The Path of Brighteousness

Godless Americans launch a semantic crusade

By Cullen Murphy

"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.

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."

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http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/11/the-path-of-brighteousness/302826/