In the October/November 2003 Free Inquiry, Richard Dawkins and Daniel C. Dennett introduced our readers to the Brights movement. Reactions were published in the Letters and Op-ed sections of subsequent issues. Below, Brights’ founders Mynga Futrell and Paul Geisert, Free Inquiry Editor Tom Flynn, and Council for Secular Humanism Executive Director David Koepsell comment on the continuing controversy.—eds.
Surely Gertrude Stein got it right, but did Will Shakespeare get it wrong? Does the name of the rose ordain its fragrance?
The rose, in this case, is the venture of a growing collection of folks who share a common characteristic—a worldview “free of supernatural and mystical elements.” Their name is invented, a neologism.
The name began (and still functions) as a device to unite a growing number of people into an Internet constituency of individuals (the Brights) who seek greater social and civic acceptance for persons free of supernatural beliefs. Since the neologism lacks any synonym it signifies not only those who would willingly selfidentify by the noun as “Brights,” but also any whose worldviews correspond. A central hub for the endeavor (the “rose” of which we speak) is The Brights’ Net, a Web site at www.thebrights.net.
Most within this international constituency like the rose and its name. (A goodly portion adores the name!) Some approve of the rose and ignore the moniker. A smaller proportion appreciates the rose but not the name. Outside the constituency of Brights are those who, because of the name, reject the rose outright. Thumbs down on the Brights? Fair enough—as long as one has actually examined the rose.
Well-reasoned analysis and criticism of the Brights movement is welcomed—and is certainly to be expected of humanists. However, some critics are fixated on the name—attributing to the Brights movement characteristics that they insist “palpably” go along with the particular name, conjuring hypothetical horror stories about its forecasted social effects.
Is it possible that some simply have not been able to get past the name to the reasons individuals numbering in the five figures and spread across ninety-five nations allied themselves in a network of Brights in the mere six months preceding this writing?
Let’s step back a bit to get some perspective. The idea for the Brights arose out of our concern for the civic situation of “supernaturalism-free” individuals in U.S. society. Seeing more and more government actions based on ideology rather than constitutional principle, we believed there should be some visible, vocal counterforce that would protect constitutional liberty of conscience for citizens with naturalistic worldviews. For several years, we attempted to foster the concept that organizations grounded in naturalism should join forces in order to cultivate greater social and civic acceptance of the naturalistic stance.
By late 2002, we had become quite disenchanted with the notion that a sufficient number of organizations would ever look beyond parochial interests to achieve a cooperative enterprise. We moved to the concept of an “umbrella affiliation” that could focus on the autonomous individuals in the citizenry who hold naturalistic worldviews. We envisioned a type of affiliation that could amplify their voices. The Brights would speak as individuals and not through an organization that speaks for them.
For those who are interested, a brief history is on the Web site. It tracks the journey of the nascent movement from its inception in November 2002 to mid-June 2003. At that time the “preprinting” in the Guardian of an essay by Richard Dawkins (written for the October/November 2003 Free Inquiry), sparked an immediate transformation of The Brights’ Net from a U.S.focused endeavor into a rapidly growing international Internet constituency.
The concept of The Brights’ Net is straightforward. To be counted within the constituency of Brights, a person has only to weigh the provided designation (“has a naturalistic worldview, free of supernatural and mystical elements”), resolve that it fits, and sign up.1
The purposes of the network are similarly clear. The Brights’ Net exists to promote civic understanding and acknowledgment of the naturalistic worldview, to gain public recognition that persons who hold such a worldview can act in principled ways on matters of civic importance, and to educate society toward accepting the full and equitable civic participation of all such individuals.
Nine principles set forth the parameters under which the organization operates.2 They make clear that The Brights’ Net is a constituency (not a membership group), offers a generic label for individuals free of supernatural beliefs, and serves as a pragmatic Internet connection for constructive (not anti-religious) endeavors to transform the civic image of all who hold a naturalistic worldview.
The Brights’ Net is not an atheistic (or humanistic) movement—a common misconception. The network’s umbrella covers a startling spectrum of beliefs. Besides those who selfidentify as atheists, humanists, secular humanists, freethinkers, rationalists, naturalists, skeptics, etc., the network includes Ethical Culturalists, pantheists, Buddhists, yogis, Unitarians, and a gamut of other folks (e.g., Jews, Catholics, Quakers, and Episcopalians) who maintain their religions’ cultural aspects but not the supernaturalism. Sometimes, signup comments reveal fairly snug religious connections. Among the Brights there are ex-Mormons and ex-Pentecostals (and other sorts of “exes”) and even clergy in and out of practice, including several Unitarian Universalist and Presbyterian ministers, a Protestant (unspecified) pastor, a churchhistory professor/ ordainedpriest, and an ex-Benedictine monk/priest.
The civic and social thrust appeals to physicians, academics, and persons of note (e.g., a member of the European Parliament, a stealth political candidate, and two Nobel laureates). It also attracts some prominent members of freethought organizations and many young and energetic people (http://www. thebrights.net/new_meet_some_brights.htm). One surprising aspect is that the movement taps large numbers of individuals disconnected from customary membership groups and philosophical discussion hubs.
And those most distressed about the Brights? Perhaps the Letters to the Editor and Arnell Dowret’s article in Free Inquiry, December 2003/January 2004 epitomize these folks. The caricatures, straw arguments, and worse (e.g., insinuations that the October/ November FI cover picturing Hitler is appropriately juxtaposed with the Dawkins/Dennett essays of that issue) serve them ill. Those who argue that the noun Bright is not only inappropriate but also likely to damage the atheist and/or humanist movements worldwide need to pause for oxygen.
There is more to this movement than the name, and a great many have come to see that. In the words of Adrian, a Canadian Bright: “I’ve been reading about the ‘bright controversy’ (sic). I think bright is a good idea for a name. Not great, not fantastic, but certainly not bad or even mediocre. If it sticks, good; if it doesn’t, we’ll think of something better. Good stuff, and good times to be a bright.”
Ken, of the U.S.A., states: “I wanted to let you know that as I’ve spent time with that topic my interest has shifted to the main idea, the movement itself, and my appreciation for that has grown. I love the simplicity and clarity of the definition (‘naturalistic worldview’) and the structure (no bureaucracy or authoritarian rules). You’ve designed it to utilize perfectly its main means of propagation, the Internet. I believe its simplicity and lightness will help it spread and become established.”
Ken’s optimism may not prove out, but going further to examine the blossom does permit reason to prevail over hyperbole and conjecture regarding its name. Many things about The Brights’ Net have evolved, and we are sure that, as the endeavor matures, the Brights will alter many more things, including possibly the name. As editor Tom Flynn noted in the October/November 2003 issue of this magazine, this prickly noun attracted unprecedented media exposure.3 It brings more and more people to examine the rose!
The name has, for some, obscured the rose. To better appreciate the bloom, we advise visiting the Web site, where one can spend leisurely hours in the “garden” of definitions, concepts, goals, and principles. Actually, we think you will find that both Stein and Shakespeare had it right in the first place.
- For an expanded definition and explanation, see the online Macmillan Dictionary at http://www.macmillandictionary.com/res ourcenew030829bright.htm.
- Tom Flynn, “A Note from the Editor,” FI October/November 2003, p. 11.
Mynga Futrell and Paul Geisert, formerly science educators and now curriculum specialists, are the founders and codirectors of The Brights’ Net.