The Civic Value of an Umbrella

Adapted from “What's Right about Bright?
an article by Mynga Futrell and Paul Geisert
appearing in the Summer 2003 issue of Secular Nation

Nonreligious people of “like mind” tend to associate—(if they do associate, that is)—in groups under various labels. Religion-free folks can be found in affiliations of atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, rationalists, skeptics, secular humanists, naturalists, existentialists, materialists, igtheists, objectivists, etc.  Some of our alliances make use of a combination of terms.  An umbrella name could extend over all these varied labels of ours. It would replace none of them. Rather, it would simply be the name for all of us together.

“Oh, no, not another word!” you gripe.  Yes, one more. It would, we think, be to the benefit of all of us to have an additional word in our repertoire that we might employ to communal advantage. We have proposed, as a generic umbrella for the community of reason, that we all be “Brights.”  Whenever we want to be all-inclusive, in a civic sense, we can employ this nonspecific and umbrella label: Bright.

You ask, “Me, a Bright?”  Yes, you, a Bright. Each of us individually is always free to go by whatever labels we wish to identify ourselves.  Sometimes we are “a this,” and other times, “a that.”  Now you can…on occasion, now and then, when you want…proclaim yourself  “a Bright.”

As one in a growing constituency of Brights, you can bond yourself with others and help to level a societal playing field. The ultimate communal goal is to elevate the ability of people who have a naturalistic worldview to play a constructive role in the society(ies) within which we live.

Naming Our Place at the Table

Think of it.  No place at the civic table is set for the people whose cerebral storehouse is absent beliefs in the supernatural and the mystical, and such. In the United States  the “Brights” (by whatever labels) are essentially invisible and voiceless both socially and politically, at least compared to those who do identify by their religion.

Word-wise, the global names of the religious faiths (e.g., Christianity, Islam, Hinduism) serve as generic “worldview umbrellas.” The gist of each belief system has a singular descriptive label, a macro-label. Further, the generic umbrella over all those belief systems is “religion.” There really is not a comparable label for the community of reason, except for  negations of the religious label, i.e. faithless, nonbeliever, irreligious, and so forth.

Clearly, being not religious, without a singular affirmative identity label, has its downside politically and socially.  To a politician, the huge domestic Christian community with all of its sects and variants, is nevertheless pretty much just plain ol’ “Christianity,” and the political ears perk up for “those ‘Christians’ out there.”

Other monotheistic faiths also have a civic presence. Representatives of Jewish and Muslim communities are often sought whenever government or business wishes to get varied “interfaith perspectives” on issues. In California, where we live, officials also seek out at least one eastern religion to show “full religious diversity.”

Catholics of all stripes, some 25% of the U.S. population, have a distinct civic voice. Even individually, they feel quite free to speak out as Catholics on issues and concerns in their locales and nationwide, as do the Protestants and certain other Christian subsets. Never mind all the distinctions and divisions within any of these groups. It is pretty much the “big label,” the “umbrella label,” that shows its face at the critical decision-making levels of government, business, and social service.

Christians and Jews speak out “as Christians” or “on behalf of the Jewish community” in public forums and decision-making bodies all across the country. Muslims are beginning to add their voices. Numerically, though Jews and Muslims in the population are surprisingly few, not only in comparison to the Christians, but also in comparison to “us”—the faith-free in the population, some of whom associate under our many labels.

For hours on end (page after page in our varied “freethought” publications), we may discuss the distinctions between say, humanist and secular humanist, while the world simply ignores us.  Easily done. The labels we care so much about “simply do not fly” in the broader community (some, such as atheist are, as Wendy Kaminer has made clear, are in the U.S. openly taboo), and none is adequate as an umbrella over all of us.

An Umbrella Label for an At-Large Constituency

The “unbelievers-at-large” add up to a significant chunk of the general U.S. population. (This is even truer in some other nations.)  To date, the various freethought organizations have not had much luck in galvanizing the many folks “out there” who are, in a very real sense, as Andreas Rosenberg has put it  “already with us.”  This splendidly large chunk of the population consists of the everyday non-church-going non-believers, and (regarding “worldviews”) the non-joiners and non-activists.  Those folks just don’t identify—publicly—by any of the various types of so-called “unbelief” we presently offer.

When we first proposed our umbrella name to unify the community of reason, we were thinking of memes, which can rapidly proliferate. A meme is a word or idea or behavior that spontaneously spreads through a given social group. Memes are like viruses. Once a meme gets started, perhaps by someone on television or in some song or joke, it spreads from person to person much like the flu. No one really plans for memes; they just seem to happen. What if Bright is a meme? 

We want people to start looking outward from what we think of as “our community” toward those unaffiliated unreligious, who are by comparison vastly larger in number. If we can connect as Brights in sufficient numbers, then they just might become Brights, too, …eventually.

Bright is of course an invented noun. It may or may not be a term that catches on and spreads spontaneously, and it surely requires a bit of mental adjustment (say, free-thinking?) to break out of the traditional usage and focus on a different and new sense of meaning. But, the word is quite fresh and free-feeling, too, because that adjective meaning evokes lots of good stuff (our thesaurus includes such upbeat terms as vivid, intense, clear, luminous, shining, dazzling). It trips off the tongue, too, at least in English-speaking places. It has a good shot at being a meme that could ultimately pervade society.

The gist of our proposal to the community of reason is this: We need a name that: includes anyone who wants to accept it; has good connotations; has no bad connotations; makes no demands; is simple (effortlessly pronounced); evocative (suggestive of good stuff); easily understood; something to be proud of; easily explained to others; well-suited to use in mottoes and slogans; and is as warm and fuzzy as “gay.” To us, Bright fits! Any supernaturalism-free person can use it. The label handily captures one’s generic worldview.

We see a lot that is right about Bright. Of course not everyone likes the term. The most problematic aspect is the carryover from one of the adjectival connotations. Bright does mean, among numerous other things, “intelligent,” and hence selection of that word to be applied to a person is, to some, “self-congratulatory.”

Saying or implying or even thinking, "I am a Bright because I am bright" ignores that high levels of intellect and aptitude are not qualifications for having a naturalistic worldview. Brights can vary across a wide range of intellect because worldviews are shaped as much by inclinations and experiences as by brainpower. The noun is a new meaning altogether.

Until the word’s new meaning is delineated, persons with good judgment will surely not use the term in statements that can even be remotely construed as meaning, “Brights are bright.” Rather, Brights must model a positive way of “living and breathing” the new meaning (worldview meaning), using the word correctly as a noun. Exercising discretion and courtesy can garner admiration and understanding, whereas bringing adjectival contrasts to bear, even jokingly, is not helpful when the real contrast is one of worldviews—naturalistic, which is free of supernatural, with worldviews that encompass supernatural elements).

A Definition to Coalesce a Broad Constituency

Looking to some day bringing together both the organized and the unorganized nonreligious, we had to think carefully about how to define the word we wanted to accomplish the unifying task. We focused on what we see as the critical attribute that separates the existing community of reason from the “faith community”—our naturalistic worldview. “A Bright,” we said, “is a person whose worldview is free of supernatural and mystical elements.” We went on to describe Brights as persons whose ethics and actions are based on that naturalistic worldview—no mystic forces, deities, or other supernatural entities.

Over time, we believe, society can easily discriminate bright (person with naturalistic worldview) correctly, just as it currently correctly discriminates all the many forms of the word right in its adjectival, noun, adverbial, interjectional, and verb forms (legal, positional, politics, agreement, etc.).  But first, of course, those “already with us” must themselves learn to discriminate!

If we have a meme, we Brights can be hopeful that, through this project there eventually forms—out of the sundry folks now describing themselves by so many different labels—a unified constituency of (as George W. Bush says it) “the willing”—those who recognize that many of the present labels are just too unfamiliar or dysfunctional to serve socially and politically. The one term best known in society, atheist, is (as Wendy Kaminer has told us) so socially frowned upon (even conversationally!) as to be out-and-out taboo at any “civic table” or public forum. That situation is unlikely to improve.

Refreshingly, with a new, inclusive and affirmative label for ourselves, we can put forth what we stand for, rather than continuously wrestle with disapprobation. Many of us will find the opportunities to be quite a welcome change! Some, so accustomed to argument and disapproval, may have difficulty adjusting approaches. Brights, though, through constructive demeanor and conduct, can aid “curious others” in viewing the umbrella word positively.

Over recent decades we learned from the “gay experience” of homosexuals that society can learn to give a new connotation to an old term. We learned from the Latino and African-American and disabled populations’ experiences, too, that people who stand together can make politicians call them what they want to be called. The key is having determination and critical mass.  There is a movement to form an Internet constituency of Brights at www.the-brights.net.

Sad to say, we seem to have no place to go but up in terms of participation within our society in defense of a naturalistic worldview (which, by the way, could use some serious defending nowadays). What we at the Internet constituency need is numbers. What society needs is its Brights.

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