”

There is a rather startling spectrum of people who are Brights. Web site registrants self-identify as atheists, agnostics, ethical culturalists, humanists, secular humanists, freethinkers, rationalists, naturalists and skeptics. Some go by a religious-identity moniker: the network has Buddhists, Druids, pantheists, transhumanists, Unitarians, Wiccans and Yogis. A gamut of folks — Jews, Catholics, Quakers, Episcopalians, Muslims — uphold some of a religion’s cultural aspects but not its supernaturalism. There are plenty of “nones” — the individuals who, when confronted by a questionnaire that asks, “Religion?” will state, “None.” The naturalistic worldview embraces a broad civic arena.

Surprisingly, of the Brights who self-identify when they register, the atheist group is one of the smaller categories. Another interesting aside is that most of the individuals who e-mailed early on to vehemently reject the brights concept described themselves as atheists.

Civic identity and beliefs

One civic-identity term in the vernacular is “nonbeliever.” We personally decry the propensity of society and the media to press upon brights that n-word. It is obviously a cultural disparagement and social millstone. Further, it is inaccurate. Brights believe in many things. All contemplative humans arrive at personal insights about reality and meaning. The perspective from which brights interpret the world encompasses a broad array of important concepts: origins of life, what happens after death, purpose, what constitutes an ethical life. It’s the same for individuals whose worldviews embrace supernatural agency. A worldview consists of basic assumptions and images that provide a more or less coherent, though not necessarily accurate, way of thinking about the world.

What is important for readers of Science & Theology News to note is this: However culturally prominent deity belief — or no deity belief — may be, it is only one aspect of anyone’s worldview. Many brights are wholly agnostic regarding the matter of gods. Most, we dare to say, probably don’t ever bother to think about gods at all, unless pressed on the matter by some inquiring person or by some circumstance that brings associated issues to the forefront.

Giberson reached his dim view of brights on inadequate sampling. Yes, Dawkins, Dennett and Pinker are brights who merit considerable attention. Their contributions to science and science education, after all, are indisputable. However, their individual attitudes regarding religion are wholly their own. Many atheists are indeed anti-religious, but a great many atheists are not. Regarding attitudes toward religion, brights are all across the spectrum. Brights — like Canadians (by geography) or Catholics (by religion) or Republicans (by politics) — are a diverse panorama of people. When viewing and opining about brights, one must not fall prey to tunnel vision. That’s akin to summarizing all Christians from the handful who so identify and happen to be prominent on television.

If brights are to be seen as having any theme in common, it is this: They hold their naturalistic worldviews to be as personally satisfying and well-suited on all counts as “supers” — individuals whose worldviews incorporate supernatural elements — hold theirs.

Today there is prejudicial consequence for brights who are forthright. Consequently, brights must strive to develop a level civic playing field. Any unfair hindrance to civic participation impairs the common good.

Mynga Futrell and Paul Geisert are founders and co-directors of The Brights’ Net. Both have been teachers and teacher educators.

The Vision

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