NPR Commentary by Steven Waldman, September 4, 2003
Are atheists and agnostics smarter than everyone else? A group of them have managed to assert that idea, and disprove it, in one swift marketing gambit. I'm not sure what the image buffers were aiming for, but the name "The Brights" succinctly conveys the sense that this group thinks it's more intelligent than everyone else. The rest of us would be "The Dims," I suppose. Daniel C. Dennett wrote, in a recent New York Times op-ed, "We Brights don't believe in ghosts, or elves, or the Easter Bunny, or God."
Let's put aside the questionable intelligence of trying to improve your image by choosing a title that makes everyone hate you; they might as well have chosen "The Smugs" or "The Smartypants." Let's, instead, examine the substance of their platform.
One of their assertions is valid. Our political culture has increasingly marginalized atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists - whether it's ten commandments in the courtroom, or a president who invokes god continuously. Any rationalist would be perfectly justified in thinking society views them as second class citizens whose views are not worthy.
But what about their bolder assertion, or implication, that people who believe in god or the supernatural are just not as, well, bright. In fact, two surveys earlier this year - one from Harris, and one from Gallup - indicate that even supernatural religious beliefs are held not only by most Americans, but by the majority of well-educated Americans.
Listen to these numbers - 55% of people with post-graduate degrees (lawyers, doctors, dentists, and the like) believe in the Devil. 53% believe in Hell. 72% believe in miracles. Remember these are people with post-graduate educations. 78% if them believe in the survival of the soul after death. 60% believe in the virgin birth. And 64% believe in the resurrection of Christ.
You can't get a post-graduate degree without being taught rigorous examination of evidence - figuring out which symptoms indicate a particular disease, or what facts could justify a lawsuit. These people are among the most rational of our society, and yet they still believe non-rational things. Why?
Skeptics would say that the human need for something beyond the realities we can touch is so strong that even highly educated people end up manufacturing delusional belief systems. But there is another possibility - that some of these rationally oriented people have found actual proof for their beliefs. Maybe they've had a personal supernatural experience with prayer that makes them believe in God or an afterlife. Maybe they've found a compelling logic to their views. Perhaps they've looked at the universe and said, "something made the big bang happen." For some highly educated people, faith is not a matter of faith. Rather, they see around them evidence. Evidence that is, to be sure, hard to explain or prove to others, but is nonetheless quite compelling to them. Perhaps The Brights would dispute the evidence, or assert that they have never seen it themselves, and that's fine. But they certainly cannot argue that religion is just for dumb people.
The Brights’ Response to the NPR Commentary
Steven Waldman’s commentary on the Brights was audaciously slanted. He provided his personal definition for the Brights, failed to inform listeners of how the Brights identify themselves, and then used his straw man definition to vilify and slander the movement.
Waldman characterized the Brights as a movement conceived in arrogance by atheists and agnostics for image polishing. Wrong on three counts. A quick trip to the home page of the Brights would have revealed the truth.
Bright is a noun. A Bright is a person whose worldview is naturalistic, free of supernatural and mystical elements. The Brights movement is an international Internet constituency of individuals. The movement includes any individuals who say they fit the Brights’ definition -- atheists, agnostics, humanists, skeptics, rationalists, philosophers, Buddhists, cultural Jews and Catholics, two Nobel Laureates and even a Presbyterian minister.
The Bright principles clearly and explicitly state that that the noun Bright refers to worldview, and makes no claim to superior intelligence. Worldviews, after all, develop from numerous factors. Despite Mr. Waldman’s implication, there is no current antonym to the word (certainly not dim and dull), any more than there is an antonym for Brazilians.
Mr. Waldman was accurate on one point. Our political culture has increasingly marginalized Brights. Rationalists would be perfectly justified in thinking that society views them as second-class citizens. The purpose of the Brights movement is to gain recognition that persons who hold a naturalistic worldview can bring principled actions to bear on matters of civic importance, and to educate society toward the full and equitable civic participation of all such individuals. We await the day a Bright is elected to a national public office.
Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell
Co-Directors The Brights' Net