Not a Very Bright Idea

When Tony Blair first became leader of the Labour Party in 1994, the Sun
newspaper, a British tabloid, took to calling him ‘Bambi’, presumably in the
hope that the nickname would become established in the public consciousness.
It did not, of course, for it lacked any kind of resonance with what people
could believe about Blair. He wasn’t a child, his leadership was anything but
childlike, and he lacked the requisite number of legs to be a baby deer. Not
discouraged, the Sun was at it again in 2001, this time when Iain Duncan
Smith became leader of the Conservative Party. In what was probably a desperate
attempt to establish his man of the people credentials, it started to call him
‘Smithy’. A quite absurd conceit, given his double-barrelled name and former
career as an army officer. Needless to say, this nickname didn’t catch on either,
and now, almost universally in the UK media, Duncan Smith is known as IDS.

None of this is surprising. If your aim is to coin, ex nihilo, a name
or epithet which quickly gains widespread public acceptance, the chances of
success are not great. Even the media, with its ability to talk daily to massive
audiences, fails as often as it succeeds. Thus, for every ‘Slick Willy’, you’ll
find that there is a ‘Bambi’, for every ‘loony left’ a ‘Doris Karloff’.

This is a comforting thought for a secularist at the present time. For a rather
unfortunate meme has lately infected the minds of some leading exponents of
a naturalistic worldview. It is a meme which says that it would be a good idea
if people without belief in things supernatural started to call themselves ‘brights’.

The meme started with two people from Sacramento, California. Though atheists,
Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell did not want to be referred to as being ‘godless’,
so they came up with the word ‘bright’ to better describe their naturalistic
worldview. Their hope is that other nonbelievers will also use the word, and
that it will become an umbrella term for the whole range of naturalistic philosophies
(i.e., atheist, agnostic, humanist, etc.). They have setup a website, The Brights
Net (, to this end, and have attracted a number of high
profile advocates, including Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, both of whom
have written articles supporting the idea.

It is easy enough to understand the efficacy of this meme. The naturalistic
philosophies of the non-religious do not play the same kind of high profile
role in political and civic life as do the supernaturalist ideas of their religious
counterparts. This is the case particularly in the United States, but also in
the United Kingdom, where, for example, assorted bishops get to sit on various
ethics committees simply because they are bishops. Given this situation,
any intervention which promises to raise the profile of naturalistic thinking
is bound to be attractive at first sight. The trouble is that it doesn’t take
too many more sights of the brights idea to realise that it is badly flawed.

First, ‘bright’ is just the wrong word. How it was chosen in the first place
isn’t quite clear. It seems to have had something to do with the fact that it
is a ‘positive’ and ‘memorable’ word; and also that it is sufficiently puzzling
or enigmatic when used as a noun – ‘I am a bright’ –that it invites the
response, ‘What’s a bright?’, thereby allowing a person to talk about their
naturalistic worldview. But there are major problems with the word.

The first is that its enigmatic quality is indicative of a fundamental arbitrariness
in its relationship to the phenomenon that it names. It’s the let’s call Tony
Blair ‘Bambi’ problem. Dawkins imagines that a bright might have a conversation
which goes like this:

‘"What on earth is a bright"? And then you’re away. "A bright
is a person whose world view is free of supernatural and mystical elements…."

"You mean a bright is an atheist?"

"Well, some brights are happy to call themselves atheists. Some brights
call themselves agnostics. Some call themselves humanists, some freethinkers.
But all brights have a world view that is free of supernaturalism and mysticism."’

(Richard Dawkins, ‘The future looks bright’, The Guardian, June
21st 2003)

All very nice, except that the conversation is far more likely to go something
like this:

‘What on earth is a bright?’

‘A bright is a person whose world view is free of supernatural and mystical

‘Right. So why the word "bright" then?’

‘Err. Well it’s a positive word. And memorable.’

‘So is the word "truffle", but you wouldn’t call yourself a truffle.
So why "bright"?’

‘Well, it’s what this couple from Sacramento came up with… and it is
a very cheerful word!’

The arbitrariness of the choice of the word ‘bright’, though undermining its
potential as a meme, would not matter so much were it not for the fact that
one of the established uses of the word is as an adjective meaning ‘clever’
or ‘intelligent’. The problem here is that in the absence of an obvious reason
to explain how it is that the word ‘bright’ designates a person who espouses
a naturalist worldview, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that what is being
suggested is that it is more intelligent to embrace naturalism than it is to
embrace supernaturalism.

It must be said that the supporters of the brights idea are quite clear that
the word should not be taken to be an adjective in this way. However,
this does not make the problem go away. It should be obvious why it does not.
For starters, there is the trivial point that you cannot strip a word of its
associations simply by denying that you intend them. [1] Nor can you do so by
using the word in a slightly strange way (i.e., as a noun). If someone announces
that they’re a bright, then likely it will occur to their audience that what
they actually mean is that they are bright. The fact that they will also
be unable to explain why the word ‘bright’ is appropriate as a label for someone
with a naturalistic worldview will do nothing to allay this suspicion.

There is also a slightly more complex point to be made here. To be an atheist
in the United States – and also in some ways in the United Kingdom – is to set
oneself against the dominant culture. There is, therefore, a tendency to associate
atheism with a certain kind of intellectual independence. This is reflected
in the names of the groups with which many atheists associate themselves (e.g.,
freethinkers; skeptics; etc). And it also underpins the anti-intellectual sentiment
of much of the religious sermonising characteristic of Christian fundamentalism.
The problem with the word ‘bright’ is that it is too easily seen as confirming
this link between atheism and intellectuality. Or to put this more precisely,
if people with no belief in god begin to self-identify as brights, they run
the risk of apparently confirming what many religious people already suspect
about them, that they consider themselves to be better or more intelligent than
people who believe in a god.

Does this matter? Yes it does, if one is interested in convincing people of
the merits of a naturalistic worldview. To start with, there is the obvious
point that people are more likely to be receptive to new ideas if they feel
that they are being treated with respect. But perhaps more worryingly, a movement
which self-identifies as a movement of brights makes itself a hostage to rhetorical
fortune. It is extremely easy – and, it must be said, very tempting – to parody
the whole idea of a brights movement. And, of course, this is exactly what the
enemies of a naturalistic worldview will do should the idea take off. The brights
movement will find itself transmogrified into a ‘We’re smarter than you’ movement.
And, at that point, protesting that the word was chosen simply because it is
‘warm’ and ‘cheerful’ will just result in more parody and more laughter.

‘Bright’, then, is the wrong choice of word to designate a person with a naturalistic
worldview and as an umbrella term for a movement. But substituting a different
word won’t make the brights idea a good one because it is muddle-headed for
other reasons. Perhaps the most interesting of these has to do with what appears
to be an unspoken assumption about people with a naturalistic worldview.

The assumption seems to be that the rejection of supernaturalism is enough
to qualify someone as a person without religion. This claim is only unproblematic
if one defines religion as involving supernatural beliefs. However, there is
at least an argument that the sphere of the religious can be extended to include
aspects of the secular world. It is an argument inspired by the French sociologist
Emile Durkheim. He claimed that the realm of the sacred is distinguished by
the separateness of its objects from those of the world of the profane, and
by the system of interdictions which prevents them from being denied. [2] If
one accepts this conception, then there are secular phenomena which qualify
as sacred. So Durkheim talks of ‘common beliefs of every sort connected to objects
that are secular in appearance, such as the flag, one’s country, some forms
of political organisation, certain heroes or historical events’, which are ‘indistinguishable
from beliefs that are properly religious’; and he notes that ‘Public opinion
does not willingly allow one to contest the moral superiority of democracy,
the reality of progress, [or] the idea of equality, just as the Christian does
not allow his fundamental dogmas to be questioned.’

It is easy to understand what Durkheim is getting at. It is only necessary
to attend a meeting organised by a group like the Revolutionary Communist
Party of Britain
to become very quickly aware that people can hold secular
beliefs to be every bit as inviolable as religious beliefs often are for the
religious. Of course, this point is already well understood. For example, in
a review of Steven Rose et al’s Not in Our Genes, Richard Dawkins, commenting
on their arguments against ‘genetic determinism’, has this to say: ‘The myth
of the “inevitability” of genetic effects has nothing whatever to do with sociobiology,
and has everything to do with Rose et al’s paranoiac and demonological theology
of science. [my italics]’ (Richard Dawkins, New Scientist 24 January

What this means for the brights idea is that the criterion of a naturalistic
worldview is no guarantee that people will be free of the kind of thinking which
is quite reasonably described as ‘religious’. Or to put this another way, it
is no guarantee that people will not be committed to beliefs, or sets of beliefs,
which are beyond rational scrutiny in the same way as are many of the beliefs
which are associated with theism. Possibly the supporters of the brights movement
will not deny this, but rather claim that it does not matter too much, that
their expectation has never been that they will create a movement of absolutely
rigorous thinkers, each one holding up their beliefs to the light of reason.
Fair enough. Except for two further points.

First, there is just a suggestion in some of the writings of the supporters
of the brights idea that they see themselves as the true inheritors of the Enlightenment
tradition. Well, it just isn’t this clear-cut. First off, the belief in a deity,
in and of itself, does not rule out an attitude towards this world which
is entirely consistent with the Enlightenment emphasis on reason and the progress
of human knowledge. But perhaps more significantly, many people who qualify
as brights would have a decidedly ambivalent attitude towards the products of
the Enlightenment. Just consider, for example, that many Marxists would agree
with Rose et al that ‘science is the ultimate legitimator of bourgeois ideology.’
(Not in Our Genes). And that from amongst the whole caboodle of postmodern
thinkers, at least some will be prepared to commit to agnosticism, and will
no doubt claim something like ‘that progress in social thought is not possible
without a thorough critique of the Enlightenment, whether for its justification
of the domination of nature, or its authoritative support for belief systems
like scientific racism or sexism, or for the monocultural legacy of its assumptions
about rationality.’ (Andrew Ross, The Sokal Hoax).

Which thoughts lead on to the second point about the kind of movement the brights
idea is likely to foster. It is certainly going to contain some odd bedfellows.
Scientific atheists and Marxist atheists will be united in thinking that there
is definitely no god, but they’ll fight like cats and dogs over the fate
of the bourgeoisie. The agnostics will irritate both groups by sitting on the
fence, whilst freethinkers drive themselves crazy trying to find a viewpoint
unique to themselves. The skeptics will watch the whole thing from afar with
slightly cynical smiles, and the postmodernists will talk past themselves, as
per usual. As for the rest of the world? They won’t see past the name. And laughter
and parody will be the result. Therefore, one can only hope that the ‘bright’
meme fails on its evolutionary journey.


[1] The observant reader will notice that there is an echo here of the criticism
that some people have made of the language of Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene.
For the record, I think the criticism is misplaced in the case of The Selfish

[2] There’s obviously a lot more to Durkheim’s argument than this mere bald
assertion. See his The Elementary Forms of Religious Life; and also,
for a summary of the argument I’m making here, J. C. Alexander’s The Antinomies
of Classical Thought: Marx and Durkheim
(Routledge, 1982), pp. 242 -250.

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