Turning Down the Brights

Tom Flynn

If you need proof that the secular humanist and (for lack of a better term) religious humanist communi­ties have taken separate paths, consider Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell’s pro­posal that humane nonreligious people call themselves “Brights.” In their guest editorial (see p. 20) they report that their idea is enjoying broad acceptance. There’s no reason to doubt them, espe­cially since America’s largest (again, for lack of a better term) religious human­ist organization has launched its own Brights-­based project.

It’s equally clear that the proposal left most Free InquIry readers cold. We gave it every chance for accep­tance, running the seminal “invitations to enBrightenment” by biologist Richard Dawkins and philosopher Daniel C. Dennett in our October/November 2003 issue. A proposal can scarcely wish more distinguished advocates, and so I was astonished at the one­sidedly negative reader response. We received formal letters to the editor as well as a great deal of less formal e­mail, phone, and personal feedback. No one wrote or spoke in favor of the proposal. Objections varied; some readers simply thought there was no need for a new label. Most expressed misgivings that, despite proponents’ best efforts, call­ing ourselves “Brights” would inevitably come off as the non-religious claiming to be smarter than everybody else.

We presented the Brights to the Free Inquiry community, and the community has spoken. Those who find the label commodious are welcome to adopt it; but based on this feedback, and with all due respect to Richard Dawkins and Daniel C. Dennett, Free Inquiry will not be adding “Brights” to its lexicon.

Elsewhere, Paul Geisert has said that the final decision to launch the Brights initiative was catalyzed by last spring’s Godless Americans March on Washing ton, which was conceived by American Atheists and cosponsored by the Council for Secular Humanism. Geisert thought words like godless and atheist too negative.

It’s true; atheist does not capture the positive side of the secular humanist commitment, with its human-­centered values and its dedication to applying reason and emotion to weave the most humane possible existence in this life. Still, atheism is nothing to be ashamed of. If not a sufficient component for sec­ular humanism, it is a necessary one. It is the most visible point of difference between secular humanists and other Americans. If one is moving from reli­gion to secular humanism, as many of us have, atheism is usually the tallest hurdle; after the gods and the magic and the afterlife have been set aside, the rest of humanism comes far more easily. Many of us “converts” became atheists first, only later embracing the full rich­ness of secular humanism.

Still, if one is looking for an inclusive, inviting, and positive way to define the life­stance we share, I offer a modest proposal:

Secular = concerned with this life

Humanism = values rooted in human benefit and self­actualization

I’m a secular humanist. It’s difficult to imagine what could be more upbeat than that!

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry.

The Council’s Position

David Koepsell

Best­selling science writers Richard Dawkins and Daniel C. Dennett have put their weight behind the so­called Brights movement, an effort to unite athe­ists, agnostics, secular humanists, and other nonreligious people under the label “Brights.” The term secular humanism, though still some­times used as a pejorative term by Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and others, was embraced in the 1980s by those of us who describe our­selves proudly as secular humanists and possess a lack of faith in a divinity, yet who embrace human­istic values of liberty, equality, tol­erance, and freethought. We co­opt­ed that once derogatory term and made it our own, and it is properly descriptive of what we are. We are secularists who seek to maintain a strict separation of church and state and reject religious or supernatural sources of morality. And we are humanists who recognize the inher­ent dignity of humankind and the essential principles of liberty and equality, and who seek naturalistic bases for answering the philosophi­cal and practical issues we face.

While we are pleased with the recent attention that the move to use the term Brights has brought to secular humanism, it should be rec­ognized for what it is: a marketing ploy. Now, marketing is important, and old schools of thought are peri­odically repackaged and re­branded under new names. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, so long as the ideas and history of those schools of thought are not lost in the attempt.

We welcome the opportunity to discuss publicly the virtues of secular humanism and its histor­ical growth from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment up through to the present day. We are proud that more secular humanists have banded together under the Council for Secular Humanism than any other modern humanist group. But we are concerned that attempts to re­brand the precepts of secular humanism under a new and shiny name smack too much of Madison Avenue and may backfire.

Some have already used the new term as a means of attack, noting that there is an inherent implica­tion that Brights are “smarter­than­thou.” While secular humanists are used to being attacked for being secular humanists, what is the value of adding a new and unwar­ranted avenue of attack? We don’t claim to be smarter than anyone. We advocate skepticism, reason, the scientific method, and a natu­ralistic worldview. Of course, while we value the use of intelligence and reason in dissecting flawed dog­mas and understanding the natural world, we recognize that not every­one has the desire to embrace our worldview.

The danger of creating a new brand name also includes obscur­ing the message with the packag­ing. Besides the potentially alienat­ing, hierarchical tone of the name, the term is just not very descriptive. While those who are secularists and accept nonreligious, humanis­tic values could realize on their own that they are secular humanists, how does one realize that one is a Bright without elaborate marketing literature?

Recently, the American Human­ist Association has declared “Bri­ght Rights” to be an official project under its banner. We have pursued the same goals through our First Amendment Task Force for years, submitting amicus briefs in the U.S. Supreme Court and defending the rights of secular humanists in the United States with our media efforts and legal advocacy.

Once again, we welcome the interest the Brights have brought to secular humanism. But at the end of the day, if you are a Bright, you are a secular humanist, and we have been here promoting your interests and serving your needs all along.

David Koepsell is executive director of the Council for Secular

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).