Friday, October 14, 2005

Modern secular rationalists of the world, unite!

(and be slightly more pushy than you were before, though still taking care not to offend anyone, of course)

From The Bright Stuff, by Daniel C. Dennett.

The time has come for us brights to come out of the closet. What is a bright? A bright is a person with a naturalist as opposed to a supernaturalist world view. We brights don't believe in ghosts or elves or the Easter Bunny — or God. We disagree about many things, and hold a variety of views about morality, politics and the meaning of life, but we share a disbelief in black magic — and life after death.

The term "bright" is a recent coinage by two brights in Sacramento, Calif., who thought our social group — which has a history stretching back to the Enlightenment, if not before — could stand an image-buffing and that a fresh name might help. Don't confuse the noun with the adjective: "I'm a bright" is not a boast but a proud avowal of an inquisitive world view.

You may well be a bright. If not, you certainly deal with brights daily. That's because we are all around you: we're doctors, nurses, police officers, schoolteachers, crossing guards and men and women serving in the military. We are your sons and daughters, your brothers and sisters. Our colleges and universities teem with brights. Among scientists, we are a commanding majority.

Wanting to preserve and transmit a great culture, we even teach Sunday school and Hebrew classes. Many of the nation's clergy members are closet brights, I suspect. We are, in fact, the moral backbone of the nation: brights take their civic duties seriously precisely because they don't trust God to save humanity from its follies.
A 2002 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life suggests that 27 million Americans are atheist or agnostic or have no religious preference. That figure may well be too low, since many nonbelievers are reluctant to admit that their religious
observance is more a civic or social duty than a religious one — more a matter of protective coloration than conviction. Most brights don't play the "aggressive atheist" role. We don't want to turn every conversation into a debate about religion, and we don't want to offend our friends and neighbors, and so we maintain a diplomatic silence.

But the price is political impotence. Politicians don't think they even have to pay us lip service, and leaders who wouldn't be caught dead making religious or ethnic slurs don't hesitate to disparage the "godless" among us.

From the White House down, bright-bashing is seen as a low-risk vote-getter. And, of course, the assault isn't only rhetorical: the Bush administration has advocated changes in government rules and policies to increase the role of religious organizations in daily life, a serious subversion of the Constitution. It is time to halt this erosion and to take a stand: the United States is not a religious state, it is a secular state that tolerates all religions and — yes — all manner of
nonreligious ethical beliefs as well.
I am neither gay nor African-American, but nobody can use a slur against blacks or homosexuals in my hearing and get away with it. Whatever your theology, you can firmly object when you hear family or friends sneer at atheists or agnostics or other godless folk.

And you can ask your political candidates these questions: Would you vote for an otherwise qualified candidate for public office who was a bright? Would you support a nominee for the Supreme Court who was a bright? Do you think brights should be allowed to be high school teachers? Or chiefs of police?

Let's get America's candidates thinking about how to respond to a swelling chorus of brights. With any luck, we'll soon hear some squirming politician trying to get off the hot seat with the feeble comment that "some of my best friends are brights."

Here’s a gift for the cynical theists on the Duck. This essay by Daniel Dennett is taken from

The ‘Brights’ are a movement – though a polite, weekend hobby sort of movement rather than a dynamic revolution, as far as I can tell – to promote a more positive view of secularism. Their number include such luminaries as Stephen Pinker (whose book The Language Instinct incidentally, is one of the most thought-provoking I’ve ever read – highly recommended); the inevitable Richard Dawkins, and, bizarrely, the TV magicians Penn and Teller.

Now, I can understand where these people are coming from in one respect.

Like the Brights, I do occasionally get weary of having to respect other people’s religious views, which frequently strike me as utterly insane, and of forcing myself to keep my mouth shut for fear of offending in dinner table discussions, while they can be as rude as they like to non-believers and their supposed lack of ‘soul’ or ‘deeper understanding of mystery’.

And also like the Brights, I don’t really like the term ‘atheist’. There are two reasons for this:

Firstly, I don’t believe in lots of things, but I don’t label myself by reference to that disbelief. I don’t call myself an “a-ghostist” or an “a-Santa Clausist”. Essentially, in day-to-day life, my lack of a theological conviction simply doesn’t impinge on my consciousness very much, so I don’t see why this absence, which I don’t miss in any way, should form part of my ‘identity’.

Secondly, and possibly more importantly for the Brights, are the negative connotations that pop into the heads of many people when they hear the word ‘atheist’. Do a word-association with ‘atheist’ and you might get things like “rebel”, “diabolical” “evil genius”, or “communist”. Some prefer the term “humanist” because the word associations are more touchy-feely. So I can see why these fellows might want to spread the name ‘bright’ as an alternative.

‘Bright’ is not a purely negative term in the way that “atheist” is. ‘Brights’ don’t believe in God or the supernatural, but they do believe in lots of other things. So they prefer to be characterised by what they do believe, rather than what they are sceptical about.

So I do have some sympathy for the idea.

But in another way, I find it ever so slightly cringeworthy.

Maybe there are so many ‘brights’ (including a lot of dim ones) in Britain that it’s not really an issue in the way it is in the States.

Maybe I instinctively distrust labels and movements, and find this one a little worthy and over-zealous. It has a slight tang of the earnest schoolboy setting up his own ‘Society for Clever People – No Girls Allowed.’

Or maybe I’m just not much of a joiner.


Blogger Peter Burnet said...

I think this is just great. Will they have picnics with three-legged races and lots of lemonade like we do?

Is there any group left in this world that can decide to form a group without making a big fuss about what an oppressed minority they are? Out of the closet indeed.

October 14, 2005 10:19 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

I find it cringeworthy also. The last thing we need is to sound like another whiny minority that "don't get no respect", to quote Rodney Dangerfield. You even hear majorities like Christians whining like minorities now.

Using a salf-congratulatory name like "bright" is just asking for abuse. I'm afraid I'd get an atomic wedgie from some redneck brute. And this phrase is just a little too sanctimonious for me: "We are, in fact, the moral backbone of the nation".

Besides, it isn't even an issue in everyday life. For all I know all my coworkers are athiests, or Mormons, for that matter, going by the fact that almost noone I know sees much of a need to wear their faith or philosophy on their sleeve.

October 14, 2005 12:14 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

A bright is a person with a naturalist as opposed to a supernaturalist world view. We brights don't believe in ghosts [...] or God.

Forgive my bluntness, but that's just stupid.

In the first (and obvious) place, if ghosts and God do exist, they're PART of nature, and thus would be part of a naturalist worldview.
What is meant is a "materialist worldview", i.e., only what can be carnally sensed.

Secondly, that worldview must ignore BILLIONS of experiences that contradict it.
While nobody has scientifically proven that ghosts or God exists, many, MANY people have encountered or felt something inexplicable by current knowledge and procedures.
"Supernatural" does not mean "non-existent", just "unknown". It's why the "U" is part of the acronym UFO.

Lastly, "brights" are betting that we now know almost everything, and can sense almost everything, despite the fact that such a postion is 99.99% certain to be DEAD WRONG.

For example, who sensed or could measure radiation before we invented geiger counters ?
Could we detect gravity waves before the 20th century ?
What about X-ray machines, MRI's, CAT scans, electron microscopes, infrared imaging, radio telescopes ?
Were quarks part of the "naturalist" position in the 19th century ?

The position that humans are just about out of stuff to discover has been a popular one throughout history, and NEVER RIGHT.

I would bet my very life that the "bright" worldview is wrong, in a broad sense, although I would not do so for any one proposition - except that of the existence of God, where we DO bet our lives.
(See Pascal's Wager, or Google it for many discussions).

Someday, humans will be able to peer into many corners of the universe yet unimagined, and all of them will be "supernatural", but none of what we'll find will have to be taken on faith alone.

A 2002 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life suggests that 27 million Americans are atheist or agnostic or have no religious preference.

Which is not at all the same as saying that 27 million Americans have a strictly materialistic worldview.
In fact, agnostics BY DEFINITION believe in the supernatural.
Also, people who are "spiritual", but not "religious", are by definition not "brights" - which is almost all Americans, including the crack-pot crystal wielding Age of Aquarius types.

Lastly, I agree with everyone else posting before me that "bright" is a really bad choice from a PR prospective.

October 14, 2005 3:00 PM  
Blogger David said...

I just figured it meant they'll burn well.

October 14, 2005 8:49 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Secondly, that worldview must ignore BILLIONS of experiences that contradict it.

Not ignore, Michael, but explain. I think that a materialist worldview can explain them. For instance, it has been proven that starvation and sensory deprivation can cause hallucinations. So what do many mystics do to communicate with the other side? They fast. Indians go on "vision quests". Jesus went into the desert for 40 days & nights.

The brain is not a perfect reality "receiver", the incoming data stream is looped through a maze of filters and interpreters before it is presented to the "user", or the "ghost in the machine". The whole mechanism is prone to false signals. It even manufactures false memories out of whole cloth under the right circumstances.

I don't think that a materialist worldview assumes that we know everything that there is to know right now. It just assumes that whatever new phenomena are discovered can be explained by a scientific framework, or that the existing framework can be extended to explain it.

I'd be happy to argue Pascal's Wager with you, are you proposing that the Wager is a valid philosophical position?

BTW, what is your religious worldview? I had assumed you were a "bright", maybe just because you are bright.

October 15, 2005 6:34 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...


Yes, the brain is prone to misperception, but do you believe that it's rational to claim that ALL experiences that cannot be rationally explained are hallucinations ?

That strikes me as a low-probability theorem.

Is it possible that our senses extend beyond the carnal ?

For instance, there are many, many stories of people suddenly and inexplicably knowing that their children or other loved ones have been injured or killed.
Many of those stories are undoubtably a strengthened conviction, after the fact, that a vague worry was a strong foreknowledge, but ALL of them ?

What about "couples' telepathy", or communication between twins, or long-time teammates ?
Most of that is simple familiarity, but ALL of it ?

The phenomenon of gaining brilliant insight while dreaming is well documented, and that's a sensory-deprived environment.
While, like dreams, most stress-induced hallucinations are indeed essentially random, couldn't it be possible that through meditation or induced stress, our brains enter an altered state where, undistracted by the constant bombardment of sensory information, we can perceive something real, but not terrestrial ?

Haven't you ever "felt" the energy someplace, whether in a church or in a forest, with a group or alone, or maybe while interacting with your loved ones felt a "rightness" that went beyond being healthy, happy, and prosperous ?

Whether you want to call it God or "The Force", living being interact in non-physical ways.

The problem is that we don't yet have the means by which to discern and measure the energy flows, so it's still a matter of faith.

For someone who's never had a non-physical, metanatural experience, it's like describing color to the blind.

I don't think that a materialist worldview assumes that we know everything that there is to know right now. It just assumes that whatever new phenomena are discovered can be explained by a scientific framework, or that the existing framework can be extended to explain it.

Yeah, that's exactly my point.

"Brights" point to some widely felt and believed phenomena, that can't yet be measured, and call them "supernatural", and false.

Because they cannot be scientifically explained, belief in them is based on faith.

However, at some point in the future, we WILL be able to detect and measure "supernatural" phenomena, and explain them rationally.

What will brights say then ?

"Oh yeah, uh, yes, NOW the supernatural, having changed not a whit, is the natural, because human perception has changed".

It's as if all of the brights are from Missouri.

Black holes existed before humans could detect them, or even theorize about their existence, but that doesn't mean that they were "supernatural", just that humans couldn't grasp them yet.

Similarly, one cannot deny today that ghosts exist, and then tomorrow, when their energies can be detected and explained, claim that one's philosophy covered that eventuality.

One has to admit or accept today that ghosts MIGHT exist, but that we cannot explain them, to claim philosophical continuity tomorrow, when ghosts may be a natural fact.

Brights cut off that possibility when they flatly reject any potential for the existence of natural phenomena that cannot yet be detected and measured by today's scientific instruments, i.e., the supernatural.

If human history is any indication, that position is going to look mighty silly in fifty years, analogous to 19th century predictions that the human body wouldn't be able to withstand the strain of travelling faster than 35 MPH, or various early 20th century military functionaries' assessments that the Wright brothers' contraption was a neat trick, but possessed "no military significance".

I'd be happy to argue Pascal's Wager with you, are you proposing that the Wager is a valid philosophical position?


However, that's not why I'm religious.
I'm religious because I've had some of the experiences that I describe above.

[W]hat is your religious worldview? I had assumed you were a "bright"...

Thanks for the compliment.

I'm a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

However, please don't take anything that I write as being indicative of LDS doctrine, unless I specifically say that it is.

My worldview isn't exactly mainstream LDS, although there is substantial overlap.

October 15, 2005 9:22 AM  
Blogger Brit said...


You seem to miss a distinction.

Brights ‘don’t believe’ in ghosts or God. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they positively believe that ghosts and God do not exist.

It just means they lack a positive believe that they do exist. They don’t see a reason, or enough evidence to believe in ghosts or God.

It might turn out that ghosts and God do exist. If so, fine. But it needs to ‘turn out’ before I commit to it. Until there’s an actual reason to believe that they do, I will withhold that belief.

October 17, 2005 2:24 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...


Except that "do" and "don't" are binary concepts - affirming one automatically excludes the other.

That's why the oft-used political "neutral" phrase is "can neither confirm nor deny", instead of "cannot deny".

If the "bright" movement wanted to be clear that they are withholding judgement until more evidence is presented, then they'd have to say exactly that.

Instead, Daniel Dennett offers this:

[W]e share a disbelief in black magic — and life after death.

"Disbelief" is a strong negation, not "a lack of belief".

That's why I think that the "brights" aren't very.
Your position is cautious. Their position, to be ultimately correct, requires that there NEVER be any proof of the "supernatural" - which is a MORE radical bet then the one that I make, that there WILL eventually be proof of the "supernatural".
As I attempted to point out in my previous posts, I believe that all of recorded human history supports my position, which is why their position is the most radical of our three views.

October 17, 2005 11:46 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Then maybe I’m not a Bright. Except that Dennett specifically mentions agnostics and Sunday School teachers as being closet Brights, so I expect he’d want to include me in the ranks, and if he could respond to you, I think he would clarify that point.

Probably he'd allow that there are shades of Bright, from blazing sun at one end of the spectrum (Dawkins), to feeble phosphorescent glow at the other.

As for disbelief versus lack of belief, there are certainly shades of brightness here.

‘God’ for example, is a very broad concept.

For my part, I actively disbelieve in some aspects of God, or in some Gods. I positively disbelieve in a God who created the Universe for the benefit of humans, or in a God who delivers us our morality, or who makes things happen in our best interests, or who can see our thoughts, or cares what happens to us. I think there are strong, overriding reasons to disbelieve all of these notions.

Also, although exactly how brain matter and consciousness interact is essentially a weird mystery to me, nonetheless I see strong reasons to believe that ‘we’ are basically our brains, so I positively disbelieve in the existence of a non-corporeal soul, and consequently in a life after death.

However, I accept that there are some mysteries that perhaps we will never solve: ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ If ‘God’ is defined as some sort of unknown originating force in the universe, then I neither believe nor disbelieve anything about Him.

October 18, 2005 1:48 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

What Brit said.

As for the term "Brights" and the organization: sheesh.

October 21, 2005 2:29 PM  

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