Putting a on 'Bright' Face
Regis NicollRegis Nicoll's weblog
- 2006 Aug 28
"Commonly news commentators and writers refer to the Brights as 'an atheists' movement' or even erroneously treat the word bright as a synonym for atheist."--The Brights’ Net
Miscast and misunderstood?
Once upon a time, a person who denied the existence of God, life after death, and all things supernatural could be confidently called an atheist. But no more, according to a group that calls itself the "Brights."
Three years ago Mynga Futrell and Paul Geisert founded the Brights--a network for people who embrace a worldview "free of supernatural and mystical elements." Brights should not be labeled atheists, say Futrell and Geisert--while there are atheists in the network, it is a diverse community which includes humanists, secularists, freethinkers, rationalists, atheists, agnostics, skeptics, as well as those affiliated with religious groups like Buddhism, Wicca and Unitarianism.
Of course the very term, "Bright," evokes an enlightened thinker--someone who has left behind all those Dark Age notions of a geocentric universe, ether, and the Devil. It also suggests that those who hold a different view, like theism, are something less than bright: Maybe, dull?
If you sense a linguistic sleight-of-hand going on here, you're brighter than Brights give you credit for. Despite their clever rhetoric, a belief system that rejects the supernatural is one that inescapably rejects the existence of God. So regardless of what affiliation a Bright claims, by definition, he is an atheist.
In case there's any confusion here, one of their bright-est stars, Daniel Dennett, admits: "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." (Emphasis added.)
So what's up with all the spin? Image.
A public relations problem
With the banning of school prayer in 1962, the seed of discontent was sown with a secular movement that began chipping away at the theistic foundation of the Union. By the 2004 Presidential campaign, discontent turned to mobilization for a constituency that had had its fill of the decades-long assault on traditional values.
While support for the Iraq war was a key factor, probably more important in galvanizing this electorate was the synergism of gay "marriage" initiatives, right-to-life issues, and escalating attacks on public faith (particularly, Christian) expressions. And because these issues often went hand-in-hand, they became associated with an agenda antithetical to religion.
On top of that you had outspoken atheists, like Richard Dawkins, vilifying believers and comparing religion to a viral epidemic. Needless to say, none of this played well to a citizenship that is predominately theistic. It didn't take long before thoughtful atheists realized they had a public relations problem.
In an effort to repackage themselves, some groups began softening their image. The secular humanists, for example, revised the Humanist Manifesto, replacing its anti-God statements with anti-supernaturalism statements. This was done, interestingly, the same year the Brights movement was founded.
Others realized that repackaging also required a new, less contentious label.
Re-label and repackage
Atheism or "a-theism," literally means, opposed to, or in contrast to, theism. It defines what one is against, rather than for. Some clever folk understood that if public perception were to change, a new moniker was needed--something upbeat and welcoming. So with a few keyboard strokes, atheists became "Brights." There's a smiley face quality to it.
Behind the friendly expression, the founders implanted positive ideals defining what Brights uphold. According to their website, Brights aim to: "Promote the civic understanding and acknowledgment of the naturalistic worldview, which is free of supernatural and mystical elements; Gain public recognition that persons who hold such a worldview can bring principled actions to bear on matters of civic importance, and educate society toward accepting the full and equitable civic participation of all such individuals."
It's hard to miss a feeling of disenfranchisement in those statements. Elsewhere on the site they decry the political and social repression of the naturalistic worldview. I think that would be news to students in public schools where naturalistic theories have enjoyed hegemony for nigh on three generations.
Brights also object to descriptors like, "faithless" and "godless," that have been used to marginalize them. They have a point. Brights do have faith--in naturalism; and a God--the one, C.S. Lewis writes, who replaced Him.
No faith or god?
One of the preeminent Brights is Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic Magazine. In a recent PBS special, Shermer challenged the historicity of Resurrection, asking a Christian physician, "As a scientist, aren't you curious how God did it? Jump start the heart? Rebuild the cells? New DNA? How'd he do it?"
Shermer's very question presupposes a naturalistic answer: If the Resurrection happened, it did so according to known or knowable natural principles.
After the Christian demurred, Shermer pressed, "Aren't you curious? Don't you want to know?"
Catch the jibe? If you're humble enough to admit your own finitude and that everything in the human experience is not reducible to mechanistic laws and mathematical relationships, you're an intellectual slouch. If you want to say "God did it," fine, but recognize that he is only a "place-holder" for gaps in our current understanding.
I had a similar experience with a biology teacher, I'll call "Andy", who disagreed with an article I had written critical of evolutionary theory. Our exchange went something like this:
Okay, Regis, let's just imagine for a moment that evolution is somehow wrong and that your God hypothesis is right. How did he do it?
I'm not sure what you're getting at.
I mean, God would have to plan and calculate every biochemical reaction and all the interactions of every molecule in the universe, instantaneously. Certainly, if God did create this wonder of wonders he did so with a quantum supercomputer that would have to contain a number of bits far greater than all subatomic particles now present in the present day known Universe.
Andy, you're rigging the deck.
What you're saying is that unless you can understand the mind of God, then God must be a human invention. On the other hand, if you could understand him, you would have shown him to be nothing more than the man in the mirror. Either way, you prove your thesis.
Well, that's because your God is an untestable theory. At least evolution is subject to the rigors of the scientific method.
You're correct that my God hypothesis is untestable. But so is yours. In fact, all belief systems are built upon an untestable starting point. Whether that turns out to be God, sub-nuclear particles, the quantum vacuum or cosmic consciousness is quite beside the point.
You're wrong there, Regis! Cosmology has demonstrated that the Big Bang happened 15 billion years ago, and the rest is evolutionary history.
Andy, you miss my point. While the Big Bang may have occurred billions of years ago, what caused it is untestable. Whether it was by a fluctuation in the quantum potential or by the command of God, either is a scientifically untestable thesis. As a consequence, all belief systems are based on a faith statement. The only issue we have to decide is which requires the most faith.
The Bright Stuff
The Brights are right. They are neither faithless nor godless. It is just that their faith and god offer them no sure footing for what they really want: a level playing field for people, like them, who espouse the "strikingly wholesome worldview" (that's right!?) of naturalism and, "civic fairness for all."
The Brights' Net is peppered with suggestions of second-class citizenship and charges of social discrimination against their ilk, reminiscent of the Civil Rights days. Yet, unlike Dr. Martin Luther King who successfully invoked God and God's law for moral authority, the Brights are without any standard higher than the whimsy of populism or the tyranny of authoritarianism.
Despite the slick sell and dazzling patina, the Brights remain dead-on a course destined for disappointment and self-destruction. Sadly, what was written nearly two millennia ago is as true today as ever:
"The light shines in darkness, but the darkness has not understood it."
(This article first appeared on www.Americanvision.org)
For Further Reading:
http://www.the-brights.net/ - The Brights Homepage
http://www.stnews.org/Commentary-2941.htm -- Shedding light on Brights, August 2006
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brights_movement-- The Brights Movement
Scripture Reference: John 1:5 (New International Version)
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a Centurion of the Wilberforce Forum. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint.org every other Friday. Regis also publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at: email@example.com.