Rationally Speaking

A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
Department of Botany, University of Tennessee

N. 41, September 2003

Are you a bright?


It is time for me to come out of the closet... I am a bright. No, I didn’t say “I am bright,” that would be too blatant even for my notoriuously inflated ego. Rather, I am following the suggestion of Mynga Futrell and Paul Geisert to use “bright” as a noun, not an adjective. Let me explain.

Futrell and Geisert are long-time activists for what most people refer to as secular humanism, freethought, or atheism. They put a lot of effort in defense of the rights of what often are referred to as the “godless,” or the “unbelievers.” The problem is, look at that list of words I just laid out for you. Most of them have a negative connotation, or sound so threatening that they inspire a knee-jerk reaction from most people, including your neighbors.

“Unbeliever”? But we do believe in a lot of things, except they do not include a benevolent deity looking over our shoulders (and, it seems, particularly interested in what we do in our bedrooms). “Godless”? Would you refer to somebody who doesn’t believe in unicorns as “unicornless”? “Atheist”? That, in the classical and most benevolent meaning of the term, means a-theist, without a belief in a deity. But, again, how many people feel compelled (not to mention proud) of labeling themselves as “a-unicornists”?

You get the point. Futrell and Geisert wanted a word to label their beliefs that has a positive feeling, something that could make you proud to say “I am ...” in other people’s company, and -- even better -- that would make your company ask: “what’s that?” I have to admit that when I came across the bright movement (www.the-brights.net) I was a bit skeptical, and just a tiny bit annoyed at the possibility that the word bright would be used to imply that we are smarter than other people. Yet, reading some of the essays posted on the brights’ web site quickly changed my mind. After all, not all “gay” people are gay in the sense of being happy, easy-going fellows, right?

Indeed, part of the inspiration for the name “bright” did come from the consciously positive use of the term gay by homosexuals. The idea is that brights are in fact a bashed minority in this country and around the world, and the last such minority -- at least in Western democracies -- that is ok to bash! President Bush the First is on record as saying that he didn’t think brights (he didn’t use that term, obviously) are real American citizens, and perhaps should not be afforded the rights that go with that privilege. Bush the Second hasn’t been more friendly on that respect. Yet, not even the Bushes dare attack gays or African-Americans, or women (the latter, of course, are not exactly a minority...), at least not in public.

As Richard Dawkins put it in an article on the brights movement published in The Guardian (and I don’t often agree with Dawkins, so read this!), it is a matter of raising awareness of the problem. Gays did it effectively during the past decades, so did feminists. Most people are careful these days when using words that imply male chauvinism: we now tend to talk of chairperson, no chairman; we use “she” almost as frequently as “he” when referring to a hypothetical individual. This may be awkward, or even aesthetically unpleasant, but it means that the problem of sex discrimination has been raised to the level of general consciousness, as it should be.

Similarly with brights. A bright is defined simply as a person with a naturalistic worldview. That means a worldview that is free of supernatural and mystical elements, and this worldview extends to ethics and morality. Simple enough, no? Many more people than you think are in fact brights, even though several may not realize it, or may not wish to “come out” (as for gays and feminists). Brights don’t have a common political agenda except when it comes to the defense of themselves as a bashed minority. The same goes for gays and feminists, whose range of opinions on any other subject is as wide as the population at large. What brights want is to be as respected by the community, politicians, and authorities as much as anyone who freely lables herself as a Jew, a gay, a feminist, a Baptist, or a Catholic. Nothing more, but -- crucially -- nothing less.

According to a 2002 survey of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, about 27 million Americans are brights. That’s a staggering number, and they vote! In other Western countries our numbers are significantly higher, and I suspect there are many of us even in officially “Muslim” countries around the world. What on earth makes it right to deride our beliefs and ethical convictions? Why would anybody feel threatened by meeting or talking to a bright? There is no reason, and it’s time to tell the world about it. If you are a bright, go ahead, use the name and talk to people about it. Not in order to “convert” them, but to stimulate their awareness. If you are not a bright, be decent to us, in the same way in which -- one hopes -- you are decent to gays and African Americans even if you are not black and you have a heterosexual orientation. It simply is the decent thing to do.




© by Massimo Pigliucci, 2003