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Not Too Bright

Some people are wanting to euphemistize (and no, I’m not sure that’s a real word) atheists and agnostics with the word “bright.” So instead of saying “I’m an atheist” or “I’m an agnostic,” like you do today, you’d say “I’m bright,” and everyone would know that you have what these people would term a “naturalistic worldview.” And also, one assumes, you’d continue to get the benefit of the word’s current association, which means “intelligent.” So what you’d really be saying is “I don’t believe in God, and I’m pretty smart to think that way.”

This is a pretty dumb idea, on several different levels. To begin, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with either “atheist” or “agnostic.” Both are widely understood, and as an added benefit, both are etymologically descriptive. Taken down to its roots, “atheist” clearly states that the person described does not believe in a god or gods; likewise “agnostic” means “unknowable,” which fits in with the agnostic world view that the existence of god is unknowable. “Bright,” on the other hand, does not have anything to do with god (it ultimately comes down from a Sanskrit word which means “it shines”). It is not descriptive of the things these people wish for it to describe.

Now, in many languages and especially in English, we attach new meanings to old words all the time (“cool,” “hip,” “gay,” etc); this is obviously what these people are trying to do (they make the assertion that they’re breaking new ground by claiming “bright” as a noun, which will come as news to the detergent industry, which has been trying to get my brights their brightest for years). But as purveyors of words, one should ask why it’s necessary. It’s not necessary for an etymological reason — as noted, “atheist” and “agnostic” perfectly describe their condition, while “bright” confuses it. And we’re not borrowing a word to describe a previously unnamed condition or phenomenon.

There’s only one reason to use “bright,” as far as I can see, and that would be as a euphemism. But I’m not very keen on euphemisms. Euphemisms are basically pleasant ways to describe unpleasant things — or, more accurately from a sociological standpoint, things a society deems to be unpleasant. This is why homosexuals are called “gay.” So implicitly, the people pushing “bright” are saying that it’s unacceptable in society to be known as either atheists or agnostics — that it’s better to hide your thoughts behind a nice happy word than to just be what you are. This is nonsense, and I think it shows a certain level of self-loathing, and a desire to foist that self-loathing on other people.

(Does this mean that gay people, or other people who use common euphemisms, are self-loathing? No. For one thing, in the specific case of “gay,” the euphemism is so common that it’s not a euphemism anymore — “gay” when referring to a person means “homosexual” to the exclusion of all other meanings. Call someone “gay” and no one will think you mean they are sunny and cheerful; they’ll think you mean that like having sex with people of their gender. Go on, try it.

The word’s been in that usage for longer than today’s gay people have been alive; indeed, “gay” as a word describing homosexuality predates the actual word “homosexual,” which was coined at the turn of the 20th century. Be that as it may, initially people didn’t start using the word “gay” because they wanted to celebrate the happy dispositions of the homosexual men they knew.)

I’m agnostic, which I feel is the intellectually honest thing to be as regards god; in my opinion, I sort of doubt a god exists, particularly one that spent any time raising plagues or smiting people with boils. But I could be wrong, and I’m perfectly fine with that. As an agnostic, I’m happy to be known as an agnostic; my own self-image does not need to sugarcoat my belief (or lack thereof), and I certainly don’t feel the need to sugarcoat my beliefs for anyone else. So I won’t be calling myself “bright” in this context.

Nor do I think should any atheist or agnostic with the slightest bit of personal courage. The people pushing the word call it “fresh, free, and unencumbered.” On the contrary, it’s arbitrary, self-loathing and encumbered with assumptions about the words whose meanings its promoters intend it to cover, all of them bad. It goes to show that while many bright people are atheists and agnostics, not all atheists and agnostics are that bright. In the accepted sense of the term, of course.

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