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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 notoriously
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.
“Ubeliever”? 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 annoying 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 not 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 awkward, or even aesthetically unpleasant, but it
means that the problem of sex discrimination has 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
labels 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