"As with gays," the British biologist Richard Dawkins observed recently in The Guardian, "the more brights come out, the easier it will be for yet more brights to do so." Dawkins was writing in support of a proposed new sense of bright, as a synonym for atheist—a cause initially championed by Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell, a couple in Sacramento. Geisert and Futrell, devout brights themselves, came up with the term after recoiling at the name of an event they had intended to participate in: "Godless Americans March on Washington." They argue that having "a naturalistic world view that is free of supernatural or mystical elements" is regarded with suspicion in America, and that part of the problem is that our very vocabulary embodies a certain negativity: godless, unbelief, nonreligious, atheistic.
The brights have a point on the vocabulary issue. With the exception of freethinker and secular humanist, most of the words that connote the bright lifestyle have a reactive or pejorative cast to them. Think of skeptic, infidel, dissenter, pagan, doubter, heathen. I would point out for the record, though, that negative terminology aimed at religious people is more plentiful and more scornful: zealot, dogmatist, Bible banger, Holy Roller, Bible bigot, Jesus freak, Bible thumper, knee bender, Bible basher, glory roader, Bible pounder, devil dodger, Holy Joe.
Be that as it may, it will be instructive to see if bright catches on. It certainly addresses the negativity problem: as The Chronicle of Higher Education has noted, "not incidentally, the word makes [atheists] all seem exceptionally smart." Still, the annals of semantic substitution of this sort—in which a name change is proposed for an entire group of people, and everyone goes along—are not voluminous. During the past few decades we have seen gay largely replace homosexual, and Native American replace Indian. Underprivileged has supplanted poor people. We no longer have housewives—we have homemakers.
Another thing to watch is the degree to which the brightness crusade itself begins to take on religious overtones. The line between the religious and the secular is often surprisingly indistinct, and even ruthlessly secularized activities can have a religious feel to them. People who shudder at the practice of spiritual counseling or ritual confession may have no qualms at all about therapy and psychoanalysis. Whatever the truth claims of religion, its forms of expression embody impulses and behaviors that are simply human.
For instance, "mortification of the flesh," through fasting and other forms of self-denial, has long been seen as a path toward purity and enlightenment, and religious ascetics have pursued it for centuries. Today the practice has a secular analogue. A recent article in the Styles section of The New York Times described a raft of stores, books, consultants, and resorts devoted to fasting. Special fasting spas in the desert can cost $3,500 a week. The article recounted the ups and downs of one woman's seven-day fast, a regimen that Saint Pachomius himself might nearly have sanctioned.
The fifth day, after drinking eight ounces of sesame seed oil as a "gallbladder flush," she became so nauseated that she considered going to an emergency room. But now, she said: "I feel great—just really light, so much energy, so optimistic. It's really changed my frame of mind." She did resume smoking, at five cigarettes a day.
Many religions keep lists of departed holy people—saints—who are held up for reverence. Of course, debates sometimes flare over who should or should not be on the list; some years ago Pope Paul VI dropped more than fifty saints from the official Catholic roster, including the popular Saint George and Saint Christopher, on the grounds that they probably never existed. The veneration of the morally exalted also obtains in the nonreligious sphere, where there is an actual category of "secular saints." Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, and George Orwell frequently receive this designation in print, though in some quarters the sanctity of Orwell, the secular Saint George, is viewed as suspiciously as the authenticity of the religious one. (From the New Statesman: "Orwell's status as the secular saint of socialism is built on a myth.") The ranks of secular saints, like those of religious ones, include not a few martyrs: Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. But as befits a world view that gives short shrift to an afterlife, the acquisition of secular sainthood can be savored prior to death. Václav Havel and Nelson Mandela have been canonized, judging from the citations in newspapers. So have U2's Bono and the rocker-humanitarian Bob Geldof.