Two "Brights" Side by Side:

an open letter by Good to Dennett, and Dennett's rejoinder

With permission of the authors

Dear Dr. Dennett:

Thank you for your op-ed piece in The New York Times. I am delighted to discover that atheists and agnostics have organized and chosen a name ("brights"). We need you. By "we" I refer to all of us who call ourselves people of faith even though we are chagrined by the popularity of a form of religion that is divisive, dogmatic, and anti-intellectual. We know that society is not well served when people like them monopolize the public forum. So, to your major idea--that society should respect non-believers and make room for you in public debates--I say "amen" (you will have to forgive my language).

Nonetheless, some particulars in your essay I found troublesome. I hope I do not add to your sense of isolation when I raise a few points. My first concern has to do with that difficult word, "god."

I think of myself as religious, but, according to you, I may, in addition, call myself a "bright". Brights, as you describe them, do not believe in "ghosts, elves or the Easter Bunny--or God." There could exist no question that I am with you in three out of four of those. Perhaps in the matter of god, also, depending, of course, on what you mean by "god." You never define that important term. But as I read your essay I feel you must be talking about that Great Policeman in the Sky who is checking to see who is behaving well enough to deserve eternal life. Or maybe you have in mind what a former parishioner of mine refers to as the "Cosmic Bell-hop," whose primary reason for being is to run errands for me. If this is the meaning of "god," then I am a bright. One hundred percent. Four out of four.

You indicate that you suspect that some of the nation's clergy are closet brights. That is a bright conclusion. Let me introduce myself. I am a clergyman who may qualify as a bright, but not as a closet bright. You see, I have never tried to hide the fact that I do not believe in the kind of god I just described. I have so many doubts about dogmatic belief systems that I often say to my friends that I am an agnostic on alternate days of the week. I shared all that with my congregations. They seemed delighted.

But let's get back to you. You, wisely, have rejected the popular version of the divine. However, I do not know how you react to Paul Tillich's concept of a deity who is not a separate being, but is The Ground of All Being. Or to Alfred North Whitehead's process theology, which focuses on a God who is enmeshed in the fabric of an interconnected reality and who evolves as the universe evolves. And there is Charles Hartshorne's "panentheism" (not to be confused with "pantheism"), the idea that God both permeates and transcends all reality. You probably dismiss those ideas also. But surely you cannot dismiss these profound concepts with the flippant ease that is evidenced in your essay.

The point is that theological thought is in ferment today. Many religious folk defer to no one in having what you refer to as "an inquisitive world view." We would enjoy having you join us in a spiritual adventure--an exploration of Ultimate Mystery. No advance commitments are required.

I take special umbrage at your implication that brights have a superior ethic, that you are "the moral back bone of America," because you "don't trust God to save humanity from its follies." I do not mean to be unkind, but those comments make me wonder what planet you have lived on during the past several decades. Even the religious right--who make the afterlife a central focus of their teachings--are not waiting for the divine to make things right here on earth. They are in there slugging, a fact that I admire even when I disagree with their every stand.

Those of us who see religion as a this-world, liberating force have also been active. In late winter a group of us who saw the invasion of Iraq as a horrible moral error stood with our lighted candles in public places around the city of Roanoke (VA) in hope that others who shared our concern would know they were not alone. We were a small group: Quakers, Church of the Brethren, Unitarian/Universalists, a scattering of Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Catholics. No atheists chose to join us. Surely you have heard of the oppressive regimes overthrown during our lifetime under non-violent, religious leadership: Bishop Sin in the Phillipines, Bishop Tutu in South Africa, the Pope in eastern Europe. I am confident you know of the religious motivation of Mohandas Ghandi. And where were those who are the "moral backbone of America" when Martin Luther King, Jr. was fighting off attack dogs and looking into water cannon? The graves of civil rights martyrs are filled with those who identified themselves in religious terms.

None of this is to imply that you have an inferior ethic. The atheists and agnostics I have known have possessed a consistent, deep moral sensibility. I am confident I speak for religious activists everywhere when I invite you to join us in the public arena, and especially in those public settings where taking a moral stand involves risks to life and limb. We weary of taking these stands alone.

There is one other nit I want to pick. For God's sake (there goes the language problem again), choose another name. Yes, you told your readers not to confuse the adjective with the noun, that calling yourselves "brights" was not a proud boast. But my mind does not make such distinctions easily. As long as I have spoken English, "bright" has meant--well, "bright." The opposite of "bright" is not "religious." The opposite of "bright" is "dull." Which means that a number of people who have shared my lifetime, Reinhold Niebuhr, John Updike, Jimmy Carter, Eleanor Rooselvelt, Mother Therea, Martin Luther King, Jr. to name a few, must be placed on the dull side of the ledger. Which doesn't compute. Nonetheless, this is the arrogant message that you communicate through your name. I truly want you to succeed; I say this for your benefit. Your arguments against "self-righteously preening" politicians loses much of its punch when you call yourselves the "brights" and when you claim a superior status as the moral backbone of the nation.

My last request is a personal one. After you have changed your name and taken some of the egotistic air out of your public pronouncements, send me a membership form. Let me know the entrance fee for someone who wants to belong on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

Jack Good, Pastor (Retired)
The United Church of Christ

Dennett's Rejoinder

Dear Dr. Good,

Thanks for your thoughtful response to my op/ed piece in the New York Times. You are apparently a bright, whether you like the term or not. Many don’t, and they share your reasons. (There is no entrance fee, of course, and I suspect that on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and weekends your convictions would still qualify you as a bright, since we brights harbor doubts all the time, and are constantly reconsidering our convictions. Welcome to the club.) The main thing, as you yourself make clear, is that you are a naturalist. You and I do not believe in ghosts or angels, or in an anthropomorphic God–your aptly named “Cosmic Bell-hop.” In short, you and I don’t believe in miracles in the literal sense–suspensions of physical law–not the everyday sense of washday miracles and miraculous comebacks in football games, which are quite common occurrences, of course.

You wonder what I make of the refinements of the concept of God by the theologians you cite: Tillich’s Ground of All Being or Whitehead’s process theology, for instance. When I studied these authors and others like them many years ago, I came to the conclusion that they were both ingenious and sincere, brilliantly trying to salvage as much as possible from the wreckage of the old ideas, rather like the desperate propounders of Ptolemaic epicycles in response to Copernicus and Kepler, but unlike those theorists playing intellectual tennis without a net, making up the rules as they went along. I didn’t think they served any useful purpose aside from providing mental exercise for the small cadre of academics who like that sort of thing. (I am not really into atonal music either, but I’m glad it exists and may those who love it flourish.)

More recently, however, in the wake of 9/11, I reflected that it was really a pity that–so far as I have been able to discover–Islam hasn’t had a similar tradition of theologians negotiating a graceful retreat, providing safe and respectable resting places for those who need a presentable alternative to the literal creeds they were taught as children. Theology to the rescue? Maybe, but I also have my doubts about the effectiveness of such sophisticated theorizing. A few pages of Tillich or Hartshorne and I find my eyes glazing over. If even a professional philosopher like me tends to grow impatient with the mountain of subtleties one has to climb to convince oneself that one has understood these theologies–let alone been persuaded by them–I doubt if they are anything more than a sort of reassuring elevator-music-made-of-words to those religious folk who don’t actually despise them as high-falutin’ “intellectual” attempts to obfuscate the Revealed Truth of whatever text they hold holy.

My considered view, then, of liberal theologians and their efforts to redefine God in ways that make God compatible with naturalism parallels my view of the late Stephen Jay Gould’s similar effort, coming from the other side, to blur the hard edges of science, to downplay the conflict between science and religion. It was a nice try, and well-meant, but it couldn’t work. Gould’s persistent misrepresentations of evolutionary biology were motivated, I believe, by a sincere desire for peace between science and religion, and he went a long way to confirming my view in one of his last books, Rock of Ages–a book that failed to persuade either scientists or religious folk. But perhaps what can’t work in science, with its ceaseless and aggressive demand for verification and its intolerance of misrepresentation, might work in religion. The consensual acceptance–indeed celebration–of the convenient veils of mystery may permit religion to paper over the cracks until they are forgotten–or just cease to be of interest to the next generation. History does not invite optimism on this score, but I don’t rule it out. Yet.

I take your point about religious folk having been a powerful moral force, and I honor all your examples, but you go overboard. Where were the atheists when Martin Luther King confronted the attack dogs? Marching beside him, in many cases. The graves of civil rights martyrs include many an atheist, I am sure, but even more surely, those who put them in their graves were self-proclaimed Christian Soldiers. (Almost all, wouldn’t you agree? Or were there atheist chapters of the Ku Klux Klan that have gone unreported?)

Many brights are observant members of churches precisely because they appreciate the impressive power of religious organizations to generate teamwork for moral causes. (As one correspondent of mine observed recently, trying to organize atheists would be like trying to herd cats.) When there’s a great evil confronting a people, joining forces with the most vigorous religious group in the neighborhood can often appear to be the most effective plan, but it is a dangerous policy. Two clear examples: it took the intense loyalty and dedication of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s followers to overthrow the Shah of Iran, and it took the self-discipline of the Taliban to confront the warlords in Afghanistan. As the Sorcerer’s Apprentice learned, you better make sure you know how to turn off the troops before you turn them on. Until someone figures out how to do this, I will continue to welcome the moral phalanxes of religious folk when they come down on the side I believe to be right, but I will also continue to thank heavens (if I may put it that way) for the brights whose entirely secular investigations of the issues help me to figure out where goodness lies on each issue. Religious thinkers and actors do not hold a pre-eminent position when it comes to deciding what we as a nation should do: they may be the moral arms and legs of the nation, but the backbone is still secular, thank goodness.

Finally, a point about the word “bright”. It was not my choice, and I shared your misgivings at first, but the term is growing on me. I, like E. O. Wilson, am a wholehearted believer in the Enlightenment, a movement that had its excesses, but gave birth to many great things, including, pre-eminently, American democracy. I prefer bright to enlightened, which smacks of revelation, a phenomenon we brights are more than a little skeptical about. The opposite of gay isn’t glum; it’s straight–a nice enough epithet, unlike, say, crooked. The opposite of bright isn’t dull (or cloudy); it hasn’t been coined yet, and could be, if you like, great or splendid. Let those who are not brights hijack the word of their choice and see if it will play. I’m glad we have a positive and provocative name to call ourselves. It’s a word that even churchgoers like yourself might take to. I look forward to press conferences outlining the views of Bright Catholics for Birth Control, or the Alliance of Bright Muslims and Jews for peace in Palestine.

Dr. Daniel Dennett
Tufts University

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