Not Such a Bright Idea

Some nonbelievers are calling themselves 'Brights.' But is what they imply about religious people valid?

BY: Steven Waldman

 

This originally appeared as a commentary on National Public Radio. Listen here.



A group of people with a "naturalistic worldview" are trying to improve their image. They want to leave behind their old names -- atheists and agnostics -- and are adopting a new one: The Brights. They are promoting this new term in op-ed pieces in major papers in the United States and Europe and, of course, on the Internet. Commentator Steven Waldman says that some of their goals are laudable, while others are questionable.



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 initiative.



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. Dennet 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 Smarty Pants. 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 Court room 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 - this is 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% of them believe in the survival of the soul after death
  • 60% believe in the virgin birth
  • and 64% believe in the resurrection of Christ.

    Yes, these percentages were even higher for people with less education, but those gaps were not nearly as interesting as the fact that the most highly educated people also share some of these views.

    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 view - perhaps they've looked at the universe and said something made the Big Bang happen or marveled at human development and concluded that "the development of this blob of cells into a conscious human being cannot be explained just through science."

    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 concrete 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.

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