The fondness for relics—a piece of the True Cross, a tooth of the Prophet, the rod of Moses—is a well-known hallmark of real religion, and there was once a lucrative trade in hallowed body parts, often of dubious provenance. The trade in secular relics may be more lucrative still. The rhinestone-encrusted sheath worn by Marilyn Monroe when she sang "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" to John F. Kennedy, in 1962, was sold at auction a few years ago for $1,267,500. A pair of white cotton boxer shorts worn by Kennedy when he was in the Navy sold recently for $5,000. Almost every day the newspapers bring word of some new sale of celebrity memorabilia—Elvis Presley's sixth-grade report card; Marilyn Monroe's copy of The Little Engine That Could; a soiled towel used to wipe the face of Isaac Hayes (but not, alas, miraculously bearing his image). Despite concerns over its authenticity, a piece of Bazooka bubble gum chewed by Luis Gonzalez, of the Arizona Diamondbacks, was bought at a charity auction last year for $10,000.
In the god-drenched eras of the past there was a tendency to attribute a variety of everyday phenomena to divine intervention, and each deity in a vast pantheon was charged with responsibility for a specific activity—war, drunkenness, lust, and so on. "How silly and primitive that all was," the writer Louis Menand has observed. In our own period what Menand discerns as a secular "new polytheism" is based on genes—the alcoholism gene, the laziness gene, the schizophrenia gene.
Now we explain things by reference to an abbreviated SLC6A4 gene on chromosome 17q12, and feel much superior for it. But there is not, if you think about it, that much difference between saying "The gods are angry" and saying "He has the gene for anger." Both are ways of attributing a matter of personal agency to some fateful and mysterious impersonal power.
As noted, it is only a matter of time before brightness takes on some of the trappings of a religion. Already there is an element of evangelical witness: "By their visible example," the brights' Web site (www.the-brights.net) explains, adherents "can help other brights to step forward and take on the challenge of more firmly expressing their world view." There is also an apparent desire for a cadre of prominent apostles—"persons of acknowledged eminence and ethical standing," as the Web site describes them—to lend their names to the movement. And there is the telltale denominational urge to count the saved: in a New York Times op-ed article the bright philosopher Daniel Dennett put the number of brights in America at 27 million or more (which would place them below Catholics and Baptists in membership but well above Methodists and Lutherans).
Any religion worthy of the name needs a bitter schism, preferably over something that in retrospect seems trivial—and brightness is proving to be no exception. Some atheists have already sought to distance themselves from the brightness movement. "It's a cop-out," the president of the American Atheist Association told The Sacramento Bee. "It seems like a way to hide who you are to please other people. I'm not ashamed of my beliefs. Plus it's a silly name." No one should be surprised if a further schism develops, between the modest, mainline Nominalist camp (which holds that bright should be used only as a noun, as in "I'm a bright") and the in-your-face Descriptivist camp (which holds that bright should be wielded aggressively as an adjective, as in "I'm bright" and "You're not bright").
In time a bright liturgy will surely develop, perhaps starting with the adoption of an official hymn. Far be it from me to meddle in sectarian affairs, but thoughts turn naturally to one of the great spiritual epics of our time. Yes, I'm thinking of Monty Python's Life of Brian, about a man who is not the Messiah but gets put to death anyway. In the final scene, as Brian and his many followers hang on crosses, the crucified men start to whistle and then break into robustly good-natured song. It begins, "Always look on the bright side of life."