Oct. 5, 2003 -- What do you call someone who is not religious? Is there a need for a new name for such people? And should not politicians acknowledge them?
The widely respected philosopher Daniel Dennett and a number of others this past summer pushed for the adoption of a new term to signify someone who holds a naturalistic (as opposed to a religious) worldview. Dennett defended the need for such a term by noting that a 2002 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that approximately 25 million Americans are atheist, agnostics, or (the largest category) have no religious preference.
The statistic is not definitive, of course. Polls are a crude instrument for clarifying the varieties of human belief and disbelief. Moreover, since the polls rely on the self-reporting of sometimes unpopular opinions, the number of non-believers may be much higher.
In any case, the problematic new term that has been proposed for non-religious people is "Bright," and the coinage is due to Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell of Sacramento, Calif. They have started an Internet group, The Brights, intended to further the influence of "Brights."
On their Web site they state: "Currently the naturalistic worldview is insufficiently expressed within most cultures. The purpose of this movement is to form an umbrella Internet constituency of individuals having social and political recognition and power. There is a great diversity of persons who have a naturalistic worldview. Under this broad umbrella, as Brights, these people can gain social and political influence in a society infused with supernaturalism."
Religion and State
I don't think a degree in public relations is needed to expect that many people will construe the term as smug, ridiculous, and arrogant. Still, its defenders note that "Bright" should not be confused with "bright." Just as "gay" now has an additional new meaning, quite distinct from its old one, so will "Bright." It should go without saying, but won't, that there are in this country not only millions of Brights, but millions of religious people who are bright, just as there are very many of both who are not. I'll also needlessly reiterate that "ethical" and "moral" apply to most people regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof.
Aside from possible problems with the term "Bright," however, the attempt to recognize this large group of non-religious Americans is a most welcome development. One reason is that Brights exist, and it's always healthy to recognize facts. Another reason is that they have interests and vulnerabilities that some sort of organization might help further.
The reluctance of Brights to announce themselves may be one factor, for example, in the increasingly overt flirtation between church and state in this country. The most recent bit of evidence is a poll indicating that more than three-fourths of Americans believe that federal Judge Myron Thompson was wrong in ordering that the Ten Commandments monument be removed from the rotunda of the Alabama judicial building.
And from its many faith-based initiatives to its frequently inappropriate conflating of religious and secular matters, the Bush administration seems particularly unsympathetic to Brights.
Brights and Politics?
The issue, it should be stressed, is non-partisan. There is certainly no shortage of Bright Republicans. However, since we're now at the beginning of a presidential campaign, it's reasonable to ask not only President Bush, but also each of the ten contenders for the Democratic nomination to state their attitude toward Brights (designated by whatever term they choose).
We might also speculate about which of these candidates might be closet Brights? Which would evince anything like the free-thinking of Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln? Which would put forward a Bright Supreme Court nominee? Which would support self-avowed Brights in positions of authority over children?
Which of them would even include Brights in inclusive platitudes about Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims? Doing so might be good politics. Although unorganized and relatively invisible, Brights constitute a large group to whom politicians almost never appeal. Moreover, it would be interesting to see and hear the squirming responses of the candidates to the above questions.
Back to the term "Bright." Renowned biologist Richard Dawkins, who coined the word "meme" (it refers to any idea, habit, world, song lyric, fashion, etc. that passes from one person to another by imitation), is particularly interested in how contagious this particular meme will be. An advocate of the term "Bright," he wonders whether it will proliferate as quickly as backward baseball caps, exposed navels, and phrases like "D'uh" and "a fun time" or simply fade away? Will the Internet be a factor? Will the term appear cool or smack of silly trendiness?
Whether called free thinkers, unbelievers, skeptics, atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, conviction-lackers, or whatever, Brights have been around in large numbers since at least the Enlightenment (the Enbrightenment?). So even if this term for them fades, what won't disappear is their determination to quietly think for themselves and not be cowed by the overbearing religiosity of some.
And Bright-schmight, that's the important thing for everybody.
Professor of mathematics at Temple University and adjunct professor of journalism at Columbia University, John Allen Paulos is the author of several best-selling books, including Innumeracy, and the just released A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market. His Who’s Counting? column on ABCNEWS.com appears the first weekend of every month.