A Bright Unto the World?

A drive to coin a new word for nonbelievers has implications for religious people and divides the atheist community.

BY: Rebecca Phillips

 

Atheists and other nonbelievers often lament their lack of unity and political clout. Now two atheists in Sacramento are aiming to solve this problem by coining a new term--and a new movement: the "Brights." According to their

website

, Brights have "a naturalistic worldview, free from supernatural and mystical forces."



The founders, who also developed the website

Teaching About Religion

, describe their goal as: "To gradually bring together under the name, the Brights, large numbers of the supernaturalism-free individuals and begin to form an identifiable and visible civic constituency."

Not all nonbelievers are happy with this new terminology, however. Posters on atheist newsgroups have debated what the term 'Bright' implies about those who do believe in the supernatural ("Atheists that would label themselves a 'Bright' absolutely says that believers are dim! That is absurd and arrogant," one poster wrote), as well as whether there needs to be a new term at all ("I frankly think we need to EDUCATE people about the MEANING of the word 'a-theist', rather than changing the word...," another suggested).

Although a small movement, since the Brights began promoting the word early this summer, it has received attention in some of the world's major newspapers. In June, Oxford University scientist and author Richard Dawkins lauded the Brights movement in the UK's Guardian for raising consciousness about atheism. Dawkins says that language can affect how people think about Bright, he writes, is the new gay. "You can say 'I am an atheist' but at best it sounds stuffy (like 'I am a homosexual') and at worst it inflames prejudice (like 'I am a homosexual')." The word Bright, he says, can change people's perceptions of atheism.

Many American readers were introduced to the emerging Brights phenomenon in July, when Daniel C. Dennett, a philosophy professor at Tufts University, wrote about the Brights in a New York Times op-ed. He called on Brights (or atheists and nonbelievers in general) to become more active politically. "We can be a powerful force in American political life if we simply identify ourselves," he writes. Dennett is now working on a book about American religion, to be putlished in 2005, inspired in part by reactions to this piece.

Beliefnet editor Steven Waldman joined the conversation about Brights this week in a National Public Radio commentary. "Our political culture has increasingly marginalized atheists, agnostics and secular humanists," Waldman said, but the assumption that people who hold firm religious beliefs are not "bright" is not valid.

The term remains a point of contention among nonbelievers. "We rationalists overwhelmingly loathe this silly--and, yes, smug--coinage," one listener explained in a letter to Beliefnet. "It's not that we rationalists think we're more intelligent than believers; we're patently not. We just tend to be a lot more intellectually honest."

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