Why Bother with the Brights?

One atheist activist is drawn to the idea of a larger and united constituency of reason devoted to working with other citizens to illuminate the naturalistic worldview and elevate its acceptance in society.

By Marvin Long, Jr.

Marvin Long is an atheist in Austin, Texas, who first learned of the Brights movement in 2003 when essays praising the Brights appeared almost in unison in the Guardian and the New York Times, written by Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, respectively. He is an active member of the Brights movement and urges you to go buy a copy of the 2008 Brights Calendar right away.

I'm a member of two capital-A Atheist organizations: American Atheists and Atheist Community of Austin. If you need loud voices, or if you need to fight court cases and legislation, then these are your go-to guys. I'm also a big admirer of the Center for Inquiry, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, Secular Coalition for America, and the Skeptics Society. But none of these groups has yet found a way to create and coordinate a broadly appealing political constituency that can be defined in its own positive terms to mainstream Americans.

How will we know when this has happened? In my opinion it will be when political analysts realize they must count and cater to a demographic that can easily be described by one name which identifies its members as being in favor of a naturalistic worldview, as rejecting supernaturalism in life and in state policy, and as recognizing an ethics that owes nothing to mysticism or revelation.

And what will this demographic group be called? Why not the Brights?

Since coming out as an atheist, I've been exhilarated to discover a diverse community of freethinkers, skeptics, humanists, agnostics, and others who generally share my interests and concerns. At the same time, however, I've been disappointed to find that our modes of communication with each other, and with the larger community, seem to be stuck in some ruts.

For instance, if you read up on the history of dissent from majority religion (I recommend Doubt: A History, by Jennifer Michael Hecht), you'll discover that most of the philosophical and political arguments about the precise meaning of terms like "atheist" and "naturalist" and "supernatural" and "god" are a continuance of arguments that have been going on for 2500 years or more. These same arguments erupt even today among capital-A atheists where you'd think everyone would be on the same page.

I've seen "strong" atheists accuse agnostics and "weak" atheists of being literally weak, and I've seen "weak" atheists accuse "strong" atheists of being traitors to the rationalist cause because it's illogical to suppose that one can know/prove a negative. I've seen atheists throw civility out the window when arguing with each other about how much to criticize religion and say things they wouldn't say to believers in an argument about god. As a community, we pour a lot of effort into proving to one another our credibility as rationalists, and I suspect a lot of that energy would be better spent on making sure we're visible as good citizens to the rest of society.

Moreover, our relationship with mainstream religious society is overwhelmingly based on confrontation. In part this is because, I think, many of us decided at some point to adopt a live and let live strategy that goes something like this: "I won't bother my neighbor with my atheism as long as he respects my First Amendment rights and doesn't bother me with his Jesus." As a result, our neighbors often don't know we exist until we find our rights under attack, and then they only get to know us in the context of confrontation. Under such circumstances, it's easy to make the derisory term "angry atheist" stick. After all, when we speak up in self-defense it's usually because something has made us justifiably angry.

Confrontation for the right reasons is good and necessary, of course, but I worry that the various organizations that compete with one another for the support and approval of the nonreligious are competing in the wrong way. Often our representatives and spokespeople are competing to see who can deliver the most damaging critique of faith, and to be sure our rhetoric on that front is now razor-sharp. But that's less than half the battle, and unfortunately a lot of our rhetoric seems to be tailor-made for generating and perpetuating a small fringe rather than a broad movement.

The greater challenge is to persuade our neighbors not simply to doubt religion but to accept and respect us and even to join us simply because the benefits of a naturalistic worldview and the company of other brights are intrinsically desirable.

Hence the experiment of the Bright meme—to try to find (or create) a term and a concept that can both name and form the basis of a popular movement of people with naturalistic worldviews but whom the more traditional atheist and skeptic organizations have failed thus far to attract.

The term has to be an umbrella term, which means it needs to latch on to the common factors that atheists, agnostics, humanists, secularists, skeptics, and rationalists will tend to agree upon without committing the person who adopts the term to also be called exactly one of those other pre-existing terms. Ideally, the term would be difficult to demonize because it just sounds nice, and it would be understood not as an opposition or an antithesis, but as a positive thing in its own right.

In the case of the Brights movement, our term is "bright" and our defining characteristic—the umbrella characterization that encompasses all who participate —is that of holding “a naturalistic worldview,” from which it follows that one doesn't believe in supernatural entities and that one roots one's understanding of morality in an understanding of nature and not in revelation.

In order that the term may function as an umbrella, the determination to accept the label "a bright" must be left to the individual, who can examine the definition and confirm that the characterization (person having a naturalistic worldview) is apropos in terms of what one's specific beliefs and moral tenets happen to be.

In order to keep the term umbrella-like, there is a specific rejection of the notion that it is synonymous with terms such as "atheist" or "humanist" or "skeptic" even though most Brights will be those things as well.

This freedom of self-definition is part of the meme. It's also one of the most problematic aspects of the meme, because a group of curious, contrary, rationalistic, skeptically-minded people is more or less bound to pick any deliberate ambiguity to death.

Nevertheless, I think it's a good move. The phrase "naturalistic worldview" is meant not to denote a specific set of conclusions about the world, but rather a framework of inquiry and explanation for dealing with the world.

Even more important than the name, however, is the structure. You see, the Brights' Net acts on the assumption that the Brights movement already exists in the form of a set of people who share a simple set of understandings and aims but has languished as a coordinated political constituency for lack of the right name and the right framing device or strategy. And although it offers a name and a meme to that constituency, it does not presume to govern or represent it. Rather, it provides a resource designed to help those leaders who, inspired by the idea, may emerge and want to run with it, trying new strategies each in his or her own way, and without an entrenched organizational hierarchy to tell them what to do.

The Brights movement is a flexible and open platform for grassroots innovation and self-organization. If we hope to ever play effectively on the political field, we must find new ways (please forgive me) to win the hearts and minds of the people, especially our own people. The Religious Right has demonstrated that with time and persistence even our most precious and fundamental rights can be overturned. To rescue our rights and our future we have to appeal not just to the law but to our fellow citizens over the long term. Even if you don't like the word "bright," you should join the Brights movement. The bigger it gets, the more it will force us all to raise our game when we raise our voices.

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